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Carl Joseph E. Papa’s ‘Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing)’ makes history as Cinemalaya’s first animated full-length film

I t took Carl Joseph E. Papa over a decade to finally make it to Cinemalaya.

“I’ve been submitting for more than 10 years—ngayon lang ako nakapasok,” the writer-director tells Super. “It’s a great honor to be chosen.”

His film, “Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing),” which he wrote and directed, is one of 10 finalists in the full-length category of this year’s Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival. It makes history as the festival’s first ever full-length animated film.

“It feels so good because this film is an avenue for animators to showcase what they can do,” Papa says.

Papa, who works full-time as a software engineer but who is relentless in his passion for filmmaking, has gotten accolades for his previous films like “Manang Biring” and “Paglisan.”

“Usually, when I make films, I try to put myself in other people’s shoes, trying to understand what happened to them or why they make the decisions they make.”

But “Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing)” is different. “This time, I’m telling my own story,” he shares.

“But wait, there’s an alien in this story,” we say.

Papa laughs and replies, “Yeah, when I was a kid, I went to Mars.”


He jokes but his story’s a serious one, one we won’t spoil because it’s for the audiences of his film to discover.

The Filipino-Ilocano rotoscope animated film tells the story of Eric, a mouthless young man who untangles memories from his childhood in the wake of his uncle’s death.

Playing Eric is Carlo Aquino. “I hadn’t worked with Carlo Aquino before but he was highly recommended. He really internalized the character, he would ask me about the story, the motivation … and when he stepped on set, it was clear as day that he was meant to be Eric,” Papa says.

Internationally acclaimed award-winning actress Dolly De Leon plays Eric’s mom Rosalinda while Gio Gahol is Carlo. Papa says, “We wanted to bring warmth and lightness through the character of Carlo and Gio has that certain lightness. Ms. Dolly naman can switch from drama to comedy in a snap. When I talked to them, they had no hesitation whatsoever. I told them the story, I told them the motivation why we are making this and why this is important to me and they all said yes, and it just fell into place.”

The animated fantasy-drama-queer film was shot in just four days (“We were able to pull off shooting in four days because we shot in one location and used green screen. Everything was green—the tables, the chairs …,” says Papa) but the animation took over seven months, with more than 90 animators working on the film. Some of the animators Papa had worked with on his previous projects while many were new recruits, including students from De La Salle–College of Saint Benilde and iAcademy. (Animation supervisor Eru Petrasanta is a faculty member at Benilde.)

The director (front row, in red) with the cast and crew of “Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing)”

Contagious energy

Papa also worked with a mix of professional and amateur voice actors in creating the film. “I guess I was just really lucky that the people I work with have this certain connection with the story. It was very collaborative. I didn’t have a hard time working with them. It was a good experience.”

It was a cathartic experience too, given how personal the story is to him. “Iyak ako ng iyak while shooting (I cried a lot while shooting),” he shares.

But despite that, Papa found working on the film a joyful experience. “Masaya,” is a word he keeps using to describe it.

He enjoyed working with a young production team, with many people in their 20s and 30s. “Ang maganda, ang taas ng energy, nakakahawa (their energy is contagious),” he says.

How did this project come about and why was it important for you to work on it?

I had just finished another film when I started working on this one in 2019. Something personal happened that led me to creating this. Instead of being fueled by anger, I coped with it by writing the story of Eric. It’s a really personal story.

Why animation and why rotoscope animation?

I’ve been making animated films—short films—since 2011, 2012. That’s really my visual medium when I make films. For this one, I wanted to create a character who would be a refuge for other people who suffered the same thing. In the truest meaning of the word animation—it’s to bring life. By bringing life to this character who doesn’t have a mouth, hopefully people can relate to him and people would try to understand him. With rotoscope, you will stop and think, “Is this real?” because it looks realistic. I want to complement the mental state of the character. I want to follow his journey of confusion, of figuring out what happened to him. We also used traditional 2D hand-drawn animation for flashbacks. We want to capture childhood folly or happiness even if there’s a darkness underneath the story. It’s a form of dissociation—it’s childish, kinda cute and it’s hiding the deeper, darker story underneath.

Why are you so passionate about animation?

It’s my advocacy to try and find ano ba yung look ng animation sa Philippines. I wouldn’t be able to do it alone but I’m hoping it can be a stepping stone for Filipino animators and original content creators to make animations reflecting Filipino culture, what it looks like to be Filipino, what it looks like in the Philippines. That’s my aim. I’m not a trained animator. Growing up, I just loved drawing and I watched a lot of animation. With my previous films, I would push for animation because I refuse to think of it as a genre. It’s a way or a tool for you to tell your story. I don’t want animation to be relegated for just fantasy or just for kids. Animation can do drama, romance … animation can tell adult stories, even queer stories. There’s no limit to what animation can do.

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In your film, Eric is an animator too—it’s very meta.

His profession also reflects his journey in the film. Things will start to blur—is this just part of this work? Is this really happening? There are those elements. Carlo is also an animator.

You’re a software engineer—how does that background inform your work as a filmmaker?

It helps because I make software too and I use that knowledge to explore what parts of animation that I can use my IT skills on. It doesn’t clash for me. They’re complementary. And with exploring new technology, it helps that I’m adept in learning new stuff.

Why did you choose the title “Iti Mapukpukaw”?

It means missing or lost. But at times, it is also used for take or get—for cases like “napukaw ang damdamin,” “napukaw ang tsinelas.” Any way you take the word, it means something that is related to the movie. What is missing? Who is missing? It will lead you to questioning other stuff. Who was taken? What was taken?

The film has gotten a lot of support from different organizations and not just in the Philippines. Why do you think that is?

The journey of Eric isn’t just one person’s story. It’s universal and no matter which country you’ll go, you’ll keep hearing stories like this. I think it resonated with them. That Eric’s story is worth telling. It’s universal.

How do you feel now that people will be able to watch the film soon?

I’m nervous and excited. Nervous because it’s such a personal story. How would it come across? While making the film, we made sure we never lost grasp of the sincerity of why we were telling this story and why it was important to tell Eric’s story. I’m nervous but happy. First time ko mag-Cinemalaya so nakakatuwa.

Why should people watch “Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing)” ?

It’s a universal story. My goal in making this film was to make people understand what this character is going through. I hope it sparks conversation for people who didn’t go through it but who know someone who’s had the same experience. I hope it fosters understanding and for others to gain knowledge that these things happen and that there are stories like these that continue to be hidden. I’m putting it on a bigger platform to show people that this happens—panoorin natin at intindihin natin at ramdamin yung kwento (let’s watch and understand and feel the story).

What’s next for you?

Sleep. But I’m cooking up more animations. Maybe not soon but in the near future there will be more animations from me.

“Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing)” is produced by Project 8 Projects, supported by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, CreatePH Films and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and coproduced with GMA Integrated News and Public Affairs and Terminal Six Post. “Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing)” is also a grantee of one of the most prestigious film funding programs, Purin Pictures. It makes its debut at Cinemalaya which runs from Aug. 4 to Aug. 13 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. “Iti Mapukpukaw (The Missing)” will also be screened in selected cinemas.

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