‘Instalado’: knowledge is power, and power corrupts

Despite its problematic attitude to science, and its shortcomings as a work of cinema, ‘Instalado’ is full of ideas demanding discussion.

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McCoy De Leon and Jun-jun Quintana hanging out on a field in ‘Instalado’, near a red sports car, and with the city skyline visible in the distance.

The release of every new Filipino science fiction film is cause for excitement, because sci-fi is such a rarity in Philippine cinema. It does not help that the mainstream attempts are often trashy—figuratively as well as literally, in the case of 2007’s Resiklo. Science fiction, or speculative fiction in general, is an engaging medium for discussing important ideas about society. The genre holds great potential for our country, where the people are addicted to escapist entertainment.

We cannot blame a lack of talent and imagination. There is in fact a wealth of excellent speculative fiction in Philippine literature, but these stories remain obscure in a nation with no particular love of reading. (We have great authors like Dean Francis Alfar, who have published stories and books in fantasy, sci-fi, magic realism and every conceivable speculative genre, not just in the Philippines but internationally.) Films, with all their pomp and celebrity, are more effective at penetrating the Filipino consciousness, and thereby is a more powerful channel for disseminating meaningful stories.

Enter Instalado, an entry to the 2017 ToFarm Film Festival. (This festival is itself a fascinating and unique project, with its dedication to the upliftment of Philippine agriculture.) The genius of Instalado is in the premise: it was a brilliant stroke of creativity for its filmmakers to have come up with a science-fiction approach on its way to joining a film festival about farming. Agriculture immediately evokes the pastoral, the rural, and indeed many entries in ToFarm are traditional dramas set in the countryside. Instalado instead recognizes that the struggles of farmers can spill down the road to the city.

The central speculation in the film is: what if in the near future, mankind succeeds in inventing a device for directly uploading knowledge to the human brain? The process, called installation, sends the educational system into chaos. It disrupts society, and Instalado examines its particular effects on an imagined Philippines, where the divide between the rich and the poor, between the quiet countryside and the hyper-developed cities, have grown wider than ever.

Throughout the film, the modern skyscrapers of urban centers hang ominously in the distance, visible from the farms. This visual contrast between the rural and the cosmopolitan permeates the story; it is a world-building aesthetic reminiscent of Rian Johnson’s Looper.

Warning: this review discusses the film’s themes at length, and includes major spoilers.

A spectrum of social commentary

Instalado is described as social science fiction, which means that its speculative focus is on the social repercussions of its imagined science. Indeed, much of the film feels like a socialist intellectual’s rant against technology and its deep capitalist ties.

Most prominent among its objects of protest is the corruption of education. Installation may be revolutionary, but it remains an expensive technology, and the procedure can only be obtained from private corporations. Instalado uses this contrivance to echo socialist activism: protests of the leftist, anti-neoliberal kind one could hear in Philippine state university campuses. The film’s mouthpiece for this is a faction of characters who do precisely that: hold demonstrations against the privatization of installation. Education is a right, not a privilege, they write on signs. Installation should be state-sponsored, not commercialized! In the concerns of these activists, the fantastic nature of installation dissipates and becomes indistinguishable from plain old education.

To the film’s credit, its ensemble of characters, including the mentioned activists, are not as flat as their placards. They straddle gray areas; they are driven by conflicting motivations. Many of the protesters leave their ranks when a lottery gives them a chance to have installation for free. They may have principles, but they also have families to support, material realities to deal with. Even their leader, Prof. Gener Taruc (Archie Adamos), leaves the movement when he is offered free installation by a company seeking to promote their services. Asked what led him, a previously staunch critic of the technology, to abandon his campaign, he mumbles that he is “not against installation per se, but against the system.” In his apologetic tone we hear the tragic compromises that those fighting for a cause have had to make at some point.

Another target of Instalado‘s critique are institutions. The greed of the profit-minded corporations is obvious; a more interesting character is the Catholic Church, that ever-present establishment of Filipino society. It is revealed that Gift of Wisdom, one of the top two providers of installation in this future Philippines, is controlled by the Church. The film asks: what happens when revolutionary technologies fall into the hands of conservative institutions, those with ideological aims? The corporations want profit, and the churches want proselytism. How do these interests align with the freedom and rights of ordinary citizens?

The question is concretized in Shamila’s (Barbara Miguel) character, who wins the Gift of Wisdom lottery for free installations. She is a Muslim girl. When her friend tells her that accepting the prize entails mandatory indoctrination on Catholic theology, she responds, well, she’s always been curious about other religions anyway. Her response is uplifting and heartwarming in its innocent openness. But then she is told that it is not only about the knowledge: she would have to convert to Christianity first, before any installation could be done on her. The scene ends with the heavy-handed imagery of her hijab falling into a creek and being carried away by the current.

