Capturing Real Life
MPTV alumnus Dennis Bersales has built a career creating powerful imagery and videos
Photo by Dennis Bersales.
Dennis Bersales has a keen sense for the surreal, even in everyday life. A 2005 graduate from the School of Motion Pictures & Television at the Academy of Art University, Bersales has lent his eye to commercial fashion and industrial film projects, but his most fascinating works come in the form of still life captures, particularly of those set in his family’s origins, the Philippines. Often shot in stark black and white, Bersales’ work encapsulates a different side of life than what most are familiar with, including poverty and some of the more explicit sides of the country’s culture.
Bersales took that imagery to another level by using it to backdrop a number of music videos for death metal bands Death Cross and Retox. His most recent one was for a Death Cross song called “Obedience School,” where the visuals are centered around the centuries-old Philippine sport of sabong, or cockfighting, which is a fully legal billion-dollar industry. The video was appealed and removed by YouTube due to the subject matter, but Bersales stands by his storytelling and depictions of life through his lens.
Academy of Art U News spoke to Bersales on his work and what drives him to create and share such powerful imagery.
When did you know you wanted to pursue photography and film as a profession? Why did you enroll at the Academy of Art University?
I had media production classes every semester since seventh grade in the early ’90s, so I always wanted to be in film production. Before that though, I always wanted to do special effects at a young age: I would do stop motion animation with play dough in elementary school and I was in love with the original Star Wars. I was 11 years old when Terminator 2 came out and it really pushed me to want to do special effects. As I grew older, I still wanted to make movies but more towards editing, I did not start wanting to direct until after graduating [from the Academy]. I was more focused on post-production during my time [at the Academy]; my emphasis was editing.
In regards to why [did I] choose [the Academy]? The school didn’t require too many prerequisites and it also kept me in California as I grew up San Diego.
Coming from a Filipino background, what were your parents’ reactions in your decision to make art your profession? Have their views changed since then?
My parents have always let me go my own way. They didn’t push me in any direction — which I’m sure they wanted to — but they didn’t and I thank them for that. Plus, my grandfather was a photographer in the 1930s, he was one of two way back then in Cagayan de Oro (in the southern Philippine Islands, where my mother was from), so you could say creating images is in my blood. [My parents] were not surprised in my interest in art, even at such a young age.
What was your Academy experience like? You mentioned influential teachers Mr. Olmsted, Mr. Q and Mr. Vargas, did you meet them at the university and in what ways have they had an impact on you and your work?
Alex Vargas, I met the very first semester at [the Academy]. He was inspiring and really taught me to shoot films from the heart. The other impactful two teachers were from previous schools, one from high school, Mr. Olmsted, who taught me to not procrastinate and one from junior college, Mr. Q, who taught me to be meticulous. I always thought it was strange that they all served in the Vietnam War.
Academy of Art University 2005 School of Motion Pictures & Television alumnus Dennis Bersales. Photo courtesy of Dennis Bersales.
Your work (on your website and Instagram) features a wide array of subjects, from fashion to cars, portraits, still life and daily life, especially in the Philippines. What kinds of stories are you trying to tell with your photography and films?
I pretty much shoot and feature what I see; I like to create from what I know or have experience with. Although I love sci-fi fantasy films, I can’t see myself writing or shooting those types of movies… I guess it’s not in me. I believe daily life is very interesting and that everything and everyone has a true story to tell and [I believe] the truth will always be more interesting than fiction. [I’m] definitely more drawn to fashion, experimental and music video-type projects — I like short video projects more than full features because I can constantly work on something new since feature-length projects require a lot of time, something I’m in short supply of.
How did the band Dead Cross get in touch with you to do their “Obedience School” music video? How did they react to the cockfighting concept?
Justin Pearson (bassist for Dead Cross) is a friend and frequent collaborator (he also runs a record label, Three One G Records) and he came to me looking for another collaboration. We brainstormed a lot of things, especially topics in this current political climate, but I’ve had this cockfighting idea for a long time as it’s pretty common here in the Philippines, and I always found it interesting [since] I did not grow up in the Philippines. [The band was] all for it, as long as it was not killing anything just for the sake of the video. I assured them that all I will be doing is documenting cockfighting and after that they just gave me the freedom to create.
In the music videos for “Obedience School,” “Without Money We’d All Be Rich” and “An Insufficient Apology,” you backdrop the music with scenes of poverty in the Philippines, how did you develop these ideas?
I consider myself more American than Filipino, so these scenes of poverty are still very shocking to me — I did not grow up seeing all this. I think I’m shooting these things to show people outside [of the Philippines] what other people’s lives are like. I’m just trying to share what I see to those who have no clue and I tried to shoot those videos as objectively as possible because the music is so subjective.
A still from one of Dennis Bersales’ music videos. Photo by Dennis Bersales.
What is your stance regarding the “Obedience School” video being taken down by YouTube? Although the video does still exist on other platforms, did the appeal have an effect on your work and your approach to visuals?
There’s always going to be someone who is offended by something. The video was [taken] down, but it still lives on my website along with an alternate version, but also on other people’s personal YouTube pages. Normally when I’ve had videos stolen, I implement a copyright complaint so it can be removed, but for the “Obedience School” video, I didn’t mind.
Any advice or tips for Academy students that want to create music videos or other conceptual visuals?
Create from your heart and you’ll be happy. Maybe not rich, but fulfilled. Also, this is pretty generic advice but ultimately very true: Don’t stop learning.