Independencia (Raya Martin, 2009)
On June 12, 1898, a group of self-proclaimed generals and their supporters declared independence for an archipelago who has been under Spanish rule for more than three centuries. Since then, the archipelago has been the colony of the Americans for more than four decades and the Japanese for around three years before being granted by the Americans who rescued the islands from the clutches of the Japanese with independence on July 4, 1946. In an effort to acknowledge the sacrifices of the revolutionaries who strove for freedom from the Spanish, the Philippine government transferred Independence day from July 4 back to June 12, notwithstanding the fact that the waving of the Philippine flag by the momentarily victorious generals was more symbolic than real, given the fact that at that moment, the Americans have bought the islands, along with Puerto Rico, from the Spanish as if it were real estate. Thus, it is not very surprising that the concept of independence has been nothing but an elusive euphamism for most Filipinos. It is easily mistaken for patriotism, love for country, or worse, radicalism. With more than a century since the Filipinos declared for themselves independence, can this nation truly consider itself independent?
Last June 12, 2009, Raya Martin came home from Cannes to screen his aptly titled film Independencia to his countrymen. Martin, who alongside several internationally acclaimed Filipino filmmakers like Lav Diaz (Melancholia (2008) and Kagadanan sa Banwaan Ning mga Engkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos (2007)) and Brillante Mendoza (Kinatay (Slaughtered, 2009) and Serbis (Service, 2008)) have been accused of making films for foreign audiences instead of his fellow Filipinos, is unrelenting in his art but nevertheless values truth above visual and narrative pleasures. Martin creates films about concepts that matter to him. He seeks to recreate a historic past that he, and most other Filipinos have been deprived of (Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional, 2005), where short film vignettes of ordinary Filipinos during times of peace and war; and Autohystoria (2007), where the murder of revolutionary Andres Bonifacio and his brother is reenacted as a contemporary tale of political salvage), or his own personal memories (Now Showing (2008), a film that is divided into two parts: the first part about a girl's whimsical childhood and the second part about the girl living out her life borne out of his joyous past as punctuated by a traumatic event that separates the two parts), or filmmaking (Next Attraction (2008), also a film that is divided into two parts: the first part is about a film crew making an independent production and the second part shows the film they made).
Independencia is largely composed of nuances and minute details. The story is simple. A mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and his son (Sid Lucero) retreat into the middle of the jungle as American troops start invading the towns. Mother and son lead an austere yet satisfying life away from civilization until the son finds a woman (Alessandra de Rossi), injured and presumably raped by the Americans. The mother dies of illness. The man and the woman, along with her son (Mika Aguilos) start living together peacefully in the middle of the jungle. There are no heroes, no resounding acts of patriotism, and no rousing marches or melodies. Perhaps the most conspicuous element of Independencia is the aesthetics that it borrows from early American talkies. Shot entirely inside a sound studio that is refashioned into a jungle with painted backgrounds, plants, birds, and other creatures and sound effects that realistically capture the atmosphere, the film is oftentimes breathtaking to look at, with cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie making use of artificial lighting to create haunting images that complement Lutgardo Labad's momentous score.
There's a reason behind Martin's use of borrowed aesthetics. As with Maicling Pelicula where Martin makes use of silent film aesthetics as reaction to a recorded history that is predominantly centered on the privileged instead of the masses, Independencia's aesthetics marks as both an indignation of the cinematic culture that the Philippines has been deprived of (either by ignorance or deplorable film archiving, given the fact that most pre-war Filipino films have been lost to decay) and a commentary on the hypnotizing and bamboozling effect of what seems to be America's most enduring gift to the Filipinos: the love for cinema. In the middle of Independencia, the film gives way to a fake news reel about a kid who was shot dead by an American soldier for pilfering crops from a vendor. Accompanied with humorous sarcasm and satire, the reel is nonetheless telling of the mis-education that the Americans have inflicted on the Filipinos, to the point that the latter is willing to digest the blatantly illogical and immoral to please their colonial masters.
Independencia tackles the concept of independence in its most unadulterated form, where both mother and son sacrifice the comforts of colonial living, of so-called civilization to live in the jungle. By stripping themselves of their colonial past, they become subjects of nature and the elements. Beliefs transform as pre-colonial lore, with passed-on tales of powerful talismans and golden skinned deities, become redundant conversational devotions. Their sexual impulses, left unhindered by concepts of religion and morality, occupy both their idle time and dreams. The familial unit remains. More than the familial unit are traces of their former lives made apparent in their subconscious thoughts: the mother dreams of an intense sexual encounter while the son dreams of fighting a war. Independence remains an elusive concept, even to a family who was forced to give up the comforts of colonial living and learned to love the mystic allure of the jungle. Tainted, perhaps forever, with foreign influence, death seems the inevitable freedom.
The pale-skinned boy, presumably the son of the woman with her American aggressors, is the lone character that is truly independent. Born in the jungle with only tales from his known father and mother as guidance to the world, the boy's curiosity expands as he grows older. The Americans are slowly making their way into the jungle. As the jungle becomes less of a haven for the family, their choices get slimmer. For the couple, the rationale of keeping themselves freed from colonial rule is blurred by the demands of the tough times as food is becoming more scarce and a devastating storm is brewing. For the boy, the allure of what's out there seems natural and understandable, considering that the color of his skin hardly matches the skin of both his mother and father. However, the boy chooses independence and sacrifices his life for it. Martin marks the boy's sacrifice with striking colors, meshing style and substance together in a sublime sequence of tremendous beauty and emotion.
According to this reviewer who had the pleasure of seeing Independencia in Cannes, Martin introduced the film to his audience with a wish that people would be able "to die for their country, and for cinema." Morbid as it sounds, Martin's wish proves to be a logical solution to a world where people have forgotten to be independent and cinema has forgotten its role as recorder of culture and history. If death is the only measure to gain this independence, then let us be brave enough to slit our own throats or force ourselves in exile, symbolically. Lest we actually know the pains and pleasures of living outside the mainstream, of living without the influences that mutate the virtues that bind us as human beings, then we cannot honestly consider ourselves truly independent.