There can be no discussion of Ekstra without at least a passing mention of 2010’s Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay. The two share more than just the subject of the Filipino bit player experience. They share DNA with the involvement of writer and director Antoinette Jadaone, who gets a story and screenplay credit here. This could have turned out to be just a version of Lilia with a more famous actress in the lead role, which doesn’t sound like a promising concept. But thankfully, the films aren’t actually the same. Director Jeffrey Jeturian keeps the scale tighter, and uses it as an opportunity to aim his satirical sights on the absurdity of television production in the country. The film doesn’t quite reach the heights of the fomer picture, but it offers a different set of pleasures that are worth experiencing anyway.
Loida (Vilma Santos) is a career bit player. She’s spent much of her life and career as a background player in various productions on television. Despite this, she still has dreams of someday making it big. The film follows her over the course of a long day of shooting on a popular primetime soap opera. She and her fellow extras hang around the set, vying for various bit roles, dealing with personal problems, and just trying to survive the increasingly unfriendly conditions. Meanwhile, the production rolls on, encountering all sorts of problems along the way. But even as things get worse for the show, Loida’s fortunes seem to be rising. Her role on the show keeps getting upgraded, and she might finally get her chance at fame.
The film splits its attention between the plight of the bit players and the troubles of the production. Despite being titled “Ekstra,” the film sometimes feels like it’s more interested in the other half of its story. It really comes alive in scenes that show off how terrible TV production can be, and how petty and self-absorbed its participants are. It especially relishes making facsimiles of scenes from these shows, the film quick to repeatedly make the point that all this effort and emotion is being put towards building something awful. Jeturian appears to have built up decades’ worth of disdain for the genre, and the scorn comes through loud and clear. And it’s often hilarious.
Perhaps it’s appropriate to the form that the story of the bit players almost falls to the wayside. It almost feels like they’re just there to provide contrast: the precious few decent people involved in the production who still believe they’re doing something grand. And because they are so decent, they are at the bottom of the ladder, last to get their food or any place to rest, their fates completely beholden to the whims of those above them. It’s a striking depiction, but there isn’t really a whole lot of story there. Though Loida is ostensibly at the center of everything, her part in it is actually rather small: she’s a portrait of suffering in an inherently unjust structure, of hope built up and taken away.
Vilma Santos still builds something out of that smallness, however. The veteran actress exudes warmth and decency in her scenes, building sympathy out of the simplest of line readings. It is sometimes difficult to forget that she is Vilma Santos, the reality of who she is intruding on the fragile semi-fiction being constructed in the film. But when it counts, she puts the emotion front and center, her identity secondary to the feelings at play. There is a certain broadness to some of the performances in the film, but it all works out in the end.
Ekstra seems to be most interested in poking fun at local television, at directing anger at this utterly reprehensible system that does nothing in the end but produce garbage that nobody can be proud of. And it’s really good at doing exactly that. But some of the heart of the film is lost in the venom of the satire, the extra stuff falling to the wayside. Still, the strength of Santos’ performance and the sharpness of the humor makes the film more than worth a look.