Cinema Asian America: Inside ‘The Mountain Thief’ with Director Gerry Balasta

"The Mountain Thief."

This month Cinema Asian American on XFINITY On Demand features the award-winning first feature film from New York-based filmmaker/activist Gerry Balasta, “The Mountain Thief.”

Set in Patayas, one of the Philippines’ largest dumpsite “towns”, The Mountain Thief tells a timeless tale of survival and family. A poor widower and his disabled son arrive in a dumpsite slum to join legions of scavengers and a hope for a better tomorrow. But as a newcomer to an established fiefdom, his uneasy foothold in the village collapses when he is wrongfully accused of murdering a rival’s comrade. The one witness, an outcast thief, holds the key to his vindication and ultimate fate.

Using a doc-fictional approach, and a cast of non-professional actors all who are residents of Patayas, The Mountain Thief is a moving portrait of resilience on the margins.

“The story is inspired by people living in dumpsite towns and their ability to endure the most horrific living conditions,” Balasta notes. “It is essential for me to share this disturbing yet ultimately hopeful story of one man’s love for life and his ability to endure.” (Adapted from text by Chris Bucoy Brown.)

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“The Mountain Thief” was produced in a very unique way, and exists as something much more than just a film. The film is not only the product of an acting workshop you held with the inhabitants of a large garbage-collecting town in the Philippines (the entire cast is non-professional), but is also part of the Mount Hope Project, which seeks to create opportunities for the children who live in the town.

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What is the larger, guiding vision for this entire project?

GB: My original intention for the film was really just to tell a story about the lives of people who live in mountains of trash. I started with the belief that if I do my job well enough, people are inherently “good” and will act to make a difference. Since it is their story, I made a decision to hold the acting workshop (Mount Hope Workshop) in the dumpsite community, again with the belief that if the workshop participants work hard at it, they are “good” enough to act in the film. I must say early on, the guiding vision was just the basic belief in these two kinds of goodness in men.

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During the film festival run, when people saw the film, they were compelled to act and although this was what I was hoping for to happen, there really was no structure to get more help directly to the actors. I was hoping an organization would step in to help us with this, but it never really happened. Getting invitations and traveling all over the world was fun, but as I travelled, the fire inside to make a difference became even stronger. From what I saw to be the living conditions in the village while shooting the film, I felt it was my moral obligation to give my best efforts to do something for the children in the film.

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It slowly became clear to me, that in order to make a real difference in the actors’ lives, I needed to use the film as a platform. The guiding vision remains true but it has evolved in a bigger vision and mission of using the film and the arts to make a direct impact on the actors’ lives.

After you selected the actors from the workshop to perform in The Mountain Thief, what was the collaborative process on the narrative of the film? I understand you had a script written already before the workshop; did it change substantially through the workshop and production process?

GB: Casting was based on the talent that the workshop participants had in performing (for most of the actors, it was their first time seeing a camera) and also largely on how the characters I had written matched up with their real life experiences. The main character, Julio is played by an actor who also has a child with a disability in real life. The child actor, like the character he portrays, also has a disability—hydrocephalous and visual impairment. If you know the actors and you see the characters in the film, they are very similar and well matched. The idea is for them to have an experience to dig in while performing.

Our initial reading of the script was the first time the participants encountered the film’s story. Many times we had to pause for a moment during rehearsals – it was a very emotional process, as the script reflected their lives and everyone had a story of how they connected personally with it.

Many of the workshop participants told me anecdotes about their lives, and experiences living in the dumpsite, and I incorporated these into the film. The plot didn’t change at all, but I added scenes and the production design and most of the dialogue were based on their input. In the end, they became part of the Art Direction crew and Production Design crew.

You are an occupational therapist for children with disabilities, and continue to do this work alongside filmmaking. How has your therapeutic work shaped how you look at the world, and more specifically, what kind of stories you wish to tell through filmmaking?

GB: My work with children and children with disabilities is the source of inspiration for “The Mountain Thief” and the other films I’m currently developing. Having this background, has given me a unique insight and an appreciation of how lucky I am to have the ability and opportunity to do the things that I currently do. By having feet in both the creative world and in the medical field, I’ve been given an understanding of the course a life can take, the lottery called life (these children and people didn’t choose to be disabled or to be born in a dumpsite) and also the importance of giving hope and teaching kids that they can dream, no matter who and where they are.

I would say because of my background, I want to make films with social advocacies and issues. I enjoy most the creative part of weaving together stories and creating characters, that’s why I still consider myself a narrative filmmaker. The Mountain Thief was a long learning process to merge the fiction and documentary and I now have a model to use for most of my films—combining narrative and documentary, making fact and fiction work together and pairing entertainment with advocacy and an ultimate call for action. Awareness is one thing, but actually touching lives and giving opportunities is for me, very important and makes all my efforts worthwhile. Film is indeed a very powerful tool and if I can use it to move people, entertain and touch lives, then my work as an artist is complete.

The Mountain Thief was completed in 2009, and has screened around the world. What has been the impact of the film’s success on the communities who created the film with you?

GB: Toward the end of my film festival run, I was approached by an entrepreneur in New York who was very moved and got out of poverty because of his education. He formally structured THE MOUNT HOPE PROJECT to be a US non-profit so we can continue with our work. The president of an energy corporation with operations in the Philippines also saw the film and was deeply moved and chose to support our project as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility program.

We also formed the MOUNT HOPE INITIATIVE in the Philippines, to set up the scholarships for the children of the scavenger-actors of the film and other projects. We have a staff in the Philippines and New York and are developing fundraising projects, including The HAPPness Photo Project, which will teach photography to children and use their art as fundraising tools.

Through the film’s success, we have been able to send its main child actor, Ingo to school, and we are sending a group of six other children to school this June.

What are you working on now?

GB: A couple of projects! One that I am currently trying to finish through Kickstarter is “The Solar Champion”, a hilarious comedy starring the actors in “The Mountain Thief”. It is about a family of dreamers and their SOLAR BULB invention. The film has a social documentary element as well, which builds on “The Mountain Thief” and advocates for the 1.3 billion people in the world who don’t have access to electricity and what impact this has on our environment. Another one is “I Am The Pacific Storm”, which is set in a rural environment and it is about the value of education, and how to break children out of cycles of poverty which afflict many families.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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