MANILA, Philippines – Straight musical films are very uncommon in local film business.
They come only once in a blue moon like in the mid-seventies when theater teacher and founder of Ateneo de Manila University’s Dulaang Sibol Onofre Pagsanjan partly produced and directed “Sinta,” an entirely song and dance fare which told of a young love between Ariosto Reyes, Jr. and Cathy Melendrez.
It sadly bombed at the tills and had never inspired any single producer, including the maverick and artistically inclined lot, of that era.
Until brave, if not dissenting, reclusive film artist Mike de Leon ventured into an almost repeat of the genre, in “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” in 1980.
The musical satire, however Rolex replica watches, was critically acclaimed but performed mildly at the box office.
A scene from the film ’Emir’ in the Kasbah, Ourzazate, Morocco. Credit: Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Nothing of this sort came in again three decades after until this year’s incoming release of “Emir,” an original Filipino musical written for the screen.
Inspired by true events
There are intriguing accounts which can make for an interesting story behind the making of the movie. This is anyway, inspired by true events.
Veteran character actress and thespian tutor Vangie Labalan, who coached three of the members of the main cast, recalled a story of president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo attending a state dinner in the Middle East when an Arab leader was introduced.
“Nakakapagsalita ng Tagalog at Ilocano ang prince. At alam niya ang maraming Filipino culture kahit ‘yong mga sayaw natin,” Labalan recounted during the birthday celebration of her late husband recently.
“Nalaman ng Philippine delegation na may OFW na nagturo sa prince ng Filipino arts and culture,” exclaimed Vangie.
“Although, maraming fictional parts ang pelikula but the overall tone is very close to Filipino experiences abroad,” shared Labalan.
“Emir” is the story of Amelia, a Filipina from Ilocos province, who works as a caregiver to the sheik’s wife who was then about to give birth in a fictional Middle Eastern palace. Amelia eventually serves as nanny to Ahmed, the eldest son, also the crown prince.
In the process, the Overseas Filipino Worker introduces the little boy to Filipino culture, including the Filipino language and Ilocano dialect, which he remembers even in adulthood.
Casting for the project was never an easy task, informed its director Chito Roño because he wanted his stars to be good at singing and acting at the same time.
Director Chito Roño with ‘Emir’ stars Frencheska Farr and Sid Lucero in Essouira, Morocco. Credit: Cultural Center of the Philippines.
After a grueling search, Roño was able to find his lead musical star, Frencheska Farr, the champion of the talent show “Who Will Be the Next Big Star?” to play Amelia. The six other nannies were to be portrayed by Dulce, Beverly Salviejo, Liesl Batucan, Melanie Dujunco, Kalila Aguilos and Julia Clarete.
“Emir” is a musical through and through.
Are Filipinos ready for this kind of film viewing experience to bring back investment to producers?
According to awarded short filmmaker, director and production designer Antonio V. Aguilar, also known as Tony Aguilar in the biz, “Emir” is a light fare to behold.
“It can be easily appreciated by a cross section of the audience,” said Aguilar, who has a cameo role in the film.
Rolando Atienza, chairman of the Film Development Council of the Philippines and one of the executive producers of the film had this to say: “I really wanted to produce a film that would truly highlight what Philippine cinema could be capable of—a film that is genuinely Filipino in spirit but one that is also world-class especially since the mandate of the FDCP is to promote the growth and development of the Filipino film industry.”
Atienza’s fellow producer and former president and artistic director of the CCP Nestor Jardin minced no words in saying the film is a dream project for him: “First and foremost, the material is good and the musical genre is something I’m comfortable with.”
Meanwhile, there are hints “the real prince” was the big investor of the project which he coursed through the Philippine government to foster goodwill among Arab nations and the Philippines and at the same time salute the heroism of the OFW.
Seventy percent of the movie was filmed in Morocco to ease up restrictions in stricter locations in the United Arab Emirates where most of the authentic sets of the story allegedly transpired.
Roño is proud of his cast. “It was an honor working with these award-winning actors and singers,” he said.
Douglas Nierras (left) choreographing a scene in the film ‘Emir.’ Credit: Cultural Center of the Philippines.
To hone the potentials of Farr and newcomers Joshua Elias Price Hourani and Mahdi Yadzian Varjani, who play Ahmed at age 7 and 12, respectively, Labalan was assigned to conduct acting workshops for them before filming started.
“Magaling si Frencheska. Mestiza siya in person,” the seasoned character actress described.
“Iba nga siya sa screen, napaka-exotic niya,” she observed.
The two boys are budding actors, she quipped.
Other theater actors who play major and minor roles in the musicale are part-time actress and full-time screenwriter Racquel Villavicencio, Bodjie Pascua, ethnic singers Gigi Escalante and Bayang Barrios Omega replica watches, ex-bold actor Emil Sandoval, Streetboys member Jhong Hilario, young actor Sid Lucero and many more.
Emir is produced by FDCP in association with the CCP and Viva Films with the support of the Manila Broadcasting Company. It opens on June 9 at theaters nationwide.