Film

These 6 Filipino Films Merge Cinema and Social Commentary

But what does a country’s cinema become when a disruption to freedom of speech hits the nation?
03 July 2020, 12:26pm
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Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of the filmmakers

In 1984, Filipino director Lino Brocka smuggled his film Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (This Is My Country) to the Cannes Film Festival, after being banned in his homeland for overtly tackling the severe corruption of the Marcos dictatorship. He was arrested upon his return to Manila.

The Philippines has an illustrious history of filmmakers using cinema to comment on politics. More recently, documentary filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz captured the plight of Maria Ressa, a veteran journalist now facing multiple charges that human rights groups describe as politically-motivated, in the film A Thousand Cuts. It premiered at the 2020 Sundance Festival and was made available for Filipinos to stream for free in time for Philippine Independence Day on June 12. Through its interviews with pro and anti-Duterte candidates, the film presents how Ressa and her website Rappler dealt with its critics in the lead up to the 2019 midterm election. It is a sobering account of the threat to press freedom and the destabilisation of democracy in the Philippines.

Films like Diaz’s hold up a mirror up to society, openly critique governing powers, and allow us to imagine ourselves, our histories, institutions, and the world anew. So what does a country’s cinema become when a seismic disruption in freedom of speech hits the nation?

On Friday, July 3, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the controversial Anti-Terrorism Bill into law, which many see as a threat to freedom of expression.

For about a month, masses of Filipinos protested against the bill seen as a repression tool to silence government critics. The law vaguely expands the definition of a terrorist, gives the government more power to conduct surveillance and arrests, and proposes tougher punishments for suspected terrorists. Critics say the government can use the new law to charge its dissenters.

Filipino filmmakers have expressed concerns about how this could alter the landscape of Philippine cinema. A coalition of Filipino creatives started the #ArtistsFightBack movement, publishing an open letter and petition in response to the bill. The statement highlighted a section that penalises inciting terrorism.

“As artists, we are vulnerable to the subjectivity and the impreciseness of this section. Our job, quite literally, is to incite. To trigger emotion and to question. To move. To mobilize. Our responsibility is to serve the truth, whether or not it is aligned or in accordance with the government’s stance. This is a clear impingement on the Constitutional right to freedom of expression, not just of artists, but of any Filipino who should be allowed to express dissent,” the letter reads.

Furthermore, the Duterte administration and the government-run Film Development Council of the Philippines has already received pushback from the Directors’ Guild of the Philippines in response to new regulations that increase government surveillance and presence on future productions.

Limiting artists' freedom of expression would be a shame since, like Brocka and Diaz, the current wave of Filipino filmmakers use film as both an aesthetic and social force. Below are just some of the many. Critical, unwavering, and radical, these films and the voices behind them are blazing the trail for independent Philippine cinema today.

Filipiñana (2020)

Rafael Manuel

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Photo: Courtesy of Rafael Manuel

The sharp swing of a golf club gives Filipiñana its sonic pulse—it’s a short film that recasts a country club as the site of escapist daydreams and the class struggle that simmers underneath.

Manuel immediately immerses us in the inner world of Isabel, a tee girl who makes a living doing tasks both mundane and ritualistic: organising golf balls, cleaning clubs, and waiting after the course’s elite patrons. Each frame is strictly guided by geometry—fragments of bodies pepper the visual landscape, imbuing the surreal to this space once steeped with wealth and athleticism.

Images are at once comforting and uncanny: a pastel ice cream sundae melts in the sweltering heat, uniformed employees nap in the humid backroom of the club’s kitchen, and whirling disco lights ignite a karaoke number. While its pacing saunters with as much leisure as a foot massage, Filipiñana operates as a gripping allegory for the vast wealth gap that divides Philippine society.

London-based Manuel won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlinale shorts competition, and is developing the project into a feature.

Balangiga: Howling Wilderness (2018)

Khavn

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Photo: Courtesy of Khavn

Balangiga begins with the impossible: a carabao, or water buffalo, glides high and seamlessly over miles of rice paddies. Myth and history fuse as we’re jolted into the wartime reality of United States-occupied Samar Island—and into the aftermath of the 1901 Balangiga Massacre.

Balangiga is a road movie, and those on the journey are 8-year-old Kulas, his grandfather Apoy Buray, and a toddler they happen upon in the ashes of the uprising. As they traverse the tropical terrain, their encounters demonstrate the fractured range of attitudes toward the West—from fatal attraction to outright hatred. And with each step in and out of the muck, Khavn gives tangible weight to the labour one must endure to escape a region plagued by colonial violence.

With first-person shots that prove the camera as an extension of the body, animation, and glowing, extreme wide-angles, Balangiga reveals the kind of animal war can make the young and impressionable. The film is available to watch on-demand here.

Nervous Translation (2017)

Shireen Seno

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Photo: Courtesy of Shireen Seno

“It’s been so long since we’ve seen each other,” announces a cassette recording that 8-year-old Yael listens to with startling curiosity. The voice belongs to her far-away father, who works overseas in Saudi Arabia. In secret, Yael rewinds, replays, and repeats to herself these messages—an attempt to both relive their shared memories and process his absence.

