Filipino filmmaker Jun Robles Lana has bagged the Best Director Award for his 12th feature film “Kalel, 15” at PÖFF|Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, that also brings him a grant of 5000€. The film had its world premiere in the Estonian capital where it was screened in the official selection marked by a very strong presence of Asian films. In their statement, the jury quoted, among other, Lana’s ability to make a passionate and concerned film about lives we never see in the West.
When he gets diagnosed with HIV, the 15-year-old Kalel (Elijah Canlas) is with his mother Edith (Jaclyn Jose) who is more concerned about what the neighbours would say if they found out than about her son’s health. Riding back home on the coach, the boy is sitting silently through a wave of his mother’s insults, refusing to answer any of the questions. As the story progresses, it will become obvious why. His home is not a comfort zone, and the space is invaded by mother’s countless lovers and sister’s drug-addicted boyfriend Danny (Cedrick Juan). Also, the workspace – a small family street restaurant is populated by the same tensions: not counting the hard work, there are jealous fights between lovers, bad jokes and booze-inflicted conflicts. On top of all the hardship, Kalel is the illegitimate son of the priest George (Eddie Garcia) who is serving in their archdiocese. As a catholic priest who’s supposed to live in celibate, George can’t take over the role of Kalel’s father and their contact is limited to confessions in the church or “emergency” visits when something unexpected happens.
Still under shock after visiting the doctor, Edith summons George who also isn’t gentle with words. His questions pierce through the air with a homophobe poison. And although Kalel is not seen in any type of sexual contact with men and he even has a girlfriend, there are clear hints at his homosexuality: selfies of his naked torso and his pretty boyish face that get shared over the social networks provoke responses in flirty-, or directly sexual messages from his male “fanbase”.
Pressured by two big secrets, Kalel spends time with his schoolfriends who practically know nothing about his life. Sex (with girls) is the talk of the all-male group and Kalel knows how to play his game. He doesn’t just talk the talk; he’s walking the walk. Kalel has an alibi girlfriend called Sue (Gabby Padilla) deeply in love with him and therefore perfectly capable of recognizing that something is not right. The drama starts when she decides to bite Kalel’s lip and to suck his blood, unaware he’s infected with HIV.
In the closing credits of “Kalel, 15” Jana addresses the fast-growing HIV epidemic in his country, which according to statistics is the largest in the Asia-Pacific region. Unlike western countries where the numbers have been progressively sinking since the turn of the century, the number of new infections among the young people in the Philippines keeps rising. The final sentence of the epilogue: “There are countless more who refuse to be tested for fear of stigma and discrimination” is the written verdict on Kalel’s filmic destiny.
The boy is left alone to fight the disease and the eviction after his mother had run off with her boyfriend, and all his friends had turned their back on him, spreading the rumor about his condition in the school.
Jun Robles Lana paired again with his director of photography of his earlier six films (including the multiple-awarded “Bakwaw” from 2012) Carlo Carlas Mendoza, choosing for the first time black & white photography which strangely fits like hand in glove in this contemporary, gloomy drama. Facebook is bloodless just like everything else in the real world, chatting on social media is just grey letters running over screen, love and sorrow have the same colours. It’s a world of many shades of grey.
“Kalel, 15” is a social drama that addresses several issues at the same time: the stigma surrounding HIV, the carelessness with which the youth in the Philippines approaches sex, the heavy-weight consequences of growing up with a troubled parent and the Christian double moral.
Jun Robles Lana has shot the film based on his own script, and it’s an accomplished piece of writing with very little to complain about, except that the bridge between the dysfunctional family members is built only half-way. Strangely enough, film’s narrative doesn’t get damaged and the holes are being patched by the interesting framing and excellent ensemble cast, particularly concerning the choice of Elijah Canlas for the titular role.