Melbourne-based, independent filmmaker Matthew Victor Pastor has been making films for over ten years. His prolific output so far includes four mini-features and four features. His latest film The Neon Across the Ocean is the first instalment of what he calls the ‘2020 Trilogy’, a trio of films that document different stages in a time of upheaval and isolation caused by a global pandemic. The Neon Across the Ocean (2020) had its world premiere at the 44th São Paulo International Film Festival (Mostra) in October 2020 and Pastor is currently in post-production on the second instalment, A Pencil to the Jugular.
Rich, playful and energetic, Pastor’s films represent a unique and distinctive kind of cinema within the broader context of Australian independent film. Pop concepts and media, like a VHS tape, a demo tape, karaoke and melodrama, inspire the form and structure of his films. Living and shooting mostly in the city, Pastor’s films are delicately in tune with the life of Melbourne city streets, bars and public transport. Collaborating with a regular group of actors and crew also gives his films a consistency. Above all, a thread that runs throughout Pastor’s work is the notion of identity and the desire to tell authentic stories about people of diverse backgrounds living in Australia. Pastor himself is part of the Filipino diaspora, and is self-described as a Filipino Australian filmmaker.
Stylistically distinct from his previous films, Neon Across the Ocean builds its story in a slow and minimalist way. The main character, Mandy, is completing her final year of high school. She’s a conscientious student who studies constantly but she’s also searching for somewhere or someone. Life, sometimes strange, sometimes wonderful, happens around her. She moves through an ‘external’ world of apartments, houses, city buildings at a remove. Pastor’s use of long takes and carefully composed shots gives the impression that she’s trapped in her environment. Neon is book-ended with sequences set in the Philippines “many years ago”. An eternal city at night, it’s a place of flashing neon, rain-drenched streets and stray cats. “Many years ago” we learn that Mandy’s father, Gerald, came to the Philippines in search of “heavenly perfume”. As it turns out, Mandy has a little sister “across the ocean”. Separated by a vast ocean, she can only long for someone she’s never met and may never know.
The Neon Across the ocean is part of a trilogy of films. Can you explain the inspiration for this trilogy? And where you’re at in terms of completing it.
I approach writing like a sponge – absorbing my surroundings for creative juices. My scripts usually start as an idea, which then evolves through the production. At the start of 2020, from January to March, I was on a creative high, working on two features, back-to-back. Then, when the pandemic broke, I couldn’t think of anything else. The changes in society were so significant and were happening so quickly. Not knowing how the year would turn out, I decided to pivot in March. I decided to document the unfolding year. It was a hectic time – it was either I make a long-form film, or a series of films. In the end, I settled on the idea of a trilogy as the appropriate way to capture the feeling. Making films in the way I do, which is a continuous shooting, editing, re-working and searching, fuelled by my impulses, I was able to settle on a thematic through-line with the idea of the future, present and past. These chapters informed the three films and their tones.
The two films I was working on in early 2020 would eventually become 1 and 2 of the trilogy: The Neon Across the ocean and A Pencil to the Jugular. The rapid changes in society caused me great anxiety and loneliness. The anxiety and isolation are predominant moods felt through the films. Right now, I’m in post-production on A Pencil to the Jugular and filming Plans That They’ve Made. The pandemic is not over and globally this is something we can’t even comprehend. Even when these films are completed and released a feeling of melancholy in society will linger, an unresolved pain.
Stylistically, Neon is quite different to your previous films. There are similarities but also clear differences. You’re focusing on one character and her journey. You use sound sparingly. The camerawork and the pace is very controlled. There isn’t the playfulness of intertitles to signpost the narrative either. You seem to be moving into a new direction.
