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Medusae (2017): Deep End of the Ocean

Nonoy L. Lauzon

 

What does it take to be a good mother? What does it take to be a good filmmaker? Pam Miras’ Medusae processes an interrogation of such circumstantial essentials with the emotionally wrenching tale of a single mom who loses her son in an island she is filming for its cases of disappearances of firstborns that persist to be more than mere rural-legend stuff.

The son is an albino with a name that embarrasses him as it refers to the place where his parents first met each other. He also happens to sleepwalk, has a recurrent enigmatic dream and professes to have never wanted to be born. The lady filmmaker may not have wanted the pregnancy either but otherwise decided just the same to keep the baby who would grow up to be a problem child she nonetheless deeply loves and cares so much for. The island is peopled by folks who may or may not be resigned to their shared fate of their respective eldest of the brood taken away from their families. The medusae of the film’s title may be construed in the symbolic invocation of aquatic organisms and the nature of their reproduction as such is ultimately tied up with the very statement at the crux of the film on laws of conservation and the indestructibility of living matters and all life forms.

medusae

There is value in this parable of the sea as it recasts ways of discerning human action, frailty and limits against the vastness of a universe never to be fully knowable. Myths must exist, cults must emerge, and rites and rituals must be practiced and performed in order for the communities of the living to survive and satisfy the wants that bind humans.

It then becomes the duty of a good mother to come to terms with the flaws that define her relations with her child and it is time for filmmakers to come to the epiphany that it is not always for noble and lofty goals that they peer into private lives to make their films.

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Posted by on 15/08/2018 in Philippine Film

 

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Si Chedeng at si Apple (2017): Surfacing

Skilty C. Labastilla

 

Si Chedeng at si Apple, the first feature of Rae Red and Fatrick Tabada, is a rambunctious romp that follows two ladies taking a road trip of emancipation as they flee from the law, yes, but more from the shackles of patriarchy.

Chedeng (Gloria Diaz), a closet lesbian mother living unhappily in Manila, decides to go to Cebu Province to find the one that got away after her husband dies. She leaves behind three grown sons and takes with her her simple-minded best friend Apple (Elizabeth Oropesa), who also has a reason to flee the capital. You see, Apple has suffered years of physical and emotional abuse by her live-in partner. In one of these episodes of abuse, she kills her lover in an act of self-defense, and she and Chedeng conspire to dispose of the body, except for the severed head, which Apple believes should be carried, according to Santa Muerte tradition, to prevent the possibility of her wicked lover’s reincarnation. What ensues is 80 minutes of almost non-stop hilarity as the women travel by boat, then by bus, to track Lydia, Chedeng’s long-lost love in rural Cebu, all the while carrying a human head in a Louis Vuitton handbag.

chedeng

Still photo courtesy of Rae Red and Fatrick Tabada

If Tabada took inspiration from the American road comedy Little Miss Sunshine in co-writing last year’s hysterical Patay Na si Hesus, he looked to an even more iconic American film, Thelma and Louise, for inspiration in coming up with Si Chedeng at si Apple. Both films center on two female best friends who are either abused by their male partners or are generally unsatisfied with their lives, find themselves on the run from authorities, hook up with young studs along the way, and realize in the end that the few years they have left in the world are better spent pursuing their heart’s desires rather than kowtowing to society’s expectations of women.

Si Chedeng at si Apple, however, is far from being a Hollywood copycat as it transcends its source material with a distinct Pinoy, particularly Cebuano, humor. Buoyed by the delicious performances of screen veterans Elizabeth Oropesa and Gloria Diaz, the film is deeply, tenaciously, bravely feminist. It has the audacity to feature not just two women as the key protagonists, but two elderly women at that! Making one of the lead characters a lesbian searching for the love of her life is a conscious act of rejection of heteronormative romance so commonly produced and consumed in these parts. Tabada is also wise to partner with a female filmmaker, Rae Red, in directing his story, as the film surely benefited from her perspective.

