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Neil John Sumalinog: Why Listening Is a Valuable Skill For a Film Mentor

There is beauty in listening.

In fact, that would probably be my biggest takeaway from Neil John Sumalinog, the moderator of the Ateneo Filmmakers’ Society (AFS), a film club of the Ateneo de Davao University Senior High School.

He has been mentoring aspiring filmmakers in their school for almost 2 years now and being a Mass Communication graduate himself, he admits that the secret to fostering a good relationship with student dreamers is really the art of listening to what they want, what they envision, and what they aspire to become.

Mahirap gumawa ng pelikula kung weak ang foundation mo kasi mangongopya ka lang ng mangogopya. Ganoon siguro dati, kung ano ang trend kokopyahin ng mga tao. Pero siguro, that’s the first step for someone who wants to tell a story is to also observe. Makinig sa ibang tao, makinig sa hinaing ng ibang tao.”

“Same with other skills, you cannot give what you do not have. So, you start on filling that empty jar in you. Listen to other people, listen to the stories of other people, listen to yourself. The beauty of listening. Kasi kapag filmmaker ka, nakakalimutan natin maka-connect sa sarili natin, sa mundo, kaya nagiging out of touch yung ibang pelikula for the sake lang na magkapera at para mapag-usapan. Pero as cliche as it is, nasaan na ‘yung ‘social relevance?’ Iba pa rin ang pelikula na nakapag-touch ka ng buhay ng isang tao or nakapag-represent ka ng isang community.”

Upon hearing these words from Sir Neil, I must admit, he really embodies the description of a purposeful mentor. Someone so heartfelt that is very willing to share his time and dedication just to ensure that his mentees are properly guided in their journey towards becoming a powerful storyteller.

But of course, just like any other educator, his journey had its own twists and turns. Sir Neil, being the film buff that he is and a huge fan of Filipino and independent films, as well as animated films, originally wanted to take up a film course in Manila but his parents were unfortunately hesitant to send a 16-year old kid in the busy streets of the metro. Thus, he decided to enroll at the Ateneo De Davao University and eventually ended up in the Mass Communication program.

“Nung maka-graduate ako, I tried to enter ABS-CBN kasi doon din ako nag-intern. Nagustuhan ko naman ‘yung pressure, the experience of being in a TV Production. Hindi ako nakapasok kasi, ang haba nung process. So I had three options, call center which is okay ang pay, ABS-CBN which is kelangan kong maghintay pero somehow gusto ko siyang gawin, and the third is corporate job, in a school. Actually isa siyang secretarial position. Bakit ko siya pinili? Simply because, that was my comfort zone, siguro at that time, kasi fresh graduate. Academe pero as a secretary where my boss, Father Jboy, is a Jesuit who also has a show at ABS-CBN. Being in a formation office wherein I am in a meeting with administrators on how we would be able to produce students not only excelling in academics but also has this holistic formation. ”

“Hindi ako na-bored ever sa ginagawa kong yun for three years. Pero I have free time, kaya sabi ko, try ko mag-enroll ulit, earning units for education. Bale, Monday to Friday, I go to school to work, and then Saturday and Sunday, I go to school to study.”

At 25, the determination of Sir Neil is truly evident juggling work and studies. Perhaps, Father Jboy also saw his potential and eyed him to handle a film club at their school.

“He has so much trust in me that he wanted to give me the film club. Secretary na magkakaroon ng film club, which is ideally dapat teachers mismo nagha-handle. Nilakad niya sa HR, pero di pinayagan ng HR. Practical reasons lang din kasi, 8pm to 5pm andoon kami sa office then yung film club, kailangan mong i-meet ‘yung students within that time din, so hindi pwede.”

“So kung hindi ibibigay sakin, I had to find a way para makuha ko yung position na ‘yun kasi gusto ko siyang i-try. Gusto ko ring patunayan sa sarili ko na I can handle students, I can handle such club.”

After earning his education units, the persevering Neil Sumalinog, withstood all odds and decided to approach Father Jboy and asked if he could resign from his post because he really wanted to serve AFS as its moderator. At first, Father Jboy was quite surprised but eventually gave him the signal to give it a go. That became the start of his roller coaster journey as a teacher in their school teaching Media and Information Literacy subject and at the same time, living the dream of mentoring the young storytellers of the Ateneo Filmmakers’ Society.

“Dati, AFS is tagagawa ng AVP ng school. Kapag may fiesta and events. This is a student-driven club so I asked my students, ‘ganyan ba ang gusto niyong gawin. Ilista niyo sa papel, regardless of the time and cost, lagay niyo kung ano gusto niyong gawin talaga. Ganoon ang AFS dati, pinapagawa ng videos like AVP’s. I also believe that AVP making is different from filmmaking.”

“Pinasulat ko sa kanila interpretation nila. Sa Ateneo kasi may four pillars, human development, spiritual, leadership and community engagement. Kahit anong club mo, dapat mong pagdaanan yun para mas gumaling ang mga bata. Nilinya namin ‘yung mga activities doon, nilista ng mga estudyante and pinakita ko sa head and sinabi ko ito yung mga gusto ng mga bata. Wala man kaming budget, hahanapan namin ng budget at gagawan ng paraan. That was the transformation of AFS.”

Since then, Sir Neil and his determined students paved the way towards coming up with impeccable narratives and even mounted film festivals. Indeed, they really have gone a long way. In fact, recently, they launched “Cineatenista ‘21”, the first-ever digital film festival participated by budding filmmakers and members of the AFS. ​

The success of their film festival did not only proved their undebatable creativity and hard work even in a time of pandemic, but also revealed their purpose of genuinely helping the pupils from the Lasiwwai Learning Institute who are in dire need of learning materials to continue with their education.

When asked about the greatest lessons Sir Neil has learned so far as a film teacher, he realized that it all boils down into trusting your vision. That being a film mentor and a classroom teacher may look like two opposite poles, but it is actually intertwined.

“Kapag yung pelikula na ginawa mo is parang may lumapit sayong isang tao and would say, ‘it moved me’, ‘parang kinausap yung kaluluwa ko.’ Sa pagtuturo ganun din, at the same time, nagturo ka nga, maganda ang lesson mo, maganda yung pakadeliver mo pero hindi ka nakinig sa students mo na pagod na sila. So you also have to talk according to your audience's language. So you really have to connect to them but at the same time you also have to listen to them.”

“Filmmaking is like teaching. Like any other craft, it’s a relationship and it’s not that ikaw lang lagi ang nagsasalita. Sometimes, you also have to listen.”

Moreover, Sir Neil also shared a piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers who want to make it big in the industry, who are lost and uncertain on what the future holds for them.

“Ang pinakamahirap na ‘step’ is the “first-step” which is to attempt. Kapag nag-attempt na sila, it’s already an achievement. My advice to them is to not stop attempting kahit walang nakikinig, kahit walang awards, kahit at times, marami kang mali. Because of those attempts, you become a better storyteller, a better person,” he junctured.

At a young age, Neil John Sumalinog is truly a mentor every mentee would wish to have. Why not? He helps people become more of who they already are and does not make them into somebody who they are not. He loves authenticity and it shows in the films they produce. I am no longer surprised, his students love and respect him even more. Something that makes teaching even more fulfilling.

He just won the hearts of his students for his exemplary style of teaching and leadership and Ateneo De Davao Senior High School must have been so lucky to have him as one of its precious gems.

And as I pen this article, I also came to realize the essence of listening. That there will come a time when the world gets quiet and the only thing left is your own heart, so you’d better learn the sound of it. Mine is saying, “come on, make that film dream happen.”

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