Istorya ng Pag-asa Film Festival: hoping against reason

It wants to “change the conversation,” but, at worst, it showcases unhelpful ‘inspiration porn’.

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Mark Anthony Talibutab holding a flag atop a promontory on the Philippine countryside.

On a rainy Independence Day evening, Leni Robredo, the vice president of the republic, delivered a speech in the theaters of the posh Glorietta mall in Makati City. It was the premiere night for her latest project, the Istorya ng Pag-asa Film Festival. Ten hours earlier she had led the ceremonies at Luneta Park, saluting the national flag under the rain; now, she appeared before a crowd that included a senator, celebrities, filmmakers, the press, and her countrymen from the fringes of society, that sector she had always pledged loyalty and service to. Her twenty-minute message, albeit ceremonial, was a consistent restatement of her commendable advocacy. Towards the end, she weaved together the themes of the day:

Independence is not just freedom from a foreign invader or colonizers from another nation. It is freedom to choose the meals we want to eat, the places we want to go, the schools where we want to study, the careers where we want to prove our mettle, the things we want to say—and where to say them. This is the kind of freedom I wish for every man, woman, and child in our country today.

As the second highest official of the country, she has much stature but little power, and she has turned to this, embodying moral leadership, turning her office into a beacon of positivity. With the film festival, she issues a call to “spread hope in these dark and difficult times.”

The line-up of short documentaries promise to stand out by being the most inclusive and most inspirational batch of movies in a country with an abundance of alternative film festivals but a shortage of attentive audiences. To a critical mindset, the title Stories of Hope unfortunately tends to invite exactly the opposite, a douse of cynicism. The festival states its ambitions plainly: it wants to “change the conversation”, “to direct our social conversations away from animosity and toward positivity by spreading stories of hope.”

A necessary question follows: conversations about what?

The program traces its roots to November 2016—the same month when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, when the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was laid to rest at the Heroes’ Cemetery—suggesting that it addresses our present day’s exceedingly toxic partisan politics. But the films deal with no such mess; in fact, one could sense that the subject is avoided. In these documentaries, the government is largely absent. It is there on the fringes of the stories, especially of the athletes with disabilities who are presumably supported by sporting authorities, but the stories are of personal triumphs framed as being achieved mostly through individual struggle, than with institutional support.

The films vary in technical quality, reflecting the diversity of their makers. Many of them employ rousing music, so watching them in quick succession leaves one’s ears tired. Mclaine, about a stubborn high school student, and Alkansiya, about a kid who scrounges for coins in a polluted river, are hampered by frustrating storytelling. Liham Pagmamahal Para sa Kasalukuyan, on the comfort women of Pampanga, stands out curiously by its bleak tone, leaving an impression that is more gloomy than encouraging. Despite the festival’s title, many of the entries actually paint profiles rather than tell narratives, like Overdrive, the testimonial of a lady Uber driver, which is shot and edited in a way that gives it filmic rhythm.

And then there are the accomplished films, including Gawilan, the profile of a Paralympic swimmer, and cinematically the most refined film in this set. Tago, on the troubles of a neighborhood jazz café, is a breath of fresh air, special among these films in that it deals more with the struggle of a place and community than an individual. Liwanag features Maricor Book, a blind licensed teacher, who shares a true flash of insight:

Contrary to what others think, I don’t live in blindness… At first, I was able to see a little bit, but it was blurry, until my vision became nothing but white, like light.

Among these diverse profiles, even hardened viewers are bound to find one or two genuinely moving portraits of achievement. However, this program’s approach is not without problems. It is not the lack of good intentions on the part of the filmmakers and organizers, nor the lack of truly admirable feats on the part of the subjects, many of whom certainly appreciate the honor and are happy to serve as figures of inspiration. It is how a number of the films are trying to extract inspiration from otherwise ordinary acts by invoking the guilt of privilege—‘inspiration porn’, to use the words of disability rights activist Stella Young. The current subjects may not mind this, but there will be others who think differently, who consider their circumstances not as something to be simplified into matters of hope or despair, but situations to be analyzed through the fact of social obstacles, for which films might be useful, but will never be enough. For these problems direct political action is required: better laws, and better implementation of those laws.

To be fair, this is beyond what Istorya ng Pag-asa is trying to achieve. Its goal is in the realm of words, of conversation, not of action; it merely wants to change attitudes, not the world itself. But even then, in that respect, this project is like ceremonial speeches: well-intentioned, competently made, but of doubtful impact. What does this festival offer that we have not seen somewhere else, perhaps on television, even in commercial advertisements? These documentaries in all likelihood will swiftly drown in the deluge of media in our noisy society.

The winner of the best film prize in this inaugural edition of the film festival, Ang Biyahe ni Marlon, tells about Marlon Fuentes, an Uber driver with Tourette syndrome. The transportation company came to award him with a certificate of appreciation (“…for his excellent service as an Uber Driver…”) by way of social media: when a passenger posted a story on Facebook about her encounter with Marlon, it went viral, catching Uber’s attention. This points to the redundancy of Istorya ng Pag-asa—this film festival was organized on the assumption that “our social conversations” are suffering from an atmosphere of “animosity”, and yet it found itself documenting this evidence of positivity online, the prime venue for social conversations in our time. It is not all darkness there, it discovers.

That is good for us but unfortunate for this well-meaning program. One is tempted, in the spirit of the program’s intentions, to suspend the critical view, to stop evaluating values and consequences, to ignore the technical imperfections, and simply empathize with the stories and their subjects, to just feel. But we must be reminded, criticism is not negativity. Criticism is not the opposite of hope, despair is. Criticism is the use of reason, hope is an attitude; and criticism can and should be done in hope, otherwise it crumbles into nihilism.

The activist Arundhati Roy, who has written for “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason,” frames it a little differently but to the same effect, saying that “being unreasonable is the only way that we can have hope.” And this is what reason tells us about Istorya ng Pag-asa: that, by its own accounts and testimonies, there remains abundant positivity among Filipino people. All over the country, in homes and in communities, there continue to exist countless pockets of conversation that remain upbeat and radiant. The hatred, animosity, and negativity that this program perceives comes from that sphere of discourse it deliberately avoids: politics. That is its true target, which it cannot avoid if it is to meaningfully steer a conversation anywhere.

As it embarks on that endeavor, it must tell new stories; there are many possibilities. Perhaps, instead of the familiar stories of disabilities, we should learn more about the successes of civil servants, those unsung and uncontroversial everyday heroes of government, achieving their mandates despite the feuding of higher officials. It must be distinct from the existing productions of government media bodies.

However, even with the best efforts that could be reasonably mustered, it will probably not be enough. After all, this present-day political turmoil seems to be animated by historical forces beyond the control of any single state. Any deliberate effort to change it for the better would likely not produce the desired results.

But then, and this is what hope tells us: perhaps it just might.

Watch the films and learn more about the program at the official Istorya ng Pag-asa website.

The featured image is a screen-capture from The Climbing Puppeteer, the festival’s winner for best cinematography.

Author: DJ

Scribbles about films and other fabrications.

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