My films mirror my moods. There is a freedom in having a high-energy approach as I’ve done in some previous works where the medium of feature film is influenced by other forms. A lost VHS film (MAGANDA! Pinoy Boy vs Milk Man), or a demo tape (Repent or Perish!), but I’m trying to reflect an uncertain future with The Neon Across the Ocean. I wanted to explore a collective isolation and the change in psychology after a global pandemic, the pain of distance being one of them. The aesthetic matches that feeling with characters physically distant from each other in the framing. This cinematic language carries onto A Pencil to the Jugular, but for only the pandemic parts. Jugular is quite literally both of these worlds together. The story takes place just before and after the pandemic begins (or right after Australia started recognising the circumstances), and in a way it acts as a film of two sides to a coin, February 2020 in colour and handheld and March 2020 black and white and steady and on tripod.
You work in a very spontaneous way. You’re able to respond to ‘the moment’, so to speak. The trilogy is your response to 2020 and lockdown. Is this how you make films in general? What does being a filmmaker mean to you?
Filmmaking to me is very personal. It literally saved my life and I can’t do very much else. I make films because without them I feel useless and get depressed. I manage my BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) through film, which explains my prolific output. Having BPD can be very stressful, but I’ve learned to ride manic waves, use the anxious impulses to take aim and write. I’ve had times in my life when I am writing and I disassociate, I lose myself in the writing, or editing, and when time resumes, I’m there with the film, closer to completion.
I tend to write my screenplays in shopping malls, busy cafes and even arcades. I find this approach exhilarating, my senses overloaded and mind racing. Inspiration is everywhere in a city like Melbourne and I spend a lot of time wandering the city streets watching the world pass. Normally it’s the chaos which inspires me, but the lockdown placed me in a position where I could hear my own thoughts. For the first time since I was young there was a real silence, except I wasn’t prepared, I’d lived in the hustle and bustle for too long. I’ve been an over thinker since I was young, nothing’s changed for me, except my skillset has improved.
The journey started at 13 when I saw a Japanese film called All About Lily Chou-Chou by Shunj Iwai (2001). I didn’t know anything about cinema but this film changed my life. It set me on this path. It reflected my hopelessness through image and melody, and I felt less alone. I’ve made films to chase this feeling. I aim for the work to be life changing for the individuals that relate to this feeling. Filmmaking is my individuality and personal expression, and I want my work to relate to people like myself.
Many of your films have a connection to current events, like Repent’s connection to the marriage equality decision, and even the characters in Melodrama…are very recognisable. Is it important for you to make films about current people and events?
Films take a very long time to produce, but I’m a very fortunate artist to be able to work light, quick and independently. I choose this method because I’m able to continue to make films in an expressive way, and part of that immediacy is the capturing of current events. To achieve this lightness, I’ve been my own director of photography and have shot most of my features on the Panasonic Lumix GH4 & GH5s on vintage lenses. I’m proud to have captured these emotions.
When I was younger, I used to think with age my feelings would start to mellow, but instead I’ve become more emotional and it’s all in the films. I frame the city skyline, the trams, the busy intersections the new apartments with a sentimental lens as if it’s the last time. Many images captured empty lots which are now skyscrapers. I’ve purposely returned to these locations to show how our city has aged. I place reoccurring performers in these spaces, familiar faces in a changing city. I have a strict plan for certain scenes but on streets I keep it loose, handheld and spontaneous. I’ve made friends while shooting, then cast them on the spot to be part of the story. I’ve managed to capture the changing face of the city of Melbourne in the lead up to this pivotal year.
I also view the city of Melbourne as a character in my movies. Over the years, I’ve managed to capture the changing face of the city, not just the changing landscapes but also the people, our international student and new migrant communities. My characters have unique perspectives. I’m right there with the ‘new Australia’, with a beer or soju sharing a Karaoke booth at 3am. Some of the performers in my films have now left Melbourne and continued their life in other parts of the world. For that brief time, these films are a timestamp of a work of art made in Melbourne.
I plan all my films but because I work with friends and close collaborators, there are many impromptu moments. I keep a draft of the script on my phone, and often I will take it out when out with company. We will be having drinks at a bar and I’ll be like “what do you think of this scene?” Sometimes new dialogue is added. Sometimes, I zip back home to grab a camera and audio gear and an impromptu moment of filming occurs. The best ideas happen organically.
