A review of Mula Sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before, Lav Diaz, 2014)
JPaul S. Manzanilla
What was the condition of the country before the imposition of martial law? How were the people like during the time when everything was looking good as it seemed, until one man decided to put our fate in his hands? Lav Diaz once again takes us on a journey back in time when authoritarianism is about to start to understand the particular period which has come to define recent Philippine history.
At the film’s start, a voiceover says that the story we are about to witness comes from memory and is based on true events. Mysterious things are happening in a remote barrio. A person is found dead with bite marks said to be made by an aswang (viscera-sucking beast). Cows are hacked to death. Howling sounds are heard from the wilderness. Houses are burned down. Then we are immersed in the characters’ interactions. Sisters Itang (Hazel Orencio) and Joselina’s (Karenina Haniel) impoverished lives compels the elder Itang to utilize the faith healing powers of Joselina in order for them to survive. Child Hakob (Reynan Abcede) looks for his parents and his uncle Sito (Perry Dizon) fabricates a story that the missed ones are lepers quarantined in the far-away island of Culion (are they rebels or simply the vanished ones in a destitute and felonious community?). Winemaker Tony (Roeder Camañag) rapes Joselina and concocts a tale of their love affair. Parish priest Fr. Guido (Joel Saracho) delivers a sermon that covers up the real cause of the disappearance of Joselina and Itang just to pacify the villagers’ anxiety.
Diaz’s art of slow cinema gives viewers the chance to think and feel through the narrative he carefully crafts, unpressured by swift direction that waylays seemingly inconsequential actions to the detriment of understanding. The camera keeps hold of scenes for a long time and so allows contemplation, a technique that reorders the persistence of vision and the cognitive capacities of spectators. In traditional cinema, reasoning tries to catch up with the rapid current of images and one only ably examines after “finishing” the film. Three long minutes is devoted to the boat ride of Itang who’s brooding over on how she and her sister can survive. Several long scenes portray the mentally ill Joselina. Sito and Hakob blend with the foliage, becoming distinguishable only after they make some movements. There are scenes that show the wide extent of the terrain, only suddenly to have some characters walk in and around them, as though protruding from the natural environment. The film’s astounding photography, all in simple black and white, especially the scenes at the coastline where land, water, air, and fire coalesce and struggle, is Diaz at his usual best. All these visualities are contingent upon how sounds are crisply recorded, from the sounds of the elements and the flora and fauna of the terrain.
When, suddenly, the military arrives at the scene to offer peace, the villagers could not be pacified. It seems that the town is fated to experience both the cause of, and answer to, their problem. Everything falls into place as what is anticipated (by the viewer who knows, by looking from the present, that military rule is about to be imposed) finally happens. All the unexplained occurrences—conditions of deprivation and depravity, in fact—are used to justify the imposition of military rule. Recall how native beliefs are utilized to counter the growth of the revolutionary movement. The aswang as the outsider within that terrorizes the community is the communist alien that should be vilified and put at the stake, according to the classic counterinsurgency stratagem. The armed forces of the state, possessing the legitimate use of violence, arrive on the scene and transform the community, but not without opposition. It is striking to see how local knowledge is used to debunk the excuses for military presence delivered by the officer aptly named Lieutenant Perdido (English translation: lost). Locals ask why classrooms will not be built instead of the roads and bridges the soldiers will construct (to speed up the army’s entry, certainly). In simple non-pedantic fashion, Sito asserts that their place is peaceful prior to the influx of soldiers. Fr. Guido vehemently objects on the sudden restriction of movement imposed on him and his flock. The gossipmonger peddler Heding (hilariously portrayed by Angelina Kanapi) who even invents a tale that Joselina is a daughter of a kapre (a monstrous male beast) and is the source of the town’s misfortunes is, after all, a military spy who facilitates the arrival of the soldiers. It is the film’s brilliance that it situates Martial Law far from the center, not in Manila where the dictator is supposed to be besieged, but at the periphery where the most basic problems of inequality and the worst inanities by state lackeys are ignored.
The recurrent mention of the University of the Philippines as the starting points of both communists and military combatants demonstrates that the educational institution is not only feeder to the rebel movement but to the anti-insurgency organization as well. Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law, aired through an unseen radio, is actually only a formal inaugural of what is being enacted all along. The polemical conversation between the writer and farmer strikes at the heart of the town and the entire nation’s collective memory, history, and forgetting. One must be critical, though, of the nostalgia for the pre-Islamic and Christian past which is being suggested as the ideal time before things have become cataclysmic for their town. Such sentiment expresses how things have turned for the worse but also indicates how time has become out of joint so that a revolutionary moment can commence. How can counterrevolution embodied by Martial Law be sublimated?
For what the film reveals is that the past, the countryside , and the masses are not ideal to begin with. The problem does not come from the outside, as suggested by the arrival of the military, it does not lie elsewhere, but within the community, festering their psyche because they are afraid to confront it. Are assaults on native ways of thinking and feeling deflected and weakened by a yearning for a lost past, a before that is not paradisical but about to be transformed by, because it creates, a newer set of contradictions? Here are poor folks deeply entangled in crimes—thieving, raping, lying to their teeth. Unawakened, the masses will never be the messiah of their own fate. When Itang brought herself and her sister to death, right at the Blessed Rock where they used to perform rituals for absolution and where Hakob and Tony steal their offerings, how can redemption ever be attained? The priest who disputes the army is the same man who hides the truth of the sisters’ death, really serving as an ideological apparatus to conserve a dying community. Ironically, it is the rapist and liar Tony who questions Fr. Guido. To false consciousness, he re-joins the consciousness of the falsity of things, a brave response to the regime of lies that perpetuated the dictatorship. Tony eventually dies under the hands of Sito, enraged by the almost incestuous rape, maddened by the suicidal turn of events in their village, and perhaps breaking down from the edifice of lies rapidly collapsing in front of his eyes.
The refusal of the rebels to answer back despite being tortured is a classic act of defiance that would eventually devastate the reign of terror, not in the film but after the time contained in it, in living history. Thickly describing situations – from the cosmos of customs to the complementarity of folk belief and Roman Catholic religion and from the terrors of militarism to the quotidian character of agrarian life – Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon is simply astonishing in how it reveals the prelude to a nightmare in Philippine history. The trauma of Martial Law is delicately attended to by Diaz in this painstaking elaboration of what is supposed to be the condition of our misery.
JPaul S. Manzanilla is engaged in research on the histories of photography, cinema, and television in the country.