Tirador (Brillante Mendoza, 2007)
English Title: Slingshot
In Brillante Mendoza's Manoro (The Teacher, 2006), Jonalyn, a young Aeta girl attempts to teach her tribe to read and write so that they can vote during the upcoming elections. Along with her father, she traverses into the wilderness to look for her grandfather, the lone Aeta whom she needs to convince to be taught how to read and write. The grandfather only appears near the end of the film when Jonalyn, alone and defeated, sits by the voting precinct. Along with the wild boar which he caught while hunting for days in the wilderness, the two of them go back to camp to celebrate not the fact that almost the entire tribe has for the very first time voted, but the fact that they have food to eat and that they are alive. Manoro, for all its extraneous advertising of Jonalyn's heroic efforts to have her tribe take part in the Philippines' democratic process is actually about the insignificance of democracy. The film can be aptly summarized by the grandfather's parting words: "that doesn't make me less of a man," referring to his having failed to take part in the elections.
Tirador (Slingshot) is the urban equivalent of Manoro. While the two may have dissimilar milieus (the former is set in the filthy slums of Quiapo, Manila; while the latter, in the pristine forests of rural Pampanga), energies (the former relishes in its perpetual state of motion; the latter is far more relaxed), and predisposition (the former is bathed with gloom and cynicism, the latter is more hopeful), the two films nevertheless share the same lack of trust and apprehension for the Philippine political and democratic system.
Tirador opens during the dead hours of the night, where couples are noisily fucking each other with only plywood walls separating their moans from the cries of the neighbors' startled baby, junkies are taking crystal meth out in the open, and hustlers are busy servicing their clients. A man walks around the slums to warn the dwellers about the impending arrival of the cops, causing the crooks on the run to scramble towards convenient hiding places, which include filthy canals and narrow alleyways. Once the cops arrive, the film starts to burst with energy, with the camera rapidly capturing every sensational bit of action as each resident is persuaded, threatened, pushed and forced to be lined up in the basketball court for proper identification, and eventual imprisonment. The following morning, the men are freed by a political candidate, hoping that his gift of temporary freedom will be remembered by the crooks and their families once the day of elections arrives.
Tirador continues on that note of despondence. Survival, the film's vocabulary which is unfortunately limited to words that connote pessimism, is devoid of any of the euphemism humanity has attributed to it, but primarily exists in its most basic, most animalistic sense. Men prey on men, comrades cheat on fellow comrades, and virtues like honor, respect, and honesty become misplaced in a community where the nagging urge to just last another day reigns supreme. The film bounces from one resident's petty crime to another, usually examined with the intricacy, frankness and vigor of an enterprising documentarian. Much has been written about Mendoza's visual style, frenzied yet voyeuristic and observant (the last two descriptions basically differentiate Mendoza's camera work with Paul Greengrass' famed visual incomprehensions). The camera never allows itself to rest as it eternally races along with its several dangerous subjects to what feels like grating repetition.
The result of Mendoza's virtuosity with the handheld camera and the seemingly endless narrative may feel tedious, most especially because the film seems to be perpetually bathing in a formidable atmosphere of danger, depression, and grimness. It is precisely because of this intended inhumanity that the film manages to accurately approximate this soulless and heartless dimension of humanity, arguably endemic in a nation wherein democracy, religion and extreme poverty miraculously coexists.
Tirador concludes with a prayer rally which is graced by several politicians who have prepared speeches about their virtues and their promises for change for the thousands of devotees, all of whom are potential voters. Among the devotees are Mendoza's subject slum dwellers, complete with candles and authentic looks of pious hope. Before the credits roll, the camera catches something that is both startling yet unsurprising: one of the slum dwellers' hand reaches down the pockets of an unsuspecting victim. There is no change, there probably will never be change. In the midst of the heights of democratic and religious exercise, nothing can ever qualm the alarming need to for food, for sex, and for a brand new set of dentures.