Thursday, February 01, 2007

Todo Todo Teros (John Torres, 2006)

The spy who loved me

John Torres' Todo, Todo, Teros is, simply put, a lovely film. Part video collage of found footage, glued together with bits of poetry (by Joel Toledo, who co-wrote the screenplay with Torres); part espionage drama; part documentary look on the Manila of today (the sights, sounds, feel of it, the excitement, energy, jacked-up paranoia); part meditation on relationships and the impact one has on others, the film is by turns funny, disturbing, tender, erotic.

On the surface it's the story of a terrorist-filmmaker (Earl Drilon, as the director's surrogate) walking through the Manila of today, a Manila just a shade darker, less tolerant of marginal figures and eccentrics and wayward types, thanks to 9/11--we have to remember that Al Qaeda operatives have been captured in Manila, and that members of the Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) trained in Afghanistan. When Torres surreptitiously trains his lenses at people sitting on park benches and talking, you can't help but think of a surveillance camera; when he throws Teletype reports onscreen of terrorists with Muslim names being captured here and there, you feel a shiver run up your spine. Torres doesn't overplay the terrorism angle (he doesn't have the budget to, anyway); he keeps it all at a background murmur, and it helps add to the verisimilitude, to the sense that this--this is Manila in the second millennium.

Verisimilitude is key to the tone of the film, I think; Torres makes wonderful use of found footage--crowded sidewalks captured from a car window; nightclubs packed with fans listening to their favorite rock bands; the terrorist buying deep-fried fishballs from a street vendor, pouring sweet-and-sour sauce over them (I prefer the onion-garlic-chili-flavored vinegar, myself). Torres' friends--a community of artists / filmmakers / musicians found along Katipunan Avenue (a road, significantly enough, named after a revolutionary organization in Philippine history)--adds to the texture of a specific time and place, teeming with rebellious energy. Film critic Alex Tioseco in the film's opening talks to a TV host about the case of Earl Drilon, a filmmaker turned terrorist who planted a bomb in a Berlin subway (the film's plot, in a nutshell); filmmakers Khavn de la Cruz (he also helped compose the beautiful music) and Regiben Romana can be spotted in several scenes, Khavn with his upswept hair dyed blonde, Regiben with his mop of curls; filmmaker Lav Diaz in a hilarious cameo contributes an anecdote about Pigafetta, Magellan's chronicler, and his detailed accounts of the early Filipinos' more outré sexual practices.

Then there's the humor. I mentioned Diaz's Pigafetta story, but Torres also has an earlier interlude, a scene equating immigration interviews of incoming aliens with the sacrament of confession, the interviewee expected to admit to his various presumed crimes and beg for forgiveness (a wicked slam on both the useless minutiae of Philippine bureaucracy, and the dubious value of immigration security measures). Later the camera spies on two people (presumably terrorists) talking, and entire swathes of their conversation are indecipherable; when the talk is decipherable, it turns out they've been speaking gibberish all the time (intentional or not, Torres here evokes a little joke Jonathan Swift is fond of--tormenting us with hints of unknown information he has no intent of divulging). Even equating filmmaking with terrorism has its ironies--in a world where "if you are not for me you're against me," anyone with an original vision or even just a nuanced point of view would naturally be considered subversive; on the other hand, I can't think of another group less likely to resort to violence (Torres' equation is part shrewd metaphor, part romantic conceit).

But the film's true core--its secret heart, if you like--are a series of extended interviews of one Olga, a beautiful Russian guide with warm eyes and wide smile who has apparently fallen in love with the terrorist. Part of the fascination is that it's real footage of a real girl--Olga Aliseichyk, with whom Torres apparently had an affair (he is candid enough talking about it, but only up to a point). The interviews involve casual, often meandering walks through the streets and plazas of Berlin, and while the girl is pretty enough at first glance it's her unguarded manner with Torres, the total intimacy with which she talks to him (to the lenses, to us), and Torres' (the camera's, our own) unblinkingly insatiable need to drink it (her, the character she "plays") all in that makes her (her character) so utterly compelling. I can't help but recall the anecdotes I used to hear of Filipinos--brown-skinned, short Filipinos, often far from handsome (and the modest Torres admits as much in his voiceover)--and the startling allure they hold over foreign women (Torres' (sorry--Earl's) shy, tender manner with Olga makes me wonder if this awkward charm is part of his--of all male Filipinos'--appeal); the scenes also evoke, somehow, a story in Bienvenido Santos' collection You Lovely People, where an American woman's life is ruined because she married a Filipino.

