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

14 Aug

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 August 2018 in Uncategorized


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