Raymond Red’s contribution to the Cinema One Originals of 2015, Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso is not only a novel throwback project but also an exploration into the self-reflexive potential of nostalgia.
The work opens with the riotous closing night of an independent film festival in Manila, staged amidst the political ambivalence of EDSA 1 in 1986. It revolves around the banter and last-minute errands of young film-makers Rem (Felix Roco), Pat (Nicco Manalo), and Sid (Earl Ignacio), all driven by Deo (Epi Quizon), the festival director and their mentor in the nascent local movement for a new cinema. This unfolding story is punctuated by the pursuit of things and people—Rem’s unfinished film, handouts to be rushed to the printer’s office, punk rockers to be conscripted as ushers—that reenact the particularities of the time and contrast it with the present.
An amalgam of actual events, cameos and characters, the film ventures beyond the novelty of recollections both fictive and actual in its unravelling of utopian aspirations, revealing a growing sense of anxiety with what has been and what will be. The poles of political skepticism and optimism at the changing times articulated by Pat and Sid, for instance, run parallel to the personal frustration—but also unerring faith—of both Mara (Angela Cortez) and Deo in Rem, a rising star among his peers.
The film’s narrative conspicuously draws parallelisms between revolutions of the historical and cultural kind, teasing out intersections between the country’s political and cinematic history. In juxtaposing documentation of the EDSA 1 revolt and his memories of Mara both in sepia and in Super 8mm film, Rem becomes a central figure where periods of personal and political turmoil intersect. The film routinely shifts away from detached documentation and adopts Rem’s point of view and stream of consciousness.
A conversation between the trio during the most quotidian of activities—snacking on fishballs purchased from a sidewalk vendor—demonstrates how their usage of words simultaneously applies to either realm of political and cultural dissidence: there is, for instance, lots of lighthearted talk of the movement, revolution, underground, alternative, change. The film situates EDSA 1 as a structural backdrop, mirroring changes within the film industry during 1980s, which witnessed the emergence of independent short and alternative film-making as a counter-cultural current to the dominance of commercial cinema.
Caught in its climax and staying afloat in the aftermath, the characters all grapple with the same question as citizens and artists: what happens next, after the revolt? The anxiety and apprehension over the immediate present and the protracted future becomes the means by which the past is retold.
As an ensemble, the film’s characters may be appreciated as not only biographical composites of personalities still active in the industry but also as archetypal or even allegorical figures. As underscored in the postscript, Red’s four upstart radicals eventually end up pursuing various strategies to defeat the proverbial monster of a system: representing different faces and phases of the struggle whenever it is encountered. One later on successfully integrates into the mainstream. Others persist in the periphery or find parallel worlds of practice. Another ends up as historical arbiter and scholar, chronicling this dialectical process of critique and change.
As a cinematic expression of the period, the film indeed pleases and surprises with its material presentations of the past. Red collaborates with Diwa de Leon (Sound) and Pablo Biglang-awa (VFX) to sensorially emphasize the technological and social trappings, if not the zeitgeist, of the 1980s. The camera often pans over to what are now rare sights—from vintage film posters, toys, cameras, period interiors and facades, handpainted billboards, and cars coasting along a traffic-free EDSA—to inserting grainy but vivid vignettes of the unfolding revolt. Cinematography, color grading, and composition combine to subtly draw out contrasts between the politically symbolic hues of red and yellow throughout the film. Sound effects— from the now-archaic sounding ring of the dial-up telephone riddled with party lines to the mechanical whirr of film reels in motion—transport one to an era before the post-millennium proliferation of smartphones and the internet; when analog, and not digital, technology was the cutting edge standard.
It is in these small details and stories embedded within the film that one finds traces and iterations of the material conditions that made the movement for alternative cinema possible in the 1980s: the proliferation of lighter and less expensive filming equipment and stock, institutional support for emergent cinema, and the rising participation of young filmmakers and audiences, for instance.
But one must also move beyond these material iterations and question where this journey to the past leads to. As a period film project, Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso can be compared to other coming-of-age films set during the slightly more politically ambivalent 1980s. Its emerging rebels lean closer, for instance, to the awakening youth of science high school students in Pisay (Auraeus Solito, 2007) rather than the revolutionaries portrayed in historical and quasi-historical productions of the past years, such as Heneral Luna (Jerrold Tarog, 2015). Both trajectories of dissident history, however, have to jointly contend with the ambiguous aftermaths of unfinished revolutions: by revisiting the journey and asking questions that resonate into the present.
Scholar and artist Svetlana Boym once observed that “nostalgia, like globalization, exists in the plural” and draws up a typological distinction between what she termed as restorative and reflective trajectories of nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia, she writes, positions itself as truth and tradition and as a “transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home”, in the same way that collective histories serve to integrate one into the narrative of the whole. On the other hand, reflective nostalgia casts the former’s veneer of the past as absolute truth into doubt and continually defers the ambivalent process of homecoming, reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ conceptual differentiation between the closed work and open text.
Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso can be interpreted as an iteration of the latter tendency: as an expression of reflective nostalgia that restages the past as an unfinished present. It evokes a sense of yearning for the heyday of revolt, when boundaries between what should be done were clearer, more defined. But it also revisits and interrogates the directions of that period by consciously positioning itself within Rem’s point of view: looking at events through the eyes, and lenses, of a character embodying the sense of fidelity to one’s vision of liberating practice
The film begins with Rem waking up from a dream and closes with approximately the same scene: a loop that represents the dissolution between reel and real. In the end, the many rude awakenings and unexpected closures in Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso serves less as a way of deferring to nostalgia, but rather, as an acknowledgment of nostalgia deferred.