Review: Engkwentro (dir. Pepe Diokno, 2009)
Eulalio R. Guieb III
I consider Engkwentro one of the most significant Filipino films of the first decade of the 21st century, particularly in the context of the failure of independent films in the country to counter the discourses of the holders of unjustified power and wealth in contemporary Philippine society. Engkwentro is about poverty, like most contemporary indie films; unlike many indie films, however, the film does not feast on poverty. It counters the discourse about poverty peddled around by contemporary films – coming from both the commercial film industry and the independent film movement – and, irrationally, by the government itself. The film’s political discourse about poverty has a more significant bearing on the current state of the country than what has been achieved by any other films among its contemporaries.
Many representations in our current output of films dwell on poverty, but only the face value of poverty, which is mainly about its economic aspects: lack of access to basic human necessities such as food, shelter, education and medical services; and lack of access to opportunities to improve one’s current economic standing. This understanding of poverty is, undeniably, true. Everything about this portrayal of poverty in Filipino films is close to verisimilitude – and often epical in scope. Perhaps, the images are sometimes more real than the empirical. Or, in many cases, they are more romantic than the actual, more exotic than the mundane, more filmic on camera than the perceptions of the human eye and mind. I have apprehensions about these representations, and I tend to disagree with most of these renditions.
My concern lies on the failure of both independent films and commercial films to represent the nature of what is represented. I ask not about the truth of the represented poverty, but about the truthfulness of the nature of the “filmed” and the agency of those with the least power – or those consigned to the lowest rung in the ladder of power – to do something about their situation.
While most representations are successful in portraying images of poverty, there is, I argue, a crisis in the representation by Filipino independent films of the nature of our poverty. I contend that much of the poverty that we experience as a country is created less by the people than the institutions of government itself. In other words, the country’s poverty is a creation by the government. This state-sponsored poverty shapes the nature of social networks and the character of social relations. The government derives much of its legitimacy from the construction of poverty. In this regard, poverty, while primarily social, is understandably political. The political nature of poverty is the kind of poverty that most – almost all – Filipino independent films fail to recognize and explore intelligently. These films’ failure to understand and examine the political character of poverty is the tragedy of contemporary independent films in the country today.
I ask where in our films we get a sense of the political nature of the represented poverty. What do these films say about state-sponsored poverty? How do they interrogate – if they do – the socially constructed images and practices of what I call ‘government-installed poverty’? Is it enough to re-present various nuanced images of poverty in the context of a relatively safer political environment, particularly in relation to previous political dispensations, specifically relative to the political repression of the Marcos dictatorship?
I assert that two distinct and contrasting trends characterize how Filipino independent films tend to portray poverty in Philippine society today. First, poverty in these films is treated as a social phenomenon with no clear identification of the intricate and complex structural causes of the circumstances in which the impoverished are immersed. This is the track that most Filipino indie films tend to take. Second, a few films suggest that poverty is a political phenomenon, i.e., they provide indications of the involvement of the state in the “creation” and “construction” of poverty. These two trends, I argue, provide the main taxonomic difference – a significant divide – between and amongst contemporary independent films in terms of portraying and “exhibiting’ poverty in the country. Most films, including the highly revered Kinatay by Brillante Mendoza, belong to the first category. Pepe Diokno’s Engkwentro belongs to the second category. I prefer the trajectory taken by Diokno. I argue that the major difference between the two films in terms of discursive practice provides a distinctive divide in terms of classifying and redefining contemporary independent films in the country.
Undeniably remarkable about Kinatay is the rendition of the brutal slaughtering of humans as a regular and reasonable form of underground economy in the country. The perpetrators and victims of this economic livelihood are the poor, masterminded by market-influenced drug pushers, and assisted by state police. In the film, they botch inexpertly, but the kill yields attractive results, i.e., the murderers get a chance to fulfill their dream to buy the latest model of a much-desired cell phone, the leaders remain nameless and unidentified, the witness comprehends the clear yet inhuman puzzle but maintains his righteousness by remaining silent and numb, and the dead nourishes the worms of the city’s undersides. Butchering humans becomes as legitimate as political dynasties, jueteng, drug dealing, prostitution, money laundering, loan sharks, etc. But beyond all this, the film does not provide us with an indication of the political character of this very unsettling phenomenon.
