MANILA – The monkey-eating eagle is the national bird of the Philippines, a powerful symbol of the nation. Long declared an endangered species due to deforestation resulting loss of its habitat, the killing of a Philippine eagle or “haribon” is punishable under Philippine law by 12 years in prison on top of heavy fines. What fate then awaits someone who shoots and kills this majestic bird of prey by mistake? That is the main plot at the core of director Mikhail Red's Birdshot.
Young Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) has been raised by her father Diego (Ku Aquino) when her mother died during childbirth. Diego serves as caretaker of a forest reserve where the aforementioned Philippine eagles are protected in hopes of increasing their numbers. Taught by Diego to fend for herself including learning to use a shotgun, Maya wanders into the reserve despite her father expressly forbidding her from doing so. When she accidentally kills a haribon, Maya unwittingly becomes the focus of events that expose far more than
Meanwhile, new and idealistic policeman Domingo (Arnold Reyes) is assigned to be under the wing of veteran Mendoza (John Arcilla) in investigating a missing bus that was filled with farmers at a hacienda. Uncovering suspicious evidence when the bus is found empty, the pair are reassigned to the haribon case by their superior officer and told to forget the bus. However, Domingo persists, putting his and his family's lives in danger. As the divergent paths cross, morals are tested, values cast aside, and people are left scrambling in the search for victims and perpetrators.
The title of the film actually refers to the smallest size of shot for shotguns, and is the kind of shot that Maya employs to shoot the Philippine eagle. Red's first full-length feature clearly highlights some of his influences, such as the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men and True Detective, but it is also an anomaly among Filipino films because it has elements of a mystery and thriller yet there seems to be something supernatural happening as well.
Red was inspired by the story of Kagsabua, a three-year-old Philippine eagle that was killed on Mount Kitanglad and cooked as tinola by Bukidnon farmer Brian Balacon in July 2008. This was just four months after Kagsabua was released into the wild. In Birdshot, Red weaves a story that presents characters who are slowly being corrupted despite their best intentions. The idealistic Domingo wants to do right by his wife and child, refusing to accept help from his father-in-law, but Mendoza is convinced that this idealism won't last perhaps because he saw himself in his young colleague.
Though Diego wants to prepare Maya for life without him, he lives separately from most of society on the preserve and mistrusts other people. Rather than admit Maya's grave mistake and have her pay the penalty, Diego buries the shotgun in hopes of shielding his daughter from the consequences of her action. What follows is a brutal display of the police being pressured to deliver a culprit at all costs, and Diego enduring brutality that otherwise might have been placed upon Maya.
In a question and answer session with the cast and crew after an exclusive media screening of Birdshot, Red and producer Pamela L. Reyes shared how it took 23 days of filming, but a lot of pre-production, to make the film. The color red appears prominently in several instances, signifying that something important was happening or that a pertinent detail required the audience to pay closer attention. Red also shared his trepidation on making a film of this genre, noting that this isn't the kind of Filipino film that usually gets noticed. However, with the backing of Reyes and TBA Studios executive producers Fernando Ortigas and E.A. Rocha, his vision was allowed to take flight.
Though the film features acting veterans in Aquino and Reyes, and serves as the follow-up to the critically- and commercially-acclaimed Heneral Luna for Arcilla, it is relative newcomer Apostol who does a lot of the heavy-lifting in the acting department. It is her coming-of-age story at the heart of the film as she yearns to do well by her father, live up to the mother she never knew, yet still find her own place in a place that she isn't sure she belongs in. At the core of Birdshot, it is Maya who must make the final decision to do what nature may be telling her to, or choose the unorthodox yet more noble path.
Already the winner of the Best Picture in the Asian Future Film Section at the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival, and the CJ Entertainment Prize at the Asian Project Market, Birdshot has made the rounds on the international filmfest circuit including South Korea, Lithuania, Laos, Sweden, Thailand, and Belgium. This August 16, Birdshot finally opens to the Filipino public with the start of the first ever Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (PPP).
With the youthful Red and Reyes and the full backing of TBA Studios, Birdshot represents some new-found optimism that quality films can still be produced and distributed by Filipinos for an audience desperately looking for them.
In main image, Birdshot director Mikhail Red, producer Pamela L. Reyes, actors Mary Joy Apostol, Arnold Reyes, Ku Aquino, and executive producer E.A. Rocha of TBA Studios.
Click here for adobo's story on Birdshot's victory at the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival.