Martial Law Movies
Rodrigo Duterte on former president Ferdinand Marcos (italics mine): "President Marcos was a president for so long and he was a soldier. So that’s about it. Whether or not he performed worse or better, there is no study, there is no movie about it. It’s just the challenges and allegations of the other side which [are] not enough"
For studies let me recommend a few titles: Ferdinand Marcos and the Philippines by Albert F. Celoza; The Marcos Dynasty by Sterling Seagrave; and The Conjugal Dictatorship, by Primitivo Mijares, who worked for Marcos, turned against him, disappeared shortly after the book was published.
In literature there's Lualhati Bautista's Dekada '70; Emmanuel Lacaba's Salvaged Prose and Salvaged Poems; and Ninotchka Rosca's State of War.
And more, much more; I'm only citing titles I'm familiar with.
As for movies--in ascending order, my incomplete unobjective totally off-the-cuff list of titles that do in fact deal with the Martial Law Era.
12. Eskapo (Escape, Chito Rono, 1995)
Follows the story of Serge Osmena (Richard Gomez) and Geny Lopez (Christopher de Leon), one the son of a former president the other the son of a media mogul, the film is rare testimony to the fact that yes even the upper classes were not immune to the former president's powergrab.
Beyond that it's Chito Rono's effectively noirish glimpse at conditions during those early days (for rich and poor alike--in that way Marcos was an effective equalizer of the social classes): the fear, the paranoia, the sense of helplessness as you're locked in a room and don't know what's going on, what's going to happen to you, what will become of your family and friends.
11. Sister Stella L (Mike de Leon, 1984)
Mike de Leon working from a spare elegantly structured Jose 'Pete' Lacaba script about a textile factory strike, a nun's political awakening, the forces of capitalism and fascism in unholy (and all-too-common) marriage. The film is short on incidental details in an almost Bertolt Brecht manner (the workplace could well be labeled 'Factory,' the protagonist 'Nun,' the protesters 'Strikers') but like the best of Brecht it's riveting political theater, paring away the extraneous to focus on a coherent and forceful message.
By film's end our eponymous heroine (Vilma Santos in a beautifully understated performance) stands center screen (Center stage?) with a Brechtian blue sky for backdrop delivering a calm yet moving call for action: "If not now, when? If not us, who?"
10. Ka Oryang (Comrade Oryang, Sari Dalena, 2011)
Sari Lluch Dalena on a relatively neglected narrative of the era: the plight of women incarcerated for political crimes.
The film follows Oryang's (Alessandra de Rossi) journey from University of the Philippines student to countryside doctor to incarcerated radical, but isn't content to tell the story straight--Dalena's inner independent filmmaker insists on inserting documentary footage of Martial Law turmoil, time-lapse photography of overhead skies, mysterious passages of forests streams eyes hands (a la Robert Bresson) and other body parts. The experimental trimmings serve as counterpoint to the horrific tortures (rape, brutal beatings of pregnant women, long sessions tied naked to a block of ice). They also suggest how the inmates were able to keep strength and survive, by controlling the stream of their consciousness--focusing on the world outside them, the life inside them, the way this time of suffering (they hope they pray) will also pass.
9. Batch 81 (Mike de Leon, 1982)
Mike de Leon's dark college noir functions both as allegory and psychological study, charting a frat pledge's (the incandescent Mark Gil) descent from unfocused apathy to lasersharp fanaticism.
Along the way we see how the youth is stripped of his ability to question and care--his language reduced to basic responses ("Yes master!") his thinking channeled into memorized platitudes ("The Beginning and The End are one!"). Key to conversion of course is the blood sacrifice--in the film the murder of a good friend (basis for an all-out frat war), in Philippine history the Plaza Miranda bombing (basis for the declaration of Martial Law). The film ostensibly borrows from Stanley Kubrick's dystopian-future film A Clockwork Orange but I submit improves on its infamous source material in at least one respect: you still somehow care about the dwindling down and drying out of this particular soul.
8. Bayan Ko (My Country, Lino Brocka, 1984)
The other film on the list from Jose 'Pete' Lacaba (who had been imprisoned and tortured and whose brother--the aforementioned Emmanuel Lacaba--had been murdered). Less elegantly structured, this film follows a laid-off printing-press worker's (Philip Salvador) descent into desperate poverty against a background of protest rallies (just showing footage of an actual demonstration--complete with anti-Marcos signs and slogans--was considered shocking at the time). Lino Brocka's impassioned realization of Lacaba's script shows what happens when a man fails to achieve political consciousness: like a rat lost in a maze, he runs helplessly in ever-tightening circles.
7. Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before, Lav Diaz, 2014)
Lav Diaz in examining origins and sources in Philippine history depicts not just the early symptoms of Martial Law in a small village but also the kind of paranoid secretive apathetic mindset that allows for such decrees to be executed in the first place, with few questions asked.
The film is one of Diaz's most unapologetically black comedies, a Felliniesque cast of grotesques chasing groping ratting out one another, too obsessed with their own problems to notice the encroaching darkness. The menace manifests first in the guise of myth and folklore--the constant presence of forest spirits; the rumor of an aswang (vampire) hunting among the village folk; the accusation that a young girl is a kapre's (monster's) daughter. When the military finally steps out of the shadows of course it's too late--and will continue being too late for the next fourteen years.
