GALA premiere ‘A Lab Story’ by Carlo Obispo.

It was early morning on a Friday and I was having coffee outside Gateway Mall in Araneta Center, Cubao, waiting for the mall doors to open. 

It was the first day of the inaugural Puregold CinePanalo Film Festival and the first screening was at 10:30 a.m. My friend and I were determined to finish all six main competition feature films as soon as humanly possible before the awards night the following day, on 16 March.

Who would have thought that your neighborhood supermarket will launch its own film festival with a decent grant money of P2.5 million for a full-length feature film and P100,000 for a student short film?
There are six full-length features and 25 shorts. So that’s a lot of money.

Particularly impressive is the fact that some of the filmmakers competing for the Best Film included established directors, such as Sigrid Andrea Bernardo of the cult rom-com Kita Kita; Raynier Brizuela, the man behind the comedy page PGAG and Viva Films’ Video City: Carlo Obispo, whose The Baseball Player won the 2022 Cinemalaya Best Film; and Kurt Soberano, whose short Golden Bells was a memorable entry in last year’s Cinemalaya. 

I must admit, I was thrilled. The line-up is giving a Cinemalaya vibe.

On Saturday, right after sundown, and a few hours before the awards night, we were having dinner at the cocktail area set up in one corner of the Cineplex, the cocktail tables draped in Puregold-green. By that time, we have already seen five of the six features, including Soberano’s glossy period film Under a Piaya Moon, which would win Best Film that night.

Festival director Chris Cahilig stopped by our cocktail table for a friendly chat. I asked about the selection process for the entries. He said that for the full-length category, they pored over a hundred entries in treatment format, before whittling them down to 10 (to be made into a screenplay), before selecting five screenplays to be awarded with a P2.5 million grant each. And, at the last minute, a sixth entry was accepted as a finalist.

Cahilig — a tall, amiable guy who works in public relations, who is also a producer and has directed a couple of short films in 2017 — said the finalists were chosen not only for their talent for storytelling, but also for coming up with stories that are “aligned” with Puregold’s brand.

CinePanalo aims to tell “Kuwentong Panalo” films. Tales that provide hope and inspiration to the Filipino people. Cahilig emphasized that it’s also Puregold’s intention to promote inclusivity by making sure that the LGBT community is represented in the lineup.

Among the six features, it’s Eugene Torres’ family-sports dramedy One Day League: Dead Mother, Dead All that advocates LGBTQ. LGBT themes are also popular in the short film category, including Ronjay-C Mendiola’s Last Shift, an ambiguous tale of boy-love and sacrifice for the family, which would bag Best Short Film that night.

We asked Cahilig who the jury members were. Being patient and kind (given our lack of pre-festival research), he said that for the short film category, the jury comprised of filmmakers Victor Villanueva and Emmanuel dela Cruz, and film critic Lito Zulueta. For the full-length category were filmmakers Jeffery Jeturian and Mae Cruz-Alviar, and Korean festival programmer June Kim.

Finally, the awards ceremony began. But in the middle of the overlong program, my friend and I sneaked out to catch the last full-show of Bernardo’s Pushcart Tales — the sixth and final screening of our CinePanalo feature-film marathon.

Bernardo that night would win Best Director for her one-location film, wherein she utilized her powerhouse cast to their maximum potential. Her main actors, Shamaine Buencamino and Carlos Siguion-Reyna, would also take home trophies that night for their performances.

Puschart Tales and Under a Piaya Moon are the only two big-budgeted-looking, visually polished features, but failed to emotionally connect with me. I felt that both films were mere exercises in technical craft.

I finished my festival-going only satisfied with one feature — A Lab Story. A sweet, funny story of high-school love. Obispo’s strong visual language and his knack for natural, realistic and conversational dialogue, plus the strong, unforgettable performances from his female stars, Uzziel Delamide and Donna Cariaga, make the rom-com a wholly entertaining film.

We saw it at its gala screening attended by Obispo and the cast in a nearly packed theater. It’s not “cinematic” per se, but A Lab Story is the reason why we go to the movies: to feel things. To be transported. The entire movie house laughed, swooned and felt so many emotions together. It was a communal experience.

While CinePanalo barely quenched my thirst for great Pinoy indie films, it was Puregold’s generosity that touched me: It gave a platform for emerging filmmakers.

Throughout the fest, I often observed the film students at the Cineplex in their artsy GenZ garb — their faces beaming with pride that their short films are being screened in a real movie house. They are also carrying with them the infectious joy of creating a short. Also, written across their faces is the hope that one day they will make it big in the industry. This makes the festival truly panalo.

The festival has extended its run until 26 March at Gateway 2, Cineplex 18.