When future cultural commentators look back to today, they will note the rise of the #MeToo and #BabaeAko movements, and the Chedeng filmmakers should be proud of coming up with a film that, even if it pre-dates these cultural movements, perfectly captures the sentiments of the new generation regarding the evil of sexual abuse and harassment of women, as well as the beauty of respecting different sexualities and identities.

 
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Posted by on 15/08/2018 in Uncategorized

 

God BLISS Our Home (2017): Tapatan

Aristotle J. Atienza

 

May halina ang katapatan ng dokumentaryong God BLISS Our Home ni Nawruz Paguidopon. Maaaring inaasahan kung suliraning madalas na hinaharap ng anyo ang pagiging makatotohanan (kaya ba’t madulas at mailap), pero hindi laging inaasahan ang katipiran kung paano nito ibinabahagi at ipinamamahagi ang karanasan ng buhay, lalo pa’t sariling talambuhay ang nakikitang isinasalaysay. Maaasahan ang mga naririyan nang makabagong teknolohiya ng pang-araw-araw na lumihis sa nakasanayang pamamaraan upang maipamalas sa manonood hindi ang inaakalang kaalwalan ng buhay, na karaniwang kalat na kalat nang palabas na gawa ng mga ganitong kagamitan, kundi pa ang kabiguan mula sa mga ipinakikita’t ipinaririnig sa pelikula, bagay na makikitang kalimitan namang inilalarawan sa ordinaryong dokumentaryo. Narito sa humaling sa katapatan ng katipiran at kawalan ang pakikipagbunong haharapin sa God BLISS Our Home.

Tulad ng nasulyapan na sa kaniyang pelikulang A Journey to Haifa (2014), na kabilang sa mga dokumentaryong ipinalabas sa Cine Totoo: Philippine International Documentary Film Festival ng GMA News TV, maglalakbay muli ang dokumentarista, kukunan ang sariling bitbit ang mga maaasahang kamerang GoPro, DLSR, handycam (kasama na ang selfie stick). Gaya ng praktis ng pagmamatyag sa mga instrumento ng pagkuha, masasaksihan sa pribadong buhay ng lumikha ang pagnanasang sagutan ang suliraning tagapagtakda ng kaisahan ng dokumentaryo – ang paghahanap ng kaginhawahan sa buhay. Sa ganitong paraan nagiging totoo ang pelikula lalo na’t inilulugar ang kalidad ng mga kuha (ang kakayahan ng liit at gaan ng kamera) sa mga pamilyar na kuwadro ng mga pang-araw-araw. Ang katapatan ay nasa antas ng pagiging hayag ng mga pamamaraang kinakasangkapan pero hindi nakaaabot upang magsilbing gabay mismo para maunawaan ang halaga ng pagmamalay sa nililikhang katapatan. Ang dalhin ang manonood sa mga planadong paghuli sa iba’t ibang sitwasyong pinapasukan ng personal na buhay ang nagagawa ng kaniyang pagkamalay, ang takdaan ang mga nilikhang aksidente ng bigat ng katotohanang tunay na nangyari ang nasaksihan sapagkat naroon siya. Pero mapagkunwari pa rin, dahil nakaraan na ang inilalantad nakapanliligaw maging ang paggabay ng pumapaimbabaw na maramdaming tinig ng kasalukuyan na inilalangkap sa hinaing at hinanakit na nararanasan. Hahanapin mo ang balintuna, na kahit paano’y nakapagpapangiti, pero upang makuha lamang ang suspetsa. Sa huli, sa kabila ng pagtatangkang maging malay, matutuklasan pa rin sa dokumentaryo ang lakas ng pananalig sa katapatan ng kamera, sa paghahari nitong hindi nababali ang sinasabi.

