Thursday, October 20, 2016

Free Range (Dennis Marasigan)

(The film will show at SM Davao Oct. 12 - 18, as part of the To Farm Film Festival


Dennis Marasigan's Free Range is what might be called an advocacy film, or a film made with a specific agenda or cause in mind--in this case a production initiated and partially funded by the ToFarm Film Festival to showcase the Filipino farmer (the entries had a brief run in Manila before swinging through Pampanga, Cabanatuan, Cebu, to end in Davao).
I haven't seen the festival winner, Zig Dulay's Paglipay (Consolation), about Aeta farmers practicing kaingin (slash-and-burn) agriculture, but from the details I would imagine that production should benefit from its exotic culture and dramatic visual imagery (the farmers burn brush and forest to make room and provide fertilizer for their crops).

Filmmaker/writer/actor Dennis Marasigan's own project tackles a far more quotidian and in many ways more difficult-to-visualize subject: chicken farming. The raising of poultry for meat and eggs. Not quite as sexy as the cliched image of a fierce native in loincloth, setting torch to a stretch of grassland--no here we're dealing with layer breeds, coop structures, vitamin supplements; not quite promising material for a dramatic fiction feature.   

Marasigan sails into the challenge: he opens with an equally unlikely protagonist, Chito (Paolo O'Hara) a schlubby unassuming young man who acts as manager-secretary to his parents Terry and Louie (the more regal-looking Madeline Nicholas and Leo Rialp), owners of their Palawan family resort--and immediately you sense tension. Chito's eyes are perpetually downcast, constantly throwing sidelong glances; Terry and Louie look tired, bored, faintly irritated. At one point Marasigan shoots the parents head-on, sitting at their respective desks, and from the way they're lit and lensed they seem to be established in their respective thrones, lost in their own private realms; Chito on the other hand is shot and lit like a humble supplicant begging for audience. 

Mother and father inquire about the resort's status; Terry asks about Chito's wife Alma in Manila to which Chito responds, and something about their exchange suggests there's trouble brewing in Chito's marriage. Later we see Chito calling Alma long-distance and Marasigan teases us a little, his camera at around elbow height, showing us an adorably handsome boy (five or six is my guess) calling to his mother, who's in the bathroom (we glimpse the back of her head through a door slightly ajar). The camera sits and waits; when she finally comes to the phone we think: uh oh. Alma is played by the beautiful Jackie Rice, and from the look on her unenthusiastic face she's too much woman for Chito.

The setup is ripe for melodrama--but this is a film about chicken farming after all, and somehow the topic keeps fluttering in like unwelcome fowl; a resort guest named Toby (Michael de Mesa) visits Palawan to prospect sites for free-range farms, thinks a portion of Chito's own land would be perfect; Chito is intrigued--but what about his family's resort? What about his clearly unsatisfied too-hot-to-handle wife?  

As Chito, Paolo O'Hara is a bit like the subject matter itself. I mean,  chicken farming? O'Hara at first glance does not appear to be promising hero material, much less lead for a feature film. Yet (like chickens) he grows on you; he sinks his talons in and smiles his wide smile (revealing the gap where a tooth should be back there) and wins you over, maybe even (bit of a plot reveal here) persuade you that maybe his wife didn't marry him for his money after all, but for his boyish charm, his idealism, his basic unalloyed decency. 

The other characters show the same ability: they come across initially as types (the forbidding father, the sexy trophy wife) but as you come to know them they surprise you with nuances, little character details that show that maybe this marriage and this family in general might have enough strength and connective tissue to see them through whatever crisis is in store. 

I'm guessing Marasigan's model for the film is Manuel Silos' 1959 classic Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land), about lanzones farmers struggling to raise crops against intimidating odds. Silos' film is a masterpiece, confident in its pacing, majestic in its visual splendor; if Jean Renoir decided to do an agricultural drama in Southeast Asia the results might not be far different, though Silos may also have been influenced by Alexander Dozhenko's Earth in his climactic harvest sequence (Dozhenko's voluptuous taut-skinned pears are resurrected as Silos' overflowing baskets of fruit).

Not saying the resulting eggs are as splendid-looking as Silos' lanzones or Dozhenko's pears (tho Al Linsangan lll's drone footage of Palawan's ravishing landscape is fairly spectacular); if I have a real complaint it's that Marasigan doesn't invest enough time or effort into showing us the difference between free range and standard-issue chicken and eggs--that growing free range chickens involve less environmental impact (we're told this we don't see it in, say, a single panning shot), that the meat and eggs of said chickens is tastier, fresher, healthier overall. A visiting chef (or Chito were an amateur cook) walking into a kitchen to whip up classic tinola (chicken in a ginger and papaya broth) or chicken adobo (chicken stewed in soy and vinegar--considered by Bon Appetit magazine to be the greatest recipe ever) or a spectacular pinikpikan (beaten chicken and smoked salted pork in a thick gingery broth--my nomination for the same honor) might go a long way to winning converts. Even the simple act of frying an egg in butter Fernand Point-style (well maybe not all that simple) might help. 

Not saying Marasigan is equal to Renoir or Dozhenko either--he's a veteran stage actor and director, a talented relatively new filmmaker with a small but promising filmography (Sa North Diversion Road, Anatomiya ng Korupsyon); but I do think the DNA connecting their works is there. The leisurely pacing, the patient accumulation of detail building character and milieu, the belief--both novelistic and agricultural--that if one can only survive, if one can only keep things together somehow till the end of the crisis or season or year, one has a fighting chance of succeeding. Call it willful optimism, call it long-distance determination, call it steadfastness in the face of adversity--it's the kind of human-sized understated everyday heroism we might more readily call the Filipino spirit, unexpectedly but persuasively incarnated in a small-budget film about poultry. Not a bad achievement, considering.  

First published in Businessworld 12.13.16 

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