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Psycho Thriller by Filipina Director Wins at Cannes World Film Festival

By Arry Asiddao
December 20, 2022

When the pandemic forced the world into lockdown two years ago, many of us found ourselves with more time than we knew what to do with. Some people turned to home improvement and gardening, while others experimented in the kitchen, and still others revisited their old hobbies like reading and painting. For Joan Lopez-Flores, she made her first feature film.

Lopez-Flores’ new film ‘Subscribe,’ starring Tony Labrusca, recently received international recognition as the Best Psychological Thriller at the Cannes World Film Festival. Subscribe’s stellar cast also includes Epy Quizon, Mercedes Cabral, and Anna Abad Santos, among others.

Lopez-Flores describes her film as a story of survival. Subscribe follows Arvin (Labrusca), a reclusive guy with a troubled past who resorts to vlogging to make a living during the pandemic. The film examines the intersection of relevant themes like family, mental health, and social media.

“I think this would resonate with a lot of viewers, not just in the Philippines but all over the world, because everyone was hit hard by the pandemic. Everybody was going through mental and emotional breakdowns because of the pandemic.”

Photo courtesy of Joan Lopez-Flores

Timing, Funding, and Everything In Between

Being Lopez-Flores’ debut feature film and a psychological thriller at that, Subscribe was not easy to make. But with her screenwriting background and The Jumpcat Experiment, the video production company that she co-founded, Lopez-Flores made it possible.

“It wasn’t that hard, but it wasn’t easy either. The theme is also close to my heart, so it wasn’t 100% difficult to put together a story like this. It just became authentic with how I perceive the world.”

The Jumpcat Experiment was one of many struggling businesses during the pandemic. Prior to Subscribe, Jumpcat mainly produced branded content, digital campaigns, and TV commercials. But with companies cutting back on their marketing budgets, Jumpcat had fewer projects to work on. Lopez-Flores thought it was an opportune moment to finally pursue a passion she had set aside for years: filmmaking.

Behind the scenes with lead actor Tony Labrusca. Photo courtesy of Joan Lopez-Flores

Getting started is not as easy as it sounds. One of the biggest challenges for many independent filmmakers is securing funding for their films. But because Subscribe's story is universally relatable, Lopez-Flores was able to raise money for the film with Josie Garcia, a partner at Jumpcat, and Wilbert Tolentino as executive producers.

Lopez-Flores, who had been mentored by National Artist Ricky Lee in one of his scriptwriting workshops, started drafting Subcribe’s screenplay in 2020. They began filming in mid-2021, during the height of the health and travel restrictions, making the process more expensive and tedious.

Lopez-Flores and Jumpcat have created everything, from short films for a non-profit organization to one-minute microfilms for a well-known Philippine flavored fries brand. They also did car shows and weddings during the company’s early years. Lopez-Flores believes that all of these experiences have, in a way, served as a training ground for her first feature-length film.

“It’s so different because you get to steer the ship where you want it to go. With branded content, your creativity will shine, but it’s always the vision of the brand that will be followed. But with this filmmaking, where you get to write and direct, it is such a liberating practice for any artist. It’s a privilege that not everyone gets.”

Photo courtesy of Joan Lopez-Flores

On top of the challenges of filming during a pandemic, Lopez-Flores and her team also had to juggle Subscribe with another major project, Mang Lalakbay. Created for the ABS-CBN Kapamilya Network, Mang Lalakbay is an ambitious children’s show that aims to educate kids about Filipino values through travel, all while reviving the dying art of puppetry.

While Lopez-Flores admits they have also had distribution issues, she is optimistic that Subscribe's recent win at the Cannes World Film Festival will open more doors.

“The ultimate goal of Subscribe is for more people across the world to see and appreciate the film. And to show that Filipinos can make this kind of film and tell this kind of message… that we can inspire people going through difficulties and mental health issues.”

Photo courtesy of Joan Lopez-Flores

A Film’s Purpose

Lopez-Flores hopes to make more films with relevant social impact in the future. “I wouldn’t like to waste the opportunity of making a film by telling nonsense messages. I really want to use it for the further growth of the viewers."

In a world increasingly driven by deadlines, Lopez-Flores proves that it is never too late to do what you truly love. Making her first film in her late 30s, Lopez-Flores serves as an inspiration to many aspiring filmmakers and creatives who have also had to put their dreams on hold.

“Be brave. Because the moment you doubt yourself, it will not get you from point A to point B. Take a shot, because if you don’t, you’ll never know. If making a film has always been your lifelong dream, start writing that first line. Start imagining that first frame.”

Lopez-Flores shares that the film industry can be discouraging, especially for new filmmakers and those who do not have the resources of major studios. But the key, according to her, is to persevere.

“When you do get started, don’t falter... If you don't want to be part of these big industry players, it’s really so hard... but don’t lose heart because it will pay off.”

Subscribe is set to premiere at the Cannes World Film Festival in France next year.

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