Brutus (Tara Illenberger, 2008)
Arnel Mardoquio's Hunghong sa Yuta (Earth's Whisper, 2008), one of the non-competition films I caught during the Cinemalaya Film Festival, is a problematic little film. The film is allegedly shot using only one high-definition video camera and despite the veritable talent of cinematographer Egay Navarro who manages to come up with truly beautiful images, the technical deficiencies, from lackluster acting to poor editing, are apparent. However, the film's problems are much bigger than the effects of its microscopic budget. The film, about a town composed of mostly females and deaf-mute kids that is hidden deep in the forest, advocates peace in Mindanao, an island ravaged by decades of war between government forces and Muslim secessionists. Unsurprisingly, it is excessively preachy and lacks any trace of subtlety. The film ends in a tragic note, accompanied by a forgettable home-made ditty whose lyrics sit very well with the film's unabashed didactics.
I have a hard time appreciating films like Hunghong sa Yuta and other films of similar motivations, these so-called advocacy films. While I admire their staunch idealism, I detest their single-mindedness which often disservices their own motivations. For example, Hunghong sa Yuta, in its endeavor to make its viewers understand the complex repercussions of warfare, simplifies war as a battle between good and evil, the former being the unfortunate victims of warfare and those kindhearted souls that persevere to get involved, and the latter being the government, as represented by devious and corrupt politicians and their military underlings. Often, these damaging undercurrents are overwhelmed by sincere intentions. A good advocacy film is one that balances its intentions and cinematic merit, one that fully convinces through a gentle whisper, one that exists not merely to instruct. Sadly, Hunghong sa Yuta is off-balanced, unduly loud in its conviction, and will have a hard time existing outside the purpose for which it was created for.
Tara Illenberger's Brutus treads similar dangerous grounds. It's an advocacy film. In fact, it was awarded the Jury Prize in the 4th Cinemalaya Film Festival precisely for its advocacy. In the jury's own words, Brutus is awarded the Jury Prize for "for courageously and effectively drawing the audience's attention to the complex dynamics between the exploitation of cultural communities and the degradation of the environment." The film, about the journey of two Mangyan children (charmingly played by Timothy Mabalot and Rhea Medina) to the lowlands to deliver a load of illegal lumber, tackles several pertinent subjects, from the degradation of the forests by the proliferation of illegal loggers to the undue eviction of the indigenous Mangyans from the fertile lowlands to the forests.
In that regard, Brutus is unsubtle and needlessly preachy. Fortunately, it compensates by diverting some of its attention to other matters, like let's say, the budding romance between the two children who are slowly coming of age, or the ongoing tension between the military and communist rebels, both sides of which are portrayed with equal amounts of humanity. At least it doesn't make the mistake of Hunghong sa Yuta of delegating villainy to one side of an inexplicable war. Ronnie Lazaro, who plays the tree-hugging commander of the military contingent, and Yul Servo, who plays the doctor-turned-communist leader, give adequate performances, adding depth to the characters. The film is also gorgeously shot by cinematographer Jay Abello (director of the less-than-edible Namets!) and expertly scored by Joey Ayala, providing the film with visual and musical flair to lessen the effects of its several expositions.
I agree that the issues the film intends to bring to the fore are both pressing and important like the lack of medical resources for the indigenous forest dwellers or just the simple fact that despite the wealth of resources, these people are poverty-stricken. I also agree that the film manages to condense these issues very well, in a nifty package that is pretty enough to convince programmers to reserve a slot in their film festivals. Basically, my biggest gripe with Brutus is that like most other advocacy films, it tends to say too much to the point of already being deafening.
Is Brutus a good film? I'd like to think so. Films like Brutus and Hunghong sa Yuta deserve to exist, if only to say the things it wants to say, no matter how loud or unsubtle their methods are. It's just that it's not really impossible for advocacy films to transcend their motivations and become something else. The best advocacy films are those that do not direct, but incite discourse. When there are films like Ditsi Carolino's three outstanding documentaries, Minsan Lang Sila Bata (Children Only Once, 1996), Riles (Life on the Tracks, 2003) and Bunso (The Youngest, 2005), all of which dissect their subject matters without the usual sensationalism, or Brillante Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), a film that espouses literacy but ends up discussing the state of our nation's democratic processes, or Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Ang Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other, 2006), a film that tackles the communist insurgency in Mindanao but deliberately avoids taking definite stances, there's no reason why advocacy films should be content on being mere billboards for their chosen slogans.