Of his film, Birdshot, writer-director Mikhail Red says: “I was inspired by a news article about a Bukidnon (Philippines) farmer who shot, killed, cooked and ate a critically endangered Philippine Eagle in the wild.” An engaging coming-of-age drama and thriller, it follows the story of a young girl who accidentally shoots an endangered Philippine Eagle. The film marked the young director’s first entry to the Golden Globe Best Foreign Film race. Only Red’s second movie (his debut feature, Rekorder, screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival), Birdshot made its Philippine premiere at the 13th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival.
“The farmer claimed ignorance of the law but was still jailed,” Red added about his story’s impetus. “I see the whole situation as a tragedy for both conservationists and the uneducated and poor communities doing everything they can to survive in the fringes of the wilderness. I tend to gravitate toward stories that have morally ambiguous characters. I like to blur the lines between protagonist and antagonist, in effect showing the audience that we are all victims struggling to exist within a flawed system.”
Of the majestic bird species featured in his film, Red pointed out, “There are only around 400 Philippine eagles left, with most in Mindanao and a few in Northern Luzon where Birdshot is set. During filming, there were a few shooting incidents that made the news, showing us that it is still an ongoing problem. The eagle we filmed in the reservation was, in fact, a gunshot survivor, rescued with an amputated wing. It speaks volumes when the national bird of our country is critically endangered. It is almost as if we are slowly killing our own national identity.”
Birdshot won the Best Asian Future Film Award in the Tokyo International Film Festival seven years after Red accompanied his father, Cannes-winning director Raymond Red, to the prestigious film fest. The film, praised by Variety as “a gripping combination of police procedural and coming-of-age drama,” boasts an impressive performance by newcomer Mary Joy Apostol as Maya and a solid cast led by Arnold Reyes, John Arcilla and Ku Aquino. Red shot the film on location on opposite sides of the Philippines, from north to south, as he chronicled the consequences of a girl shooting a bird in danger of extinction and how the police and government get embroiled in the drama.
“To me, Birdshot is simply a universal parable on morality,” Red said. “It speaks about corruption, not just in society, but in its most primal form – the corruption of one's innocence. It's a tale of two souls who are transformed as they journey through the wilderness of life. Even though the film tackles a lot of local issues and news events that a lot of Filipinos relate to, its characters and core story have elements that are seen in Westerns. I believe this adds to the film's overall international appeal.”
The filmmaker, who, at 26, could pass for a teenager, explained why Birdshot is not the usual film festival fare from the Philippines: “Most Filipino films seen in the international festival circuits tend to be heavy socially relevant cinema verite dramas. The most common reaction we get from international audiences is that Birdshot is uniquely different in its form and substance, rarely seen in Filipino cinema. It feels like a mix of western and Asian cinema, with a touch of genre to sustain an engaging narrative.
“The film also highlights the natural beauty of the country, instead of focusing on its urban grit and decay. It also has a more stylized and polished look to it. We used dynamic angles and controlled camera motions to present edgier visuals but we also give audiences time to breathe through contemplative sequences featuring the natural sights of rural Philippines.”
Red just finished his third film, Neomanila, which he described as “set in contemporary Manila and starring Eula Valdez who plays a mother and an assassin working in the midst of the violent war on drugs.” He will also direct a horror script that he wrote. The busy director said that he will work on two more films in late 2018.