Riles (Life on the Tracks, Ditsi Carolino, 2003)
The Renomerons live around a feet away from the rail tracks. Their mornings, afternoons, and evenings are characterized by the predictable disruption of their routine whenever the train engine zooms past (in the documentary's opening shot, a gambling party is conveniently stopped to make way for the train). It's a literal living on the edge of life, and that description is mostly described by their very own routine. Eddie Renomeron is a balut (duck egg) vendor and earns a few hundreds of pesos per night. Pen Renomeron works as a part-time maid for a neighbor. Both their earnings seem never to be enough to pay for daily decent meals, and their monthly rent thus, the impending threat of their make-shift home being demolished to make room for a house extension by their wealthier neighbor.
Riles (Life on the Tracks) is documentary filmmaker Ditsi Carolino's ode to the resilience of the human spirit. The post-screening Q & A reveals Carolino's clear intent to portray subjects of inspiration, and not mere victims of urban poverty. She notes the process of her filmmaking; that she initially wanted to document the national elections but it evolved into something more human, she veered from the politics to document the realities of life; it turned out to be far more moving. Snippets of her previous plan resounds in the documentary. Senatorial candidate Winnie Monsod visits the dwellings in the rail tracks to ask for their votes. What ensues next is a debate on the merits of ex-president Joseph Estrada, charged with stealing government money but is well-loved by the urban poor. The poor start stating that Estrada never forgot them and would always visit to give them food and clothing. Monsod insensitively berates them by stating that what they need are jobs, and not food and clothing. In a sense, after watching the half hour that went by where the Renomerons literally struggle to earn food, you can't help but side with the poor. How can they start looking for jobs, when even the food they'll eat for dinner is as uncertain as winning from a gambling game?
Carolino possesses a perfect sense of narrative. She says that there were about 400 hours of footage, which she trimmed down to around seventy minutes, perfectly edited to play out a coherent narrative with slight touches of style and form. One of the favorite pastimes of Filipinos is to sing out their problems in the neighborhood videoke machine. In the film, the songs sung and heard through the machine divide the documentary: a domestic quarrel resulting from Eddie's drinking sprees with his best bud is capped with a weepy rendering of a popular love song; Pen's prayer for a longer life to see that her children and husband see it through their difficult life is capped with her touching ditty about motherhood.
Carolino is a formidable filmmaker whose heart is surely in the right place. Instead of utilizing the innate poverty of the slums of Manila as her passport to success, she instead focuses to document something more intimate, something more universal, probably less exotic and less intriguing, but definitely truthfully emotional. She captures the couple in periods of humanity --- their daily arguments, Eddie's flirtation with the bakeshop attendant, Pen's ever-consistent bouts of endless nagging. It's just fantastic how these couple retain the purest of humanity despite their living conditions, which Carolino also portrays unflinchingly: rats dwell alongside them, their ceiling leaks during rainy season, they try to make dinner for a huge family from a couple of potatoes and some eggs.
Carolino is clearly the tailor of this brilliantly woven tapestry of survival; the beautiful threads to complete the tapestry however are the Renomerons. Eddie possesses an affecting charm that is quite rare to people who are afflicted with poverty. He faces troubles with a string of jokes; and quite surprisingly, he's an effective comedian. Pen is a shining symbol of resilience; she survived through breast cancer, suffers through daily bouts of respiratory and skin disease, juggles their little finances with her family's needs and her own medicine (more often than not, sacrificing the latter for the former). Theirs is a human connection that every human being will not deem exotic or strange, despite the differences in stature in life, race, or nationality. Riles is a film with fully resounding themes and the sincerest portrayal of life in the slums.