Tinged with radio static, VHS hums, and landline telephone missives, Nervous Translation is a love-letter to the late 80s, taking place at the tail end of the People Power Revolution which overthrew the Marcos dictatorship. The film thoughtfully balances playfulness and meditation, with jump cuts that evoke Yael’s widening understanding of the world set against her quiet perceptiveness; her seeming smallness.

"Size is taken quite literally, but it’s also used as a metaphor of colonial power on our psyche,” Seno told Kinoscope. "Filipinos are quite small, especially compared to our colonizers; we have always been looking up to others."

In the film, Yael constructs miniature meals from a toy kitchen set, plucks gray hairs off of her mother’s scalp, watches Japanese television adverts upside-down, and scribbles and re-scribbles in her math workbook. Measured yet daring in its visual empathy, Nervous Translation illuminates a familial longing rooted in the socioeconomic reality of displacement for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW).

Seno forms one half of Manila-based film lab Los Otros, and Nervous Translation has the unwavering support of The New Yorker’s film critic Richard Brody.

Death of Nintendo (2020)

Raya Martin

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Photo: Courtesy of Raya Martin

Raya Martin has made a name for himself in the international arthouse circuit, with black and white period drama Independencia competing in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2009, among other honours. His latest, a collaboration with his childhood friend, Filipino-American writer and producer Valerie Martinez, centres a group of lovelorn, video game-obsessed boys in the 1990s, turning on their head tropes of the coming-of-age rom-com. Subtle, poignant nods to national political issues are made to the global AIDS epidemic, the Catholic Church’s powerful hand over the country, as well as that of the police.

While friends Paolo, Kachi, and Gilligan sort out their romantic pursuits to the bleeps and bloops of Super Mario Bros., drama of a geological magnitude bubbles beneath as the historic volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo looms overhead, with shots of rich, red lava woven into the narrative. Death of Nintendo premiered at this year’s Berlinale and is slated to screen in the Philippines after its festival tour.

Nowhere Near (2021)

Miko Revereza

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A still from Revereza's short film 'DROGA!' Photo: Courtesy of Miko Revereza

“How does an undocumented filmmaker document themselves?” Miko Revereza’s Director’s Statement asks. Lyrical and rooted in language, his experimental filmic memoirs probe questions of Filipino diaspora, migration, and exile.

Having grown up in Los Angeles but never officially obtaining U.S. citizenship, his documentaries centre his identity as a “stateless” filmmaker, signaling that distance—in its both legal and physical terms—is in fact a construct; that it’s often conflated with estrangement. Maybe, Revereza posits, moving images can remedy this void.

In his short works, grainy 16mm images of airplanes, Jollibee franchises, and archival footage of his grandparents both bridge and abstract the gap between the Philippines and the U.S.

Revereza’s forthcoming second feature, Nowhere Near, tracks the filmmaker’s emotional return to his Philippine homeland after 26 years of exile. Together with his grandmother, Revereza moves through her ancestral coast province of Pangasinan—on foot and by bus—the same land on which General Douglas MacArthur’s troops landed.

In her Producer’s Note, Seno of Los Otros states that Nowhere Near softens the distance between art and life, and in the most compelling of ways visualises what it means to be a living, breathing, mobile person today.

The Remotes (2022)

John Torres

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Photo: Courtesy of John Torres

The Remotes is a sci-fi docu-fiction which refashions documentary footage into an original fictional narrative about a phone app that remote controls its users’ bodies—to drive, rob, and kill—and a police hunt that blossoms it. An expanded, feature-length version of We Still Have to Close Our Eyes, a short film Torres made in 2017, The Remotes is composed solely of footage shot by the filmmaker while visiting the sets of film productions in the Philippines, both mainstream and alternative.

“It was a mix of veteran and young filmmakers, i.e. Lav Diaz, Erik Matti, Dodo Dayao, Dan Villegas.” Torres, who forms the other half of Los Otros, told VICE over email, “we didn’t ask anyone to act in front of our camera. These are all really a documentation of the going-on during our visits.”

When asked whether he considers himself a political filmmaker, Torres told BOMB Magazine, “We can’t help but be very political because we see what’s going on around us. It’s inevitable, even if we pass by newsstands, we see the headlines, and this is what creates our consciousness.”

The Remotes brims with this natural and urgent politicisation—in a pitch made for this year’s Marché du Film at Cannes, Torres proclaimed that the film “springs from a bleak and uncertain political situation: the war on drugs—the remote police control that has knocked on our doors and taken our control of our bodies without question.”

Once released, the film will force reflection on control, surveillance, and the current police state under Duterte’s watch.

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Correction 07/04/20: A previous version of this article stated that Balangiga: Howling Wilderness premiered in 2017. That has been corrected to reflect that the final version of the film was released in 2018.