Bringing martyrs to life

During his tertianship in Australia, Fr Emmanuel Alfonso SJ was shaping
the path of ‘Gomburza’, the second feature film from JesCom Philippines.


By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia

Although Fr Emmanuel (Nono) Alfonso SJ, the Executive Director of Jesuit Communications (JesCom) Philippines, was thousands of miles away from home for most of last year, technology allowed him to be directly involved in the making of a film that won several major awards after it was released on Christmas Day 2023.

During his six-month tertianship in Australia last year, I met Fr Nono on four separate occasions and our conversations encompassed several subjects but his innate modesty prevented him from telling me that he was working – albeit remotely – on the final stages of ‘GomBurZa’, the second feature film from JesCom Philippines. The film’s title is a portmanteau word derived from the names of three Catholic priests, Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora, who were executed in the Philippines for subversion in 1872.

The film received 13 nominations at the 49th Metro Manila Film Festival and won seven of those categories, including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Cinematography. It received a further seven nominations from the Society of Filipino film reviewers, taking Best Director and Best Film Score. It also won two Best Film awards and won more plaudits overseas. It was only when I started reading widely about the film that I asked Ria Limjap, a Manila-based colleague, about the way in which Jesuits had shaped the film. That was when she mentioned Fr Nono.

His Australian tertianship was a pivotal component of Fr Emmanuel Alfonso SJ’s role as executive producer of ‘GomBurZa’, the second feature film from JesCom Philippines. “Literally the day after my 30-day retreat at Sevenhill (the home of the Australian Jesuits) they sent me the trailer,” he says. “I was so happy that I was actually moved to tears.” Photo: David McMahon

A few days later, when the man himself speaks to me on a video call, he laughs when I ask him why he didn’t think of mentioning the film to me during his time in Australia. “You didn’t ask me about it,” he chuckles.

I’m keen to ask him about the film’s production timeline, which included the six months he spent in Australia during his tertianship from January to July 2023. How did he manage to juggle those dual responsibilities, as well as the different time zones, especially since some scenes were still being shot while he was away?

“Yes, they were still shooting while I was in Australia,” he tells me. “But they would keep me in the loop at all times and consult me every now and then. There was another Jesuit who took over while I was away. I assigned him to oversee the project but yes, there were still 17 days of shooting that remained when I flew out of the Philippines to come to Australia. That might not sound like a lot, but because of changes of location as well as other production factors, 17 days stretches out to a lot more! Everything went smoothly and they kept shooting and editing progressively and asking for my approval along the way. It was a case of ‘take a look at this scene’ and then ‘take a look at the next scene’.”

Given that each scene would have been a huge electronic file, far too large for email, were they sending them to you on Dropbox, the American file hosting service?

“Yes, yes, literally on Dropbox. That was how we did it.”

The production team and some of the cast during the filming. Photo courtesy JesCom Philippines.

Where did the initial funding for the film come from?

“We actually kicked off the project by using our JesCom savings. I don’t know exactly how it works with JesCom Australia, but we are very independent of our Province. We don’t get any subsidies at all. We always set aside some funds for future projects. This time, because we’ve earned some profits from ‘GomBurZa’, we have set aside some funds for our next project.

“That being said, you can save for a future production but you can never really take into account all the costs and all the situations that you are going to encounter. You can do all the editing work, you can do animation if required – even though it is very expensive – and in this case, we needed to do a trailer. That meant we had to look for funding from interested parties. So all of these issues came to me for my approval. So while I was in Australia, I had these day-to-day responsibilities outside of my tertianship.”

So in the middle of your tertianship, one of the most important parts of your life as a Jesuit, at the end of every day when everyone else around you is chilling out, you’re on Dropbox, looking at various scenes and judging the trailer?

“Yes. And the timing of it was very moving. Literally the day after my 30-day retreat at Sevenhill (the home of the Australian Jesuits on the site that was chosen in 1851) they sent me the trailer. I was so happy that I was actually moved to tears. Looking back on it, that reaction was joy – the uplifting feeling from the retreat, combined with my delight that they had completed the project without me. I was so proud that we had empowered our lay colleagues and that they had completed the film.”

Were you sitting in your room at Sevenhill when you opened up the trailer to view it?

“That’s an interesting question. I hadn’t actually brought my laptop with me, and the only device I had was my phone. So I had to download it on my phone and of course it took a while. At the time, I was sitting alone in the conference hall, crying as I watched it on my phone screen.”

Did you show the trailer to your fellow tertians?

“Yes, I did! But before I explain, there’s additional perspective here. I have to backtrack slightly. While I was at Sevenhill but before the trailer was released, Fr Michael Smith SJ gave us a talk on the subject of Apostolic dreaming. Within this context, he encouraged me to continue making films. I told him about ‘GomBurZa’ and he was very excited, saying that he wanted to see it, but I had to tell him it was still being shot in the Philippines. He was very encouraging and very supportive, as were Steve and Brian (former Australian Provincials Fr Steve Curtin SJ and Fr Brian McCoy SJ).

