The Dynamics of Modern-Day Idolatry, According to Antoinette Jadaone

The director invites introspection on our culture’s deep-seated fixation with “idols” in her latest film

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To be a fan is to be there for your idol until the end.

This was quite literally the case for “Noranians” — Nora Aunor fans, who would request for their idol’s picture to be buried with them when they die. These stories of extreme devotion are no longer novel. While the “till death do us part” conundrum for fan-idol dynamics applies only on a case-to-case basis, the phenomena goes beyond pastime, invading one’s daily routine and, ultimately, their lifestyle choices.

According to scholar John Fiske, fans have a system of their own. They abide by their own schemes, structures, regulations, mores, and patterns of behavior that develop over time. This is not to conclude that to be a fan is to be on the wrong. It’s just too present in our culture to be ignored altogether. We all hold someone in high regard, and fawn in glee over our favorites. But the truth is, there’s a thin line separating the extent to which we do so — from the safe to the overtly dangerous. Thus, the world of fandoms, or modern-day idolatry, in the Philippine context merits exploration.

Director Antoinette Jadaone does not shy away from this topic in her latest film, Fan Girl, which recently made its premiere in the 33rd Tokyo International Film Festival, and is currently in the Official Selection competition at the 24th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Recently, Jadaone also announced the film’s Philippine premiere at this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival in December. In the film’s trailer, she makes a poignant statement in its closing frame: Never meet your heroes, it said.

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Jadaone’s filmography as a writer-director makes her take on the matter even more valid. She has helmed pieces starring some of the biggest tandems in Philippine showbiz — from James Reid and Nadine Lustre’s (fondly known as JaDine) On the Wings of Love to Enrique Gil and Liza Soberano’s (their monicker, LizQuen) Alone/Together. During the quarantine, she also released an experimental project starring one of the most revered pairings of the early 2000s, John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo. The short film, aptly titled Love Team, was released on Instagram Live and captured the feelings of many, as it featured a no-holds-barred conversation between two idols that just seemed all too real. In the press statements that followed, Jadaone attributed this to a culture that significantly blurs reality and make-believe.

Recently, we spoke with the director about her firsthand experiences with celebrity idolization, her own fangirl moments, the making of her latest film, and her observations on modern-day idolatry.

A transcript of our interview follows, slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

COMMONER: When did you first become a fangirl of a local celebrity? How did it start?

Antoinette Jadaone: Di ako sobrang fan ng celebrities pero ‘yong family namin, mahilig sa artista. Meron dating variety show na sikat, ‘yong “That’s Entertainment.” Nandoon sina Sheryl Cruz, Ruffa Mae Quinto, Ruffa Gutierrez, at Tina Paner. ‘Yong mga tita ko sobrang fan sila no’n. Meron dating Santacruzan ‘yong cast ng show, so pumupunta kami sa Araneta Center. ‘Yon ‘yong firsthand experience ko ng pagka-idolize ng mga Pinoy na artista. Kasi dati, wala pang social media, so isa sa malaking way sa pagpapakita ng pagsuporta mo sa idol mo ay ‘yong pagpunta mo kung nasaan sila.

Personally, bihira ako ma-starstruck sa artista pero mas starstruck ako sa mga tao behind the camera.

[I’m not too much of a fan when it comes to celebrities, but the people in my family were. Back in the day, there used to be this popular variety show called “That’s Entertainment.” Celebrities like Sheryl Cruz, Ruffa Mae Quinto, Ruffa Gutierrez, and Tina Paner were regulars. I remember my aunts were huge fans of the stars of the show. There used to be a yearly Santacruzan that the cast paraded in, and me and my aunts made it a point to travel all the way to Araneta Center. That was my firsthand experience of seeing the extent to which Filipinos idolized celebrities. Before, there was no social media yet, so one of the ways fans showed their undying support to their idols was going to all their appearances.

Personally, I rarely get starstruck with celebrities, but I get starstruck with the people behind the camera.]

COMMONER: What was the craziest thing you did as a fan?

Antoinette Jadaone: Meron akong isang experience na sa sobrang pagka-fan ko sa Iranian director na si Asghar Farhadi, when I learned na meron siyang isang masterclass sa Hong Kong, kahit last minute na decision, pumunta ako to meet him. Sobrang paulit-ulit kong pinapanood ‘yong mga pelikula niya, like A Separation, About Elly, The Past, and Everybody Knows. ‘Yon lang ‘yong ipinunta ko sa Hong Kong, pero siyempre nagliwaliw na lang din kami.

