Friday, June 11, 2010

A Short Article about the Films of the Indio Nacional

Raya Martin's Long Live Philippine Cinema! (2007)

A Short Article about the Films of the Indio Nacional (or the Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipino Cinema)
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

Long live Philippine Cinema!”

The phrase, proudly proclaimed by Lav Diaz during his acceptance speech during the Venice Film Festival a couple of years ago when his film Death in the Land of Encantos was given the Special Mention prize in the Horizons section of the prestigious film festival, appears on the tin can that houses a film reel, whose history, as we have witnessed during the six or so minutes prior to that penultimate image, is tainted with violence. That violence is singularly directed towards a Chinese woman who based on the various posters that adorn the walls of her office, most of which seem to advertise inane comedies or titillating dramas, is a movie producer. The Chinese woman is not Mother Lily, the owner of Regal Films, one of the Philippines’ biggest film studios, but a mere alter-ego, a cardboard cut-out of who she is in real life, purposely over-simplified into a stereotype of a shrewd businesswoman whose only reason for dabbling in film is because it is a lucrative commodity in the country. With the studio matriarch transformed into a mere cardboard cut-out, the short film’s brave director is free to do to her and whatever evil she represents as he wants. Thus, she is shot in the heart, burned, and her office, a treasure trove of the country’s cinematic legacy, robbed of the prizes it contains.

Long live Philippine Cinema!,” at least for intrepid young filmmaker Raya Martin, whose seven-minute satire I previously described borrows the words of the declaration to use as its title, has nothing to do with resuscitating the old Philippine cinema of the capitalist establishment, whose tradition of equating the filmic art with entertainment and profit is now being rendered obsolete by its powerlessness against the invasion of Hollywood. The declaration involves more drastic measures, changing perspectives and shifting paradigms, stealing from that unfortunate past whatever can be saved for the future, and breaking the rules for the single purpose of breathing life to the new Philippine cinema, a cinema that has for its fuel not the thirst for box-office domination but a pure independent spirit. As it turns out, this independent spirit, a concept whose meaning has been expanded, abbreviated, skewed and restricted to suit certain sectors, is the booster that would re-launch a long-absent film culture into the consciousness of the rest of the world.

Kidlat Tahimik termed this independent spirit “sariling dwende,” referring to native mythic creatures that supposedly reside in every artist and should be the lone basis of the artist’s every creative output. With the democratization of filmmaking through the proliferation of the digital medium, the entire studio process, repercussions of which include personal visions being compromised by the need to recoup investments, can be totally eliminated. Because of that, films, most of which would not even be created under the studio system, have been made by filmmakers, most of whom would never have the opportunity to make films under the controlling and restrictive studio system and this collection of films and filmmakers, separated from the cheap junk that the digital revolution has also given birth to, has been referred to by critics and curators everywhere as the “Philippine new wave.” As with all movements in cinema or the arts in general, this so-called new wave in Philippine cinema has its front-liners whose works, all of which are as varied as their aesthetics and artistic motivations.

Brillante Mendoza, having recently won the coveted Best Director prize in Cannes for Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), is probably the most immediately recognizable of the Filipino directors in the showcase. A direct inheritor of Lino Brocka’s social realism, he approaches his subjects with the intensity of a documentarian. Critics have rallied against his films as predominantly pornographic, where the Philippines’ extreme poverty is being utilized as exoticized commodities for the consumption of foreigners in their film festivals. However, this restrictive interpretation of Mendoza’s films will only betray the honesty he devotes to analyzing humanity in the midst of dire circumstances.

In Kinatay, a young man who is studying to be a cop takes a van ride to the lowest depths of corruption when he takes part in the execution of an indebted prostitute. The premise seems to be something any other director would exploit visually, but in Mendoza’s hands, the camera is either exploring the contours of the young man’s face or observes the murder and the atrocious chopping of the corpse in side glances to depict a humanizing restraint from evil. Lola (Grandmother, 2009), made in the same year as Kinatay, details the struggles of two grandmothers in opposite ends of the justice spectrum. More than a commentary on the ills of an ineffective bureaucracy within the country’s court system, it is an ode to the extreme lengths these elderly women would go through for their grandchildren. Pessimistic as the premises of his film are, Mendoza nonetheless finds humanity, whether it be something as horrific as our predisposition for corruption or something as idealistic as perseverance, under inhuman circumstances.