Like most films dealing with the issue of poverty, the underbelly of the nation lies in its own heart: gangsters in the named and unnamed places in Manila and in booming cities in the regional satellites of power; petty snatchers of cellphones, wallets, electronic equipment and all sorts of wares, to police-supported criminals, abductors and death squads; police officers whose work involves drug dealing; religious groups, politicians, state officials and their fanatics converging in places like Quiapo and Luneta – indeed, an unholy alliance of the blessed and the dubious, the honourable and the disreputable, the institutionalized and the emergent – all hopeful of the largesse they expect to gain from their networks and industries of redemption and hope; men and women, the old and the young, children and soon-to-be-adults, friends and acquaintances, kin and fictive relations, straight and gay – all depicted as almost always preoccupied with sex, which they carry out in the most “unusual”, or “permissible”, or “hidden”, or “open” crevices of the city; the urban poor who are both recipients and victims of government corruption and neglect; bonds of friendships premised on a swiftly swinging pendulum of loyalty and distrust; a city plastered with election posters, notices of redemption by evangelical groups, and a cacophony of dizzying traffic signs and cordial or coarse reminders about cleanliness; and a parade of innumerable portraits of what are often associated with economic poverty – all in the holy name of cinematic rendition by self-blessed indie filmmakers.
In Engkwentro, however, poverty is only partly social. Poverty in Engkwentro is mainly political. It is the film’s portrayal of the political character of poverty that distinguishes it from most, almost all, Filipino films that call themselves independent.
Outstanding about Engkwentro is its recasting of a decaying urban life within the scaffolds of political frames that clearly indicate the state’s response toward poverty: national terrorism. The maze of the constraining urban space of the rejects of an axiomatic city is turned into a prison cell where escape seems improbable. The “provincial” city is pulled into – or born out of – the network of national corruption, unjust power and social decay. The omniscient voice of a recognized “dictator” and the invocation of Marcos’s national anthem for his New Society – a call to national unity practised during the regime as subservience to authoritarianism and despotism – implicate the political covariance of poverty and terrorism, not in the past but in our present. The higher the incidence of poverty is, the higher the inclination of the state to respond in violent ways. Interestingly, both poverty and terrorism emanate from the state and circulate around the state’s subjects and citizens. In the film, terrorism by the state becomes a valid response to counter poverty. The dream by the poor to escape from their misery is aborted by the state and its gun-wielding and trigger-happy vigilantes. Like in many independent films, the city is a prison, and the people end up either dead or helpless. Unlike many independent films, Engkwentro implicates the political into the social, however. This, I repeat, marks the divergence of Engkwentro from its contemporaries.
I submit that in recasting the poverty of the Filipino people in indie films, we – filmmakers and audiences alike – need to interrogate our place in the country’s current political and cultural struggle – and for whom, and why, we need to articulate and pursue this position. If these films – and the framework that guides our reading of these films – if all these do not fit into the alliance of communities of knowledge and interests based on social justice, the independent in independent filmmaking – in other words, our indiehood, our indiegeneity – is a misnomer. In my view, we do not deserve our indiehood or our indiegeneity as filmmakers, or as film critics, or as film viewers if our positions are no different from the discourse of the current holders of political power whose development agenda disregard social justice for the marginalized. In this sense, our indiehood, our indiegeneity is a negation of the nationhood of the powerless or those with the least power.
I now ask, where in these two directions lies our indiehood? Where will our indiegeneity lead us? For how long will we be fascinated voyeurs of poverty? I sincerely hope independent filmmakers will take the cue from Engkwentro.
<https://excas.campus.mcgill.ca/owa/?ae=Item&t=IPM.Note&id=RgAAAACTwoyGj7v5SL2TLpb9eNFTBwCGPSkAwAgQQZwOHmzO%2fremAAAA7sa9AABtekDury%2bNT7Ew5EhsIVkrAAAKQz3CAAAJ&a=Reply&cb=0#_ftnref1> A friend, Choy Pangilinan, brought to my attention the concept of human butchering in the Philippines as a new form of underground economy, during the screening and discussion of Kinatay in its Philippine premiere at the U.P. Film Center on 30 July 2009.
*Image from Pelikula Tumblr