No’ng nagpunta kami sa masterclass niya, maaga kami, kaya sa first row talaga kami nakaupo. Tapos hinabol namin siya ni Dan [Dan Villegas, Jadaone’s longtime boyfriend who’s also a director] after. Si Dan, nakipag–small talk pa sa kanya. Nakapagpa-picture din kami.

[I’m a huge fan of Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian director known for his films A Separation, About Elly, The Past, and Everybody Knows. I watch his films on repeat. Once, when I found out he was scheduled to give a masterclass in Hong Kong, I made the last-minute decision to fly out of the country just to meet him, although of course we just toured the place afterward.

On the day of the masterclass, we got to the venue early and got front-row seats. After his talk, we ran after him; Dan even made small talk, and we had our pictures taken with him.]

COMMONER: When did you start becoming a fangirl of people behind the scenes in films?

Antoinette Jadaone: Kahit dati pa, gusto ko na maging direktor, so when I watch films, I stay until the final credits. Lumaki ako watching Star Cinema films and tinatandaan ko kung sino ‘yong mga director, lighting director, head writer, writer, editor, director of photography — even executive producer and line producer. Kaya no’ng pumasok ako sa Star Cinema, di ako na-starstruck sa mga artista, pero no’ng na-meet ko na ‘yong mga dating nakikita ko lang na mga pangalan, sobrang starstruck ako.

‘Yong culture kasi natin, mas tinataas natin sa pedestal ‘yong mga artista lagi. Pero sa akin, di rin mabubuo ‘yong pelikula kung wala ‘yong mga tao behind the camera. They’re just as important as the actors.

[I grew up wanting to be a director, so when I watched films, I’d stay until the final credits so I could see everyone’s names. When I was younger, I would watch a lot of Star Cinema films. I always made it a point to remember the names of the director, lighting director, head writer, editor, and director of photography — even their executive producer and line producer. When I got the chance to work at Star Cinema, I didn’t get starstruck with the celebrities, but the moment I met the people whose names I only saw before in those end credits, that’s when I got starstruck.

Our culture always puts celebrities on a pedestal, but for me, the people behind the camera are also integral in the making of a film. They’re just as important as the actors.]

COMMONER: Locally, who were the people behind the scenes that you really got inspired by?

Antoinette Jadaone: When I was in college, sobrang fan na fan ako ni Direk Joyce Bernal. Isa sa dreams ko na maging romantic comedy director. After graduating, I found a way to get her number and nag-apply ako sa kanya. I was a script continuity supervisor during our first film together, Paano Kita Iibigin starring Regine Velasquez and Piolo Pascual, and I got to meet the great Charlie Peralta na DOP namin at the time. In my opinion, he was the one who created Star Cinema’s “glossy look.” ‘Yong editor ng film was Marya Ignacio na isa rin sa sobrang diyos sa film editing; na-meet ko rin siya. Sobrang starstruck ako sa kanya kasi siya ‘yong nag-edit ng mga pinaka-paborito kong films sa Star Cinema at sa Viva.

[When I was in college, I was a huge fan of Direk Joyce Bernal. I looked up to her especially because one of my dreams was to be a romantic comedy director. After graduating, I found a way to get her number, and I applied under her. I was a script continuity supervisor during our first film together, Paano Kita Iibigin starring Regine Velasquez and Piolo Pascual, and I got to meet the great Charlie Peralta, our DOP at the time. In my opinion, he was the one who created Star Cinema’s “glossy look.” I also got to meet Marya Ignacio, one of the greats in film editing. I was so starstruck working with her because she was the editor of my favorite Star Cinema and Viva films.

COMMONER: Did you bring any of your experiences as a fan to the making of Fan Girl?

Antoinette Jadaone: Actually ‘yong Fan Girl, mas experience ko as a director, working with all the actors I’ve worked with. Dalawa kasing story ‘yan, e. It’s the story of the fangirl and the story of the idol. There’s the story of the fangirl na makikita mo talaga pag nag-work ka sa industriya. Iba talaga ‘yong pagtingin ng mga tao sa mga artista — na para silang diyos at nasa pedestal sila. Kaya ka nilang ipagtanggol sa mga basher. In fact, kapag merong isa na di nagkakagusto sa idol nila, ilalaban nila ang idols nila kahit naman di sila kilala ng artista. Mahal na mahal nila ang idol nila.

