The More Raw, the Better: Glenn Barit on Cleaners

Glenn Barit on Cleaners
February 18th 2024

When the filmmaker Glenn Barit first submitted his initial proposal for Cleaners (2019) to the QCinema International Film Festival for a seed grant, he didn’t inform them of his intended treatment for the film. Only during the pitching sessions did the form he wanted to give his film come up—a film shot like a high school memory, printed out and photocopied, then manually highlighted and reassembled. Worried that the process wouldn't work for the big screen, the panel requested that Barit and his co-workers provide a proof-of-concept within a month.

Now, Cleaners has become a paragon of contemporary Philippine cinema. Tapping into his own Catholic high school experiences in rural Tuguegarao, Cleaners is an anthology film that follows the lives of eight high school seniors who work as classroom cleaners after hours. Cleaners portrays the personal and political labyrinths of cleanliness and dirtiness that teenagers in the Philippines must navigate as they progress toward adulthood, from experiencing incontinence to navigating the insidious political system outside their schools. Both a chronicle of provincial life in the early 2000s and a coming-of-age film set before the pandemic changed the country, Cleaners is a joyful time capsule.

I spoke to Barit about Cleaners at a coffee shop in Maginhawa, one of the food hubs in Quezon City, Philippines. This interview has been translated into English and edited for brevity and clarity.

Jason Tan Liwag: What were you like in high school?

Glenn Barit: I wasn’t top of the class. I wasn’t dumb either. I was a B student. Maybe my thing was having my own band, which was typical for high schoolers at the time. I wasn’t a jock. I wasn’t sent out for competitions either. I was very middle of the pack and forgettable. [Laughs]

JTL: Students in the Philippines are usually assigned into groups of cleaners who clean their classroom after-hours on rotation throughout the school year—whacking erasers, mopping floors, rearranging the seats, collecting trash. It’s done partly to discipline us, but also partly because schools, especially public ones, are usually so large they have limited resources and staff. Were you a cleaner in high school?

GB: Yeah, in elementary. It was a fun time in class because it feels like there’s a bond that forms between all of you when all of you are together at the same time in the afternoon. We were 56 in the entire classroom, so we had a special group.

JTL: You were in management information systems in college, correct? What made you transition into film?

GB: Yeah. Maybe it was a bad decision in life. [Laughs] I feel like I’d already be abroad with a wife and kids living a comfortable life. But I interned at Smart [Communications] in junior year [of college]. Our house was along Esteban Abada [in Quezon City] and Smart was along Ayala in Makati [City, around a 1 to 2 hour commute depending on traffic], and it was so boring. I was an apprentice then and it felt like my twenties were going to be a waste if I worked a desk job.

I also had this perpetual feeling that I’d die young. What would all that work in life be for? My labor felt like [it was] for other people or a program. It felt like a waste of my life, even if it was more stable. Film felt like I could have ownership of whatever I invested my time into. I realized I loved just creating so late. It sounds cheesy but it’s what excited me in life, I didn’t realize it would be this difficult.

JTL: It’s been five years since Cleaners was first announced as part of the lineup at the QCinema International Film Festival. When did you first start writing the script?

GB: It was in 2018. I was part of Ricky Lee’s screenwriting workshop. It took me around six months to write it.

JTL: Did it change significantly from the workshop to when you first pitched it as a concept to the production process?

GB: Along the way, some bits changed. The great thing about Sir Ricky’s workshop [was] he’d read all of the works and you’d workshop it with the class. So bits were added thanks to the insights of my classmates. Ricky also had input. Like the final scene with Britney giving birth was from Sir Ricky. He told me that all the kids had to be there in the end somehow. It was small stuff, nothing that significant, even during the production. Maybe it didn’t change that much because we had a tight budget, so it’s difficult to change anything. [Laughs]

JTL: Most of the script was in Filipino. What made you set that as the language of the film rather than one of the many regional languages in Tuguegarao?

