One of the best Canadian films of the year was almost made in the Philippines.
Back in 2018, when Martin Edralin was working on what would become his feature-film debut, the Toronto-based filmmaker simply assumed that he was writing a movie which would be set in his parents’ home country. But then the trajectory of Canada’s arts-funding bodies shifted slightly in his favour – Telefilm’s relaunched Talent to Watch microbudget program accepted productions outside the usual English- and French-language restrictions – and Edralin rewrote and refocused his story to match.
The result is Islands, a spare but supremely effective character study focusing on Filipino immigrant Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), a shy fortysomething janitor who’s sacrificed personal and professional relationships to care for his aging parents in suburban Toronto. After his mother passes away, and a cousin (Sheila Lotuaco) arrives from Kuwait to help, Joshua is forced to choose between comfort and ambition. Shot almost exclusively in Tagalog, Edralin’s film is a small wonder, alternately heartbreaking and buoyant.
While the film caused a ripple at this past spring’s virtual but geo-blocked SXSW Film Festival, and played at the Vancouver International Film Festival last month, Islands will get its biggest push so far at the 25th annual Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival, where it’s the opening night presentation.
Ahead of Reel Asian’s kickoff, The Globe and Mail spoke with Edralin about family, food and Filipino cinema.
What was your experience with Talent to Watch? There’s been criticism from filmmakers about a lack of resources, working under tight budgets …
I’ve heard grumbling about it, but for us it was a good experience. We worked within the limitations: We shot mostly in one house, with a small crew, this wasn’t an ACTRA film. But we were able to pay everyone, and we had great food. And some marketing money because Telefilm helped us out at SXSW, because the film was an international premiere. But I hope I don’t have to make my second movie as a microbudget film.
How much of the film’s story is pulled from your own family history?
When I was writing it, I was single and, while I didn’t live with my parents, I was thinking about them getting older, me getting older, and being in that situation where Filipinos don’t typically put their parents in old-age homes. It was the question of having to bear that responsibility. It takes away your social life, your work life, and it’s especially hard to do as a filmmaker, because we work all the time.
How did you go about casting? These are all amateur performers, but everyone feels natural on-screen.
It was scary because the whole time I had no idea whether we’d find anyone in Canada. There was a point where I thought we’d just have to cast from the Philippines. We’re also casting middle-aged people and seniors, which in any ethnicity is hard. But I put calls out on social media and got it circulating. Rogelio we found because he did a short film in Winnipeg, and he sent in a self-tape audition and then we had him over Skype and he was fantastic. With Sheila, who was also in Winnipeg, she saw that my cousin, who is an old school friend of hers, reposted my call-out. Sheila thought it might be a scam, but my cousin assured her it was real.
How challenging was it to shoot with such limited resources?
We had 22 days, which was honestly more than I thought we could do in the beginning. But translating the script was the biggest challenge – it was written in English, and in hindsight I should have translated it to Tagalog. Before every scene, I’d sit with the actors trying to translate it. While they’re all English speakers, there are different interpretations.
How has the festival circuit been this year, bouncing from virtual-only events to in-theatre ones?
It’s been very strange. For SXSW, I was at a desk the entire week, sending e-mails and doing interviews and approving social media. But the response was better than I could have anticipated. At VIFF, I saw the film on the big screen for the first time, and it was so great being in that environment. I felt like an audience member.
Islands arrives a little more than a year after the premiere of Sean Garrity’s I Propose That We Never See Each Other Again, another Canadian film featuring Winnipeg’s Filipino community. Do you think there will be an incoming wave of Filipino-Canadian films?
I think so. It’s something that we see even in other arts and even food. There’s first- and second-generation Filipinos who are now reaching for some taste of their roots. That’s the response I’ve been getting on the festival circuit. I thought it would be more immigrant Filipinos interested, but it’s their children and grandchildren who wish they understood the language that they heard from their parents and aunts and uncles growing up. They also love to see Joshua’s house, which looks exactly like the house their grandparents lived in.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Islands opens Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival Nov. 10 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and is available to view online across Canada Nov. 10-19 (reelasian.com).
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