In addition to its laundry list of social commentary, Instalado diligently runs through a diversity checklist. Director and writer Jason Laxamana is one of several contemporary filmmakers promoting Kapampangan regional cinema, and the film is set in his home province. We hear three languages in the film: not just Filipino/Tagalog and English, the distinct uses of which highlights the class differences of the characters, but also Kapampangan. The province lies at the heart of the Christian lowlands of Luzon, and yet we have Shamila’s Muslim character. The film even comes up with an in-story excuse to showcase more diversity: a Filipino installation tech start-up, Educore, recruits a representative cast of Central Luzon inhabitants to receive free installation as a publicity stunt. In addition to Prof. Taruc, the enlistees include an inglesero matinee idol, a prostitute from Angeles City, and an Aeta who dreams of studying law.

(But the most amusing personality in this ensemble is an award-winning indie filmmaker who asks permission from Educore to document the group’s experiences before and after installation. The executives are initially hesitant, concerned with how indies are typically antagonistic towards businesses and institutions. Instalado is so thorough in its criticism that it includes this reflexive, self-conscious subplot.)

On a more personal, moral-ethical level: the film comes with a generous serving of platitudes about hard work and perseverance, especially their value in relation to intelligence. Knowledge is valuable only when it is hard-earned, says the unspoken but heavily implied principle of many of its characters. Even if the film itself ultimately does not believe it, that is the impression its story and dialogue leaves.

The nickname for those who have undergone installation is meaningful: ‘insta’, ringing with the accusation of instant gratification. The lottery subplot underscores this struggle between the obsolete, tedious form of education, and its new, impatient fulfillment.

A starker symbol comes courtesy of Victor (McCoy De Leon), a poor farmer’s son and insta-aspiree, and Arnel (Jun-jun Quintana), the multi-insta who acts and talks like he has seen it all. Victor, riding one day atop his family’s carabao, runs into Arnel, his old townmate who now drives a luxurious sports car. As they discuss the merits of installation vis-à-vis traditional education, the weary carabao is made the symbol of backward, unnecessary labor, and the shiny car takes the seductive sheen of speedy progress.

The metaphor apparently not sufficing, the next scene shows Victor back at home, voraciously eating lunch with his family. Slow down, his mother warns him, or you might choke. It is foreshadowing, of course: be wary of instant solutions, because they just might kill you.

The mind as a computer

The best science fiction places imaginary, wondrous science in the service of exploring the human condition. It is not necessary to get the science right; it only has to be coherent and plausible. Indeed, getting the science too right can kill the story. It is fiction after all, not research.

That Instalado focuses on the social means that the film is even less accountable for failing to make its science accurate; both its social critique and its narrative work effectively without having to delve into the details of its speculative technology. Nevertheless, it is fruitful to see how the film understands the mind, because it reflects how Filipinos think about intelligence and education.

There is barely any description of how installation might work, and this betrays Instalado’s simplistic view of the mind. For the purposes of installation, knowledge is neatly catalogued in terms of college degrees (agriculture, business administration, nursing) or languages (the inglesero matinee idol wants to straighten his Tagalog tongue). It is implied that installation is not capable of mind-control, because it cannot change religious convictions by itself.

Instalado models the mind like a computer hard drive, following the problematic popular understanding. This, despite what science tells us, that the mind is more organic than that: thoughts are shaped by memories just as the memories themselves are shaped by thoughts. The film does understand the distinction between knowledge, kaalaman, and wisdom, katalinuhan: Arnel mocks Victor once for desiring to learn something by installation, when he could have simply searched for it on the internet. But the film’s script proceeds to use ‘kaalaman’ and ‘katalinuhan’ interchangeably, so the difference is lost.

Of course, nailing down the science is beyond the responsibilities of this film. Most science fiction stories break down when over-analyzed, and Instalado suffers from the same logical gaps as the 2011 film Limitless: if the technology exists to increase a person’s intelligence to superhuman levels, then it is easy to imagine that that person would have little difficulty overcoming obstacles put up by lesser antagonists, just as humans have little difficulty subjugating primates. There would be no conflict, and no story.

Instalado of course focuses on the social implications of knowledge and intelligence. The characters, on so many occasions, convince us of the increasing value of perseverance, when knowledge is commodified. And this is true: hard work is as important, if not even more essential, than knowledge or wisdom, especially in a world that sometimes blindly associates competence with diplomas—or installation badges, in the world of Instalado.

However, many Filipinos glorify hard work at the expense of intellect, keeping faith that earnest labor would inevitably lead to prosperity. But it is a product of intellectual activity itself, the conclusion of the mental labor of many Filipino scholars, that hard work is necessary yet insufficient: that there are systemic, social, and unjust factors that grant wealth to a privileged few while forsaking the masses, regardless of their effort. And so frustration brews. Some come to identify the educated with the economic elite, and the frustration morphs into anti-intellectualism. I fear that Instalado aggravates this, by portraying most of the instas—the educated—as the apathetic, selfish villains.

