Features, Film, Interview

INTERVIEW: Director SJ Finlay on ‘Boy From Nowhere’

A Well-Crafted Child-Soldier Film Shot in the Philippines


Shot on a micro-budget with essentially a one-man crew on the island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, the Canadian-Filipino co-production Boy From Nowhere is the closest we will ever get to a smaller-scale brainchild of Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Like Fukunaga’s acclaimed film, writer and director (and cinematographer) SJ Finlay’s Boy From Nowhere converges around one boy turned child soldier caught in the crossfire of rebels and gangs. Working around it’s small budget, Finlay resorts to quick and dirty handheld digital capture while never losing the face of Gary (Gary Jumawan), the “boy from nowhere.” 

The film is now available for $2.99 (rent) or $9.99 (purchase) on Amazon Prime. If $2.99 is too much, you can even rent it for $1.99 in standard definition, though I recommend going with one of the two HD options.

Read Joshua’s review on The Transcendent Cinema. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

BOSTON HASSLE: You’re a documentarian, but this is your first fiction feature film. How did that happen?

SJ FINLAY: It was a Hail Mary.  Trying to do a feature is such a ridiculous idea—I don’t recommend it. 

What happened was I had a few friends that went to Norway and the four of them made a feature film in 2013, got into a bunch of festivals, and made a name for themselves. They pulled their money and talent to make a really good film. I was super inspired by them and thought, “if they can do it, why can’t I?” I tried to (figure out) where my Norway was, where I had good connections and a story, and it ended up being the Philippines.  

And I’m still in touch with Gary and NackNack and all of those guys. Oh yeah, everyone just uses their own names. 

BH: I noticed that. Was that their choice? 

SJF: No. I just tried to keep it as simple as possible for them. They’re basically just playing themselves, especially Gary. He’s not an actor—and he’s a very young, impressionable kid who trusted me. I knew he would screw it up if he had to remember a character’s name.

It’s a funny story how I ended up with him. I got to know his brother through a music video I shot the year before. So his parents got to know me a bit because it’s kind of weird for me as a white guy in Southeast Asia to be like “Hey, can I take your kid around the country and shoot an action movie?” I had to gain the parents’ trust and time my shoots around when they were in school.

Fortunately, his neighbor and kind of uncle, this 22 year old named Henry, was a great translator and became my PA. If you watch it, he’s an extra in about 12 scenes: he’s a villager, a fisherman, a gangster, a rebel. 

BH: You wear many of the film’s hats.

SJF: I shot, wrote, produced, directed, made the food. (Laughs) No, we usually had someone else make the food. But yeah, I did all of the groundwork. I also had some assistants help with set design, translation, and all kinds of things. I had some help back in Canada on the sound design, color grade, visual effects and different stuff. 

Son Lux, who I’m friends with and who is nominated for an Oscar for their score on Everything Everywhere All At Once, provided me with (the theme) song for the film. It’s funny, the song is about eight years old and it’s also in Everything Everywhere All At Once.

BH: The film takes place in Mindanao. Why did you choose to shoot there?

SJF: Mindanao is where all of the rebel conflict is happening in the Philippines. The more south you go, the more violence there is. There are different kinds of violence happening. There was a lot of gang violence, especially in Davao City, which is the second largest city in the Philippines and it’s where Gary lives at the beginning of the movie.

The mayor of Davao used to be (Rodrigo) Duterte, who was a violent president who really cracked down on drugs…they had a lot of drug problems when he became mayor, so he basically made hit squads and basically gave them permission to kill people with impunity if deemed dangerous. No trial. 

That’s sort of an underlying story that I was aware of. And NackNack, who’s not from Davao, came to shoot some scenes (there). He’s actually a reformed gangster, has the teardrop tattoo, and (all of that). Because he looks like a gangster, he said, “Sam, I don’t feel safe here. I feel like I’m going to get killed.” So, we shot a few scenes with him there and then I sent him back home.

It’s also where the story made sense. It wouldn’t make sense on any other island.

BH: Have you shown the film in Mindanao?

SJF: No, actually. I haven’t been able to go (to the Philippines) for a few years. It played at the Lonely Wolf Festival in 2021. And it won the audience award because it got so many shares in the Philippines. But I’d love to go back and do a proper release, show it in a few cities, and do a Q&A…but I also have a seven-month baby (laughs). It’s just a matter of if my wife will let me go.

BH: What was the hardest scene or shot to film?

SJF: The hardest thing about the film were the more emotional scenes. And, if you notice, I kind of shied away from some. There’s an interesting difference between a Western and Filipino audience. Filipinos like drama and they love emotion and they want to see people cry. Westerners typically don’t; we think it’s cheesy. 

There are a couple of people who die in the film…and we don’t get a chance to see Gary process that. I think that’s because I tried it and due to the fact that he’s a non-actor, and those are very risky scenes to try, I cut them and tried to keep the story moving.

But (I did get) some feedback from Filipino viewers that they would have liked to sit in those moments a bit more. That was one of the toughest things. So that’s one potential criticism.

BH: How did you film the scene where Gary’s village burns down?

SJF: We waited until the tide went out and I paid to have a couple of huts built on the sandbar in front of the village, and then we used visual effects for some of the shots and just built some fires on the ground in the village. We basically built huts in front of the village and burnt those down.

There’s also the scene where (the rebels) ask Gary to burn down a truck. The subtext there is that this happens a lot in the Philippines, where trucks from big companies go through private lands and to scare them, they will take the driver out and burn the truck. So the truck that’s burning in that shot is a real truck burnt by the real NPA (New People’s Army). I wrote that scene—it’s obviously a different location if you look closely—to use those shots to show that this is what they do. 

BH: What film would you pair with Boy From Nowhere in a double screening?

Finlay: Oh, man. That’s tricky. (Probably) Cary Joji Fukunaga’s first film Sin Nombre. (It’s) about train jumping gangsters in Mexico and it’s excellent. That was a big inspiration for me to use real gangsters. I also really like Cartel Land as a documentary.

BH: I thought the depiction of the rebel groups was bravely apolitical in the sense that the easier thing to do is to depict them as walking monsters, but that’s not what you do. They are victims too. What motivated this decision?

Finlay: I had a version of the film and then I met (Datu Migketay Victorino Sawa, “tribal custodian” of the Talaandig Ancestral Territory) and he said, “Sam, we will help you but we want our message to be part of the film.” The ​​Tala’aandig are a peaceful tribe that actually has peace conferences where they invite rebel, government, and business leaders to their peace hall and make them sit down and talk about things. They are famous on the island for their peace conferences and for trying to keep tribal mentality and religion alive. (Datu) said, “I want to talk with the rebel leader at the end as I would talk to him if he were here.” He sees the rebel leaders’ riff and passion and empathy and knows what they are striving for—and often, they are just trying to get a meal, keep their land, and to not get stepped on by the government and big business.

You have this dialogue (at the end of the film) with the rebel who outs Gary as a runaway and the chief comes in and advocates for [Gary]. He presses on the ideology of the rebels in a way that only he could have done. I couldn’t have written the scene without him.

BH: What’s next?

Finlay: I’m working on a nature documentary about what it looks like to be a park ranger dealing with lions in Washington, Africa, and South America. To do another narrative project, the stars would have to align. I’d love to do something in Africa, since that’s where my latest work has been, (maybe) a boxing film set in the slums of Uganda. 

Boy from Nowhere
dir. S.J. Finlay
75 min.

Now available digitally and on demand

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