GOD BLISS OUR HOME naw at bliss 2017

Still photo courtesy of Nawruz Paguidopon

Kung may naihihiwalay na sariling buhay ang manlilikha sa kinaugaliang dokumentaryo dahil abalang kumukuha sa buhay nang may buhay, na karaniwang kapuspalad, babad na babad naman ang pelikula sa buhay ng dokumentarista sa kaniyang pagsisikap na magkaroon ng matiwasay na pamumuhay sa Kamaynilaan. Labing-isang taon nang naninirahan si Naw (Nawruz Paguidopon) sa Bliss sa Lunsod Quezon mula nang pumasok at makapagtapos sa Unibersidad ng Pilipinas hanggang sa makahanap ng trabaho rito. Aminadong hindi sapat ang sinusuweldo kaya’t upang mabawasan ang alalahanin sa pinagkakagastusan, pinlanong umupa ng isang buong yunit para mapangupahan sa iba, ang bayad sa pangungupa ng iba ang magiging pambayad niya sa tinitirhan. Pero hindi ito magiging madali dahil kakailanganin niya ng pera upang maisakatuparan ang minimithi, kaya’t magiging pangangalap ng mga pondo itong susuunging paglalakbay ng dokumentaryo. Bukod sa kita at sa pakiusap sa ina na sumusuporta pa rin sa kaniya sa oras ng matinding pangangailangan, sinubukan niyang magbenta ng mga produktong pampaganda mula sa kompanyang paminsan-minsang pinagtatrabahuan, magsugal sa City of Dreams kasama ng kaniyang mga kaibigan, at magpaluwagan sa komunidad na kinabibilangan. Pero wala sa sariling palad ang kaniyang kapalaran, sasamantalahin ng isang malakas na bagyo ang kaniyang mga plano sa buhay kaya’t sa alok ng magulang ay mapapauwi na lamang sa probinsyang kinalakihan.

Dapat pansining bagama’t ikinukuwento ng dokumentaryo ang mga pangyayaring naganap sa kaniyang buhay na hindi maipagkakamaling gitnang-uri, tinangkang maiwasan na tawirin ng pelikula, kahit paano, sa abot ng mapagbibigyang kakayahan, na maging pagsasalsal lamang ito ng sarili. Dahil gumagalaw sa pakikipag-ugnayan sa iba pang nakapaligid sa kaniya, madaraanan din ng kaniyang paglalakbay ang iba’t ibang pakikipagpagrelasyon sa makakasalamuhang kapitbahay, kaibigan, kapamilya, kapuso, at kahit maging kababayan. Mababahaginan tayo ng mga pagsusumikap nina Anita at Criselda, mga katulong ni Naw sa paghahanap ng paupahan at pagkakakitaan. Makikisakay sa mga kaibigang tataya sa mas katanggap-tanggap na pasugalan. Makikitira sa ina, ama, kapatid, mga kapamilyang makakasundo at hindi makakasundo batay na rin sa mga desisyong piniling tahakin. Makakapiling ang mga lalaking makahahalubilo sa pagnanasang makahanap ng mapagsasaluhan ng mga pangarap sa buhay. Sa pag-usad ng sari-saring pangyayaring inilahad sa atin ng pelikula, mararamdamang patong-patong ang mga kabiguan, pero hindi upang hindi ito maluwalhating madiskubre ng iba, ang Doc Spirit Award mula sa Docs Port Incheon (2014) ng Timog Korea, na magtatakdang karapat-dapat ngang maisalaysay itong pagdurusa, at hindi ang iba pa.

