Local filmmaker drawn to stories about social issues and human connection


Benito Bautista says that he may be subconsciously drawn to the complexities of the human experience, and that is something that continues to appear in his work. The independent filmmaker creates everything from documentaries to crime romance, and he wants his creative work to stir up excitement and contemplation, similar to the ways he was moved when first discovering the power of film as someone in the audience.

“I vividly remember learning and enjoying oral storytelling from my grandfather and the grown-ups in my family when I was a little kid. Then, before high school, I started teaching myself how to use charcoal in dry brush and oil paint and storyboarding,” he says. “When I finally experienced watching a movie in a theater in Manila, I was in awe and deeply affected. I felt like I was able to relate to some characters in the film, experience unfamiliar characters, landscapes and visual aesthetics, and realize untapped emotions that I thought I didn’t have.”

For one of his latest films, the crime romance short film “The Interpreter,” he hopes his audiences also experience feeling affected by the story and its characters, relating to them and considering their actions in their own lives. The film — about a love triangle between an American man, the Japanese woman he’s dating and the interpreter they rely on to help them communicate — is being screened as part of San Diego Film Week at 8 p.m. today at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park.

Bautista, who is also a co-founder and executive director of San Diego Filipino Cinema, lives in Chula Vista with his fiancée and co-producer, Emma Francisco. He took some time to talk about his work in film, the creation of “The Interpreter,” and his organization focused on nurturing Filipino filmmakers.

Q: Tell us about “The Interpreter.”

A: “The Interpreter” is a tale of modern romance in the age of digital and online dating apps, set in Tokyo, Japan. It’s a coming-of-age story where we find three characters longing for human connection in modern Japan. An American traveling in Tokyo, named Jacob, has been flirt-texting with Hiromi, an independent and beautiful Japanese woman, so he hires an interpreter named Kaito, a young Japanese-American, as he pursues Hiromi in person. Kaito strives to be efficient in interpreting for his client, Jacob, while desperately trying to resist falling for Hiromi. Their encounter is filled with disguised glances, each of them quietly imagining a future, while momentarily stuck in the experience of their encounter and unaware of the misfortune ahead.

Q: And this film was inspired by a news account of an online dating situation that went bad? What can you tell us about that story? What did it say happened and who was involved?

A: When Emma and I started researching for “The Interpreter,” we chanced upon a true story in Japan in early 2018. An American who was former military and from New York dated a young Japanese woman through online dating, and that experience resulted in tragedy when they finally met. There was not much said about that story. We filled in the blanks with our exploration of modern dating and romance, things lost in translation, sexual abuse, online predators, and the complex and traumatic experience of the victims and loved ones.

Q: Why was this particular story one you wanted to explore and develop? What drew you to this story?

A: I was always curious about the potential for danger in meeting someone through dating apps because of the game-like experience for the users, and the probability for insincerity, vulnerability and sexual abuse. This story is everywhere, but we tend to overlook its danger, which make the innocent and trusting become easy and unprotected targets for online predators.

What I love about Chula Vista ...

I love living in Chula Vista because it is away from downtown, yet still close to downtown, North Park, and everywhere else. I also love it here because I meet and interact with real characters from all walks of life, and I get to hear real struggles and hopes and dreams from the diverse community. ... I also love biking the beautiful scenic hills of Chula Vista. I just love my neighborhood.

Q: What did you want to express/say through this film?

A: I wanted the audience to be reminded of the strange and beautiful feeling of romance, and also experience the uncomfortable and helpless feelings of being victimized, so that they can make their own adjustments and trust their intuition in their dating, or meeting strangers. The issues of harassment, sexual and physical abuse of women are real, and becomes more widespread because of the brazen rhetoric of sexual predators in public. It is a social crime, but how come we don’t see criminals punished? I wanted some of the symbols in “The Interpreter” to serve as sources for dialogue for the audience.

Q: You’re also a co-founder and the executive director of San Diego Filipino Cinema? Tell us about your organization.

A: San Diego Filipino Cinema is founded to be the home of the best of the global Filipino films in San Diego. We recognize the importance of the discovery and exhibition of global Filipino stories, and the nurturing of the voice of the emerging Filipino filmmaker to promote a better representation and understanding of the global Filipino experience, cinematic arts and our shared humanity. We aim to provide unity and pride amongst our Filipino and Filipino-American communities, inspiration to young creative artists and thinkers, and a unique cultural experience to the diverse audiences of San Diego.

Our mission as a nonprofit is to discover and nurture Filipino filmmakers from around the world and present their unique and compelling stories to our diverse communities here in San Diego. We believe that these important films will contribute to the vibrancy and rich culture in our beautiful city.

Q: Why was starting it something you wanted to do?

A: Emma and I are both working filmmakers, and fortunately for us, we were able to travel to showcase our films in international and domestic film festivals, including the San Diego Asian Film Festival. We were also able to make films in collaboration with other international actors and film production outfits, and because of that, we have developed important and meaningful relationships. ... These experiences have remained part of our continuing education in the filmmaking process, and we wanted to share them through the San Diego Filipino Cinema. The Filipino and Filipino-American populations in San Diego are among the highest Asian ethnic groups here, and we tend to only think of them in professions in medical care, law and the military. We want to change that and highlight the various stories and representations of the Filipino. It is important for us to inspire new and emerging voices of Filipino filmmakers in San Diego, and discover and share their films and perspectives.

Q: What inspires you in your own filmmaking? What kinds of stories do you find yourself drawn to?

A: Social issues and human connections and experiences are always embedded in my films, whether it is documentary or narrative. I am inspired by the constant contradiction and struggle of humanity and in our pursuit of hope, beauty, and resolution in our darkest moments.

Q: Have you seen any movies recently that you’d recommend?

A: The movies I saw recently and would like to recommend to everyone is “Roma” by Alfonso Cuaron (I’ve seen it three times already) and the film “Capernaum” by Nadine Labaki. I love them because they are both deeply affecting, visually captivating, and we are given the opportunity to empathize with the characters in the film and not feel harassed into calculating the characters’ objectives immediately, and in the process we tend to take our time to understand how to be mindful of being human.

Q: What’s been rewarding about your work as a filmmaker?

A: Every time I finish a film and I sit down with a live audience who are all strangers to me in a darkened theater, and I feel the collective response of a heavy sigh, laughter, murmur, or applause, I am immediately filled with joy and have forgotten the long hours and months of working on that particular film. It is also inspiring and humbling when an audience approaches and hugs and thanks me for making the film.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: Filmmaking has taught me that if I listen and pay attention to everything and everyone, then I will forever be a student of life and art, and I am happy with that.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: This advice was never given to me, but I have learned it from my filmmaking experience and it became my own personal mantra to keep me humble and grounded: “The filmmaker is a collaborative piece in the making of a film, therefore no filmmaker is above the film.”

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: People might be surprised to know that I make handcrafted leather satchels and belts, and that I would love to be able to sing Jeff Buckley songs with an audience someday.

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend is 80 degrees, no wind, and shoulder- to head-high, super glassy waves for some early morning surf with friends; a compelling film in the afternoon; and a dance party at night with everyone who’s game.