‘Iska’ draws the resilience of a woman from reality to the reels

August 02, 2019 – Vinz Lamorena


Theodore Boborol doesn’t have an ounce of fear in him. Not even when the premieres of this year’s Cinemalaya films draw nearer with each passing day. You may know his name from the credits of various mainstream films and local TV shows, but this is the first time he has directed an independent movie. The title may not be new to him, but he took this chance to tell a story that he felt was needed to be known by the world.

The story of “Iska” takes us through the arduous life of a woman who has taken on the responsibility to raise her grandchild. We are shown that Iska (played by Ruby Ruiz) tries to be both a faithful wife and a noble mother. She is flawed, yet she holds strength. She is constrained, yet she knows grit.

It’s easy to peg this upcoming film as one that’s just about unconditional love. But more than its promise of warmth and kindness, the director said there are so many aspects in Iska’s life that the audience can draw realizations from. He also shared he saw the University of the Philippines, one of the film’s settings, as a microcosm of Philippine society that coalesces with the life of a worker.

“This is the type of film that doesn’t make me nervous, because I know I gave more of myself than I thought I was capable of doing,” Boborol told alike. 

alike sat down with the director to talk more about this 2019 Cinemalaya entry:

You mentioned on social media that this is one of your most personal films, can we get an insight as to why that is?

It is loosely based on the story of my house cleaner. I met her when I was still a student in UP, I lived in one of the villages in the area. When I had my own place, I still got her as my house cleaner, but I never got personally close to her.

In 2010, I was still working as a story editor of “Pinoy Big Brother” then. I was monitoring 24/7 the so-called “teleserye ng tunay na buhay.” During lunch time, I asked her how she was and she just broke down. She told me what was going on in her life and asked for money to support her. When that happened, it was a resonant experience—I was a media person, I was monitoring the reality in a TV show and yet I didn’t know and didn’t care about the people around me.

Upon hearing her story I also realized it had to be told. I say it’s a personal story because I’m familiar of the person who inspired “Iska.” Admittedly, I’m not the concept generator type of filmmaker in my past works. But here, the concept came from me and I had my friend and former roommate, Mary Rose Colindres, write it.

How did you decide to collaborate on this film with Ms. Colindres?

We’re blockmates in UP and we belong to the same batch of creative assistants of Star Cinema. In the early 2000s, we do additional screenplays that are required of the directors, for the change of scenes for example, but we weren’t credited for it. When I became a lead director for a soap opera, she was the head writer for “Angelito: Batang Ama.” We were also cowriters for a lot of mainstream movies. We have mutual respect for each other and we’re familiar with one’s work habits. I can tell her what I want and I knew I wanted to make a film with her.

Can you tell me more about the story of Iska?

It’s a story of unconditional love. We always have this definition of what a mother should be, but the story focuses on what really makes a mother—that being a mother entails the giving of unconditional love to somebody that doesnʼt often have to be blood-relatives. It’s giving your all despite it not being your responsibility or having limited resources.

Iska is a photocopy machine operator on weekdays; on weekends, she cleans the house of a certain film professor. Her daughter is an unwed mother who gave birth to a child with autism, but was undiagnosed. When Iska’s daughter found another partner, she left the child with her. The movie shows how she balances being a mother to her grandchild, being a wife to her husband, and being good employee to all those she works for.

What did you want to emphasize as you dealt with a theme that underscored people in the spectrum?

First and foremost, this isn’t a movie about autism. It just happens to have a character in the spectrum but one who is undiagnosed. But even so, I didn’t want to direct this movie in a way that it will be criticized. What we did was first research on the material. Fortunately, my sister is a psychologist, so I got to ask her about some things. We also interviewed the real-life Iska about how she took care of her grandchild. We have to understand that Iska only took care of the child the way she knows how, and since his condition was undiagnosed, you can really tell that he’s not being given the right care.

We also partnered with Autism Society of the Philippines—we met with them and told them the story. We are blessed that they are endorsing the movie and that the organization saw it as a springboard to educate the public about people in the spectrum. The film uses politically incorrect terms, but it also shows a reality for children with autism—those that are undiagnosed in an untrained and uneducated environment. We hope it will become a topic for discourse.

As the director, why is it important for you that stories like this make it to the big screen?