GOD BLISS OUR HOME anita at naw 2017

Still photo courtesy of Nawruz Paguidopon

Habang naglalakbay kumakapal pang lalo ang mga tala ng buhay sa mga pangyayaring nararanasan ng bansa na isinasangkot sa paglalantad ng sarili. Binuksan niya ang dokumentaryo sa pagpapakilala sa Bliss bilang proyekto ng mga Marcos na nagtangkang harapin noon ang suliranin sa pabahay, na suliraning tinatapatan din naman niya sa kasalukuyan. Pero wala na lamang sa nalulumang gusali ang pag-iral ng mga Marcos dahil tila sinasabing minamana pa rin niya, nila, natin ang krisis na dinadama ngayon ng sarili at ng iba pa. Lalo na’t sa pulidong pagtatahi ni Lawrence Ang, ang editor, sa mga likhang animation at sa mga sinadyang kuhang larawan ng mga pang-araw-araw, nagagawa ng dokumentaryong paglaruan ang katipiran ng hindi kayang kunan o mahirap kunan (pero nakukunan pa rin) at pagtanghalin, sa tulong ng lumanay ng musika ni Diwa De Leon, ang mga pangarap ng kawalan at kabiguang nararanasan din ng iba sa kasalukuyan. Lalakbayin din niya ang iba pang pinunong nangako ng katiwasayan sa bansa sa kaniyang panahon hanggang umabot sa pagtatapos, sa pagnanasang darating ang pagbabago sa isa pang pangako, mula naman ngayon sa paghahalal sa isang bagong pangulo kasabay ng pagpiling lisanin ang kinalakhang kapaligiran matapos ang bagong taon upang ipagpatuloy ang pakikipagsapalaran at pakikipagtunggalian, kasama ng marami pang iba, sa kalunsurang pinipiling maging tahanan, dahil kahit paano ay nakapagpapalaya, kahit hindi pa muna nakapagpapasaya sa kaniya.

Ang katapatan sa dokumentaryong God BLISS Our Home ay nasa kaniyang pagtatapat. Inihaharap sa kamera ang mga kabiguang nararamdaman sa buhay sa paninindigang may kaginhawahang kailangang ipaglaban para sa hinaharap. Pero ang halina ay nasa pagtinging katotohanan na ang katapatan.

 
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Posted by on 15/08/2018 in Uncategorized

 

Kiko Boksingero (2017): Making a Man

Jaime Oscar M. Salazar

 

Following the recent passing away of his mother, Francis “Kiko” Arenas (Noel Comia, Jr.) lives in the care of Diday (Yayo Aguila), his yaya, while Myrna, his aunt, is seeing to arrangements for him to come over to the United States and under her supervision—a task to which Myrna applies herself not entirely with avidity, citing financial difficulties. Grappling with the pain of orphanhood and the dread of leaving his home in Baguio City to reside in a foreign country among relatives with whom he is barely acquainted, Kiko finds an outlet in boxing: unbeknownst to Diday, after classes let out for the day, he departs for the house seemingly abandoned by his estranged father, George (Yul Servo), in order to practice his punches on well-worn equipment that he seeks to keep in good condition. When George makes an unexpected appearance during one of Kiko’s training sessions in the course of putting his house up for sale, Kiko, hungry for familial connection, seeks to slip himself out of Diday’s apron strings and into George’s affections.

Kiko Boksingero (2017), directed by Thop Nazareno, concerns itself with charting how Kiko, at eleven years old, negotiates the arduous transition away from childhood and toward adulthood, primarily in ways that play out on the plane of the quotidian: sleeping, dressing, eating, cooking, shoelace-tying, and walking to and from school, among others, are routine non-events that take on symbolic freight as milestones. The close attention that the film pays to them—at least as much as, if not more than, for instance, the unique event of Kiko’s circumcision—helps to underscore how growing up involves slow, incremental changes of habits and relations rather than sudden transformations. While possessed of a staunch, almost studied, modesty of scale, ambition, and emotion, Boksingero achieves resonance in its broaching of the question of what it means to be and become a man.

The film embarks on an exploration of masculinity mainly in and through the character of George, upon whom Kiko models his future self because of George’s purported aptitude at pugilism. George’s proximity to Manny Pacquiao—George is supposed to have traded occasional blows in the squared circle with the Kibawe-born fighter, who rose out of poverty to carve out a highly decorated and lucrative career in boxing—is crucial to the allure that he acquires in the eyes of his son. The fact that George ultimately proves a disappointment might therefore be read as an incipient critique of the vision of masculinity that Pacquiao, who has parlayed his status as celebrity slugger into various fields, notably politics, represents: on the one hand, wealthy, athletically accomplished, reportedly fun-loving and generous,[1] as well as cisgender and heterosexual; and on the other, acquisitive of power, derelict in duty, and ignorant of history, not to mention bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic. This is a vision neither merely idiosyncratic to Pacquiao nor wholly of his own making, of course—rather, it is nurtured and sustained in the intricate interplay between lives, institutions, and social forces.

