Friday, August 17, 2018

Balangiga: Howling Wilderness (Khavn)

This is Not an Open Letter to the Cinema Evaluation Board (on their decision to give Balangiga: Howling Wilderness a zero rating)

To the Cinema Evaluation Board (CEB);

This is not to be an attack on the board members--whoever you may be, as only Doy Del Mundo has actually affixed his name to the summation of comments on the film, for which I salute his candor.

This is not to be a coldly reasoned rigorously logical argument. 

This is not to be an emotional appeal to the better angels of your nature. 

This is not to be a grammatically punctuationally correct think piece. 

Your summation first attempts to describe the film Balangiga: Howling Wilderness (Khavn, 2018)--"experimental, impressionistic treatment," is one term used, which I thought appropriate. The film opens with a surreal image (a carabao flying through the air), occasionally inserts the odd dream sequence involving among other things a talking bird cage, a talking sheaf of grass, a trio of walking bells that bong when bumped together. 

One reviewer notes the significance of the name Kulas--correctly, I believe, as both the character here and his namesake in Eddie Romero's Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (rough translation: The Way We Were Then, The Way We Are Now) are meant to represent the common Filipino, wandering through allegorical thickets of Philippine history. Another notes the 'minimalist approach' (I'd prefer to call it 'oblique,' as the film focuses on the aftermath rather than the actual event), the humor, the stop-motion animation, the 'painfully poignant vignettes.'

Ah, but then there are the 'strong, negative reactions.' The film is a 'rambling narrative with no clear direction.' That's a genre, I believe--the picaresque fiction, once a term for the adventures of a rogue living on his wits, nowadays a series of loosely linked adventures, usually on a road or river. Classic examples: Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (there's a movie version too), Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Nowadays protagonists are more innocent: Eddie Romero's Kulas, Cormac McCarthy's father and son in (What else?) The Road, Khavn's own eight-year-old hero. Is 'rambling' such a negative quality that it deserves special censure? Doesn't 'rambling' mimic the random directionless nature of real life better than most well-shaped narratives?

Then there's the attack on the Catholic church. I won't comment on the characterization of the shaman's masturbation as 'lewd' and 'grotesque'--frankly I indulge as often as I can, though not in public (I'm shy)--but why is a government body condemning a film for attacking a church? Isn't the right to freedom of speech still sacrosanct? Isn't the constitutional principle of 'separation of church and state' still operating? Has Duterte rammed his pepedederalism through already? I was of the impression that the president is not a fan of the clergy, or has the board not gotten the memo? Confused signals, here. 

'Over all, the Balangiga story is ultimately bigger than the story of hate, murder, and sexual perversion that this film unfortunately chose to focus on.' That accusation I like better, but what can possibly be bigger than hate and murder? Wasn't that what the massacre was all about, the murder of innocent folk in the name of hateful revenge? Sexual perversion I'd rather steer clear of--apparently the commentator has perversion constantly in mind--but I'm reminded of an episode in Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo where Vincent Van Gogh stands in the middle of a sunflower field looking about him, drowning. Altman cuts from one brilliant yellow shuddering blossom to another, the surrounding color texture motion too much for a mere pair of eyes or hands to capture, the flood of detail driving him insane. It's only when he plucks an armful and sticks them in a vase in his room can he begin the work to capture their essence. 

Yes the massacre is bigger than any one story, is the story of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands; most of what's known (which isn't much) is disputed by Filipinos and Americans, especially the number of people killed (estimated to be anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000). 

With a massacre of such (possible) scale and with so few solid details available one is compelled to pluck at a few dandelions.

And the bloom Khavn did happen to pick? A retelling of the Philippines' thorny relationship with the United States: basically the two countries (Kulas and an American soldier) stumbling into each other, the latter holding the former hostage at gunpoint; the latter feeding off the former's ability to forage and cook, to the point of abuse; the former finally rising up in a desperate bid for survival. 

Is there murder? An attempt, yes. Is there hate? Perhaps, but also so much more--a need to stand tall, to defy oppression, to assert one's identity against another's racist assumptions of superiority, all while said other holds a rifle ("This is my rifle this is my gun! This is for killing this is for fun!"). 

More there's tenderness, a love for family both blood relative and adopted, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for another's well-being. If Khavn had to pick a particular sunflower he could I submit have done worse. 

As for the rest: 'artsy gimmicks'--Jean-Luc Godard helped invent the jump cut in Breathless back in 1960. Was that artsy? If so I submit we need filmmakers developing more not less 'artsiness;' sometimes the ultralow budget forces a fast cheap solution--and bless the filmmaker who resorts to creativity instead of settling for slovenly staged reality.

'This is a perverted movie masquerading as high art' is my favorite observation, possibly made by the same commentator so obsessed with sexual deviancy all this while. What character in high art one asks is totally free of perversion? Not Hamlet, with his unhealthy fixation on his mother; not Raskolnikov, who's repressed (for all that, watch him with his sister Dunya); definitely not Catherine or Heathcliff--O no! High art is often tainted with extremes of emotion and circumstances, with the human psyche stressed beyond normal shape. Peek into the Bible itself and you'll find a collection of perversions, paraded before the reader for his delectation if he so chooses. 

More, Khavn's kind of perversity speaks to us directly, addresses the sins of the present administration. Malevolent foreign power out to exploit us? Yes. Obscenely murderous governing authority? O yes. Random extra-judicial killings, the bodies left to rot? Absolutely up-to-the-minute relevant. To the expanding collection of anti-Duterte films released so far (Treb Montero II's Respeto, Mike de Leon's Citizen Jake, Lav Diaz's Panahon ng Halimaw, and I hear about Erik Matti's Buy Bust) I would add this film.

On the children's welfare ('one reviewer raises the question of exploitation of these two kids') I cannot answer; I wasn't there. Have not heard any rumors of Khavn abusing children though, on the set or off. I cite a story about the production of Salo, that the young girls and boys tortured so graphically onscreen were 'jovial' off, snacked on the faux 'feces' (actually chocolate and nuts) used as props, and played a soccer game with the cast of Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900, filming nearby. I might also throw in a line Hitchcock likes to lay on his actors: "It's only a movie." If the children in this film look at all like they're suffering I'm guessing that's a result of excellent editing, makeup, make-believe.

Your reviewers perceptively note the cinematography, the production and sound design, the directing. I remember watching Khavn's short feature Pugot and thinking: aside from the mordant humor and shock of seeing filmmaker Lav Diaz in his birthday suit this was clumsy, and not a little crude. Khavn has grown considerably since then: the camerawork here is fluid, the editing precise, the sound design evocative, the imagery poetic. Most of all it's inventive, as if Khavn faced one challenge after another and had to solve them on the spot with inspired improvisation. 

Which makes one ask: just what kind of films do you wish to promote with your tax breaks anyway? Church worshipping? One hundred percent perversion-free characters? Non-artsy movies? Plenty of those in the cineplex every week. The one feature that dares something new on a fertile subject (a relatively unknown episode in Philippine history that resonates with our own times), a dangerous film that troubles the conscience and provokes questions instead of affirming smug complacency, that film you gave nada. No rating, meaning no tax breaks whatsoever, breaks that can make a big difference to a small indie production. Not a 'B'--a to my mind reasonable judgment considering the board's mixed response (with lower but still helpful breaks)--nada.

This is not I think a verdict that encourages innovative, dangerous art.

This is not I think a verdict promoting art that matters.

This is not I think a fair verdict.   

First published in Businessworld 8.17.18

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