Monday, June 16, 2008

Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside, John Torres, 2008)

(Note: The film was shown in the 38th Rotterdam International Film Festival, the 38th Berlinale's International Forum on New Cinema, and the 21st Singapore International Film Festival.

It received a glowing notice from Robert Koehler in
Variety Magazine, and from our very own oggsmoggs when he saw an earlier version of the film, titled Voices, Tilted Screens and Extended Scenes of Loneliness: Filipinos in High Definition (2007))

My own article as follows:

The telltale heart

John Torres' Taon noong ako'y anak sa labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside, 2008) starts out with the key event described in the film's title: the revelation that his father had another family, sired three children that neither Torres nor his mother knew anything about.

It's a traumatic enough an event for any family to endure; for Torres it was reason enough to leave home and try make sense of his life not through discussion, or diary-writing, or any kind of easy, tension-relieving dramaturgy (yelling at his father, or at the stars or something), but through some kind of cinematic digestion--taking bits and pieces of his life into himself, meditating over them for a time, then regurgitating them, transformed, on the big screen.

The result is, well, interesting, to say the least. He makes short vignettes, but pulls them together to form a feature; uses documentary techniques and found footage (albeit less than what I remember him using in his previous work, Todo todo teros (2006)) to weave a personal--possibly fictional--narrative; lets voiceover narrative and detailed titles introduce and link sequences together (but at the same time uses the same voice and text cinematically (the voice (mostly Torres) a soothing drone that sets the film's contemplative mood; the titles flashed on and off at precise moments, like exclamation points, the way Jean-Luc Godard would flash text in his film series Histoire(s) du cinema (1997-1998))); gives us a series of failed film projects that in the act of enumeration reveals a completed film. Several times Torres uses long monologues that either describe an episode or present a philosophical stance and you're asked to see through the monologue, past the screen of words the speaker is weaving to hide the vulnerability inside. At one point Torres admits "I'm not a simple person;" you can't help but agree.

One wonders at his filming methods--how much is actual revelation, and how much invented for purposes of the story? In an early scene he has a mother and father talking about how they were so busy with their jobs they would lock their daughters up in their rooms with educational tools. Father warns mother not to say that, adding "that's child abuse!" Mother counters by saying "but it's the truth!" Torres records the conversation, interested not so much in what they actually say, as in the thought processes involved in arriving at what they decide to say. If this is documentary footage then there's the disturbing element of exploitation in seeing them reveal themselves so frankly onscreen; if it's a script, then it's startling how Torres is able to make these non-actors deliver their written-down lines so naturally.

Likewise with the personal revelations: Torres has done this before, and the detail he's able and willing to dig out for audiences seems limitless. If he's simply pulling it out of himself, he's one kind of artist; if he's making some of it up, he's another; of course, he could also be playing one perception against the other, hiding his true self in the confusion. Or not.

Then there's the mixing of found and staged footage--one sensed a distinction, a kind of visual break between what was made for the film and what was archived fare in Todos; here I think the distinction has been blurred (or at least blurred to a greater degree)--it all seems to come out of the work of one cinematographer. Actually it IS just one cinematographer, Torres (he had Albert Banzon for his previous feature, and did additional photography himself)--it's just that the lighting and medium of filming (except for some moments in low-definition video) seems more consistent, less flashy, overall more beautiful.

As for Torres' use of colors--I love the look of contemporary independent Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz's films (Heremias, Book One (2006); Kagadaan sa Banwaan ning mga Enkanto (Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007), his austere black-and-white video sensibility, but sometimes there's something to be said of color, and the way it points up the beauty and variety of the Filipino foliage. At one point Torres films a tribal dance at long shot: the dancers in their gear (the ribbons of red and orange, the bright squares of yellow or white), stepping in that curious rhythmic gait at once awkward and graceful, surrounded by the tremulous, luxuriant green fur of forest around them, the sun waxing and waning at precise intervals (a brute arclight in the hands of an artist). the trilling, thrilling, bamboo music--it's a hypnotically lovely moment.

Then there's the endless tracking shot of two friends falling in love (perhaps). In black and white, with a little melody playing over the dialogue and a sampling of Torres' more heroic musings heard in voiceover, the scene plays off as poignant, romantic; the same sequence repeated in color, with discordant music in the background and the actual dialogue turned up, is revealed as a free-wheeling comic riff between two longtime friends on the subject of old memories and scoring drugs.

There's the nanny, saying farewell to her employers to work in the Middle East; there's the overseas worker, talking about the tape-recorded love letters she sent to her four boyfriends. There's even footage of Communist Party of the Philippines patriarch Jose Ma. Sison, singing (?!) some of his poetry (The Guerilla is like a Poet). As Sison himself is ready to admit, singing is not his forte.

Finally, there's Torres' long dreamt-of film about Christ.

What unites these fragments, these discordant notes in a life's symphony of sorts, is the idea that each was something Torres hoped to present--whole, complete--to his father. No matter what the subject or who is speaking, it all comes back to this mysterious, often absent, figure, what he might like, what he might not like. We may not come to know him (Torres might not know all that much about him, either) but we do learn things about him: the aforementioned affair, children; the fact that he once ran an empire built out of children's educational aids, now gone--and in fact we see the unsold children's aids piled high into crooked towers along cramped corridors, like abandoned apartment building. You think of a smaller-scale, third-world Kane, with his improvised storehouse full of past successes; you wonder if Torres wonders: while his father achieved and lost just as much, what does he (the son) look like, with all his failed films? As with Kane, what would all the educational aids assembled and put together spell out? What would Torres' own incomplete narratives spell out? The film is full of questions, hilarity, tenderness, confession, pain; it's a storehouse of memories and emotions that defy categorization, constantly inviting one to come, dive in, and lose oneself in its many wonders.

(First published in Businessworld, 6.17.08)


HarryTuttle said...

Hi Noel,
I'm looking for recommendations about filipino cinema. There is a festival in Paris in 2 weeks, with a program of 40ish films from the Philippines. The website is in French but I think there is the English or original title for most of the films.

Noel Vera said...

Harry, working out a new post to answer your question.