KikoBoksingero_Scene

Still photo courtesy of Thop Nazareno

The scenes involving Diday are also instructive, in that they trouble the masculine ideal of self-sufficiency: after all, it is upon her largely unacknowledged physical and emotional labor—her labor as a domestic worker, a point that the film appears, for the most part, to take for granted—that Kiko and George depend in order for them to carry out seemingly autonomous decisions. Kiko prefers to eat hotdogs instead of vegetables, and train with his father rather than going about his usual weekend activities, but it falls to Diday to do the cooking and the prodding awake. For his part, George wants to be able to come and go at will, unsaddled by the responsibility of childcare, leaving it to Diday to look after Kiko whenever it becomes tiresome or inconvenient for George to do himself.

That Boksingero is set in the former American colonial hill station of Baguio—even if rendered in a picturesque manner, effacing the many ills of overdevelopment with which the city has long been plagued—serves as a useful reminder of the American imperialist project to subjugate the Philippines, which boxing, introduced alongside baseball to Filipinos by American soldiers at around the close of the 19th century, is caught up with.[2] The scholar Gerald R. Gems has noted that sports—disseminated through the school system, and by organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation, and the Far Eastern Athletic Association—were used by the Americans to inculcate civilizing values and channel Filipinos’ nationalism into athletic rivalries.[3] Boxing, which came with “opportunities for retaliation” and, compared to other sports, greater largesse for winning, became widely popular, leading to the emergence of renowned fighters, such as the flyweight Francisco Guilledo, better known as Pancho Villa, whose feats in the ring challenged “notions of white privilege and prowess” and defied prevailing racial attitudes, which Gems says emasculated Filipinos.[4] Such fraught history should factor into further efforts to draw out and account for the production, embodiment, and performance of specifically Filipino masculinities.

            [1] Gary Andrew Poole, PacMan: Behind the Scenes with Manny Pacquiao, the Greatest Pound-for-pound Fighter in the World (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2010), p. 65.

            [2] Gerald R. Gems, “Sport and Colonialism in the Philippines,” The Athletic Crusade: Sport and American Cultural Imperialism (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), p. 48.

            [3] Op. cit., p. 49.

            [4] Op. cit., pp. 50, 61-2.

 
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Posted by on 15/08/2018 in Uncategorized

 

Mga Gabing Kasinghaba ng Hair Ko (2017): Luxuriance

J Pilapil Jacobo

 

The predicament of depicting the lives of Filipina transgender women has been addressed in contemporary Philippine cinema. Films like Isabel Sandoval’s Señorita (2011), Adolf Alix’s Porno (2013), Eduardo Roy, Jr.’s Quick Change (2014), and even Jun Lana’s Die Beautiful (2016), have all dealt with trans as a mode of becoming where the political could be accessed as a rubric of resistance precisely because there remains the trouble of transgender as the difference within difference, or even against it.

Gerardo Calagui’s Mga Gabing Kasinghaba ng Hair Ko (Those Long-Haired Nights) (2017) does not exactly pursue the gains that have been earned by our current transgender filmography. There is nothing productive in repeating the tragedy of transgender employment in the flesh trade, and restating the concomitant involvement of the trans figure in the traffic of drugs within an erotics of the neoliberal scheme.

As well, the queerness of cisgender men portraying trans sufferance can only point out certain entitlements in an industry where gender is a topic but whose performative significance is never engaged through conditions of performance. Acting is merely understood as vehicular; one performs to craft a persona, and invent one’s signature of actressing.

mga gabi

Screengrab from Mga Gabing Kasinghaba ng Hair Ko‘s screener

Notwithstanding its inability to be conscious of the discourse that is preventing its form to speak through the habits of transgender spectacle, Mga Gabi’s narrative somehow allows trans to articulate the terms of its difficult passage. The long night that stages the seeming disparity of trans lives becomes the duration in which the solidarity of transgender difference can be intimately realized. Perhaps, one can intuit trans time in such a premise.