Sa side naman ng mga idol, they really live a different life from the characters that they portray in the movies, diba? Sobrang interesting ng kultura natin sa showbiz na although we know the characters they are portraying are fiction, the distinct line between fantasy and reality is blurred. Feeling natin, kung sino sila sa screen, gano’n din sila sa totoong buhay. So kapag sa screen di sila makabasag-pinggan, kapag meron silang nakitang ginawa ‘yong idol nila na di akma sa pino-portray nila, parang feeling nila na-betray na sila. For example, biglang nagyoyosi pala ‘yong artista, gano’n lang kasimple; nagigitla sila na para bang walang ibang buhay ‘yong artista except for the life they’re portraying on screen.

In the same way, interesting din sa atin ‘yong kultura ng love teams. Gusto natin, kung sino ‘yong ka-love team ng idol mo sa pelikula, siya lang dapat ‘yong makakapareha mula TV hanggang pelikula hanggang sa endorsements. Sa totoong buhay, kung hindi naman talaga sila, or meron naman talaga silang mga sari-sariling love life, nagagalit ‘yong mga tao kasi dapat kung ano ‘yong nasa pelikula, gano’n din dapat sa totoong buhay.

That is the kind of culture na gusto kong i-tackle sa Fan Girl — the dual life that the idol is living na hindi alam ng fans. Or maybe alam nila, but they choose to not see. ‘Yon ‘yong first layer. Meron pa siyang tina-tackle na ibang layers that also deal with idolatry and describe the way we are as people.

[Fan Girl comes from my experience as a director working with all the actors I’ve worked with. There are two main stories: the story of the fangirl and the story of the idol. The story of the fangirl you really get to witness when you work in the entertainment industry. Fans really look at celebrities as though they were gods. They put them on a pedestal. They would defend their idols against bashers. In fact, if there’s one person who doesn’t like their idol, they will quarrel with them with passion, even if their idols don’t know them on a personal level. That’s how much love they give to a person who doesn’t even know them by name.

The other side of the story is portraying the idol’s private life. Of course they live different lives from the characters they portray in movies, right? What’s interesting with our showbiz culture is that although we know the characters they portray are purely fiction, the distinct line between fantasy and reality is alwasy blurred. We feel as though who they are on screen is who they are in real life, too. If fans see that the personality of the idol does not fit the persona of the kind protagonist they might be playing in a film, they feel betrayed. For example, something as simple as the idol smoking off-screen — they get surprised as though the artist does not live a separate life from their films.

It’s also interesting how we regard love teams in our culture. We want our idols to be paired with one another for every project — whether in film, television, or endorsements. They always have to be together. In real life, if the actors that portray lovers on-screen are not really in a romantic relationship with each other, many get mad.

This is the kind of culture I want to tackle in Fan Girl — the dual life the idol is living that fans don’t really know about. Or maybe they do, but they choose not to see. Actually, the fan-idol dynamic is just the first layer of the film. There are also other layers that comment on idolatry and that describe the way we are as people.]

COMMONER: Was your vision on paper translated by how it was acted out on screen? What was it that you were looking for when casting the two leads?

Antoinette Jadaone: Si Paulo Avelino, binigay ko lang ‘yong script sa kanya, tapos madali naman siyang pumayag. Gano’n lang, wala siyang ibang tanong. All in siya. Naintindihan niya ‘yong gustong sabihin ng pelikula. Gusto muna naming i-secure si Paulo kasi crucial ‘yong role niya, because he had to agree to portray the role as himself.

For the role of the fangirl, gusto ko talaga ‘yong magpo-portray ay di artista. Gusto ko, when the fangirls watch the film, they see themselves in it. If I get an artista for the role, mawawala na kaagad ‘yong pagka-authentic niya. Gusto ko, pag pinanood nila, masasabi nila na, “Pwede itong mangyari sa akin kasi ito ngang babaeng ito, wala naman siya dati pero nakuha siya for the role, so baka ako rin. If meron akong chance na makita ‘yong idol ko and mag-spend ako ng one night with him, ano kaya ang gagawin ko?” Doon ako naging firm. No’ng 2019, nagpa-audition ako na dapat simple-looking pero may appeal. Ang daming girls who want to be artistas. From 600 girls, we trimmed it down to 5 sa short list.

Actually, we already chose a different fangirl na hindi si Charlie Dizon, and we were already supposed to shoot, but ayon, nag–back out. If we postponed, mag-o–over budget kami, so we had another audition na mabilisan lang. No’ng pumasok na si Charlie sa room, alam na namin na siya ‘yong fangirl na kapalit kahit di pa siya nagsasalita. Ibang iba, sa lakad niya, sa aura niya. ‘Yon ‘yong hanap namin. May dahilan kung bakit di nag–work out ‘yong dating fangirl kasi ito pala ‘yong tamang fangirl namin.

