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Movie review: 'Ekstra' exalts the lowly bit players, raps 'studio system'

"Ekstra," a socio-realist drama-comedy, is about one-day-in-the-life of a movies/television shows bit player. In 111 minutes, the movie encapsulizes Jeturian’s proverbial love-hate affair with the local television and film industry.

A whole cast of bit players make up Jetho Jeturian's "Ekstra." Cinemalaya
The entire drama takes off as Loida Malabanan (Vilma Santos) wakes up in the very small hour of one morning to prepare for an out-of-town shooting day. It goes on to show the drudgery, distress, indignities and sufferings, as well as the joys and friendships of the many bit players as they negotiate the whims of the select "power dispensers" populating a location shoot: from the talent coordinator, assistant director, director, and the leading actors and actress, and other lesser gods and goddesses in the constellation of the location shooting. Each character has a place in the hazy and duplicitous hierarchy of the local entertainment fantasyland.

Homage to all bit players

The prize of watching "Ekstra," however, is that it can be viewed in several rewarding lenses and layers.

The movie is a representation of the dally pathos of all unheralded "bit players," both those seen before the camera and more importantly, those behind the camera: the entire crew from the technicians, property custodians, catering people, down to the burly guards in a location shoot.

"Ekstra" is Jeturian’s homage to all the "seen and unseen" Filipino bit players, all the exploited and marginalized laborers in the local entertainment industry. It also dissects the pathology of the entire "studio or production system" in the local show business, where named talents often times with bloated egos ("stars") are at the very top of the ecosystem, while the milked bit players are at the bottom.

In this film, as the shoot of the TV soap encounters natural- and man-made causes for delays, the fortunes of Malabanan (Santos) turn rosier as she lands meatier parts. But somehow, the god and goddesses have other plans for Malabanan and her co-bit players. Few are chosen and many are waylaid.

Behind the riotous scenes and the witty lines, strong labor relations issues permeate the film. A vivid scene showed the bit players literally begging for food from a member of the catering crew.

While it pays tribute to the bit players, one is tempted to ask whether “Ekstra” is also Jeturian’s quick-witted ridicule of the "ruling system" in the local movies and television industry, with no less than his most favorite actress Santos as the main star in this particular vehicle of criticism.

Autobiographical elements

Like all bit players who patiently swallow their pride to earn a pittance to support their families, Jeturian, 54, before becoming the celebrated director he is now, was an anonymous member of many production teams. Like many bit players in his films, he had difficulties making ends' meet in the early days of his career.

Jeturian persevered and endured long hours as a production assistant, script continuity, art director, production designer, and eventually assistant director. And like many bit players, he kept on doing what he loved most: jobs in the TV and movie industry.

Way back in college, Jeturian, who graduated from the broadcast communication program of UP Diliman in 1983, had expressed his wish to direct Santos in his own movie. It took almost 30 years to realize this dream. His classmates and friends knew him to be a "solid Vilmanian" at the time when the rivalry between Nora Aunor and Santos was at its peak.

Jeturian ceremonial first step to crafting "Ekstra" happened in 1983 when he agreed to become a production assistant for Marilou Diaz Abaya’s "Alyas Baby Tsina"” movie, starring Santos and Philip Salvador as underworld characters. The movie was released in 1984 and reaped numerous awards.

His first directed film "Sana Pag-ibig Na" (1998) lost money. His big break came with "Pila Balde" (2000), a work dealing with life and survival in the slums garnering commercial success and critical acclaim.

Lampooning advertisements

Jeturian’s "Ekstra" also lampooned the advertising agencies and their intelligence-numbing ads, from which many television stations and broadcasting companies earn hefty profits, enabling them to produce more TV soap and discover "new talents."

The series of scenes featuring inane advertisements during commercial breaks in the television soap were particularly hilarious. It was as if Jeturian were throwing volleys at the vapid minds in the advertising agency raking in millions in revenues.

Unknown to many, there was a time when Jeturian visited the office of an ad agency to pitch the unpolished gem that was Angel Aquino at the time. Jeturian and Aquino were shown the door. The agency preferred American- and European-looking Filipinas for its beauty product commercials.

With the script written by Zig Dulay, Antoinette Jadaone, and Jeturian himself, the director sweetly took his revenge by putting at the center the marginalized bit players and the exploited laborers of the industry.

In bravely deglamorizing herself, Santos showed the audience once again what she can accomplish as one of the Philippine’s finest talents, while Ruby Ruiz convincingly and adeptly essayed the role of a talent coordinator, who acts as a “shock absorber” of all harshness inflicted by the studio system on the hapless bit players.

"Ekstra" (The Bit Player) is Jeffrey Jeturian’s 9th full-length film and his second foray in the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival. In the 2011 edition of Cinemalaya, Jeturian’s quiet movie "Bisperas" won the Best Picture in the Directors Showcase category. — VC, GMA News

Ibarra C. Mateo, a former international wire service correspondent covering Asian politics, returned to Manila after studying Japanese history and Japanese urban sociology at the Sophia University Graduate School in Tokyo. The views expressed in this article are the author's own.