It’s like having a documentary flexibility but with narrative film. I feel regardless of what our circumstances are there is a power in storytelling. My narratives are about changing landscapes, inhabitants and culture, and in a way, every work I’d done previous to 2020 is a bit of a time capsule of a pre-pandemic world.
With this trilogy, are you moving away from genre-type films to something clearly more like art cinema? Will you return to the playfulness of MAGANDA!…, Melodrama… and even Repent..?
Right now, I’m influenced by what I’m feeling. I’ve always used formal and stylistic elements to separate my work from other Australian films, and in turn create discussion around the narratives depicted. In the silence of Neon I work with the rough edges to create immersion with the subject. For example, the voice recording which Lilibeth Munar narrates from across the ocean was done via phone call and then fed into a vintage sound recorder. The limitation of the creative team being separated by borders mirrors the films aesthetic. Theme and execution merge with the formalistic cinematic shooting style, a juxtaposition.
Similarly, the film within film playfulness of MAGANDA! came from the Filipino B-films of the 1980s, the scratched up, badly preserved exploitation films fused with singular long takes of the depressed filmmaker (Angelo, played by myself) coming to terms with his failures. I like art as a reference point, like I am Jupiter I am the Biggest Planet which is a silent film using silence as a formal device to explore the red light district of Manila (which is usually loud and vibrant).There is also MELODRAMA / RANDOM / MELBOURNE! which uses a Filipino theme of Karaoke as cinema-o-ke (lyrics on screen and all) to show millennial angst.
Music is a big element in the films, Andrew Tran (Fergus Cronkite), who is responsible for most of the music, is a childhood friend. I give him a theme; he writes music and lyrics, he sends them to me. I write the script to his music. I film scenes with his finished music in my ear. I edit the film to his music, spontaneous. By taking two styles from extreme sides of the spectrum, I’m able to show new perspectives and create new language. This duality is found across my body of work. The upcoming A Pencil to the Jugular is also a blend of two aesthetics bringing the worlds together as it’s set in February – March, 2020. February for us in Australia held no urgency, and then suddenly life was morbid in March. The February scenes are shot playfully and stylised handheld with emotive sounds. For the March segments, we go into black and white with no handheld shots and stillness on the empty dystopian streets to signify the feeling that the world had changed (and so quickly too).
Neon Ocean gave me a chance to return to the silent aesthetic used in Jupiter all those years ago, except conceived by the pandemic. No two characters are close, I use a wide lens for the close ups and unlike my other films Andrew didn’t compose it. I aim to make another film in this way sometime soon when my anxiety about COVID subsides, perhaps a very long film, or a comedy. I’ve got a lot on my mind. If life brings forth a topic that requires a more playful vision like MELODRAMA…, MAGANDA! or Repent…, I’ll follow the inspiration whichever way it leads me.
A bit like the narrative, Mandy is caught between the past and the present, the Philippines and Australia. As part of the cultural diaspora, do you relate to Mandy? Does she represent this second-generation experience? In a way she’s similar to Julian, the father from Repent or Perish!in that she’s torn between two worlds, and there is a breakdown in her relations with family members.
There are elements of Mandy from various sources. She doesn’t represent every second-generation experience, but she represents the universal search for solace. The film depicts her in her final year of high school but the beginning of her journey in terms of her search. Duality is a theme in my works, and the parallel story of her half-sister living in a poor district of Manila, we the audience like her may never know the other side. The future and the past all blur into one, a reflection of my mental state while living in the present. Mixed identity, anxiety exemplified through cinema, a through line through my whole body of work.
When did you film the Filipino sequences? Clearly before the pandemic? Were you always planning to make this film? It’s a sad place, there is a feeling that dreams are for sale. That finding pleasure is just a transaction away. And that beauty and innocence is lost and discarded. Surely, there is more to your home culture than that?
