The world is not always kind to newbies. But when the novice in question displays mad skills at par with his or her superiors, heads turn and people start paying attention. Such was the case for filmmaker Diane Ventura, whose jump from music and events production to moving pictures was not informed by wave-of-the-hand afterthought but seething dedication. Her first short, TheRapist, which starred veteran Filipino actress Cherie Gil (Oro, Plata, Mata; Manila by Night; Bituing Walang Ningning) and scene-stealing newcomer Marco Morales in the lead, ended up getting nods from the International Film Festival Manhattan (IFFM) in New York, making it to the Most Popular Films and Best Short Film lists in 2012, holding its own alongside forty other shorts from around the globe. It was also an official-selection entry to Luang Prabang in Cambodia in 2015, not to mention Cinemanila and Cinema One Originals in the preceding years. “I made the film as an alternative to becoming a full-time student. The exorbitant fees and tuition charges prompted me to just invest in actually making a film and learn by doing instead of procuring a degree in film school,” the young director, who eventually moved to New York for further film studies, shared in retrospect.
And such learning ropes those were. Such that when it came time for Ventura to wrack her brains for a follow-up feature-length release, there was hardly any wracking involved. She took the task, one might say, by the horns. It was no huge surprise then that the resulting output, Awaken, was yet another thing of beauty, a think-piece which explores “psychosis, hypnosis, altered states of consciousness, and perception,” Ventura herself imparts, adding, “I find exploring the complexities of the mind most fascinating. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I actually thought I’d be making comedies but when I started writing, the stories just organically came out that way. I am most curious about understanding the darker side of the human psyche and the questionable actions of people. I am trying to find an approach to displaying these difficult truths or tackling these subjects without imposing judgment or dictating a moral stance.” The film, a story of the maddening demands of love, the even more maddening provocations of infidelity, and ultimately of madness itself, stars TV and film mainstay Jake Cuenca in the lead, alongside contemporary Ryan Eigenmann and fresh-faced newcomer Loren Burgos.
Just like TheRapist before it, Awaken also raked in citations left and right, securing Best Director for Global Feature for Ventura, as well as Best Actor for Jake Cuenca at the International Film Festival Manhattan 2015. In the same year, it was also an official-selection entry to the New Wave Full Feature category of the Metro Manila Film Festival and a recipient of the 7th Ani ng Dangal for Artistic Excellence Award given by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in the Philippines. This year, meanwhile, the film was cited as Best Narrative Feature at the World Cinema Festival in Brazil, while Cuenca was once again lauded as Best Actor. “Jake has been in this industry far longer than I have yet he’s humble and gracious enough to take directions from a relatively unknown novice with admirable willingness and ease,” Ventura shares of her actor, adding, “I told him I wanted to veer away from over-the-top drama and focus on subtlety as sometimes it requires more strength to restrain than to release emotions. Despite the subtlety you still feel his intensity.” Ventura, Cuenca, and the film that brought them to global consciousness are in great company, too, sharing the World Cinema Festival winners’ marquee alongside Miguel Berzal de Miguel’s Forget-Me-Nots (Spain), which won Best Narrative Short; William Sabourin O’Reilly’s Codigo Color (Cuba), which bagged Best Documentary Feature; and Patricia Vilela for Elder Fraga’s Noia: A Day at The Limit (Brazil), who was cited Best Actress.
There is certainly no turning back for Ventura, and she shouldn’t, the way the world at large is receiving her genre-bending films. As of this writing she is in the throes of preproduction work on yet another feature, working title Deine Farbe (Your Color), which will reportedly feature top-shelf talents from New York and Germany. “It’s a socio-political drama with dark comedy undertones done pseudo-documentary style,” the decorated auteur shares. For now, though, all eyes are still on Awaken, whose world premiere is happening August 5, 6, and 7 in Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. A Philippine theatrical release this year will also be held on November 2.