“And that takes me to your question about whether I showed the trailer to my fellow tertians. Because the trailer was in Spanish I showed it to the two Spanish-speaking tertians, Juan Pablo and Xavier (Fr Juan Pablo Marrufo Del Toro SJ and Fr Francisco Javier Diaz SJ). I wanted them to evaluate the Spanish, because the film features Filipino actors speaking Spanish.

The fact that Filipinos can speak Spanish is due to colonial history.

“Yes, Spain once ruled the Philippines. (The Spanish presence there stretched from 1565 until the end of the 19th century.) Because of that, there are certainly people in the Philippines who speak the language. But I wanted the opinions of Juan Pablo and Xavier and they both said, ‘Oh, that’s good’.

“When the Spanish Empire was breaking apart in Europe, political and church officials took to its colonies, including the Philippines. Parishes run by the local secular clergy were suddenly appropriated and given to religious orders from Spain. However, what began as an internal affair between secular clergy and the Spanish friars or the religious orders later took on a racist tone, because the Spanish friars looked down on the local clergy,

“The secular clergy’s fight then became a struggle for equality, for the rights and dignity of the Filipinos. In his 1983 book ‘Imagined Communities’, Benedict Anderson proposes that nations do not fall from the sky; rather, they are formed when individuals and groups share common experiences and begin imagining themselves into a unified body politic.

“When the three priests, Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos and Jacinto Zamora, were tried and executed by the Spanish on charges of sedition, their martyrdom sparked just such an imagination among the Filipinos. The leaders of the eventual revolt in 1898 would claim inspiration from the bravery of the three priests. Indeed, as Filipino historians would write, it was their martyrdom that awakened strong national sentiments and eventually gave birth to a national consciousness. The late American-born Jesuit and eminent historian Fr John Schumacher SJ even said that through the sacrifice of the three, the Catholic Church played a significant role in the emergence of the Philippine nation.

When did you start working on the film?

“Although the martyrdom of the priests happened a long time ago, their story of courage still seemed relevant when we started production on the film in 2018. At the time, Rodrigo Duterte was President of the Philippines, an office he occupied from 2016 until 2022. One of the defining pillars of his presidency was his war on drugs and his unrelenting focus on extrajudicial killings, a process that claimed the lives of thousands of Filipinos while coming to the attention of the International Criminal Court. Another defining factor of his leadership was his antagonism towards the Catholic Church.

“We started filming ‘GomBurZa’ in the midst of this rather chaotic political context, but we felt there was a message here that needed to be heard. The Filipinos needed a shot in the arm, an inspirational message about unity, courage and hope.

All eyes on the camera during the shooting of the film. Photo courtesy JesCom Philippines.

This was your second film. Was it any easier than the first?

“Despite the fact that JesCom had already produced one feature film, ‘Ignacio de Loyola: Soldier, Sinner, Saint’, in 2016, there were numerous hurdles. We were exhausted, even though the film, first released in theatres in the Philippines, was finally being shown across the world. Awards and recognition buttressed the positive feedback. But we were still newcomers to the world of film production and perhaps not many would have believed that we only had a shoestring budget for the Ignatius biopic.

“We could have chosen to regroup and recoup, but my lay production manager, spiritually enriched by several annual Ignatian retreats for her 20 years at JesCom, began to badger me. “What’s next, Father,” she would say, “what’s next?” I saw it as a Magis question, of course. It was Jesus telling his disciples, let’s go to the other villages.

“Even with several areas of motivation, the idea of embarking on a second film presented a series of considerable challenges. First, of course, was the perennial question of funding. When we produced the Ignatius film, we had the support of many Jesuit provinces around the world. Fr Mark Raper SJ and the Jesuit Conference of Asia-Pacific provided us with the seed capital. But because we knew ‘GumBurZa’ would be a much narrower topic, we were on our own. We needed to source the funds from within the country. But where in God’s name – quite appropriately – would we get $1 million?

It’s so contextual to say “Where in God’s name” but where did the money eventually come from?

“We always work on a bare-bones budget and ‘GomBurZa’ was made on $US1.2 million. And if coming up with funding wasn’t a large enough hurdle, we then had to contend with the onset of Covid-19. The pandemic tripled the projected cost of the production, so we decided to postpone the project, and yet providentially, this gave us more time to look for funds. Essentially, there were four sources.

  • As I explained earlier, the first was the decision to use our JesCom savings for the initial funding needed for the shooting.
  • Secondly, in 2022, we received some funds from friends in the Philippines and abroad, which included funding from the Italian Bishops for instance.
  • The third was a big media company which invested a significant amount of money in the film after seeing the trailer. (There’s also an update to this because Netflix will release the film on 9 April, which is doubly significant because it is the Day of Valor for us in the Philippines.)
  • Fourth, the movie made about 120 million Philippine pesos, which is about US$2.15 million, at the local box office. ‘GomBurZa’ came in third among the top money makers at the Metro Manila Film Festival which ran from Christmas Day 2023 until 7 January 2024. However, this money was divided between the movie theatres, producers, distributors and of course the festival organizers. Also deducted from that amount are movie taxes or tariffs. We are delighted that the remaining income, due at the end of April, will defray the cost of production.”

Postscript: Watch this space to find out how long it will be before Fr Nono’s lay production manager asks him, in true Ignatian tradition, “What’s next, Father?”

Banner image by Jakub Gojda, Canva.

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