Adolfo Alix, Jr., whose industriousness in making films (he makes an average of three to four features per year) is both blessing and bane, similarly explores an elderly woman on her eightieth birthday in Adela (2008). Alix, who wrote screenplays for director Gil Portes before debuting as film director in Donsol in 2006, has always utilized cinema as an instrument for telling his stories. Adela turns out to be his most honest work, a heart-wrenching portrait of a woman who is suffering from undeserved loneliness in the twilight of her life. The last scene of Adela (a beautiful performance by veteran actress Anita Linda) sitting on the beach, weeping and alone, is probably Alix’s finest moment as a filmmaker. Manila, the second half of which is an update to Brocka’s Jaguar (1979) that he wrote and directed, is his tribute to late great filmmaker.

The first half of Manila, a re-imagination of Ishmael Bernal’s City After Dark (1980) by Raya Martin, is nonsensical but still seductive and hypnotic to watch. Carried mostly by an atmosphere of jazz-induced pointlessness (the portion follows a man on his quest for his drug fix), the film is truly a product of a creative mind, brimming with ideas that are unhindered by expectations or convention. The scope and breadth of Martin’s work at such an early age is staggering. In between Ang Isla sa Dulo ng Mundo (The Island at the End of the World, 2005), a documentary about the Itbayats of the northernmost islands of the Philippines, and Independencia (Independence, 2009), a hyper-stylized historical meditation on the meaning of independence, Martin has tirelessly made more than a dozen short and feature films, that while immaculately distinct from each other partake a similarity that is grounded on Martin’s very personal passions that ranges from national history to the intricacies of filmmaking.

Ang Isla sa Dulo ng Mundo is as cryptic as its title suggests. Fashioned like a travelogue but inevitably morphing into an anthropological study on a people separated from the country by distance as it goes along, the documentary is at once an immersive cultural work and an examination of the malleability of cinema. Life Projections (2006), made as reaction to the Guimaras oil spill which is reputed to be the second largest oil spill in the world that reportedly affected the ecology and the residents of the island, has more to say about cinema than it does about the kneejerk subject of the oil spill. A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or the Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipino) (2006) is the expanded version of his student thesis film which was rumored to have been dismissed by his professors in the University of the Philippines. As it turns out, Indio Nacional is probably one of the most radical films ever made, as it is structured like a series of silent vignettes. The narrative is loose and almost non-existent, about a group of actors on the verge of joining the war. The fascinating facet of the film has more to do with how it laments the reality of history as opposed to the illusion of cinema, how the history of the Philippines is written from the perspective of the privileged while the masses, whose records are unwritten, are left to be forgotten.

Independencia, the second film in the trilogy that Indio Nacional initiated, is a far more polished. Its tale of a family retreating to the forest to escape the invading Americans is told with the technological limitations and style of Hollywood cinema of the thirties and forties. The painted backgrounds, the mannered acting, and the fake newsreel that divides the film into two halves, places the film in an intriguing historical limbo, where the film’s seductively dated form and aesthetic facilitate a discourse that has been ongoing since the Philippines was freed from its colonizers. Where Independencia relied heavily on its distinct look and feel to carry its message, Now Showing (2008), a very personal ode on childhood and a very personal lament on its repercussions that echoes for the duration of a lifetime, takes its time to ripen the melancholy, to bloom the joy, to fathom the banality in growing up.

If there is any Filipino filmmaker however whose films seem to represent adjuncts of his personality, it would be John Torres. Torres has been making short films for several years now. Yet, his humble personality and his private demeanor has kept this filmmaker and his remarkable films, most of which respond like coded diary entries, guarded and known only to a very few. His first feature, Todo Todo Teros (2006), came as a shock. The film, a collection of found footage stringed together to document jealousy and infidelity, which to Torres, equates to terrorism, has the ingenuity of Kidlat Tahimik’s Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare, 1977) and the subtle-turned-palpable emotionality of Bakit Dilaw ang Gitna ng Bahaghari? (Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?, 1995). His latest, Refrain Happens Like Revolutions in a Song (2009) continues to baffle critics with its playful treatment of cinematic conventions without sacrificing what turns Torres’ very personal films so undeniably understandable even to the random filmgoer: the sincerest of emotions.

