Cinemalaya Filmmaker, Writer, Documentarist

March 9, 1981 – July 25, 2021

Joseph Israel Laban was an award-winning journalist and independent filmmaker. He was a Fulbright Scholar and held a master’s degree in documentary filmmaking from New York University where he was a recipient of the NYU Graduate School for the Arts and Sciences Scholarship. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of the Philippines Diliman.

He was born on March 9, 1981 in Boac, Marinduque.

In 2002, the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature recognized a one-act play he wrote about domestic violence. He was a Fellow of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance 2007 (SEAPA) where he reported on the post-conflict situation in East Timor. In 2008, he contributed to the book “Wrongs Against Rights: Impunity Across Southeast Asia.”

In 2011, Laban directed, wrote, and produced “Cuchera,” a film about the plight of Filipino drug mules. It was screened at the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival presented by the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and Toronto International Film Festival – Discovery Section, as well as other festivals including Stockholm, Fribourg, Cleveland and Belgrade.

In 2013, he directed, wrote, and produced the film “Nuwebe,” also under the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival. For his work on this film, he won Best Director at the 2015 ASEAN International Film Festival and Awards in Sarawak, Malaysia. It has been screened at more than fifty international film festivals including Montreal, Vancouver, Geneva, and Goteborg. It has won several international awards from festivals like the Queens World Film Festival (Best Director), Harlem International Film Festival (Best Actress) in New York City, Lume International Film Festival (Special Mention) in Brazil, and Festival Internacional de Cine Puebla (Special Mention) in Mexico. For this film, he also won Best Director at the ASEAN Film Festival and Awards.

In 2014, he produced the film “Children’s Show” directed by then first-time director Roderick Cabrido. The film won the Special Jury Award at Fantasporto: 35th Oporto International Film Festival in Portugal; Special Jury Award, Grand Jury Award for Best Screenplay, and Fantastic Cinema Emerging Filmmaker Award at the Fantastic Cinema Festival of the Film Society of Little Rock in Arkansas, USA; Grand Prize at the Gwangju International Film Festival in South Korea.

In 2015, he directed, wrote, and produced the micro-budget experimental film “The Sister.” The film has so far won awards at the Harlem International Film Festival (Best Cinematography) and the Guam International Film Festival (Best Actress). It also competed at the Dhaka International Film Festival and the Black Movie Festival de Films Genève. He also attended Berlinale Talents at the Berlin International Film Festival. That same year he also participated in EngageMedia Southeast Asia Video Camp in Myanmar; he attended the Taipei Produire au Sud Workshop conducted by the Nantes Festival des 3 Continents. He participated in the INTERDOC Masterclass in Serbia.

In 2016, Laban produced and wrote the film “Purgatoryo” directed by Cabrido, where he won the Best Screenplay award with co-writer Denise O’Hara at the QCinema International Film Festival. Also in 2016, he co-produced the film “Tuos,” again directed by Cabrido, starring Ms. Nora Aunor. “Tuos” won the Audience Choice Award along with four other technical awards at the 12th edition of Cinemalaya. That same year, he participated in The Asian Pitch in Taipei, Taiwan, and Tokyo Docs in Tokyo, Japan.

In 2017, Laban directed, wrote, and produced the film “Baconaua,” where he won as Best Director at the 13th Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival. The film also won the Special Jury Prize and Best Cinematography award and was hailed by the Young Critics Circle as the best film of 2017. “Baconaua” had its international premiere at the 22nd Busan International Film Festival, where it was awarded the Asian Cinema Fund Post Production Grant. Laban also won the Best Screenplay award at Cinemalaya for his work on the short film “Bawod” directed by Ilonggo filmmaker TM Malones. Laban attended the Docs by the Sea International Documentary Forum in Bali, Indonesia in the same year.

In 2018, he was a Fellow of the New York University Production Lab – Development Studio. The NYU Production Lab is a prestigious and competitive screenplay and film development program. It functions as a creative content incubator for the entire NYU Community. From more than 200 applications, they ultimately selected six fellows, including Laban, the only fellow from Asia. He also attended the 21st Ricky Lee Scriptwriting Workshop in the same year.

In 2019, he was part of the International Jury of the Pune International Film Festival.

As a documentarist, Laban started as a production assistant and producer of Probe. Eventually, he went on to produce and direct documentaries for Get Real! of Channel News Asia. He contributed video work to The New York Times Video Unit and articles to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). He was also the founder and festival director of the CineTotoo Philippine Documentary Film Festival.

He passed away at the age of 40.

At the time of his passing, he was the Creative Consultant of GMA News and Public Affairs, and was assigned to such programs as Front Row where he was executive producer, director, and writer; and Reporter’s Notebook where he worked as head writer.

According to the Film Development Council of the Philippines, he participated in the Berlinale Co-Production Market Online Visitors Programme 2021 as one of the Philippine delegates for his project titled “Guerra” and the movie “The Beer Girl in Yangon,” which he co-produced with an Indonesian company, is currently participating in the Open Doors Hub of the 74th Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.

Director Jose Javier Reyes bids farewell to Laban, “Your passing is such a loss to Philippine independent cinema. But your passion will never be forgotten and serves as an inspiration for the persistence of talent in an ever-changing climate of filmmaking.”

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