Kicking off with a startling montage of CCTV footage of violent crimes committed in Manila’s public spaces, it’s immediately clear that Mikhail Red’s first feature is concerned with exploring how today’s society is meditated to the point that people have become too desensitized to act or engage as such easily circulated images have just become another means of distraction. However, Rekorder does not simply rail against the digitization of experience but points to how it has crept up on us through previous media formats which are represented by the central character of Maven (Ronnie Quizon), a former cinematographer who ekes out a living by pirating new cinema releases with his camcorder.
Following a traumatic incident that destroyed his happy family life, the perpetually dazed and disheveled Maven lives alone in a cramped apartment, barely interacting with the world around him, preferring to see things at a remove through the viewfinder of his camcorder, which he carries at all times. It’s an outdated model that requires tapes, which is fine with Maven as he is able to watch the home movies that he made of his daughter years ago. The device is just about provides the fallen cameraman with a source of income as he sneaks it into the cinema to record the latest attractions in order to sell pirate versions to an old industry contact who now runs a CD/DVD shop in the kind of electronics mall that is rife with copyright violation. Otherwise, the only person that Maven talks to is a boy he has recruited as a lookout in case cinema security personnel perform an inspection while he is recording, a sensible precaution since the pirate has a habit of dozing off, even when the film’s content is of a salacious nature. When he is almost caught in the act, Maven flees but runs straight into a bigger problem as he witnesses a vicious killing, which he captures with his camcorder – the ensuing ethical dilemma of what to do with the footage, compounded by the attention of the police officers who swiftly arrive at the scene, force Maven to question his passive state.
Whether he is wandering around the city in a directionless fashion or evading the police, Maven is traversing a Manila which is constantly monitored by cameras and populated by citizens who are fixated on their screens. Returning to the CCTV format of the opening montage, scenes are occasionally shown from the perspective of security cameras which initially seems to be an attempt to build a conspiratorial sense of paranoia but ultimately lend the film the dispassionate sense of a society that has forsaken any sense of privacy in public space as a consequence of sating its appetite for readily consumable media, such as viral videos. It’s a desire for escape and entertainment through images that has started with traditional media like the movies that Maven used to work on but despite the upscale experience now offered by Manila’s multiplexes, the theatrical experience seems passé, as the screenings that Maven attends to pirate new releases are almost empty. Instead, people can purchase the copies sold by Maven’s friend, which can be watched repeatedly at no extra cost, or skipped through if some parts are boring, with the fast downloading facilitated by the Internet even making such bootleg DVDs archaic as high quality digital copies are available at the click of a mouse.
However, Red is not necessarily bemoaning a disregard for intellectual property. Rather, the experimental aesthetic of his film – which mixes various digital formats, often within the same scene, and has an on the fly spontaneity especially when providing a handheld electronics mall tour – situates Rekorder in a digital age when everyone is providing or viewing material without ownership concerns. In this respect, Maven’s trusty camcorder becomes the link between cinema and today’s media-saturated culture as such consumer technology gave people the chance to record and re-experience their lives. The camcorder enables Maven to remain fixed in time, using the camcorder to privately lose himself in memories of his family life, although overuse of the tape is causing them to ‘fade’. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has moved on to web-enabled cellphones, which makes every moment immediately shareable while digitally recording sound and image with increasing clarity. The premise of Red’s film echoes Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), yet while John Travolta’s sound man in the latter is uncertain about what he has inadvertently recorded, technological has now advanced to the point that media files rarely need close scrutiny to ascertain their precise content or meaning but are therefore rapidly consumed and discarded because of this crucial lack of ambiguity.
As much as Red embraces the digital aesthetic and the flexibility it affords a micro-budget filmmaker, he also respects the unique power that cinema still exerts through playful unreliability – there’s a jump forward in time early in the film and a superbly executed nightmare sequence. And then there’s the exacting focus on Maven himself, whose actions are open to interpretation. Does he not want the police to have access to his tape because it contains evidence of piracy? Or does he not want to help with the investigation out of frustration with the system? Or is he worried for his safety in case the perpetrators of the crime learn they have been captured on video? The threat of violence permeates Rekorder with the sound of sirens from the city’s dangerous streets often invading Maven’s private world. For much of society, though, violence has become another entertainment option offered by the Internet, with a casual attitude towards brutal imagery stemming not just from its digital proliferation but its lack of context. This point hits hard in the final scene when a piece of seemingly random CCTV footage from the opening sequence reoccurs, now with direct relevance to Maven.
Loosely structured as a psychological thriller, Rekorder bristles with an incessant need to draw attention to social apathy even if the only solution Red can ultimately reach is that change must start with the individual rather than the group. Red is currently receiving festival acclaim for his sophomore feature Birdshot (2016) so it would be well worth tracking down this genuinely agitated debut, which evidences the raw power of the best guerilla cinema.