The form of the vignette must endure violence, as it plays the wound out; and the life of pain that is told within that episode can only be, if it can be precise, the moment of its own restitution. This kind of transit is somehow singularly embodied by Anthony Falcon, whose beauty does not pretend it can resist its own dynamism, after all manner of breakdown. We revel in their irresistibility.

 
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Posted by on 15/08/2018 in Uncategorized

 

Micro-burgers, Magic Pens, and Familial Breakdowns: Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation (2017)

Emerald O. Flaviano

 

For the first few minutes into Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation (2017), a young girl moves through a still house, alone. A string of actions, each strange in itself, constitutes a ritual: at the door, the girl wipes the bottoms of her shoes with a box of tissues; the girl does a Mad Minute of rapid-fire multiplication problems; the girl catches the crackle of static left over the screen of a switched off CRT TV. The climax of this after-school ritual however, centers on the innocuous radio cassette recorder (“component”) stationed at the living room. This device concretizes Yael’s—the young girl—attempts to understand the world around her.

Nervous Translation positions itself in Yael’s perspective, in an original attempt to account for the quiet destruction the unwilling but necessary absence of a family member leaves behind. Yael lives with her mother Val, while her father Dodong works in Riyadh to support the family. She spends her afternoons alone, watching cartoons on TV, doing homework, cooking tiny meals with her toy kitchen. But Yael, a smart and peculiarly perceptive child, is drawn to the component and the tapes her father sends her mother. She’s not supposed to listen to them, but the tapes provide access to a father she has no memory of and to an emotionally distant mother. One day, Tito Ton, Yael’s father’s identical twin, comes to visit and disturbs the relative calm of the household. Troubled but unable to understand why, Yael pins her hopes on the magical Ningen Pen, but a flood brought on by Typhoon Unsang postpones her plan to obtain the costly Pen.

Nervous Translation is not quite a children’s film—shot from the perspective of a child, its preoccupation with revealing a difficult home situation is transparent enough. Yael navigates a world that is mostly populated by adults—Wappy, a classmate, is only as material as a voice heard over the phone, while her unfamiliar cousins hardly talk to her.[1] She picks up things not necessarily because she understands the significance of each word, each act, each look exchanged. Instead, Yael seems to do it on instinct, attuned as she is to subtle shifts of feeling, as one who has had to deal with a mother such as she has.

nt1

Yael listens to her father addressing her mother. (Screengrab from Nervous Translation’s screener)

The unhappy Val is a looming figure in Yael’s life, the adult Yael has always immediately looked to. Yael’s impulsive dependence on writing (to fill the still and empty house, to try to give form to as yet inchoate emotions), for instance, is later revealed to be Val’s as well. It’s unclear whether any other family member has helped her, but we are made to understand that Val has been raising her daughter alone. This has been very difficult, not only because Val works while taking care of Yael on her own, but also because she struggles with the physical separation from Dodong. She has a curious relationship with Yael, one that is conspicuously mediated. The tapes provide a map of Val—the 30-minute no-contact rule between Yael and her was suggested by Dodong via one of his tapes. Yael also knows that the tape that has always been in the component—“Val Kong Mahal”—is key to understanding the shape of her mother’s unspoken longing, itself a presence in the house. Yael and Val religiously watch together a soap opera, a family drama that resembles their own. Yael’s attempt to make sense of—to translate—Val takes on new urgency when Yael catches her mother recording her own alien response to her father’s strange reference to Val’s “luto ng Diyos” and when Tito Ton and his family visit.

nt2

A soap opera Yael and Val watches together every night. (Screengrab from Nervous Translation’s screener)