I filmed the Filipino sequences from 2015-2019 whenever I was in the Philippines. I always had the idea of following the story of a child left behind by an Australian father, the circumstances are always changing due to what society presents. The Philippines is a product of horrific atrocities inflicted over centuries of colonialism and then poverty. My mother and father are a product of those circumstances.
My father Victor Pastor was born in 1941 in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. He never knew his own father, a Spanish man who came to East Malaysia, spent some time and left. I always thought my father was half-Spanish, half Malaysian but I recently found out through old documents that his mother (my grandmother) was in fact of Filipino and Brunei heritage residing in Malaysia. Then, he migrated to Australia in the 1960’s towards the end of the white Australia policy. Passing as whiter helped my father navigate society (although he was still discriminated against), and unfortunately he took on some very prejudiced beliefs himself. Eventually he would meet my mother Carol in Manila, Philippines. I’m the only child of his third marriage, to my mother who migrated just before I was born in 1989. “I’ve had enough of children, but your bloody mother wanted another child”, my father expressed to me growing up, although he would eventually come around and be supportive with age.
Eventually, more members of the Filipino family migrated. I think a lot of people have had similar backgrounds to myself in varying degrees, and my themes are a personalised examination of my motherland’s traumatic history, the story of what happens after they emigrate, and how their children deal with the scars of their past. My mother made a lot of sacrifices for me, which I am thankful for and given my background, I’m lucky to be a filmmaker. This is a reoccurring thought I have every single day and has manifested into an automatic creativity, lifestyle, coping mechanism and way of processing grief. I’ve spent all my life trying to get over it, but the more I open up and be sensitive with pen to paper these stories come out. I feel a sense of responsibility since I’ve been given a talent, it would be a shame to waste it. I don’t want to make triggering work that hurts people, but I also want my work to be honest and pure, so that there are challenging perspectives in the discourse.
My work might go to darker places, but I also feel the resilience of the Filipino spirit in my films, the struggle which I too am a part of as a resilient artist holding tightly to my singular and independently executed vision.
Fun times (2020) has had a lot of screenings. How has the film been received? And how did you get involved?
Fun Times has been universally liked and festivals have responded well to it. It’s only 7 minutes but I’ve been told that the storytelling is dense and powerful. This is because Llewellyn Michael Bates is just so amazing as a writer that he can draw people into the world he creates. I’ve known him since my days at TAFE, and we grew up in neighbouring areas so our collaboration was a good 12 years in the making! He put the story together, found the producer CJ Welsh and we took it to Screen Australia, Film Victoria and AFTRS who had diversity funding. The only unfortunate part to this story is that like Neon we have not been able to see the film in a cinema yet due to the current circumstances. It’s played in a physical cinema for two Australian film festivals this year – Adelaide Film Festival and Revelation Perth International Film Festival. I hope one day I’m fortunate to share it with a physical audience.
Your commitment to telling the stories of the Filipino diaspora continues with In Heaven they sing karaoke. Why is it so important for you to tell these stories?
Despite our growing communities there are not enough feature films. Not all of my films have been about Filipino Diaspora stories, some have been about Asians in Australia in a more general sense. I work in this medium because I love cinematic storytelling and want to keep it alive. Operating independently and grassroots means there is a very specific voice created from the circumstances. I aim to be honest and that is all. If my existence as a filmmaker can be an influence or inspiration to other people attempting to do something singular that sits outside of a cultural paradigm that’s an optimistic result. Being singular and taking the path alone is never easy but there is power in making a commitment to one’s artistic vision. It’s important to me because our stories and culture shouldn’t be diluted to become digestible and acceptable. Authentic stories are powerful in an interconnected, but lonely world. Being grounded to a singular artistic expression amongst the anxiety and chaos of a future that’s rapidly changing is liberating for me, and hopefully empowering for fellow dreamers and storytellers.