The Mountain Thief

Gerry Balasta’s The Mountain Thief
Friday, April 1, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Friday, April 1, 2011 at 9:00 PM
Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 9:00 PM
Sunday, April 3, 2011 at 7:30 PM
Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 9:00 PM
Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 7:00 PM
Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 9:00 PM
Winnipeg Cinematheque

The Mountain Thief is a story of triumph over unusual circumstances. It is the first narrative feature film shot in the garbage-collecting town of Payatas in the Philippines, where the living conditions are possibly the most horrific in the world. It was also the first film that was made with a cast culled from the scavengers of a garbage-collecting town, from the graduates of the town’s only acting workshop. In a world of monstrous mountains of trash, a man named Julio and his son confront their ultimate fight for survival as they seek refuge and redemption from war and hunger. Together, they navigate territorial rivalries and intense desperation among scavengers, surviving – and finding love – despite horrific living conditions. Julio, involved in a murder incident, must prove his innocence to avoid his family’s banishment and ultimate starvation.

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From the Philipino Express March 16, 2011

A unique film will premier in Winnipeg at the Cinematheque on April 1. The Mountain Thief is the first narrative feature film shot in the garbage-collecting town of Payatas, Manila, ironically called Lupang Pangako or Promised Land. It is also the first film with a cast culled from the local scavengers who are graduates of the town’s only acting workshop.

Directed by New York-based Filipino filmmaker Gerry Balasta, The Mountain Thief is part of a philanthropy effort called the Mount Hope Project, initiated by the filmmakers to help the scavengers who acted in the film. Two of the children in the film received medical care, including surgery for one child with a foot deformity, in late 2009 through supporters and fans of this film.

So far, The Mountain Thief has been selected to play in more than 16 film festivals in Europe, the US and Canada. The film was selected for the prestigious 2008 Independent Feature Project’s (IFP) Narrative Rough Cut Labs and was showcased at the IFP Film Week Rough Cut Lab showcase. It also won the Special Jury Award at the 2010 San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival and the Prix du Public at the Culture & Cultures Intercultural Film Festival in France. Director Gerry Balasta also received The George C. Lin Emerging Filmmaker Award in 2010 for The Mountain Thief.

“Growing up in a town in Manila, I still remember that when a strong wind blew from the west, we had to cover our noses, says Balasta on the film’s web site. “If I close my eyes today, I can still smell the sickening stench coming from the country’s largest dumpsite. To this day, I am haunted by this memory, because I knew back then that people were born, lived and died in those monstrous mountains of trash. After I moved to the US, I realized, that it is essential for me to share this disturbing yet ultimately hopeful story of man’s love for life and his ability to endure.”

The Mountain Thief is the story of Julio and his visually impaired son, Ingo, who must fight for survival as they seek refuge and redemption from war and hunger among mountains of trash. Together, they navigate territorial rivalries and intense desperation among scavengers, surviving and even finding love, despite their horrific living conditions. When Julio is involved in a murder he must prove his innocence to avoid his family’s banishment and ultimate starvation. The film reveals the unimaginable realities of people living in extreme poverty and what happens when their tenuous hold on hope and survival is threatened.

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From Uptown Magazine March 30, 2011

Not quite scaling garbage mountain
Filipino import The Mountain Thief takes a heartfelt stab at a remarkable subject, the result is lacklustre

Director Gerry Balasta would seem to have the eye of a born filmmaker.

The Mountain Thief, which Balasta also wrote and produced, is a striking, noteworthy film for more than simply its visual riches. It’s the first narrative feature shot in the garbage-picking town of Payatas in the Philippines, the world’s largest such community.

Basically, the people survive more or less atop a gigantic heap of trash, through which they scour for the rudiments of life. The very act of committing such a place to visual record lends the film importance; people need to see to believe that such squalor is a simply a fact of life for more than some may care to imagine.

It’s surprising, then, that The Mountain Thief is such a beautiful film to behold. Scenes feel warm, rich and saturated, and Balasta’s use of colour is almost luxurious; the simple detail of a bright orange basketball stands out in stark relief in one shot. Even shots of people moving about on the slopes of garbage have a sense of grandeur.

In this regard, the film is reminiscent of the 2010 New Zealand import Boy, which opened last November’s Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival. Set in a run-down Maori community, the film focused not on the suffering of the inhabitants, but rather their cheerful resilience; similarly, it also used bold colours and sharp cinematography, but to craft a more energetic, affirming film.

The Mountain Thief, by contrast, simply doesn’t share the same optimism, contrasting visual splendour with bluntly presented scenes of substance sniffing. There’s no problem in the film’s difference of approach. The story it tells, however, just isn’t as good in its own way as Taika Waititi’s. Nor is at as assured a piece of filmmaking.

The film focuses on a cluster of connected characters in the community, as they interact and each in turn do what they can to get by. Eventually the focus becomes an incident of violence for which Julio (Randy Cantonjay) is blamed, although what actually happened is at first obscured. Facing banishment from the community, his family’s already precarious existence becomes desperate.

Yet the film, for some reason, doesn’t quite take hold, with that mountain of garbage almost feeling like it recedes into the background. Which would be fine, were the foreground action more compelling.

But it’s not. The problem seems to be in the telling: the cast, made up of actual residents of Payatas, are talented, but evidently amateur nonetheless. And while Balasta displays some strength as a filmmaker, he has the lack of assurance that comes with inexperience; it often feels as though his shortcomings are offset by the technical acumen of his cinematographer.

In fact, based on the opening and closing titles, the story The Mountain Thief seems to want us to care about more is that it got made at all. It’s been a potentially life-changing experience for those involved, no question, and the movie may likely find an enthusiastic audience in Winnipeg, which is home to a large Filipino community.

As a critic, however, I have to report on the worth of the film as a film, not as a news item curiosity. Balasta has clearly demonstrated he may very well yet make a great film. And the film he’s made this time is certainly interesting and worthwhile.

But ultimately, The Mountain Thief isn’t nearly as good a movie as its subject deserves.

– Kenton Smith

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~ by cineflyer on March 28, 2011.

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