Wednesday, August 17, 2022

12 Weeks (Anna Isabelle Matutina, 2022)

Three months

Anna Isabelle Matutina's debut feature 12 Weeks is powerful both for what it says and doesn't say. It's a laser-focused look at a woman (Max Eigenmann as Alice), firmly in charge of her life and career, suddenly blindsided by the fact that she's pregnant at 40-- what she feels, what she (implicitly) thinks, what she faces in terms of social and practical challenges in the Philippines, where abortion is illegal.

The film doesn't talk about the morality of abortion. In film after film of classic Filipino melodrama, from Tinimabang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) to Moral (1982), abortion has been seen as something of a horror, a hidden crime or sin performed on a woman that usually turned her into an outcast or a rebel, if not a crazed homeless figure (in the case of Lino Brocka's Tinimbang, the procedure is forced on Kuala by her lover, for the sake presumably of respectability). By the time of Ishmael Bernal's Hinugot sa Langit (1985) attitudes had shifted sufficiently that women didn't go insane or think they're committing an unpardonable sin, they're at most vaguely sad. It helps that Bernal is arguably the most sophisticated (or at least most sardonic) of the '70s generation of Filipino filmmakers, able to consider the idea of prematurely ending a pregnancy without batting an eye-- and even he, at least in this film, treats the woman's predicament with an empathetic, uncharacteristically tender approach. 

Alice isn't sad, she's angry. From her lover Ben (Vance Larena) to her gorgon mother Grace (Bing Pimentel) onwards she collides with the notion that "You're 40, you'll never get this chance again." What if she doesn't want the chance? What if she has other drives than motherhood-- the drive to deliver humanitarian aid to Marawi for one, to be good at what she's good at? And yes, speaking as a cis male father of three trying his best to understand, this feels like a no-brainer: some folks don't feel the need to bring fresh victims into this overpopulated overcomplicated world; they have other goals they feel are more important, at least to them. For me, and apparently for Alice and the director, debate on the issue should begin with the fact that women in the Philippines have no real choice in the matter; if they don't want the child they have to work around the reality of the system to get what they want, or resign themselves to having a child they don't really want. 

Matutina adopts the most direct tactic: stick close to Alice and her point of view. If she's offended, share her irritation; if she commits mistakes-- she's self-centered and hard on people around her, especially those who care about her-- suss them out (there's considerable overlap with her strong will and independent streak) and be aware when she owns them, or when she doesn't (Matutina doesn't judge Alice, if anything doesn't judge anyone in the film). Handheld camerawork, a restless editing rhythm, dimly lit grungily dressed locations, a near-total lack of music-- not flashy filmmaking but conveys a sufficient sense of everyday solidity that you don't question the texture and presence of the woman. You accept her reality as she struggles with an issue that's changing her reality, her entire being. 

On the separatist revolt in Marawi City and Duterte's consequent declaration of limited martial law-- aside from the fact that Alice's choice of career (a non-government organization or NGO) and apparent dedication shows her qualities as a person, I'm also of the school that a film about an issue shouldn't be directly about that issue but about something else, the camera keeping a sidelong eye on how the former affects and illuminates the latter. Despite which Marawi for all its apparent irrelevance does resonate with Alice's circumstances: the conflict was created by men unilaterally attempting to impose their will on others (the ISIS rebels on the folk in Marawi, Duterte on rebels and city folk alike), and is screwing up the lives of everyone, even those only tangentially involved.  

I like it that Matutina doesn't lecture to us; we just get the facts of Alice's pregnancy, little else (there's a brief testimony by someone from Marawi that the filmmaker lets us listen to at length, just to give us an idea of what's at stake). I like how Ben is portrayed-- often thoughtless and irresponsible but, after being properly and thoroughly chastised, capable of caring for and being considerate of others. Also like it that it's Ben who raises the question of contraception, and is funny about it; presumably (or I think we can presume, since the issue was raised) that they were using contraception, only they were careless about it. Also like Bing Pimentel's Grace-- she's the classic controlling and dominating mother who, after all is said and done, shares many of her daughter's qualities-- she has an independent streak, and she does care about the people she loves. 

All in all a strong contribution to the discourse on the issue. Not definitive, and thank goodness has no illusions about trying to be: it simply wants to present an often forgotten point of view, of the person actually experiencing the pregnancy-- with empathy and honesty and understated urgency. 

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