GB: Tuguegarao is a melting pot in Cagayan. It’s a city and it’s where a lot of the big schools and universities are. There are so many dialects and when those intersect, it becomes Tagalog. So in high school and also at home, we spoke Filipino even though my dad was Ilocano and my mom was Ibanag. It’s not like in Visayas where they speak Bisaya so I didn’t really need to make it Ibanag or Ilocano. But there are Ibanag words or tones that slip in every now and then.

JTL: When did the filming process begin and how long did you have to shoot Cleaners?

GB: [It began in] June 2019. We had two weeks in Tuguegarao. There was only a three-day break between those two weeks. We had a lot of pre-production.

JTL: What was it like bringing friends and crew members from Manila to your hometown?

GB: Most of the crew was from Manila, many of whom were my batchmates at the UP Film Institute. So it was Steven Evangelio, Alvin Francisco, Joanne Cesario, Che Tagyamon—the people I went to film school with. At Tuguegarao, there weren’t really a lot of film people [except] my cousin who was in charge of second-degree casting—he’s the one who organizes the film screenings there through the North Luzon [Cinema Guild]. We got people from Tuguegarao too, but mostly for film production management. We got interns too and one of them is actually making films now as an animator. We took up almost one bus. We didn’t rent it out. We crammed the luggage underneath. Things like C-stands. [Laughs] But we didn’t have much equipment because we were working on a tight budget.

JTL: What camera did you use to shoot Cleaners?

GB: A Sony A7S. My previous boss, from Wapak [Studios], had equipment and he lent some of it to us.

JTL: One of Cleaner’s major draws is its cast of students. I know most of them were non-actors and high school students at the time. What was the audition process like?

GB: Since it was a Tuguegarao film, it was best to cast kids from our province given the way our tongues turn through the language and the nuances that would sprout if they were from the same community as us. The story doesn’t really demand great acting. It doesn’t need professional actors. The more raw, the better. I wanted it to feel like a high school project, like a play you’d do together and laugh at school about. I wanted to prioritize authenticity. Tuguegarao is really funny and you can tell that the crowd likes to enjoy themselves. Maybe I could capture that quality of the people from our province if they actually came from the province. At the same time, it was also more practical because of talent fees.

We held auditions. We spread the poster throughout different schools. It took two days to finish the casting call. Surprisingly, people came. We were looking for the character, for people who felt like they could be your classmate as soon as they entered the classroom, rather than [kids with] acting chops. Maybe there were more specific things, like for [Jun-jun, who was] the son of the mayor and had to have charisma. But at the same time, because it was very raw, we had a friend from film school who was from [the top collegiate theater organization in the Philippines] Dulaang UP who held a one-day workshop for the selected applicants just so that they understood how to act in front of the camera. What some of them knew about acting came from Philippine TV—it’s very exaggerated. We wanted to make it more natural while also teaching them about the frame and other basics. They were all funny, smart, and fast at picking up directions, which was what made the experience great.

JTL: From Aliens Ata [2017] to Nangungupahan [2018] and beyond, all of your short films before Cleaners feel like they were created with a form in mind. Do you start with the experiment and then look for the story or is it the other way around?

GB: Not at all. It just…happens. [Laughs] With Aliens Ata, Che and I happened to have a drone at the time that we used for sidelines. It was driven more by excitement rather than what form was interesting. It just seemed so fun. You didn’t know what the output was going to be or what stories would crack open by doing it. It was about discovery. At the same time, it was cheaper. [Laughs] If you break form, it is much cheaper. Aliens was cheap because we had a drone and we shot it at the University of the Philippines. Nangungupahan was cheap because it was all in one location and we only had to shell out [money] because of the actors. With Maski Papano [2020], the country was still in lockdown and we weren’t allowed to interact with people so we made actors out of facemasks and inanimate objects, things that we could shoot from the comfort of our own homes. It wasn’t about this big idea of breaking form but more about satisfying curiosity.

JTL: When you pitched Cleaners to QCinema, did you already have the form in mind? When did you solidify this process of photocopying the work, highlighting it, and then reassembling it?