Suspicious science?

Technology is neither good nor bad. It is the agents, the people who use it, who are accountable for the benefit or harm that may come out of its use. Instalado knows this: recall Prof. Taruc, who is “not against installation per se, but against the system.” The film presents characters on either side: there are those who exploit it for personal gain, and there are those (unfortunately outnumbered) who attempt to capitalize on it for social good.

It is to the film’s credit that it encourages more nuanced thinking about technology’s impact on society: that it can be both harmful and beneficial, at the same time. Instalado rightfully says we should take technology slowly—to take the carabao approach, taking cue from the film’s imagery—and we should think twice about things that shine and enchant. But all this is undermined by the film’s ending, which presents technology as dangerous.

Science fiction is not necessarily an advocate of science. A work need not support that which it questions. But Filipino society is burdened by a tragic misunderstanding of science; Filipino science fiction must take on the duty of advocating science, the view that technology of the empowering kind is not beyond a Third World nation’s grasp. [A writer, enthusiastically responding to Instalado’s trailer, ponders the Filipino’s ‘why bother?’ attitude towards science.] Toward the end of Instalado, the local tech firm Educore bungles its first installation, and the patient goes mad. Another character scoffs, that it was only expected, because anything made locally is rubbish. The idea is rectified shortly thereafter, because a plot twist suggests that installation, regardless of which company or country performs it, causes its recipients to lose their minds if they fail to take maintenance medications. But the stigma remains, the internal voice echoes: Filipino-made is junk, Filipino tech sucks.

Filipino sci-fi should show that science is not just about fantastic gadgets: hologram cellphones, plastic money, eyeglass-mounted film cameras. That the memorization of scientific animal names alone does not equate to scientific aptitude. (At a reunion party with his insta batchmates, Arnel drinks himself silly, and mumbles at Victor, “Bubalus bubalis”—the scientific name for the carabao.) More fundamentally, Filipino sci-fi should advocate science as a worldview, a rational way of thinking essential to a society’s progress and future. Instalado rightly questions technology, but it should not have been too suspicious. It should not have made science feel like the antagonist.

Character underdevelopment

The most interesting characters in the film are Shamila (Barbara Miguel), the Muslim girl, and Danny Tua (Francis Magundayao), who has achieved much success in his professional career at a very young age thanks to installation. These two characters, together and separately, figure in a few beautiful moments of the film. Danny comes home to his family from the city once, and when he reunites with Shamila and his other childhood friends at the creek where they have always played, he is struck with longing for the childhood he had given up to get ahead in life.

Beyond these two characters, however, the ensemble is filled with characters beholden to the film’s premise and its urgent ideas. Their thoughts and actions flow from the needs of exposition; they are practical characters touched and changed by technology first and foremost, displaying their humanity only secondarily.

In exploring its myriad themes, the film is left with no space for developing deeply sympathetic personalities. The characters are intellectually engaging, but not as affective as in other films with a more solid grasp of drama.

An uplifting alternative

The ToFarm Film Festival stands out as a fresh new competitor among the crop of film festivals sprouting today in the Philippines because of its focus: agriculture. This sector of the country’s economy employs a third of our labor force, and its development is critical to the inclusive growth that our supposedly-democratic society desperately needs. ToFarm’s has the unique potential to play a visionary role in agricultural advocacy. Using the engaging medium of cinema, it can capture the imagination of those who would otherwise not value agriculture as a worthwhile field of endeavor.

(Instalado has received enthusiastic responses in screenings at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, a national center for agricultural education and research. The film may be deficient as a cinematic artwork, but its value and success in resonating with audiences is undeniable, and the filmmakers deserve to be proud.)

Mainstream Filipino films are already overflowing with bourgeois characters. It can be quite powerful to see, for a change, empowered, happy farmers. We need films that make farming appealing in a positive way, more optimistic than Instalado, where the advocacy for agriculture is sentimental, no more than an appeal to emotion. (If Victor were to leave for the city, he would be leaving his parents behind on their poor, miserable fields.) The story makes a strong case for reforming education, but it fails to discuss the needs and benefits of agriculture.

Films should also assist in rectifying the Filipino attitude to science in general. They should make it known that solving scientific challenges is a meaningful and joyful endeavor. In fact it does not have to be science fiction; a positive portrayal of scientists can go a long way. Bring in new characters, Filipino scientists, to the screen, so they can serve as role models for the youth.

There are rumors that Instalado may only be the first film in a trilogy. It could still strike a more uplifting tone in future installments. (Or should we call those installations?) Hopefully, in those sequels, the portrayal of science will no longer be alarmist, but gentle, nuanced, and optimistic.

Film still screen-captured from the official film trailer.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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