Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Beauty from Garbage: The Mountain Thief at Asian Film Festival

story and photo by LEO E. LAURENCE

Copyright © 2010 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Imagine trying to survive while living atop a mountain of garbage, three times higher than our municipal landfills, and rummaging through the trash for recyclable tin cans and anything else useful. People live that way today on the Philippine Islands.

Next imagine a movie of those living in those incredibly squalid conditions, and using those unskilled locals exclusively as all the actors. It almost sounds impossible, but “The Mount Hope Project” produced that film, called The Mountain Thief.

It was one of the best of about 66 films screened at the recent Asian Film Festival of San Diego (AFFSD), produced by operations director Phillip Luque and an army of mostly young volunteers.

In The Mountain Thief, writer/director Gerry Balasta used real-life Filipino, garbage scavengers to tell the harsh story of a man trying to provide food and scarce medicine for his sick nine-year-old son (Richard), afflicted with a serious visual impairment.

Richard also had balancing problems and needed help navigating while walking. Despite all this, he was able to live amazingly independently in his daily struggle for survival.

“It took us a very long time to cast an unskilled, visually impaired boy who could learn his lines, and to a point where he also knew everyone else’s lines as well,” explained director Balasta.

“Richard dreams of being able to read and write someday.”

The Mountain Thief has 14 scavenger actors and 10 scavenger extras in the movie.

In addition to telling the story of scavengers in “The Promised Land in the Philippines,” Balasta also created the Mount Hope Project, which can be found on Google; and which is helping the lives of those literally living atop a mountain of garbage. The film was co-sponsored by the Miramar College Filipino-American Student Association.

The Asian Film Festival was produced at the Ultra-Star Cinemas in the Hazard Center in Mission Valley, also the venue for the Latino Film Festival each spring. But it’s scheduled to be torn down and replaced by a parking building. Its equipment is in bad shape.

For opening night, the projector in the main screen overheated and the major movie had to be moved to another screen that had only half as many seats. It was one of several major hassles resulting from seriously inadequate operations at the old movie complex, but somehow the AFFSD staff worked around the problems.

Set during World War II, the opening night film, Legend of the Fist, used cutting-edge visuals and was loaded with martial arts, which always wins over any gun. Much too much “Hollywood” violence, however.

The same UltraStar Cinema “technical difficulties” plagued Standing Queer, which were Gay shorts with Asian themes. In the audience, I noticed two deaf patrons who were able to silently communicate using sign language even while the Gay movies were running.

One of the most powerful films in the festival was from Pakistan: Ramchand Pakistani. It starred Ramchand, a mischievous, little boy living in a mud, thatched hut in a very poor, Hindu village in Pakistan on the border of India.

The sheep-herding boy spent his days ditching school and wandering over the surrounding country-side, until one day he strayed a few yards into India. Even today, that can be extremely dangerous.

Because he was carrying a small slingshot, an Indian soldier arrested him for “carrying a weapon to liberate Kashmir.” When his father goes looking for him, he too is captured by Indian soldiers.

Both remain imprisoned for several years with very little food and sleeping on dirt floors in an overcrowded prison. Hatred between India and Pakistan is rampant, even today.

Another powerful movie, Hiroshima Nagasaki Download, focused on the cruel psychological trauma left by the vast destruction resulting from our atom-bomb raids in World War II.

A soldier who survived revealed the intense smell of burning flesh that permeated the air all the time. He saw people walking with skin hanging down from their faces and walking like ghosts. He ate horse meat — when it could be found, and found people dying on the ground begging, “Soldier, please give me water.”

Black rain fell while he tried to help survivors.

During the week-long AFFSD, “we had about 19,000 guests at films and off-site events,” reported Daniel Mathews, media coordinator.

Contact writer Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or leopowerhere@msn.com

Photo Caption:

Justin Vancho, 28, wears wings made from real bird feathers from America’s Next Top Model TV show. They were auctioned at the Asian Film Festival. Photo by Leo E. Laurence