[When I gave Paulo Avelino the script, he agreed to do it right away. He was all in, and he didn’t have any questions. He understood what the role asked of him. We had to secure him as our lead actor first because he had to agree to play the character as himself.

For the role of the fangirl, I wanted to have someone who wasn’t a celebrity. My vision for fans,is that when they watch the film, they will see themselves in it. If I got a celebrity to portray the role, the authenticity gets lost in the process. When the fans watch it, I want them to have this feeling of aspiration, that if this girl who’s virtually an unknown gets a lead role opposite an idol, they can too. Essentially, the film answers the question, “If I had the chance to see my idol and spend one night with him, what would I do?” I stood firm with that decision, and so many girls wanted to have a shot at it. From 600 girls, we trimmed it down to 5 short-listed girls for the role.

Actually, we already chose a different fangirl that wasn’t Charlie Dizon. We were already supposed to shoot, but the first girl backed out. We couldn’t just postpone the shoot again because the film would go over budget. We held another round of quick auditions, and when Charlie entered the room, we knew we found the one. We knew it even before she read for us; the way she walked and her overall aura, that was the girl we were looking for. Indeed, everything happens for a reason.]

COMMONER: How does it feel that Fan Girl is already your second entry to the Tokyo International Film Festival and the only Filipino film in the lineup this year? How would you want international audiences to perceive your films and eventually the Filipino film industry in general?

Antoinette Jadaone: ‘Yong Six Degrees [Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, Jadaone’s 2011 mockumentary] was screened [in TIFF] last year, eight years after it premiered. Fan Girl is my 11th film and it’s very special to me kasi the world premiere is in Tokyo, and it is an A-list film festival. Fan Girl is also in the Main Competition section of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in Estonia, and we’re the only Filipino film in that section for 2020. Di naman ako ‘yong tipo ng director na art house and di rin naman ako usually gumagawa ng films for the festivals, but when they included this film in their lineup, sobrang happy ako kasi it’s something na dumating na di namin hinihiling. Parang first-time filmmaker ulit ako kumbaga.

I know ‘yong mga Filipino makaka-relate talaga dito kasi it’s Paulo as Paulo, and ‘yong kultura natin ‘yong tina-tackle. But I’m really excited to see kung ano ‘yong takeaway ng non-Filipinos sa Fan Girl. I want international audiences to see the idolatry that goes beyond the entertainment industry, kasi idolatry comes in many forms in our culture. It’s not just us idolizing artistas. In our country, we idolize politicians as if they’re artistas. We put artistas in office, we put our politicians on a pedestal na kahit may gawin silang corrupt, kahit may gawin silang something na di naaayon sa pangako nila, okay lang kasi idol natin sila, and so madali lang for us to forgive them. That is the kind of idolatry that does not just happen here in our country but, in many ways, sa buong mundo rin.

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Gusto ko rin makita ito ng mga Pinoy, na ma-realize nila na usually, when idolatry happens, we’re not aware that it’s already happening to us. Di natin alam na idolatry pala ‘yon na nakakasama.

[Six Degrees was screened last year, eight years after it premiered. Fan Girl is my 11th film, and it’s very special to me because the world premiere is in Tokyo at an A-list film festival. Fan Girl is also part of the Main Competition section of the Tallinn Black Nights Festival in Estonia, and we’re the only Filipino film in that section for 2020. I’m not the type of director who does art house films, nor am I someone who usually makes films for festivals. When they included the film in their prestigious lineup, it’s something that we didn’t ask for and was thus completely unexpected for us. It felt like I was a first-time filmmaker again.

I know Filipinos can really relate to this because it’s Paulo playing Paulo, and this is a portrayal of our culture. But I’m really excited to see what the international community’s takeaways are for Fan Girl. I want non-Filipinos to see the idolatry that goes beyond the entertainment industry, because idolatry comes in many forms in our culture. It’s not just us idolizing celebrities. In our country, we idolize politicians as if they’re celebrities; we even put celebrities in office. We put our politicians on a pedestal that even when they do something corrupt, even when they break their promises, we still blindly follow them because we regard them as our idols. This is the kind of idolatry that not only pervades our country but, in many ways, the rest of the world too.

I want Filipinos to see this film, too, and realize that usually, when idolatry happens, we’re not aware that it’s already happening to us, and that this kind of idolatry is harmful.]

Fan Girl is part of the Metro Manila Film Festival 2020 lineup and can be streamed online until January 7. Get your tickets for the movie at bit.ly/WatchFanGirl

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