If Olga is the film's mysterious heart, it's Earl's wife (Bughaw, wife of Regiben Romana if I remember correctly) who steps forward to become the film's agonized soul. We watch her face as she plays over and over again her husband's footage of Olga, her obsessive gaze a mirror of her husbands'. Holding the digital projector in her hands, she throws the images on walls, ceilings, electric fans (Olga's face on the whirring blades recalls the flickering of silent films), the side of buildings; the projector has turned her into an avant-garde filmmaker, and she can't help but announce to the world the reason for her pain.

It's fascinating--and not a little thrilling--to witness the way digital filmmaking has reinvigorated and transformed the ailing Philippine film industry. Sari Dalena and Keith Sicat's Rigodon is a beautifully elegiac look at Filipino immigrants in America; Auraeus Solito's
Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros), from the screenplay by Michiko Yamamoto, shows a reasonably happy gay boy discovering first love and the conflicting demands it makes on the human heart; Dennis Marasigan's production of Sa North Diversion Road (North Diversion Road) turns the classic Tony Perez play into an equally strong onscreen drama, about the intricacies of marital relationships; Lav Diaz with his five-hour Batang West Side (West Side Avenue), ten-hour Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family), and nine-hour Heremias (part one) has constructed epic-length narratives that encompass entire lives, families, histories; Raya Martin takes Philippine history and with Indio Nacional turns it into lyric cinema--silent lyric cinema. Now comes John Torres, combining footage from different points of his life to form a fictional narrative, a narrative that nevertheless mediates and comments on the different aspects of his life. I can't wait to see what they will come up next…

This entry was part of the Contemplative Cinema Blogathon



how come you saw all these? are you in town?

Noel Vera said...

No. I haff my ways...

Sachin said...

Hi Noel,

Thanks for answering one question I had about the film --
I wondered what the terrorist was buying from the street vendor? I thought it was balut but seeing how quickly he ate the item on all occassions, I was not sure if it could be that.

Overall, I was quite taken by Todo Todo.. and could not move my eyes from the screen lest I miss something. So in a sinister way, I too am guilty of spying on the people in the film :) Quite a poetic effort.

I was in Vancouver (VIFF 2006) when John collected his Dragons and Tiger award for most promising new film-maker, along with a cheque for $5000.00. John mentioned this money would enable him to make 10 more movies. I hope he so :)

I truly enjoyed the line-up of movies from Philippines at VIFF. Now, I just hope more movies from that part of the world can make it out here. The Bet Collector was one of my fav. movies of last year. I just hope to get some old stuff from Jeffrey Jeturian in the future.

Noel Vera said...

I need to see The Bet Collector.

You being in Vancouver, did you see Mario O'Hara's Woman on a Tin Roof and Demons? Those are two of my favorite recent Filipino films...

If you know someone in the staff, they may have a video copy available.

Sachin said...

Hi Noel,

Actually I am not in Vancouver but in Calgary. I was in Vancouver only for the film festival -- I was representing our city's Pan-Asian film festival and previewing prospective Asian films which we could show in Calgary this year.

Unfortunately, I was only there for a few days and missed seeing a lot of other good titles. I lucked out in seeing Bet Collector because VIFF added an extra show on sunday night.

Unfortunately, I have not seen any of Mario O'Hara's films. But I need to make some efforts to track down a lot of those old Filipino films.

Actually, another thing regarding Todo Todo and the Berlin footage. I was sure that John was using real footage from someone else because he couldn't have had the budget to fly there just for some scenes. But I didn't think it was his footage, just figured it was from a friend. On top of that, I was not sure if the scenes were acted out or real. But I got my answer :)

Noel Vera said...

Hi, Sachin, I replied to your post, realized I needed to post my reply here.

I don't know if you know the staff of Vancouver, but they might have an archive video copy of Demons. I highly recommend it--it's my favorite recent Filipino film.