Cartographic Acts & Spaces of Current (Independent) Philippine Filmmaking, Part 1
A review of select titles of the series ‘A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema’ at the Museum of Modern Art, June 1-25.
One would be hard-pressed to deny that the two most internationally known and feted names of contemporary Philippine (independent) cinema are Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza. And, interestingly enough, the two cineastes could hardly be more different from each other at first glance. Since the 1990s, Diaz has painstakingly carved out one cinematic odyssey after another, characterised above all by duration (long takes, extensive running time, minimal camera movement), that tracks through Philippine spaces and psyches, past and present.[i] Mendoza burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s and has quickly constructed a filmography marked often by fleetingness and constant movement (handheld shooting, walking camera) and embedded in the present and urban areas.
Yet for all their differences, Diaz and Mendoza present an immersive cinema whose aesthetics are rooted in documentary-style filmmaking – Diaz as observational, Mendoza as participatory – wherein physical realism is privileged and whose narrative preoccupations are unmistakably, unabashedly, and unapologetically Philippine. For those who revere Diaz as one of the premiere exponents of ‘slow cinema,’ linking him with Mendoza may seem incomprehensible at best and blasphemous at worst. But in an analysis of Diaz’ work, Southeast Asian cinema scholar May Adadol Ingawanij finds encasing his work in slow cinema discourse rather limiting. More useful for her is to approach his films as ‘cartographic acts’ grounded in physical realism. She details,
A critical language of realism attentive to the different modes, tempos and directionality of bodies moving in space would seem more suited to assessing the signiﬁcance of Diaz’s aesthetics. Such a reading would take a close look at the physicality of wandering, voyaging, searching, trudging or toiling as enacted by Diaz’s characters, and the way in which their journeys construct a symbolic map of the Philippine archipelago, one that is nonetheless connected with territories beyond or anterior to the nation state’s boundaries.[ii]
Though Ingawanij does not mention Mendoza’s films, approaching them also in terms of physicality and the ‘different modes, tempos and directionality of bodies moving in space’ is just as relevant. For Mendoza’s films are replete with the ‘directionality of bodies’ in space and in relation to each other: walking, hustling, scuffling, grabbing, embracing, separating, all of which are complicit in his characters surviving the pressures and limitations, and taking advantage of opportunities, of city life. They are such as much as Diaz’ films are populated by physically ‘wandering, voyaging, searching, trudging or toiling,’ in pursuit of an ideal or experiencing and witnessing the collapse of one.
The ‘directionality of bodies’ may be more philosophical and expansive in Diaz and more visceral and compressed in Mendoza, but through each his own ways, they frankly address the post-colonial condition of Philippine populations. Not in a heroic or ‘official’ way – which is a very important point – but rather in a way that exposes both the humanity and inhumanity of people under constant duress and/or pain. Ingawanij also states, ‘In this context, acts of physical exertion — their duration, spatiality and intensity — become the analogous means by which a ﬁlm maps a territory and deﬁnes a people.’[iii] Both Diaz and Mendoza’s characters sway between the spectrum of good and bad in their physical exertions, more often occupying moral grey areas in the name of survival. Such endurance and resilience are shaped precisely by the specific conditions of the country (socioeconomic, political, cultural, religious), at a local or national level, sometimes even both. The two filmmakers also share a great respect for the real-life spaces across the Philippines in which their films are set, allowing them to breathe and help tell their stories themselves specifically through their physical qualities.
With the above context in mind, MoMA has curated a much-needed critical look and showcase of the dynamism of Philippine filmmaking in the twenty-first century with its 18-film series ‘A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema.’ The series nicely encapsulates how filmmakers – as sociocultural intellectuals, audiovisual historians, and artistic archivists of experiences and perspectives – such as Diaz and Mendoza use cinema to re/map experiential boundaries of the national and local and re/define the Philippine people. Out of the 18 titles, five are Diaz and Mendoza’s ‘cartographic acts’ and serve as breathtaking introductions to their respective works.
From Diaz, who will be in attendance for the screenings, are Norte, the End of History (2013) and From What is Before (2014). In sumptuous colour, with a shorter running time, and more movement in terms of camerawork and actual plot relative to the majority of his films, Norte is in some ways distinct. But as it follows a series of murders committed by a young man and the consequences on his psyche as he travels around the island of Luzon and the physical day-to-day living of those related to his victims, it is in fact not at all removed from From What is Before. Though set in the 1970s instead of the present, shot in Diaz’ preferred black-and-white, and confined to a village, From What is Before is also very much about insidious violence that irrevocably brings together and shatters a group of individuals – in this case, a rural community leading up to martial law under president Marcos. As films that succeed each other in Diaz’ filmography, Norte and From What is Before can even be regarded as positive and negative images of each other: the former follows an individual, his tortured negotiations with social and institutional norms, and how he turns to violence as a means of upending such norms; the latter revolves around a town, its inhabitants’ ways of conserving the tread of their customs, and how the encroachment of violence both physical and emotional rends them. As parables, they present from differing points of view the Nietzschean will to power and the violence that arises when one insists on one way of life (form) over another. Fabian in Norte expresses just as much when he shares with his sister his renunciation of family, while the mention of his parents’ absence tacitly invites the Viduya family as a euphemism for the Philippines. The unnamed southern village of From What is Before can also be read as a euphemism for the country’s tragic past of being colonised twice over — contained in the real story of how villager Tatang Sito came upon his ward Hakob — and impending collapse on the eve of Marcos’ martial law, both spiritually and physically, as violence increases.
