A short film on being Filipino
Raya Martin's Maicling Pelicula Nang Ysang Indio Nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan) (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (Or the Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos, 2005) is, on its most obvious level, a prolonged exercise in imagination: what if some artist had a movie camera (invented only the year before) and used it during the Philippine Revolution of 1896? The result may not be unlike this--silent images, accompanied by a tinkling, sometimes ominously booming, piano; disjointed vignettes on ordinary life (a boy walking down a dirt road; the same boy sitting on a sidewalk) inserted between dramatic footage of momentous events (the Katipuneros (rebels) tossing a friar into the water; townsfolk running from some calamity).
On a deeper level it's the story of a man (Bodjie Pascua) disturbed from his sleep by a restless wife, asking for a story. The man, sitting up, tells her (and us) the unsettling tale of a boy who encounters an old man with a heavy bundle. The old man, he explains, is the Philippines, the bundle frauds and poisoners; unexplained but implied is the possibility that the boy is the man himself, once upon a time. This introductory segment of man and wife is shot in color, with sound recording capturing the chirp of crickets, the barking of dogs, the ambient sound of a still, vast night; when the rest of the film unfolds it's in silent black-and-white, much like a dream or memory. The man's story--in fact, the entire introduction--acts as a kind of preamble: the woman lies in bed, unable to sleep, obviously unhappy or at least dissatisfied. The story is clearly allegorical--the man himself explains what the figures in the story mean--yet at the same time the intensity with which he narrates the story implies that it has a powerful emotional resonance for him. Martin, in using color and silent black-and-white sequences, in having allegories intensely narrated, seems to be suggesting that the film is both a personal and racial memory; a dream--or nightmare--that the man shares with all Filipinos aware of their history.
Beyond (or below) even that level, the film is Martin's way of retelling a crucial point in Philippine history (the end of four hundred years of Spanish rule, and the beginning of over a hundred years of cultural imperialism) through myths, memories, and a richly allusive storytelling style that draws as much from the Lumiere Brothers, D.W. Griffith, Luis Bunuel, Raymond Red, Kidlat Tahimik as it does from Philippine history, mythology and the novels of Jose Rizal. It's almost too rich a brew, intolerable if it wasn't leavened by a wonderful sense of wit: children look up in the sky at a solar eclipse, mouths agape (are they moaning something, perhaps even singing?)--Martin cuts to a crudely animated sequence where a smirking moon covers an indignant sun; later one of the youths watching the eclipse, now a young man lying in his hut, looks down at his crotch. The sun rises from between his knees, and gives him a wink.
The silent-film segments--three in all--carry their own freight of meaning. The childhood scenes recall in part the willful goofiness of youth (a group of children suddenly deciding to wait for a solar eclipse), in part the marked outcast status of being parentless (the boy is raised by his wizened grandmother and roundly abused by both fellow children and the parish priest). When the boy grows up into a young man, he joins the only game in town, of course--rebellion--only he seems to have difficulty just getting out of bed, much less finding the will to rebel.
The third segment is the most puzzling of all, in that it focuses on a troupe of actors, one of them playing the Filipino mythological figure Bernardo Carpio, a giant trapped between two mountains (he's been struggling ever since, and earthquakes are the result of his frequent attempts to free himself). In Rizal's novel El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster), it's said that when Carpio is finally freed he will lead the Filipinos to revolt against the Spaniards; the revolt begins, and the actor runs around freely. When asked what he'll do with his freedom, he doesn't answer--only stomps around some more.
It's the most perversely casual and offhand depiction of revolution I've ever seen this side of Kidlat Tahimik (possibly it outdoes Tahimik in its offhandedness), and only too apt; when finally granted freedom (by the Americans, who after the Spaniards ruled for forty-plus more years), the Philippines could think of little else to do but squander what financial, educational and physical capital it had either been given or already possessed until circumstances forced upon it the arrival of a new tyranny, that of the Marcoses, who would rule the islands for another twenty years. The film comes full circle, and we remember the film's true ending--the man and his wife, in that little hut, telling each other stories to comfort themselves against the vast, dark night.
Martin is a satirist, allegorist, poet, fabulist, and filmmaker--you can see his eye in images like the boy as sacristan, opening the church doors to a blinding flood of sunlight; you can see it in the way he'll stretch a shot out almost to the point of pointlessness (a woman on a sleeping mat, staring into space), to evoke a sense of intense and inchoate dissatisfaction. He'll use music to drum up a sense of drama, evoke intensity of feeling, and sashay away from the scene of action with witty insouciance. If, say, fellow Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz paints on a lengthy canvas, taking on broad subjects in a grave and unblinking manner, and John Torres creates paranoid scenarios and intense confessionals out of found footage, Martin it seems has found an altogether different angle of attack: playful, oblique, yet sharp enough to draw blood when it suits his purposes (I'm thinking of the friars and their statues, and, harrowingly (albeit in a quiet way), of the children in the town plaza, the parents kneeling over them, weeping). I'm only too pleased to welcome yet another major new voice in the field of Philippine cinema.
First published in Cinemaya Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 3, in 2006