Because they remain untold. The mainstream still has its limitations. They have to make money to produce the next thing. Even certain independent productions, they prefer romantic comedies. I know this kind of movie rarely makes its way to the cinemas. Since they rarely show these kinds of films, it further ignites my passion to put it out and make this reality known by people. 

That’s how films are. Sometimes you’re transported into a world you're not even aware of. It takes me back to my youth when watching movies was an escape. But I was also transported into a different world, a different reality, and from there my horizons widened. I knew more, I became woke, I gained a dream. I’m hoping when people watch this, they would feel the same.

When did your interest to direct begin?

I actually don’t know. I came from a small town in Dapitan City. In the province, they would go around announcing what was showing in the movie house before. Even if our house was so far, I remember running to the sidewalk just to listen to the list of films showing. I would tell my Nanay and Tatay to watch with me and it became a family habit to watch movies. My Nanay was the biggest Sharon Cuneta and Nora Aunor fan and my Tatay was the biggest Shao Lin slash action movie fan.

By high school, I started staying in a dorm. I studied in Silliman University in Dumaguete. Since I was away from my family, I treated my homesickness by watching movies alone. I was 12 or 13, and it was my escape from the fact that I was away from my family.

It was around the same age when I became a super fan of Eraserheads. When you’re a “super fan,” you try to know as much as you can about them and I found they’re all from UP and that they took up Film. That’s when I found out there was such a course. I was a big pop culture fan, whether it’s Philippine or foreign cinema.

Looking back, I think this is what’s been set up for me by destiny. You can say I've been really blessed. I worked in TV, then some films, and back in TV again. After that I studied in the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute as an ABS-CBN scholar. It’s one of my bucket-list goals to be able to direct an independent film.

What’s the difference between your previous experiences compared to what you have just called a bucketlist goal?

I started working at ABS-CBN since the 2000s and I worked my way up. I had no connections. I was even a reluctant writer. But I think I’ve learned much of what I needed to. When you create or direct something, you more or less have an idea what the management, the company, and audience wants. Even if you’re a creative, you still have to consider all of them and make things work—after all, it’s still a business.

Here in this movie, my exercise for myself is to not think of all of that. Meaning, I will cast whoever fits the role, I will create the script the way I want to tell the story, I will direct the way I see it should be directed. I had to unlearn everything. I had to direct this movie from my core—instinctively, using the depth of emotions and soul.

There’s clearly a difference in the budget, but creatively, I had the freedom. I don’t know how things will turn out. I don’t know if people will like this or not, but I know I directed it the best way I could. I know I poured my heart into this.

You’ve already worked with directors people only dream of working with, what learnings from them did you take in to create this film?

For every director that I worked with, there’s always a takeaway. My first mentor for writing, Direk Olivia Lamasan, it’s all about puso. She’s logical, but she values emotion in the way she tells stories. Direk Rory is more instinctive. What she feels should be done at the moment, she will give it a go-ahead. Direk Chito Roño is more cerebral and every time I see him directing, I feel the passion. 

Direk Joyce Bernal is the craziest of them all. She has a self-deprecating humor, likes to break out of the logical, and her ideas are out of this world. Direk Lauren is a great mentor. He’s critical but you know it’s coming from a place of concern for you and the work you put out.

My boss now, Direk Ruel Bayani, taught me how to always go for the gold. He mounts the biggest pictures, he pushes you to do the extreme. From Direk Marilou Diaz-Abaya and her school, I learned how everything is intentional in film. Her film language is really something that I admire.

Do you feel the pressure coming from the fact that all these mentors will be watching your film?

I don’t, actually. Because I know I’m doing this to tell the story of Iska and to put it out in the world. That’s my main objective for this film, to let her story be known, in the hopes that the audience may learn something from it. That there’s an awakening that will take place after knowing her story.

After being part of so many mainstream projects, what can you say about the experience of directing your first independent film?

It’s something that I will remember for the rest of my life. The process is not done yet. They say it doesn’t end when your independent film shows—there’s marketing, distribution, and foreign film festivals. For me, there’s so much more to learn from all those other experiences.

I also realized that if you’re passionate about something, and you’re passionate in creating that something—there is no fear. I want people to see the film now and talk about it, whatever their opinions will be. I’m just excited for them to see it.

Photos courtesy of Theodore Boborol.