GB: In the script, you wouldn’t be able to tell. It was only during the pitch that they were kind of shocked by the form. The look was in our deck. I took pictures from when I was in high school and I edited it as what it would look like. We needed to provide a proof of concept. The three of us—Tiara Orig, Che, and I—went to UP and shot a bunch of kids from UP Integrated School and that became the test. We’re lucky that QCinema required us to do it because we developed a better idea of how to do it and what we needed to avoid when we were pushing it.

JTL: What made you consider that form in the first place considering how unfamiliar the creative path would be?

GB: A lot. First would be the theme of the film. Since it was about high school cleaners, the look needed to match. If it was just digital, it would look too clean, too crisp. When you put it through this kind of process, you create space for dirtiness—photocopies will have errors and highlights will go beyond borders. Second, because it was my first feature, I wanted it to look singular. We didn’t have the money to shoot using Arri or Alexa, but I was interested in analog films and celluloid. So I went for the process because it could arrive at something similar. When I scan through film, even if it's small, it’s so high resolution. When it is celluloid, it’s not in binary codes or pixels. There’s grain and movement. I feel like if it’s paper, it maintains those similarities.

Third, because it was a high school film, I wanted it to feel like a high school project in its craftiness. I mentioned in other interviews that I tested if the film could work with one-inch borders on the frame or with the edges of the paper burnt to make it look more like an art project. Lastly, I was fascinated by the hands that made the film. You can feel the labor that went into it just by the strokes of the highlight. On the big screen, you can see the physical hands that touch the film. It feels tactile.

Che’s film, Judy Free [2019], adopted a similar process. It started with her seeing a picture of her dad, who was an overseas Filipino worker, and drawing on it with a marker. It was meant to show the distance between them. That was much easier to do digitally, I think. So I was the one who did it but using techniques that were aligned with daily life in high school—photocopying, highlighting, et cetera.

JTL: Are you ever shocked by how many people love the film?

GB: Yes! Especially from other countries. Recently, it screened in Mexico and I found out that apparently they also had this emo counterculture around the early 2000s. I learned that the Philippines was the Mexico of Asia. So it’s interesting that it’s relatable in other countries.

JTL: What made you decide on the themes of cleanliness and dirtiness?

GB: An honest but stupid answer to that is that cleaners just seemed like a fun word. It seemed like it was woven into the fabric of being Pinoy. We just made the word explode. What does it mean to be clean? When I wrote it during Sir Ricky’s workshop, it was ten years since high school. It seemed like a treasure chest waiting to be opened.

JTL: What was it like to shoot at your old school? Did the administrators need to read the script or not?

GB: It was interesting because it was a Catholic school. We didn’t let them read the script. It was only the deck. But in our pitch, we had scenes where people shit themselves, there was circumcision, and all that. We had to present it to the priests. The question was, do we tone down our deck or not? We were lucky because the principal when we were in high school was now the deputy in charge of student affairs. Also, the priest who was the head at that time was interested in films. So even if that’s what we presented, they seemed okay with it, open, even.

JTL: How did you manage to include the circumcision scene? Pardon the pun, but did you ever consider cutting it out because you might encounter censorship?

GB: Not really. This idea of what can you reveal and what you have to hide was part of the theme. The act of circumcision is so violent and concealing, or revealing, [because it] exposes how dirty the dick is. We needed to show it because that was the reality of it and also as a way to scrub the eyes of the audience.

JTL: Do you still have the print-outs that you had to scan and highlight?

GB: Yup. They’re in my kitchen. We could sell them in the future.

JTL: How long did the highlighting and reassembly take? What was it like in that room?

GB: Around six weeks. It was really funny. Every day, we’d set up two long tables and we hired six people who would highlight sheets of paper for eight hours a day. Every day, Monday to Friday, there’d be six people doing that. Those days, we’d wake up, set up, and highlight. In the evening, if there was time, we’d highlight. On weekends, our friends and family would go to our house and highlight. Sometimes, there would be people from our old film organization [UP Cineastes Studios] who’d help us highlight. It was boring work. We’d leave our Netflix account playing something in the background or we’d treat people to Korean barbecue. At the end, we had an award for whoever was the best highlighter and even gave them a trophy made from empty highlighters. [Laughs]

It was interesting because they all highlighted the work so differently. Our friend was a painter and their work was so clean. Meanwhile, [our producer] Noni would have a lot of errors. [Laughs] The papers would arrive in bulk and labeled and we’d divide it amongst ourselves. It reached around 33,000 pages. The total highlighted was less, but it was still a logistical nightmare. We found a photocopying center deep in the University of the Philippines (UP) Centennial that had a batch scanning process, which saved us a lot of money. It also could print in bulk with the texture of a photocopy, so we didn’t need to print and photocopy each frame.

