The public is certifiably talking about Metro Manila. The film, the third by British director and former i-D photographer Sean Ellis (after Cashback and The Broken), has just won the Sundance Audience Award in the World Cinema-Dramatic section.
Metro Manila, shot entirely in the Philippines and featuring a cast of Filipinos, follows Oscar Ramirez and his family as they seek a better life in the city of Manila, moving from the poverty stricken rice fields of the Northern Philippine mountain ranges. The unpredictable thriller tracks their survival in Manila, falling victim to the manipulation of the city, and ends in a climactic scene which features the choice between good and evil. The film is also slated for Berlin Film Festival and likely a string of festivals after that. No doubt with the public’s adoring eyes in full gaze.
Director Sean Ellis started out as a still life photographer, publishing his early works in i-D and The Face, and directing the iconic 90s music video for All Saints’ banger ‘Never Ever’. At Sundance, we caught up with our old friend, the now award-winning director, to chat about the new film.
You shot on location in Manila, where did the idea come from? I first went to Manila on holiday. I thought it would be a good place to shoot. I actually witnessed something like the armored truck scene where two guards got into a fight and looked like they were going to shoot each other. They had full on machine guns. That’s where the idea started for the film and I was aware of Manila as a magnet for people who are below the poverty line. One thing I also noticed is that this story is a cliché in Filipino TV and cinema. The idea where the downtrodden get taken advantage of after moving to the big city. But it is also a reality in the Philippines where you are losing rice farmers to Manila so they can work at Starbucks.
The film is shot in various parts of the Philippines. What kinds of obstacles did you face shooting this remote? It was a real run and gun production. We had 15 people in total, moving in 2 vans.I’d be sweating through three or four shirts a day. I didn’t even a have a DIT [Digital Imaging Technician] so after shooting for the day, I’d have the spent two hours download everything.
Did you speak the language? Not a word. Well that’s not entirely true, but the film is really about the emotion you feel. 90% of language is non-verbal. This film was also about what wasn’t being said. It is often something in their eyes that makes you understand.
Metro Manila is a real thriller start to finish, how was it writing the script? There is a moment in the film where you think Oscar is a silly bastard before everything unfolds. With heist movies it’s either about how crime pays, or crime doesn’t pay. I couldn’t put Oscar through that film without bringing it to the conclusion I did. There is the question of if he will still retain his honour and I think that was most important.
Text: Donna Tillotson