6. Manila by Night (Ishmael Bernal, 1980)
As we go further and further back in time to the year Martial Law was first declared you'll notice the politics are less explicit, the films overall more cautiously metaphorical.
Even then Bernal's film, by common consensus his masterwork, encountered considerable resistance: the release was delayed, the title changed to City After Dark (Former First Lady Imelda Marcos insisted on removing all references to 'her' city), nearly an hour was reportedly cut out, all profanity and references to Manila on the soundtrack (her city!) deleted.
As for the film itself? Gorgeous, with the city as malevolent wonderland where addicts and whores and predators cavort and scramble. The streets actually looks cleaner than what I remember--but Bernal (unlike Brocka) wasn't as interested in straightforward neorealist representation: he was after emotion and conflict, the humanity depicted herein as ugly (and honest) as in any urban hell. No wonder Imelda insisted on deletions.
5. Scorpio Nights (Peque Gallaga, 1985)
Gallaga's erotic thriller and finest film focuses not so much on the nature of oppression as on the nature of defiance, the thrill of a young student and a housewife fucking under their oppressor's nose. The sex, as intricately and imaginatively choreographed as a fight sequence, is a series of rituals celebrating self-destructive perversion as a freely chosen lifestyle; the ending is a sad inevitability, the price paid for all the pleasures that come before.
4. Bagong Hari (The New King, Mario O'Hara, 1986)
The possibly greatest Filipino action film ever made is also a startling political allegory--no, political fantasy--of one man standing up to the whole corrupt establishment. Mario O'Hara's epic noir posits a point-by-point parallel world where an ambitious Mayor Aguila (Joseph Estrada's popular screen persona) struggles with a seemingly innocent governess (Imelda Marcos as governess of Manila) for control over a large and prosperous province (the Philippines).
O'Hara fuses fantasy and reality in a witty stylized manner: yes this is election season, complete with terror bombings and assassinations; yes the betrayals machinations killings implicate everyone, from lowliest thug to loftiest official. O'Hara's intricately choreographed cleanly staged-and-shot fight sequences (which in their baroque way parallel Gallaga's intricately choreographed cleanly staged-and-shot sex sequences) lift the violent narrative to a whole other level, an epic komiks saga where the good guy comes closer than at any time to winning, and the Filipino is allowed to literally rewrite his inevitable doom (ironically the censors demanded that the ending be changed--that the hero be punished for his achievements).
Note the tone, neither optimistic nor cheerful but sardonic--as if the film were saying: "This is as bad as it can get; things can only get better." Where Scorpio Nights might be considered the era's ultimate expression of sexuality (fucking in the face of death), Bagong Hari might be considered its declaration of war--of cleansing, long-repressed fury at long last unleashed.
3. Pangarap ng Puso (Demons, Mario O'Hara, 2000)
The film--the last great Filipino work of the previous millennium or the first great Filipino work of the next--says so much about contemporary Philippines (its poetry, mythology, history) I find it difficult to try confine comments to a relatively narrow subject.
The film does have this to say about Martial Law: that it touched off a cycle of violence that never ended--if anything, escalated. The soldiers of the Philippine military when we first encounter them onscreen are courteous if faintly sinister; they greet civilians politely and keep their military operations (translation: civilian massacres) discreetly offscreen. Later as military raids (which continued after Marcos' fall) become more brazen, relations with the general population deteriorate to the point where soldiers cannot distinguish between civilians and rebels, and treat both with equal barbarity. By film's end the military (and its rebel adversaries) have transmogrified into monsters of sadism and perversion--the demons of the title, the violence inflicted all but unwatchable--and still O'Hara has the effrontery to present his story in lyrically imaginative terms.
2. Insiang (Lino Brocka, 1976)
Lino Brocka's in my book masterpiece stuck in Mrs. Marcos' craw almost as badly as Bernal's; Madame First Lady reportedly pressured the Board of Censors into delaying their review process so that the film would miss the Cannes Film Festival deadline (it was instead screened in the independent and parallel Director's Fortnight). The censors also insisted that the director change the ending, to which Brocka agreed (but on his terms).
Seen today it's a devastating visual critique of Marcos' New Society: overcrowded slums, garbage-choked canals, a vast mountain of trash looming over all. Insiang (a guileless Hilda Koronel) is oppressed not just by Dado (Ruel Vernal) but by her own mother Tonya (Mona Lisa); the sense of claustrophobia, of squalor up close and pressure-cooker personal is such that each character registers as both victim and victimizer, capable of the worst acts of cruelty and despair.
1. Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, Mike De Leon, 1981)
For someone considered to be a social hermit Mike de Leon is a surprisingly nimble political filmmaker, with three features to date dealing with the period. His arguably greatest work traces the roots of dictatorship not to Marcos but deeper, to the harshly patriarchal oppressively corrupt emotionally rapacious nature of the Filipino family itself (and, some say, of de Leon's own clan). De Leon's film is powerful because it's both relentlessly plausible and intimately personal, the gap between his nightmare world and ours as narrow and brief as the blink of an eye.
First published in Businessworld 11.25.16