Measured and unhurried, shots of mundane background details of a typical—albeit worn—middle-class home lulls us into the still, dozy afternoons only a child’s activity can animate, highlighting Yael’s atypical solitude. A waterlogged ceiling and an ancient air conditioning unit belie the financial challenges the family is facing, supported later by Val’s quiet retort to her rather overbearing sister-in-law Bette: “Marami kasing nahihirapang maghanap ng trabaho dito.” From references on TV news, yellowing newspapers, and peeling campaign posters, Nervous Translation temporalizes the narrative in the immediate post-Marcos transition, implicating the dictatorship in the process. An indictment is clearly there. We see in micro a country reeling from the long-term economic impacts of the large-scale and systematic misuse and thievery of public funds of the Marcos government—what had originally been a stopgap measure (labor exportation) eventually became, by necessity, institutionalized as the inevitable crutch to hold up an economy that has been in perpetual failure.

In the face of this bleak reality, Nervous Translation circles back, dreamlike. A bizarre advertisement for the Ningen Pen (literally “human pen”) triggers a sequence of surreal scenes that reference earlier “real” ones: a man in Ningen Pen costume apologizes repeatedly to his employers, in a performance of Val’s pen scratching sorry’s on a blue notebook over and over again; Val is thrown into the Marikina River by Yael to emerge by the riverbank as the soap opera heroine. A jaunty tune that brings to mind sci-fi kids’ shows increasingly asserts itself, interrupting radio and TV sounds—a weird mix of news of celebrating people in the streets and in Malacañang Palace, heavy rain in Batanes, and White Lady sightings—and the soft aural rhythms of the house.

An autobiographical motive can easily be read behind Nervous Translation—how else can one know with such intimacy the workings of a lonely child’s mind? Who else can insist on the urgency of these attempts at comprehension other than one who understands how moments, barely grasped, endure as jagged memories, to gather significance in the end? Yael and Val and Dodong’s story could have been written otherwise, as countless other OFW families’ are, on TV dramas that promise fidelity to “the true story”. It is all the better that Seno does not, and instead offers a fresh eye—a child’s—to look at a family made dysfunctional by the absent OFW father, skillfully rendering this perspective with earnest originality.

[1] In a rare instance of engagement (but not quite), one cousin, with the brutal frankness characteristic of a child, points out “She looks like a mummy!” The cousin is, of course, referring to the inexplicable bandages Yael sports on both arms.

 
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Posted by on 15/08/2018 in Uncategorized

 

Of Technologies, Transcriptions, and Ties that Bind: A Review of The Chanters (2017)

Lisa Ito-Tapang

 

Culture, tradition and technology are framed as intertwined facets in The Chanters (2017), James Robin Mayo’s directorial debut during last year’s QCinema International Film Festival.

The film is set in the quiet hinterlands of Central Panay in the Visayas: in humble parts where the rumble of the motorcycle resonates far across the fields and where communal gatherings to catch up on soap operas are still a neighborly pastime. Employing the Hiligaynon language, its narrative revolves around the daily routines of the millenial Sarah Mae Navarro (Jally Nae Gilbaliga) and her grandfather, Lolo Ramon Navarro (Romulo Caballero), a farmer and chanter of the Panay Bukidnon Sugidanon epic poem who grapples with the frailties of old age and dementia. Despite their differences, both find themselves rushing against time as the awaited school visit of celebrity Danica Reyes draws near.

On the surface, Sarah Mae and Lolo Ramon are a humorous study in contrasts. The gentle and gracious grandfather is the only surviving chanter of his tribe. Each day, he painstakingly transcribes lines of the ephemeral epic from memory, as its living repository, while maintaining a local school. In contrast, his sassy and smartphone-savvy granddaughter is one among thousands of enamored “Danicanatics”. While she has been introduced to traditional music and dance of the Panay-Bukidnon, Sarah Mae seems more attuned to the filmic appearances and lyrics of her idol’s latest pop song, titled Kiss Me ❤ ❤.

