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Youth Meets Film: The Next Generation of Writers on Regional Cinema

Interview with Che Tagyamon, Director of Lola Loleng

My personal favourite in the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition would have to be Che Tagyamon’s Lola Loleng.

A heartfelt piece, Lola Loleng, tells a story of Grandma Loleng who suffers from dementia. The emotions circling the granddaughter as she tries to deal with her grandmother’s struggle are cleverly portrayed in this multi-layered animation.

The short starts off brimming with childlike innocence. But before you know it, this innocence plunges into a darker form of memory, almost to the edge of insanity as Grandma Loleng grapples with her memory loss.

In our current peaceful societies, we are unable to fully understand the depth of pain and fear suffered by our older generations, as they remember the tougher times of turmoil and instability during their younger days. Our only hope then, is to empathise and learn from their experiences, and Lola Loleng does this beautifully, shaping it into a relatable story.

Still from Grandma Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

What struck me about Lola Loleng, was the use of vibrant colours and animation style that really helped to draw the audience closer to the subject matter. The result – a thin line between reality and fiction.

What was seemingly real to Grandma Loleng was taken with a pinch of salt by her relatives, as they discouraged her granddaughter from buying into her stories. This saddened me to think that once an elder is past his/her respectable age, we tend to take their stories for granted, viewing them as an exaggerated piece of fiction.

Instead of harping on what Grandma Loleng fails to remember, we are let into the world of her remaining memories. Suffering from the trauma of being a comfort woman during the Japanese Occupation, Grandma Loleng confront her past in a rather childlike manner, leaving us to question the reality of it.

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

Endearing yet heartbreaking, Lola Loleng, leaves us with a bittersweet taste as it raises the themes of dementia and holding on to what is left. As we constantly remind ourselves to cherish our loved ones, may we also never forget their memories and experiences that have shaped them into who they are.

The filmmaker behind this animation is 21-year-old, Che Tagyamon, from the Phillipines. Che graduated from the University of the Philippines Film Institute and Lola Loleng was her thesis film. Her short film Mumu (Ghost) was awarded Best Picture in the Metro Manila Film Festival in 2015.

In an email interview, I had the privilege to better understand Che and her motivations behind her animated short film, Lola Loleng.

What inspired you to create Lola Loleng? Was the granddaughter based on your personal experiences?

I never got to meet my grandmother, she passed away even before I was born. And so I decided to create a film where I’d be able to reimagine her through the memories of others who had the chance to know her.

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

That was what happened at the conception of the film. But then many things happened throughout the process. I remember it very clearly when I got to chat with one of my friends who just came back from her student exchange programme in South Korea. We talked about many things, including the visit of the emperor of Japan in the Philippines at that time (February 2016). She also told me many stories of the Korean comfort women in Korea, and how the public supports their struggle for justice.

That’s when I realized how us Filipinos tend to forget important issues from our not so distant past. In my effort to further understand this issue, I reached out to the organization of the Filipina Comfort women (Lila Filipina) and interviewed Lola Aryang Bustamante, who is now very old but still very active in their organization.

I felt so strongly about the interview that I decided to push through with the concept of memory and the loss of it, to portray how Philippines, as a nation also struggles in remembering, just like the character of Grandma Loleng in the film. The granddaughter’s character is also a reflection of how I felt like when I was still trying to get to know Lola Hilaria Bustamante.

I can’t help but notice that some scenes were animated to seem almost child-like. But behind this child-like innocence, there is a sad reality about dementia. What message do you wish to convey in the film?

I think the human memory is a really fragile thing. I believe that child-like animation might help in expressing this fragility, because nothing is crystal clear when it comes to human memory.

Upon watching Lola Loleng, I found it heart-breaking to imagine my beloved grandmother struggling with her loss of memory. What about dementia scares you the most?

I am really scared of not being able to remember the people and memories that matter. I think my identity as a person is the sum of the experiences that I remember; I’m afraid that the time will come that I’ll question my identity because I can no longer remember a thing.

The use of colours were very evident in Lola Loleng, could you tell me more about the thought process behind it?

Grandma Loleng’s colors are based from a glowing Filipino Christmas Star-shaped Lantern or “Parol“. In the film, Lola Loleng is also a maker of these parols. The granddaughter’s colours, on one hand, is composed of shades of colours of the night time. I’d like to express how the granddaughter is attracted to Grandma Loleng’s “light”.

Another important detail for me is this: Grandma Loleng’s dress is red, her skin is yellow, and the background is a dark shade of blue. The three colours are the colours of the Philippine Flag, and I intended it to be that way because of the film’s theme of finding one’s identity through exploring one’s landscape of memories.

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

Another theme highlighted was the trauma suffered by comfort women during the Japanese Occupation. What do you think we can do to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself?

I believe we have to constantly be aware of the issues surrounding our nation and the world. To achieve lasting peace, we must not simply forget our wrongdoings in the past. Grandma Loleng is just one of the many victims of an engineered war between world powers. I think that we must, in any way, struggle to prevent and stop wars against nations.

What was your experience like, putting on the different hats of a scriptwriter and a director?

It was challenging but very fulfilling in the end. There were moments when a script idea pops up spontaneously and that’s when I’ll feel really thankful because I can freely add it up to the narrative. Of course I still had to ask what others think about that new idea.

Collaboration is a key process in filmmaking, but being the writer and director of a film works for me in animation projects because of the liberty I experience on crucial moments.

When did it occur to you to try filmmaking and when did you realise that it was something you wanted to do long-term?

It was in 2012 when I decided to shift from my Behavioral Sciences degree to Filmmaking. I was not even sure whether I’ll like the degree program, but it just so happened that I got to enjoy what we’re doing in film school.

As a child, I remember that I really wanted to be many things: an astronaut, a painter, an animator, a doctor, a scientist and many others! Filmmaking is really meditative for me, because I think in a way, I’m able to achieve the dreams of my younger self. I’m able to write about different people with different struggles from various socio-political backgrounds.

What do you think of animation as a storytelling medium?

Animation is one of the oldest forms of filmmaking, and I believe it’s still evolving through technology, form, technique and storytelling. I also believe that animation is one of the freest form of cinema, because one is able to create an entire world from scratch.

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

Still from Lola Loleng, Dir. Che Tagyamon

What is your hope for Southeast Asian films? Any advice for budding filmmakers, especially female filmmakers?

I believe it’s a great time to film our stories in the region. Lots of things are happening in the world, and we’re just lucky today that somehow technology has democratized filmmaking.

We now have the capacity to disrupt the prevailing dominant world cinema introduced by Hollywood. We can now share our small stories from our own part of the world. Female filmmakers should also tell the version of the female narrative. The time has come to stand in solidarity with women still struggling with patriarchy and oppression across nations.

I note that Lola Loleng was your thesis film. With such a strong entry into SGIFF Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, are there any upcoming projects we can look forward to?

I am currently working on another short experimental animation which tackles the societal pressure and expectations that we’ve experienced since childhood.

I am also planning to shoot a live-action film in February 2017, and mix it with animation in post-production. It will explore the phenomenon of Overseas Filipino Workers diaspora across the globe, in the eyes of the children who they have left behind.


You can catch the screening of Lola Loleng (Grandma Loleng) on 3 Dec 2016, Saturday, 11am at the National Gallery of Singapore Auditorium as part of the SEA Short Film Programme 3.