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By Alexis A. Tioseco
The brand of social realism espoused by the better films of Lino Brocka (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975; Insiang, 1976; Orapronobis, 1989), has become the dominant form of socially conscious filmmaking in the Philippines over the past four decades. This form of filmmaking was important for its time: when the government had control of the media, to tackle social issues directly through cinema meant to lift a blindfold. But as the means of communication become more difficult to suppress, society no longer attempts to hide its corruption and moral bankruptcy the way it once did. Faced with a population inundated daily with the misery of reality—from television, newspapers and neighbours, to what one sees on the streets on one’s daily commute—the challenge of a socially committed artist is to make their viewer feel, with a renewed intensity, what surrounds them. Two valid propositions for today’s filmmaker: to encourage a greater understanding of what is by examining in detail its context (as in the work of Lav Diaz) or to encourage thoughts of what can be by appealing to the imagination (as in the work Raya Martin). As Chris Marker said not so long ago, “Rarely has reality needed so much to be imagined.”
“What will you do with all your liberty?” poses one character to another at the end of Martin’s feature debut A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (2005). The young theatre actor to whom it is addressed simply looks confused, and the eager revolutionary who asks it runs into the forest expecting battle, but is greeted instead by an empty field, and the shadow of evening falling.
This question could very well be considered the starting point for Independencia (2009), one of two films of Martin’s premiered in Cannes 2009. (Independencia screened in Un Certain Regard, while, Out of Competition in a Special Screening there was Manila, a two-part homage to Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, co-directed with Adolfo Alix Jr. Martin directed the Bernal tribute).
Indio Nacional and Independencia form the first two parts of a planned trilogy. The concept of the trilogy has two basic premises: first, that each film will be set in (not necessarily about) a particular period of struggle in Philippine history (the Spanish, American, and Japanese occupations); and second, that each will be made in an aesthetic prevalent to the period in question. Their narratives aren’t causally linked, only thematically.
Indio Nacional is made with the elements of pre-20th century reality: silent, shot on black and white 35mm stock with a stable camera, utilizing title cards to describe the action or represent dialogue. Much of the film follows three characters during the last days of the Spanish occupation in the Philippines (mid-1890s) with scenes of daily life spliced in between. However, there is also a prologue: three extended shots, in digital, colour, and with sound, of a restless woman, unable to sleep. She tosses and turns in her small hut, the room illuminated only by a candle, before waking up her companion and requesting a story. The story he tells isn’t your typical bedtime story; it’s a profound allegorical tale about nationhood and sacrifice, and the teller can hardly contain his emotions as he tells it. When this sequence takes place is undefined; it is distinct from the rest of the film, but it sets the mood for what follows.
Set during the American occupation, Independencia is made in the style of a ‘30s Hollywood studio film: shot entirely on a set, featuring painted backdrops, thick make-up on the actors’ faces, and an exaggerated acting style. Significantly, he took something out of the typical Hollywood studio film, as well: their blatant racial stereotyping. Independencia opens with a beautiful sequence of a celebration in a small town interrupted by the sounds of war encroaching. A jarring cut introduces us to our eventual protagonists for the film’s first half, a mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and son (Sid Lucero), who we see inside their home packing their things to leave. As she blows out a candle the screen fills with black and a drum kick signals the credits. The tone of the film is set, and also its rhythm: the action is engaging but the cuts are brisk, almost awkward: Martin wants to both absorb you, and keep you conscious of what he’s doing. Even stronger examples of this consciousness appear later on: in the satiric newsreel that divides the films two halves, and a startling moment when a character turns and addresses the camera: “I hear the sound of the Americans. They are very close. Listen.”
Martin isn’t attempting to make a historical film in Independencia, to make claims about a history and a relationship with America that remains convoluted and charged. What he is doing is using this artifice, these obvious lies, to create a new truth. As Cocteau wrote: “I’ve always preferred mythology to history. History is composed of truths which become lies, mythology of lies which become truth.”
Indio Nacional began with a myth—the story the husband tells the wife at bedside—and Independencia ends with one. The second half of the film focuses on a family: a man (the son now grown up), a woman (a stranger he finds in the forest), and a child. The child belongs to two worlds. His skin (light) and features are of those of a child of mixed blood, that of his mother and the American soldier (heard but not seen) who raped and abandoned her in the forest (implied but not depicted).
The child is curious, constantly gets lost (but never harmed) while exploring the forest, a space to which, as the film progresses, he seems to belong to more and more. As the Americans draw near, a violent storm erupts, claiming the lives of the parents. Embraced by nature, the son survives. As morning breaks, a bird comes to rest gently with him, suggesting further his unique relationship with nature.
Shortly after, he is discovered by two American soldiers (one bearing the now infamous Teddy Roosevelt moustache), together with their Filipino ally. The Filipino, surprised, perhaps, by his having survived the storm, asks him: “Where did you come from, boy?” and, looking to the heavens, “Up there?”
The child breaks free from the Americans (who duly cock their rifles and fire at him), and climbs a rock, escaping to the top of a mountain. As the camera tracks forward, the artificiality of the set comes into closer view. He glances around himself briefly, and then slowly leaps. At this moment, the sky lights up: turning from yellow to an intense blood red (in pseudo “painted on celluloid” fashion, an ode to Brakhage, Martin claims), waves emanate and quiver, the sound of the wind intensifies, the voices of a children’s choir fill the soundtrack, and the film ends.
The film clearly believes the child is gifted—even his cloak appears coloured in the final shot—but whether he survives the fall or not is no longer of consequence. What is important is the implication behind his decision: that he alone has decided his fate, and not another.
The remnants of American culture are everywhere in the Philippines, its influence obvious in the twang with which many speak, the style in which many dress, and the ideas many have of what cinema should be. Like the young boy in Independencia, the traces of American culture are still in our system, if not in our blood. But how we choose to live now, what we choose to do with our independence, with our liberty, is our decision.
Chinua Achebe writes: “Did not the black people in America, deprived of their own musical instruments, take the trumpet and the trombone and blow them as they had never been blown before…And the result, was it not jazz?” In Independencia Martin has crafted a film that uses a mode of filmmaking, an instrument, popular to American cinema of the period, and subverts it, playing it for his own end, and in the process creates something strikingly original, something new.