Chanters Still 02

Still photo courtesy of James Robin Mayo

The inter-generational and intra-cultural divide they embody is made tangible across the story by conspicuous technologies of mass communication. The selfie stick is introduced as a novel narrative tool: wielded by Sarah Mae as she traverses dirt roads dreaming of finally meeting Danica in person. The lone and occasionally dysfunctional television is an object around which the community congregates, underscoring not only the distance between the viewing periphery and capital-centric celebrity but also more familial ties operating within the far-flung town. The cellphone enables both connection and disengagement. It presents a distraction from her grandfather’s chant lessons but shortens the distances separating them from others: the staff of the local cultural office and her own mother, employed as an overseas foreign worker. Between the two, Sarah Mae is the digital native at home with the use of gadgets; Lolo Ramon wrestles with pen and paper to get things done.

The characters of Sarah Mae and Lolo Ramon inhabit poles that can veer perilously close to simplification or caricature. The film, however, steers itself away from this dangerous precipice by demonstrating a nuanced sensitivity towards its combination of technological significations, narrative dialogue and visual language.

Chanters Still 09

Still photo courtesy of James Robin Mayo

Technology, for instance, prominently mediates and translates the web of personal and social relationships in The Chanters. As commodities and objects introduced in the cinematic narrative, these channels of communication are signifiers of broader conditions of precarity. These include the translation of cultural tradition into contemporary experience amidst the influx of foreign influences or the economic and affective interface between cultural, rural and, to some extent, migrant labor.

But technology is also employed to enrich the signification of the filmic experience. The Chanters is shot using an aspect ratio of 1:1 and consciously employs this square frame in this cinematic inquiry into traditional culture. The format and color grading strongly evokes the filtered viewing experience of Instagram and other photo-sharing sites: global platforms of dissemination for millions of photos and short videos.

Visually, these formats yield interesting effects when translated into a feature-length work. The compositional centrality and symmetry afforded by the square, for instance, is particularly effective for producing endearing portraits of Sarah Mae and Lolo Ramon as well as conveying the sense and structure of place: from aerial views of the rural interiors to carefully-composed scenes in homes and schools. Semiotically, the frame can also be read as an appropriation of the spatiality implied by mobile technologies: also referencing how their presence can possibly bridge—instead of widening—the gap between traditional and popular culture.

The flux of transcription and transformation are encoded in many picturesque moments across the film. But beneath the idyllic scenery and light-hearted banter are disturbing signs: kitchen fires, a spell of blankness, a sudden disappearance at dusk. This urgency of loss and preciousness of memory is poignantly distilled in one scene, where Sarah Mae chances upon Lolo Ramon inside the school, patiently scribbling forgotten lines on the blackboard. Positioned at opposite corners of the empty room, like bookends, are two turns and faces of tradition: one inscribes as the other erases.

Chanters Still 01

Still photo courtesy of James Robin Mayo

Gilbaliga and Caballero both shine in their respective portrayals of change and its contradictions in this comedy-drama, demonstrating how The Chanters is anything but simplistic or one-sided in its take on tradition and contemporaneity. In his completion of the epic’s documentation, Lolo Ramon reflects on the transience of both epic poetry and pop song, learning to trust the generation ahead. In her transition from volunteer back-up dancer to organizer of an indigenous chant presentation, Sarah Mae’s yearning to belong to the new gives way to a revisiting and holding dear of her roots.

The ties that bind the two go beyond the film itself. The project of propagating the region’s intangible cultural heritage which began some decades ago with scholarly documentation continues to date, and in many forms. For instance, more artists in Panay are initiating projects aiming to popularize the Sugidanon through art exhibitions and public performances. On a larger scale are initiatives to enact and defend non-formal schools of living traditions, which mostly operate in communities of the country’s indigenous peoples and national minorities.

The film demonstrates the possibilities of regional cinema as an expansion and exposition of indigenous knowledge and how it navigates conditions of the contemporary. In such dark times of loss, The Chanters is a work well worth treasuring for its intimate reclaiming of hope.

 
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Posted by on 14/08/2018 in Uncategorized