Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bontoc Eulogy (1995)

Bontoc Eulogy (Marlon Fuentes, 1995)

Cinema thrives in illusions. Its existence is predicated on the ability to manipulate the limited capacities of the human eye to view still images sprinting in quickfire succession. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard proclaimed cinema as "the most beautiful fraud in the world." While cinema largely owes its endurance as an artform to its ability to sustain that primordial lie, its purpose is magnified, ranging from unabashed escapism to poetic verity. Thus, Godard also claimed that "the Cinema is truth 24 frames per second."Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's rebuttal is much more accurate. Reconciling Godard's two inconsistent quotes, he said that "film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth."

Bontoc Eulogy, directed by Filipino-American filmmaker Marlon Fuentes, is a faux documentary about an Igorot warrior who was one of the 1102 tribal Filipinos sent to the 1904 St. Louis World Fair to be exhibited to America's curious masses. Bontoc Eulogy draws its inspiration and interest on historical events, but is cleverly crafted from facts, subtle half-truths, and downright obvious falsehoods. Archival videos and images, re-staged footage, soundbites, and other elements are stitched together to create a coherent whole, seamlessly operating like a real documentary. Yet, Fuentes' goal here is clearly not to deceive (unlike Peter Jackson in Forgotten Silver (1995), his most beautiful fraud ever). Instead, he uses that portion of history he refurbished as a springboard for his discussion on his own fractured identity as a Filipino (who, according to film critic Alexis Tioseco, left the Philippines for the United States and hasn't returned since for reasons only known to him).

Bontoc Eulogy is the unnamed narrator's investigation on the fate of Markod, the narrator's grandfather who was separated from his pregnant wife to join a torturous expedition to the St. Louis World Fair. The investigation leads to several points of interest, primarily to anthropologists and historians, as the gritty details of survival against the backdrop of very drastic changes in climate and culture is deliberately told in the fashion of a personal memoir, recorded by Markod and replayed by the narrator for the benefit of quenching his haunting curiosity of his roots. While fact and imagination mix to the point of the audience not knowing where fiction starts and where it ends, the film dutifully fulfills the most apparent of its goals: to provide ample light to a footnote in Philippine history, where Filipino men and women were exported around the world for the sole purpose of exposing their supposed primitivity, thus earning America the greenlight to colonize the Philippines, in the guise of gifting the archipelago with civilizationl; exploitation in the guise of benevolence.

To be satisfied and stop there would defeat the subtle artistry behind Bontoc Eulogy. While the film concentrates mostly with Markod's experiences during the St. Louis World Fair, it is also about the narrator's own dilemma as a Filipino uprooted from the motherland and in the brink of losing his identity, which in turn, is reflective of Fuentes' own situation. The narrator rationalizes, "to survive in this new land, we had to forget." Assimilation, the ability to combine cultural traits in the process of survival, not civilization, is America's gift to the Philippines, and the Philippines has maximized this gift, ultimately forgetting itself along the way. This is the narrator and Fuentes' dilemma, acknowledging that "we must remember in order to survive," not exactly as humans, but as Filipinos with an identity and culture to hold onto.

History repeats itself. The Philippines no longer exports its citizens to be displayed in world fairs and museums. The Philippines no longer needs salvation from what its colonizers refer to as savagery. The Philippines needs salvation from anything as broad as poverty and political turmoil or any pressing matter that would force a man to cut the cord that connects himself to his nation. We never become aware what drove the narrator (or Fuentes) away from the Philippines, but their emotional thirst for a reconnection to the motherland (or at the very least, a definite explanation as to his present scenario) fuels the picture, allowing for parallelisms between the narrator's predicament and Markod's eventual descent to cultural limbo. In Bontoc Eulogy, Fuentes adamantly searches for questions to answers he himself might not be aware of, and in turn, creates a film that seems to be the literal translation of Haneke's definition of cinema.


Noel Vera said...

Good stuff. Never occured to me that Fuentes never came up with a follow up film. He seemed to have slipped under the radar, not into fame, but complete obscurity. I need to see this again, too.

Oggs Cruz said...

I wouldn't have known of this film if it weren't for Alexis' brilliant idea of showing obscure films from here and other Southeast Asian countries in Bonifacio High Street. This is such an undervalued masterpiece and it's quite embarrassing that foreigners know more about this than we do.