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Journeying Through the Islands

Traveling is about more than just the places you visit, as cinematographer and director Ice Idanan has come to learn while working on the acclaimed road film Sakaling Hindi Makarating. Here she shares the lessons she’s learned from the places, and people, she’s encountered along the way.

  • Story Klea Gonzales
  • Media courtesy of Ice Idanan, Media Quest
  • Est. Read Time 7 mins.

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Whether it’s to try new experiences, visit famous places, or unwind after a hard month at work, people like to travel for a number of reasons. Some find a sense of adventure in exploring new environments, while others seek the familiarity of places they once called home. Still, for some like filmmaker Ice Idanan, the experience of traveling can bring about some much-needed creative inspiration, as well as personal healing. Her passion for travel and love for the Philippines were the two biggest inspirations for her directorial debut, the acclaimed 2016 road film Sakaling Hindi Makarating.

The film follows the story of Cielo, a young workaholic who finds herself jobless while recovering from the break-up of an 11-year relationship. After receiving a series of postcards mysteriously signed “M,” she embarks on a journey around the Philippines to uncover the truth behind them, hoping that she can also find closure in the process.
 
Anonymous postcards aside, it’s a premise that Idanan knows quite well. Fresh out of a fellowship with the Asian Film Academy in South Korea in 2011, Idanan found herself nursing her own broken heart after a rough end to an eight-year relationship. She would go on to spend the next five years working on the screenplay for Sakaling Hindi Makarating, which premiered as part of the CineFilipino Film Festival in 2016 before being released commercially in February 2017.
  • Story Klea Gonzales
  • Media courtesy of Ice Idanan, Media Quest
  • Est. Read Time 7 mins.
Despite already being the film’s co-writer and co-producer, Idanan decided to add “director” and “cinematographer” to her list of roles, despite many trusted colleagues insisting it was too much for one person. “They asked me why I would put myself through that much work,” she said, laughing, “But this film was my baby; I knew it like the back of my hand and couldn’t imagine anyone else bringing my vision to life.”
 
Taking on multiple roles meant that Idanan had to juggle a number of responsibilities throughout the film’s production. Cinematography was one she particularly enjoyed, having specifically trained for it at the Asian Film Academy. “It was what I’ve been doing since 2010, and I really enjoy being behind the camera,” she explained. 
 
As the cinematographer (or director of photography), she was in charge of the visual aspects of the film, taking everything from scene composition to lens use into account. Working closely with everyone in the production team, cinematographers are responsible for translating the script into a film that aligns with the director’s overall creative vision.
Still, being this hands-on with such a personal project had its disadvantages, said Idanan, who admits she sometimes had “tunnel vision” while working on the film; fixating on a certain element or aspect in the process instead of looking at the bigger picture. “I was lucky that [I had] collaborators that called me out whenever they felt like I was doing too much or too little,” she said. “Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and one role doesn’t work without the others.”
 
Another responsibility she held was deciding which locations would be included in the film. As a nod to her own experiences, Idanan featured five key locations close to her heart: Zamboanga and Ilocos, where her parents grew up; Marinduque, fondly called the heart of the Philippines; Siquijor, where she spent time visiting friends; and Batanes, the farthest north of the country. 
 
“When I was writing, I just knew I wanted [the character’s] journey to go from Mindanao to the farthest ends of Luzon,” she said. “But as I traveled more, I decided to feature the places that really helped me [to grow].”
Between the film’s picturesque scenes and idyllic destinations, it’s easy to think that the idea of traveling to these places and calling it “work” seems too good to be true, but Idanan was quick to stress that it’s nowhere near as glamorous and fun as people think. 
 
Shooting on-location always presents a number of logistical and financial constraints, which are especially evident with a film as ambitious as hers turned out to be. “Imagine traveling with a 22-person crew,” Idanan said, “Plus cameras and production design equipment, all on a limited budget!” Idanan’s decision to feature locations that weren’t often, if at all, used as filming locations also made coordinating shoots a bit more difficult. 
As with all outdoor shoots, Idanan and her crew were also left to the mercies of Philippine weather, which has always been unpredictable at best. She recalls getting caught in a typhoon on one of the last days of filming as one of her most memorable experiences. 
 
“The weather is one of [the factors] that determine when and where we shoot, but [in Marinduque] we really got caught in the storm,” she said. “We didn’t have time to wait or reschedule, so I had to incorporate rain into the story.” The resulting scene shows two characters taking shelter at a bahay kubo at sunset, which Idanan actually liked more than her original planned scene. Looking back, she also thinks it’s a good metaphor for Cielo’s journey in the film: sometimes these things just happen.
Despite these hiccups during the production, Idanan said that the experience of creating Sakaling Hindi Makarating taught her how to be a better filmmaker. “[I’ve learned that] sometimes your plans don’t work out, but there’s a silver lining,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t get the shot I wanted, but the shot that I did get works better. It’s taught me a lot about filmmaking: learning how to compromise, to be resourceful, and to embrace what you have.
 
These lessons, however, extend well past the realm of technical filmmaking, and Idanan credits her interactions with the local communities as one of her greatest teachers: various details, lessons, and characters in the film are inspired by the people she met during her travels. She also recalled needing to revise her screenplay multiple times as she continued to learn more about the local traditions and beliefs.
 
“When I went to Marinduque, the locals told me about the Morionan, which is a sacred local tradition,” she explained. “It’s something like a panata that the Morion people make every year; a promise to their religion and to their land.” Idanan’s original screenplay had included a party scene during Marinduque’s famous Moriones festival, which she decided to scrap upon learning of the Morionan. “It was so far from the original tradition, and when I looked at the film as a whole, I realized the [values] of the Morionan were better-suited to the story.”
As a filmmaker and a traveler, Idanan was conscious about promoting tourism in the locations she featured from a local’s point of view, believing that respecting local cultures and looking at things from their perspective helps one gain a deeper understanding of the places they visit. “I don’t want tourists to come in and treat the place as something foreign,” she said. “I wanted [to encourage] the mindset that when someone visits, they can learn something from the place and leave something behind, as well.”
 
This mindset not only lends more authenticity to Idanan’s film, but also allowed her to connect with the local communities she came across while during the production process. “It’s amazing when you meet people who don’t know you yet treat you like family,” she said. “It was like when [the locals saw] that we really wanted to tell this story about their place, they decided, ‘We want to help you tell it, as well.’”
In the five years that she spent traveling and writing Sakaling Hindi Makarating, and the succeeding months spent filming it, Idanan was constantly reminded that despite traveling to all of these places, she has only seen a fraction of what the Philippines has to offer. While she has always loved traveling and seeing new places, she believes her work has only strengthened the desire to explore the country’s hidden gems.
 
“It’s funny because I call this film my love letter to the Philippines,” she said. “But through my experience of making Sakaling Hindi Makarating, it’s as if the Philippines showed me that it loved me so much, because it wanted to show me even more.”