Autohystoria (Raya Martin, 2007)
Andres Bonifacio, who founded and initially headed the Philippine revolution, and his younger brother Procopio were executed by the men of Emilio Aguinaldo, who continued to fight against the Spanish and later the Americans and became the first president of the Philippines, for allegedly conniving to topple Aguinaldo's leadership. The execution is a mere footnote in Philippine history; it's a big glaring hole that is merely filled with assumptions and hypotheses by different history scholars. In Autohystoria, filmmaker Raya Martin tries to create his own version of the story (thus, the "auto" and the "history" in the title), but instead comes up with something else, a gripping masterful artwork that works in so many levels --- as a linear retelling of a forgotten historical anecdote, as a nightmare, as a commentary on the many powers of filmmaking, and much more (thus, the "hysteria" in the title).
It opens with a tracking shot where the camera follows a man from across a street. Shot in black and white analog video (the rest of the film is in digital video), it partakes of the aesthetic of a surveillance video; the quality is obviously diminished and you can observe the color stains in the edges of the frame. The man in the video is being watched as the camera moves conspicuously and always right across the street (at one point, the man crosses the street but he doesn't notice the camera and continues to cross to the other side). The man enters a house and a few seconds later, the lights downstairs are turned on, and a few more seconds later, the lights upstairs are turned on. Another man goes out of the house to wait outside. What is the man doing inside the house, and why the need to walk all the way there (when there's an abundance of public transportation like jeepneys, taxis and pedicabs in that busy avenue)?
These questions that arise, I think, aren't merely assigned to the viewer but are also assigned to the invisible man holding the surveillance camera. In that sense, the viewers become the spies. That urgency enlarges as the curiosity about the man's activities widen. The sequence is followed by a lengthy still shot of an imposing structure which bears the statue of the Katipunan, the revolutionary group Bonifacio founded to rebel against the Spanish surrounded by a busy rotunda. There's a frustrating sense of redundancy in the shot as cars are circling around the monument without a notice. Is that the purpose of history, to serve as an uninspiring centerpiece to a busy rotunda, presumably ad infinitum?
We see a man wearing a tie-dyed shirt struggling in his seat. Beside him is a boy wearing his high school uniform in a tearful resolution of his known fate. We can see the outside of the moving vehicle; a row of stores in a numbing loop; later we become aware that the vehicle is circling the rotunda over and over again. The two men are clearly Martin's reincarnation of the two Bonifacios and their fate is obvious, they are to be executed (the modernity of the setting alludes to several theories since there is no more Katipunan (except for the famous avenue that leads to the country's premiere state university): for what crime are they to be executed, terrorism, and rebellion?). The more pertinent question however is why are they perpetually circling the rotunda that bears the statue of Filipino revolutionaries?
The moon holds its gaze as we are transported to a jungle. The camera follows the two captured men who are now bruised and injured walking in complete darkness. The ambient noise grips you entirely; Martin's film can't be considered contemplative as it doesn't allow contemplation; it grabs you immediately and puts you right in the middle of the terrifying event. Like the first tracking shot, the camera becomes a character (in the middle of the torturous sequence, the elder brother talks to the camera "are you going to shoot us?"), as the executor. Martin eases the tension with scenes of nature, of the green mountainside that invites the dawn or the running brook that is met with calming daylight, but the terror retains its effect and the serene blanket of nature's beauty can't simply erase the images of the two men awaiting their fate.
Martin's camera has dual roles, as a character to the ensuing events (it pits the audience as a conspirator to the treachery) and as recorder of the events (which assumes the responsibility of recreating lost history). The film ends with a couple of vignettes of Aguinaldo's navy, borrowed by Martin from the archives of American Mutoscope and Biograph Co.. It caps the story, from the surveillance to the capture to the execution and the leadership of Aguinaldo of the Philippine Revolution; it really is a coherent linear tale.
Yet it's also Martin's nightmare, the way history is recreated through the objects of contemporary Philippines. The two men here are clearly not the Bonifacio brothers, they are probably Martin's friends; the initial tracking shot isn't really a surveillance of a man conspiring to commit a rebellion, it's just a man walking a few blocks to visit a friend; the torture scenes in the forest is a myriad of many things: of Martin's everyday experiences in this contemporary metropolis, of the knowledge of the Bonifacio brothers' execution, of the current state of Philippine security (made more prominent by the passing of the Human Security Act by the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, and the many reports of terrorist attacks in television and newspapers), of this nation's worsening historical depletion.
There are no pretenses or borrowed aesthetics (it is certainly different from Lav Diaz's languid long takes as Martin's visuals is entirely personal, entirely his own; raw, crude, but his cinema hardly requires any semblance of prettiness) in Autohystoria. Martin is only in his early twenties but has made three feature films (Martin's first two features are Island at the End of the World (2005), about the Ivatans of Batanes who are separated from the rest of the nation including its history and homogenized culture by geography and climate, and Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan) (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos), 2006), an experiment in recreating Filipino life preceding the Philippine revolution through elegantly composed silent film vignettes) that are vastly different in tone and mood, but are graced with one common element --- a mature sense of history, aching and begging to exist.
This review is also published in The Oblation and is also my contribution to the Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon at Unspoken Cinema.