JTL: There’s this expansion in the film too, in the way that it grows gradually political as the school year progresses. Cleaners ends on a vignette about the Sangguniang Kabataan, which essentially is a training ground for good politicians but also highly corrupt political dynasties. Did you set out with that progression into the larger, more politically muddled world mind just as the kids are about to graduate?

GB: One of the things I picked up from Sir Ricky were narrative shapes. Writers follow shapes in their films. What would be the shape of the lives of young cleaners? I settled on a shape that progressively grew larger. I wanted something that was first personal but grew to be much larger thematically.

JTL: Why set Cleaners in the early 2000s? And beyond the aesthetic choices, why use Original Pilipino Music [OPM] as the dominant way to represent that period?

GB: Maybe it was serendipity or maybe it’s my bias for that time. But during that era, there was a lot of music—OPM, bands, et cetera. When it comes to memory, I tie it to music. It felt like such a waste to just use a score and not include the music of the time. To use the music seemed like a much more authentic way to revisit high school. That’s why there was “Will You Ever Learn” and “Boston Drama” by Typecast, “Bakit Part 2” by Mayonnaise, and even “Makulay Ang Buhay.”

JTL: What made you decide to use Unique Salonga’s “Apoy ng Kandila” as a way to punctuate the film’s ending even if it’s not from that time?

GB: Actually, a lot of the music was also anachronistic. The opening was from Edru Abraham of Kontra-GaPi, who is also from Tuguegarao, because I wanted to shine a spotlight on artists from our region. But I also felt that the sound of the opening sequence would set the tone of the entire film. The music was very unusual, which is why I used it as one of the anchors of the film. “Pulis Ibanag” (Ju Ngana Pulis) was what we used in the second vignette and that one is from my cousin, who had a famous band in Tuguegarao. It was an Ibanag song and only a few Ibanag songs really became famous. It fit, so we used it. Modulogeek’s “The Tail of Mr. Fox” was in this film too.

I heard “Apoy ng Kandila” because I was classmates with Unique at Sir Ricky’s workshop. We listened to his album during one of our sessions and “Apoy” was one of my favorites. It had a similar effect to Bon Iver. It seemed like a song perfect for a coming-of-age film. Even if you went on YouTube to look for the song before our film was released, there were comments saying that kind of thing. There wasn’t anything else like it that could’ve fit the ending. It felt different.

JTL: I read from [the film critic] Richard Bolisay’s 2019 year-end list for CNN Philippines Life that the kids went to the premiere. What was that experience like and how did you convince their parents and their school to go on this field trip?

GB: We had already bonded with them. It only made sense that they be there at the premiere. My mom managed to convince the local government in Tuguegarao to give the team a mini-bus and we AirBnB-ed a place. They stayed there and we played board games. The screening felt like a prom. They really felt that night. I was far away from them, but I was told they were loud during the screening. After that, we toured them around Metro Manila because some of them wanted to study in UP.

JTL: Has your relationship with the film changed since its premiere?

GB: Not really. But maybe what is interesting is that many of the extras were relatives. My mom was there. My grandmother was there. My aunts and my father were there. But now, some of them have died. In some parts, I’ll see my mom walk out or my grandmother, who died during COVID-19 times. When I look back at the film, it’s almost like I see ghosts.

Cleaners screens this afternoon, February 18, at BAM as part of the series “When the Apocalypse is Over: New Independent Philippine Cinema.” It will be preceded by Vahn Leinard Pascual’s short film The Gossips of Cicadidae (2021).