Taken together, Norte and From What is Before are careful explorations of Philippine postcoloniality as a trauma in its own right compared to the trauma of the colonial era, including issues of im/morality, in/justice, culpability, the compromised (or even criminalised) link between family/community and the state, and the prismatic role of faith in one’s life; this same analysis can be extended to Diaz’ entire filmic output. Given the weight of these issues, it is perhaps surprising to remark on the films’ magnetic sensuous qualities. But it is precisely due to the physicality and aurality of the intermittent raindrops, the brush of undergrowth against bodies, the winds belting the landscape, the beating of the waves against rocks in From What is Before, and the constant treading of feet on dirt, cement, grasses and leaves, mud, kawayan tinik floorboards, sand, and water in both films that prevents them from being heavy-handed treatises operating in the abstract.
In contrast to Diaz, Mendoza’s films have been explicitly, grittily sensual and kinetic from the start, including some of his most effective works that are part of MoMA’s series, Service (2008), Thy Womb (2012), and Ma’Rosa (2016). Both Service and Ma’Rosa are set in urban milieus for which Mendoza is known.[iv] They hearken back to earlier Philippine films that make of the city a living rapacious entity against whom one is constantly fighting.[v] Also displayed in these films is the manner in which Mendoza presents these milieus: in near dizzying tempo, accomplished by constantly following a character walking or running his/her way through/in buildings and crowds, and with a focus on particularly intricate, narrow spaces that afford just enough sunlight or shadow — depending on the il/legitimacy of one’s dealings — and also an uncomfortable closeness of bodies. At an aural level, they register in a most fascinating way the constant hum of machines and people, of lives being lived in the city. In Service, the space is that of a rundown family-run movie theatre in the city centre that shows skin flicks, serves as a meeting place for sexual encounters, and is the Pineda family’s abode; in Ma’Rosa, it is a buzzing side street where the Reyes family’s sari-sari store is also a front for small-time drug peddling. These films present their respective cities of Angeles and Manila as veritable mazes where legitimate and illegitimate dealings are two sides of the same coin. And the same goes for the cities’ populations, as witness these two families. They are inevitably microcosms of society that implicitly point to failures of the state, in that in trying to make ends meet on a daily basis, they are compelled to work around organs of the state, in the absence of them, and/or be taken advantage of by them, as seen particularly in Ma’Rosa.[vi]
Diaz also denotes such a failed state when soldiers arrive at the village and convene the inhabitants to tell them of a new order in From What is Known. In two separate exchanges with one of the soldiers, Tatang Sito plainly speaks of the difference between state protection and state assistance. The latter they have hardly received over the years, however many their appeals for electricity, a high school, or better roads, while the former is quickly dispensed in the form of fear and arms. In this way, citizens are always already but only one step removed from being criminalised. It is a powerful message that can be read as the ultimate link between Diaz and Mendoza’s films overall.
In Thy Womb, Mendoza tackles a setting and rhythm that differ greatly from Service and Ma’Rosa. The film pairs veteran actors Nora Aunor and Bembol Roco[vii] as a childless Badjao couple living in Tawi-Tawi province of the Sulu archipelago in the south. Here Mendoza deftly demonstrates how he can navigate the contemplative as well as the frenetic, the seas as well as the city. Though the premise of the couple’s search for a second wife for the sake of offspring is a threadbare, it allows for a near ethnographic look at the staunch Badjao culture. This time, given the environment, the film’s physical realism lies not in the ambulatory but in the tactile: through the wife’s work as a midwife, the couple catching and selling fish at the water market, participating in a wedding ceremony and dancing, weaving mats, and expressing their genuine affection and consideration for each other. In the process, the film counters the perception of this area as exclusively a site of violence.
As cartographic acts, Diaz and Mendoza’s films are personal and local: From What is Before is loosely based on Diaz’ childhood memories in Mindanao, in the south; Service is set in Mendoza’s home province of Pampanga in central Luzon, in the north.[viii] But they are also varied, pluralised, and encompassing in their understanding of Philippine experiences and identities and inherently political. Though seemingly at odds with each other, both cinematically and geographically speaking, they both delineate a country and its citizens with great candidness and from the margins, as it were, as representatives of Philippine independent filmmaking.
But as the MoMA series carefully points out, this new ‘golden age’ of Philippine cinema does not begin and end with Diaz and Mendoza.
[i] Batang West Side (2001) was the first film with an extensive running time (of five hours).
[ii] May Adadol Ingawanij, ‘Long Walk to Life: The Films of Lav Diaz,’ Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, Vol. 40 (Autumn/Winter 2015): 109.
[iii] Ingawanij, ‘Long Walk to Life: The Film of Lav Diaz,’ 106.
[iv] Other films featuring urban milieus include Foster Child (2007) and Slingshot/Tirador (2007).
[v] Most famously, a number of films by Lino Brocka, among them Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), Insiang (1976), and Bayan Ko: Kapit sa patalim (1984), and just as significantly Ismael Bernal’s Manila By Night (1980).
[vi] Their kinship is further strengthened by the fact that Jaclyn Jose and Julio Diaz play the wife and husband in both films.
[vii] Their celebrated careers are intimately tied to the second golden age of Philippine cinema of the 1970s and 1980s.
[viii] As is Mendoza’s debut film, The Masseur/Masahista (2005), with the Pampangan dialect.