Paalam Aking Bulalakaw (Goodbye My Shooting Star, 2006), Khavn dela Cruz’s lyric to romantic what-could-have-been’s, showcases the filmmakers bevy of aptitudes in one package. Part record of a promising date with the perfect woman, part album of self-penned and self-performed love songs, part collection of self-penned poems, Bulalakaw has Dela Cruz baring his heart to the world. There is nothing left to do but get swayed by the unabashed sentimentality onscreen. His Maynila sa mga Pangil ng Dilim (Manila in the Fangs of Darkness, 2009), on the other hand, has message, other than the celebration of the finest works of Lino Brocka and the inimitable acting prowess of Bembol Roco, one of Brocka’s favorite actors, that needs to be relayed. The blurred and butchered scenes from Brocka’s films mixed with the high definition footage of De La Cruz seems to make a statement regarding the deplorable state of the Philippines’ film archives, which is losing year by year films because of decay and neglect.

Lav Diaz’s eleven-hour epic Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), made in the span of ten years because of budgetary and logistical constraints and also probably because the film required that much pain, waiting and struggle to be created, is an unparalleled immersive experience. The film details the intertwining histories of two peasant families struggling under the auspices of an abusive Marcos dictatorship. Melancholia (2008), true to its title, details the story of the saddest people in the world. Sadness, however, much more than a mere emotion that has become synonymous to sighs and tears, is depicted in its most extreme sense, from its cause, the disappearance of loved ones without the benefit of the closure of death, to its effect, a total change in character in the hopes that the disguise will eliminate memories of pain. These are Diaz’s most politically-charged films, which is saying a lot, considering that Diaz, from his first feature Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Conecpcion (The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998) to his latest, Walang Alaala ang mga Paru-paro (Butterflies Have No Memories, 2009), are very vocal pieces on the ills of a society rendered cancerous by a lack or excess of government.

Diaz started his career under Mother Lily’s Regal Films where he made four of his early feature films. During the course of working under Regal Films, he is rumored to having several shouting matches with Mother Lily because Diaz wanted more independence while Mother Lily wanted more control. In the eyes of the world, Diaz seems to be winning, considering that his films have been regarded with much acclaim. Unfortunately, the truth cannot be said in the Philippines, where Mother Lily, whose redundant romances, pointless comedies, ineffective horrors, and undercooked dramas are being watched by majority of the Philippines despite the repetitive clamor for new content, is still in business, still churning out films that seem to get worse and worse every year. As it seems, this so-called independent spirit, championed by Mendoza, Alix, Martin, Torres, De La Cruz and Diaz and several other Filipino filmmakers, is an allergen to the moneyed capitalist investors, whose idea of culture-building is to dumb down filmgoers for the purposes of competing with Hollywood and increasing profit.

What I am lamenting about is not the fact that these films are not box office hits but that these films hardly matter given the statistic of Filipinos who have had the opportunity to watch them. This is the prolonged sorrow of Filipino cinema; that no matter how many words have been written proclaiming the qualities of these films, no matter how many awards and retrospectives have been given to these filmmakers, no matter how many labels are made for the collective movement of independently-made films, no matter how many passionate arguments about these films as indispensible adjuncts of Filipino culture are made, the Filipino will never give back to its cinema what its cinema has given to it.

Despite that, I shout and will continue shouting “Long Live Philippine Cinema!

Sadly, all I can hear back is silence.

(This article was commissioned for the programme of the Showcase of Philippine Cinema, which is currently happening in Sao Paolo from June 9 to June 27, Rio de Janeiro from June 29 to July 15, and Brasilia from July 13 to August 1. The article may be read in Portuguese in the Showcase's website, along with Noel Vera and Alexis Tioseco's articles, and Khavn de la Cruz's poem.)


Epoy Deyto said...

First to comment! haha

Great Article here oggs! Its like telling the history of Filipino Digital Film age. hehe

It's nice to know that there are people who appreciates Khavn, nice choice on Paalam Aking Bulalakaw.

a great piece to read. Looking forward for these people's future works (especially Khavn's long dued adaptation of Mondomanila).

wham said...

Great Piece. It's a nice looking back at this set of people.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks H.M. and Wham.

marjurry said...

Have been a long-time fan of your blog, and this is my favorite article you've ever posted. Probably the reason why you heard nothing but silence after you shouted Long Live Philippine Cinema (I love the metaphor) is the fact that majority of us Filipinos are too economically-deprived and from there find entertainment in the cheapest and most accessible forms. It has been a long-time tradition for the Filipinos to reckon films commercially and not artistically or at least realistically. Since according to some film historians it is only the French who really treated films as an art since its early years, unlike the Americans who only did after the French, so cinema in the Philippines are introduced in the commercial/purely entertainment nature. It's gonna take more and more years for these independent spirits get the popularity they deserve and to have their ideas be understood.