Florante Aguilar in 'Harana,' one of the films in this year's Pacific Rim Film Festival.

A 25th anniversary is traditionally a time for looking back, but as the Pacific Rim Film Festival (Oct. 17-23 in downtown Santa Cruz) hits its quarter-century mark, organizers seem to be looking forward—stepping out of their comfort zone, as if to remind everyone why what started as Jim and Jeanne Houston’s quirky pet project became a Santa Cruz institution in the first place.

For instance, this year’s film The Orator, the first film ever to come out of Samoa, is an example of how Pac Rim has brought previously unseen cultural perspectives to Santa Cruz. Rescue in the Philippines reaffirms the festival’s ability to find fascinating, otherwise unknown stories from the Pacific Rim, in this case of an alliance in the Philippines that saved more Jews from Nazi Germany than Oskar Shindler. Meanwhile, the film Comrade Kim Goes Flying has sparked some controversy this year because of the fact that, despite its harmless Pixar-like plot, it’s basically North Korean propaganda. The addition of the NBA documentary Linsanity adds a whole other, more mainstream side to the line-up.

But even with all that, perhaps what’s most intriguing this year is the way two of this year’s best films mirror each other. UPAJ: Improvise and Harana have astonishing similarities: they both document artistic traditions almost lost in their native countries, traditions that had unfairly been saddled with bad reputations thanks to being corrupted by mediocre imitators looking to milk them dry for profit. Both films are a response to the fear that these art forms would disappear, but they both became responsible for bringing the traditions a new life. And they’re both told through the eyes of a Western artist, even though the Eastern culture is the real star.

Sing Your Life

One of those films, Harana, is a powerful documentary about an old-time musical tradition of the same name that men in the Philippines once used to get dates, serenading love interests from beneath their windows. It was a lot more work than Match.com.

But it was also the only parent-sanctioned way to go about pitching any kind of woo back then in the very conservative societal structure of the time, meaning most Filipinos have a harana incident somewhere in their family history. But the tradition faded away decades ago, so Harana is also about the search for the last surviving practitioners of the art, the haranistas.

That search is undertaken by Florante Aguilar, a Bay Area musician who returned to his native Philippines after his father died just a few years ago, hoping to record some of the last haranistas. So the movie is, in a sense, also about Aguilar.

He hates this.

“He’s kind of the reluctant protagonist—that’s what I call Florante,” says Harana producer Fides Enriquez. “We knew he was going to be in the film. We wanted to document this search for the haranista, and he was the perfect messenger. He said ‘I don’t really want this film to be about me, as much as possible.’ But of course we couldn’t help it. The journey is really through his eyes. Sometimes I had to convince him. He’d say ‘You can see my face!’ And I’d say, ‘No, no, it’s okay!’”

“It’s really not about me,” insists Aguilar now. “But at the same time, we realized it had to come from somebody’s point of view.”

It’s lucky that Aguilar didn’t get his wish of keeping his face out of the film, because he turns out to be a charming central figure and interviewer. Early on in Harana, he says in the narration, “As a musician, I’ve always believed that it’s more meaningful if you bring your music directly to the people in their element.” And Harana does exactly that. When Enriquez and Aguilar traveled to the Philippines in 2008 to film the movie, they had no idea if they would even find a haranista. So the early part of the film shows Aguilar adorably pulling off impromptu interviews of cab drivers, pedicab pullers and people on the street, asking if they know anything about harana and where to find some of these singers. He uses his guitar to connect with the people, playing in barrio plazas and drawing crowds.

“In the Philippines, everyone wants to sing,” says Aguilar. “If they see a guitar, that’s a big attraction for them. It’s my weapon of choice.”

Without spoiling too much, let it be said that haranistas are indeed tracked down, and at a certain point the movie very much fulfills its own mission—reviving the tradition by bringing the singers (who would eventually come to be known as the Harana Kings) to a new generation, in live performances. Besides the fact that few documentary filmmakers get to see the direct impact their films have on culture like this, the movie becomes incredibly emotional later on when the haranistas talk about how grateful they are that the film will keep their tradition alive. No one had ever asked them to share the songs they once sang.

The filmmakers, though, express their own epic gratitude to the haranistas, without whom they would have no movie. As levels of thankfulness battle, one is forced to ask oneself: Are these literally the nicest people in the world?

Aguilar, of course, tries to make himself as invisible as possible as he accompanies the still-impressive voices of the haranistas on guitar.

“I was overwhelmed when I was there,” he says. “Just witnessing them in person was a dream come true.”

Interestingly, the Santa Clara-based Aguilar and Enriquez didn’t have much trouble with the guerilla filmmaking. Their problems came when they had to shoot Harana like a real movie.

“What was difficult was actually when we were in a room with mics and lights. That’s when it became tricky, because our haranistas, they’re not used to working that way, having a room full of crew looking at them and asking them to act naturally and do their thing,” says Enriquez. “We had to be creative about how to make them comfortable. The trick was to get them to relax when the camera was on.”

To that end, they would turn the cameras on and just let them roll sometimes, or ask them a lot of leading questions, to get them focused.

The result was the first time these singers had been recorded, mainly because harana had its reputation tarnished decades ago.

“Harana was not really taken seriously as an art form,” says Aguilar. “I blame the bad movies of the 50s and 60s.”

When the couple finished up their trip, they thought they were done filming, until a big break for the haranistas (again, without spoiling anything) brought them back for more shooting in 2010.

Since then, Aguilar and Enriquez have gotten married. But their relationship didn’t start on the clock—in fact, they had met and started dating in 2007, while Aguilar was in the earliest stages of researching the film. Bizarrely, though their first meeting came at one of Aguilar’s shows, completely independent of the project, Enriquez happened to be an ethnographer specializing in vanishing cultures in the Philippines.

“A lot of my experience was in going to the Philippines and seeking out folks that still do the traditional stuff,” she says. “So when we met, he was asking about how to go about looking for these people who do what they still do. At that time, we’d just started dating and that was his thing. I wasn’t going to be part of it, I didn’t want to be. I was like ‘I’ll be the girlfriend, I don’t want to be the research partner.’”

But in the end she couldn’t resist, and she became a producer. Now that the film is done, she realizes that she and Aguilar (who will do a Q&A after the Pac Rim Film Fest screening) are getting to experience something few filmmakers ever get—to see the movie they created as a response to an almost-lost tradition play a key role in that tradition being preserved.

“This whole movie was miraculous to us,” she says.

Harana plays Sunday, Oct. 20, at 7pm at the Riverfront Theater in Santa Cruz, as part of the Pacific Rim Film Festival.