Until this film, the words Football, Tondo and Happyland didn't seem to fit together in any logical way in a sentence. It's set in a part of Tondo called Hapilan which means Garbage Dump. The refuse is so pervasive that houses seem built on it instead of the distant memory of soil far below. The opening narration explains that it's the mission of the people involved to transform the Hapilan into Happyland and that theme of hopeful transformation is felt all thruout the film as every truckload of muck delivered is dutifully scraped away to reveal not so much what's underneath but that the mere effort of scraping that muck away can be enough because what's in there wants to get out.
Not Your Tribe's Tondo
Tondo is a favorite setting for anybody wanting to portray squalor. Just about every film set in Tondo is a tragedy; films about victims where hope is squashed like yet another cockroach underneath the gigantic boot of Life's a Bitch. Happyland distinguishes itself by being one of if not the ONLY film set in slum central that presents such bright and believable hope. The fact that so much of the film is based on reality empowers that hope as you witness the transformation of the Tondo street urchins into Futkaleros, the name they have adopted for their team.
Among the realities employed in Happyland are the cast as the actor playing the priest heading the youth center is an actual priest who really does run the youth center there. That coach is the actual coach. That trainer is the actual trainer. Those players really are the players. All of them wrung thru the workshops of Jim Libiran to turn them into actors. It's his distinct film style that uses the residents of Tondo who would normally be used only as extras to lend a bit of cred to a production into the leads themselves. It makes every scene carry considerably more heft as we know every line is one they've probably uttered and used in the very way seen onscreeen.
The theme of transformation doesn't just fill the story with hopefulness but transforms the film itself as it's told with a surprising amount of humor. The despair of such crushing poverty finds itself locked in mortal combat with that humor, the ultimate resistance of the completely helpless. This is a Tondo where we can laugh. The scene where the potty-mouthed Octomom first appears will be the go signal as she unleashes a torrent of industrial strength swearing that would leave drill sergeants gasping in horror. Happyland is no comedy but even it's more serious dramatic scenes have a lighthearted touch that's neither apologetic or insulting to the intelligence.
The story takes you from one match of the Futkaleros to the next as they progress thru the game and their own lives. You'll meet all sorts and every opponent brings with them a new surprise and lesson learned that feels neither heavy-handed or forced. It's all simple enough to be apparent yet escalates enough to make every game and lesson different. In between games, you see how the individual players face their individual problems that they can't solve alone and handling those problems is best done the same way they play the game, as a team.
The hope displayed is greatest at the end well after the last game they all play together. In the vernacular of the mainstream, it has a twist. A clue is given to it by the priest who narrates at the beginning and it's a good one. It's a lesson that shows that hope doesn't need to be a one time only deal. The twist is that the film doesn't end with this one story. It doesn't even begin with this one story. It's heartening and a great realisation when you see it.
Unlike the wretched view of life from other films set in Tondo that seem shot perpetually in the dark, Happyland is a film almost entirely shot in daytime. It's brightly lit by a caring sunshine and while it's a dreadful place to be, it's always a beautiful day there. The positivity in front of the camera however came at a great price behind it.
Happyland cost well over 11 million and it's still paying for it. The technical post production difficulties nearly crippled it. Even in the screening I saw, there were a handful of scenes where the high resolution footage was reduced to something more akin to webcam detail but they aren't quite dealbreakers as it's very much watchable. Much of the footage was lost or damaged almost beyond repair and what they've managed to save and patch together is still a far superior product.
As the filmmaker points out, this is not just. a film. It's a social project just as his previous Tondo-set film was, Tribu. While the benefits of that film for it's actors all happened offscreen in direct opposition to what happened onscreen, the transformation you see in Happyland reflects the gains of the actos outside of the film. I would encourage you to visit the website SaveHappyland.com. It's a film worth seeing and one worth saving.