Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (Philippines, 2011) [BIFF 2012]

It’s odd the way fame or at least the desire for it can fuel people to degrade themselves for recognition. Within the performing arts, this particular ailment for acknowledgement is great. Money may buy happiness, but recognition brings an acceptance and silent membership into a world where our peers and juniors look to us as being “one of them”. In short, to be liked is the greatest and most powerful drug out there and this post-Facebook fountain of youth has now become the greatest source of drama in popular media. From the many film incarnations of A Star is Born (1937, 1954, 1976), Vincent Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the proliferation of TV musical melodramas, Glee, reality shows, American Idol and The Voice, and the cornucopia of 24/7 entertainment shows doling out the latest celebrity news and gossip.  We live in a Warholian universe where traditional ideals of fame no longer apply. The history of the (in)famous is a gaudy tale of glorious failures, grotesque crimes, and the banal activities of a few pretty people but now every misstep, wardrobe malfunction, and well-rehearsed private moment is documented and regurgitated to us ad nauseam by the media machine.

A peculiar salve for this cult of the celebrity is Antoinette Jadaone’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay (2011), a meta-fictional documentary that traces the three-decade career of a bit player in the Filipino film industry and her contribution, be it minor, to her native country’s cinema culture. For those unfamiliar with Lilia Cuntapay her career began in the 1980s in the popular horror film franchise Shake, Rattle, and Roll (1984-present) playing witches, decrepit old women, and vengeful spirits. She was in demand due to her looks. Cuntapay’s long grey hair and sunken facial features gave the actress, as Shake, Rattle, and Roll director Peque Gallaga states, a “pre-Christian, pagan” demeanor. Of course, her strengths eventually became her greatest weaknesses. Horror films eventually went out of vogue, at least the low-budget Filipino variety, casino and her face soon became so overused that it no longer elicited fear. She became just a footnote, an important figure that can be linked to practically every actor, filmmaker, and production assistant in the Filipino film industry, but nonetheless forgotten by even die-hard cineastes.

Yet Cuntapay is not made to be a figure of ridicule. Jadaone takes great pains to portray all of her desperation, her inflated sense of self, her temper tantrums, her delusions of award grandeur, but all within context. When she gets angry at a young director for making her wait for two whole days on-set and then recasting her right before they shoot her scene, we empathize with her as she sulks afterwards in a cab ride back home. Or, an even better and far more hilarious example is Cuntapay’s visit to the hospital. Filling out the hospital form for her,  Cuntapay’s assistant is seemingly feeding her lines like in a vaudeville act as they debate the exact definition of star, actress, and bit player. All the humorous wordplay is punctuated in the end by a nurse asking our star bit-player for a picture and then ushering her to the front of the radiology line, as all VIPs should be.

Then of course, there are the multiple impromptu fan sessions wherein Cuntapay takes pictures, signs autographs, and hands out t-shirts to a mostly bewildered public. We don’t know whether to hang our heads in embarrassment for Cuntapay’s flagrant attention-seeking behavior or get angry with the philistines around her for being ignorant about the grand matriarch that sits before them. Watching Jadaone’s film I was reminded of two other movies that straddle the opposing styles of cinema-verite and mockumentary, Ramona S. Diaz’s Imelda (2003) and Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Just as the protagonists in those films seek to build a cult of self so does Cuntapay, but unlike the characters in those stories, Cuntapay gains some personal insight about her Herzogian drive to attain her literal prize, that ultimately it alone won’t offer her any more validation for her decades of work.

Jadaone’s choice of Lilia Cuntapay might bewilder people that are familiar and un-familiar with her work. Although the woman was connected to practically every person in the Filipino film industry, her contributions to the craft of acting and the art of film are minimal at best. Plus, the woman has lived quite a banal life: seemingly unmarried, doesn’t drink, not an abuser of drugs, prescription or otherwise, save for an occasionally poker game with friends, Cuntapay doesn’t gamble, and she doesn’t have a harem of young men to serve her whims. Yet then it became absolutely clear during a scene in which Cuntapay shows us her suitcase stuffed to the brim with the wardrobe from all her past roles the reason why Jadaone chose Cuntapay as a subject.  The woman lived and breathed films.

No matter how small and inconsequential the part may have been, the woman made her character the center of the drama. A nameless passer-by becomes the key to solving a missing persons case, a baby-obsessed demon possessing a house is more memorable than the mother trying to save her child, and a grey haired woman in the background can catch a director’s attention and put her in a slew of films. Lilia Cuntapay is the patron saint of the under-appreciated film artist. And though she may never become a big-name star with Lilia Cuntapay at the top of the marquee in big bright neon lights, Antoinette Jadaone might extend her 15 minutes of fame before being ushered back into the dark cloud of obscurity.