Istorya ng Pag-asa Film Festival: hoping against reason

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

Advertisements

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.”

Continue reading “Istorya ng Pag-asa Film Festival: hoping against reason”

‘Citizen Jake’ is not a movie

It is not journalism either, but, by bending fiction, it moves towards the same goal: a presentation of the truth.

Citizen Jake is billed as a film about the present political landscape of the Philippines, but there is no news in what it reveals: politicians are corrupt, judges are unjust, dissenters suffer harassment, women struggle with patriarchy, and the poor remain powerless. It does not attempt to make its own politics neutral: the film is blatantly anti-Marcos, and for that reason it is bound to be denounced by citizens of certain convictions. In one scene depicting the everyday corruption of a low-ranking law enforcer, the camera pans to momentarily highlight the Duterte posters displayed outside his house.

There is no news either in this film’s plot of political intrigue, crimes and conspiracies. Jake Herrera (Atom Araullo), a former professional journalist, now teacher and blogger-cum-‘citizen journalist’, is waging a personal war against social evils while struggling with his familial relationships to the very kind of corrupt politician he is crusading against. There is nothing particularly surprising in its story and the verbal and visceral violence that comes with it. When Citizen Jake manages to say something intriguing, something that finally feels fresh, it is when it veers away from the overtly political, as when Jake contemplates his friendship with a household servant.

But while Citizen Jake’s politics is predictable, and most of its insights familiar and conventional, the way it presents them is not. In the opening scene, Jake speaks to the camera, introducing the film as a story enhanced by the techniques of Cinema. Early on, commenting on the setting of Baguio City, there is a history lecture presented through a slide show of old photographs. Throughout the story there are narrative interludes enhanced by intertitles that echo words from the voice-over, stark white on a black background, looking like newspaper headlines, or protest slogans. Supporting characters are often presented in quick cut scenes, portrait-style, with the actors looking straight into the camera—looking straight at you, the audience. Citizen Jake even has a montage of its own behind-the-scenes footage, showing the actors surrounded by cameras, microphones, lighting set-ups and the crew. This film is fictional, but it is often presented as if it were a documentary.

Continue reading “‘Citizen Jake’ is not a movie”

‘Delia & Sammy’: despicable seniors

Delia and Sammy, the caricaturish anti-heroes, are obnoxious, devious bullies. Still, in the end, we find them endearing.

People do not just turn into saints when they grow old, a character says halfway through Delia & Sammy. She says it to justify the coldness she displays towards her uncle and aunt-in-law, but it is also a concise expression of what the film depicts throughout its story. It challenges what our society teaches the youth—that we should respect the elderly without question.

At first blush, there seems to be no reason for us to deny the protagonists—the titular characters—our full sympathies. Delia, proudly and sharply portrayed by Rosemarie Gil, is a former actress who avoids public transportation, perhaps because she does not want to be seen mingling with the masses, or perhaps because she does not want people pitying her and her faded career. She has cancer, and learns she has not much time left to live. Her husband Sammy—a mostly hilarious but terrifying, and also heartbreaking, Jaime Fabregas—is a once-formidable disciplinarian, now chronically ill and forgetful. The first time we see him, he has just wet himself, and is scolded by Delia for ruining his pants.

Soon, however, we see that this couple is not as pitiable as their circumstances suggest—not that they demand sympathy. They are too proud for that. Sammy is often aloof, wide-eyed, and confused by his creeping dementia, but at the slightest glimpse of ladies—nurses and doctors at the hospital, a provocative woman at an inn, teenagers at a bus stop—he would revert to his creepy, teasing and womanizing ways, much to Delia’s chagrin. At other times, when something displeases him, he would snap back into his severe, disciplinarian self, smacking hapless strangers with his cane. That is the trichotomy of his personality: if he is not confused, he could only be creepy, or cruel.

Continue reading “‘Delia & Sammy’: despicable seniors”

Coasting

La Union, The Ransom Collective, and embracing my youth (before it’s too late).

There’s a song that plays in my head when I think about my first visit to San Juan beach in La Union: Shelter (Oh No), by the happy little indie folk band named Ourselves the Elves. When I’m packing stuff for a trip it’s become my habit to load my phone with new music, which I would listen to on the bus (or plane), and in idle moments, as in that lazy hour before noon, before checking-out, while my travel companions mill around gathering their belongings. Pieces of music, once they imprint on a memory, can preserve moments in a way photos can’t. Pictures allow me to replay the visuals of a moment weeks, months, or years after it has passed, but they don’t always trigger the emotions. I have beautiful pictures from that trip to San Juan more than three years ago—sunset, waves, and lots of sand—but I can’t say that I truly remember that time, unless I hear Shelter, unless I feel the feelings only that song can stir in me.

It’s not that the words of the short but spirited song mean anything particular to me. The song is technically a duet, featuring Aki and Aly’s wonderful, interweaving boy-girl vocals, but I hesitate to call it one, because all the words seem to belong to the same persona—a character losing a metaphorical battle, and calling out to the listener to be her (or his) shelter and shield.

Well, I wasn’t quite feeling vulnerable when I listened to the song in a room by the sea, despite the relentless crash of waves resounding through the window shutters. I merely thought it a rather joyful song, in a swinging way, even if its somewhat foreign texture tinges it with melancholy. It was a great song, an appropriate addition to the soundtrack of my weekend in a carefree, blissful place.

Continue reading “Coasting”

‘Women of the Weeping River’: harmony and conflict, grief and forgiveness

Rivers are the arteries of nature, coursing through the flesh of landscapes with life-giving water. But in war-torn lands, they carry a further burden: they run with tears and blood, and like veins they drain scarred countries of mournful spirits.

In Women of the Weeping River, such a river is the meeting place between lands disputed by two clans. The anguished Satra Mustafa (Laila Ulao)—daughter, sister, mother, and widow—once comes to this river seeking refuge, immersing herself in its waters as if to cleanse herself of grief.

The river cuts through the middle of the conflicted lands, evoking dualities of life and death, war and peace, past and present. Indeed, the geography of the film mirrors that word we hear many times from the lips of its characters—harmony. The land that gives and takes, the country that is both the spring of wealth and the source of struggle for its people, is rendered here with reverence, the camera capturing the mystic and mythic images of sacred grounds. There is harmony in the blend between the countryside setting of most of the film (in the forests, rivers, plains and mountains of the Philippine south), and the intervening scenes set in the city (with a focus on the bustle and density of urban life).

Harmony, however, is a product of balance as much as of tension. In Women of the Weeping River, this is already explicit in the struggle between the feuding clans, but a deeper tension comes from the conflict between an individual and her society.

Continue reading “‘Women of the Weeping River’: harmony and conflict, grief and forgiveness”