The Kingmaker (2019)

The latest documentary by American filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield deals with the larger than life figure and real-life influence of Imelda Marcos, First Lady of the Philippines during her husband Ferdinand’s dictatorship. It’s the film around which I’ve been working my Philippines cinema-themed week, and I saw it yesterday, a day which saw a large UK election victory for a populist demagogue from the right-wing of the country, elected on the back of a decade of his party’s damaging desire to leave one of the biggest trading blocs in the world, thoroughgoing austerity policies, huge cuts to welfare and other sustained attacks on the most impoverished within society. So that’s fun.


Lauren Greenfield has made films about people with immense wealth before, and both those and her books tend to cover that uncomfortable collision of aspirational wealth and real lived experiences, about little corners of the human psyche (or rather bigger ones in some cases) that desire the glossy fashion spread lifestyle. Imelda Marcos largely fits neatly into that, but with a far bigger and more dangerous political footprint that continues to make itself felt. Ostensibly the title is about her relationship with her husband, the massively corrupt dictator of the Philippines for two decades from the mid-60s to the mid-80s (at which point he was ousted by a ‘People Power’ revolution via the wife of an assassinated opposition leader, Corazon Aquino), whose power she was said to manipulate for her own ends, most famously for the acquisition of art, designer items and of course shoes. But the film moves quickly on from these trappings to her real and lingering effect on Filipino politics, via her family’s dynasty and their support for current dictator-wannabe and populist strongman demagogue Rodrigo Duterte.

Stylistically it frames Marcos with the opulence of her living spaces, repeatedly showing her handing out money to her loyal supporters crowding around her car or in public appearances (the money often held and distributed by her staff at her direction). She shows off her artworks and photos of herself with world leaders (at one point, hilariously, but utterly unconcernedly, breaking some of these framed photos while reaching to show off one, I think with her and Nixon). She is also apparently blithely unaware of how her namedropping comes across, especially when she’s talking about the aforementioned world leaders or her art collection. She could be a figure of fun, but gradually the film becomes more and more serious about her impact, as it layers on the Marcos’s crimes and the real effects of the policies and division they have sowed within their nation, paving the way for her and her family’s chilling return to power.

The Kingmaker film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Lauren Greenfield; Cinematographers Lars Skree and Shana Hagan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Friday 13 December 2019.

Women of the Weeping River (2016)

Even in my small themed week around Filipino cinema, the southern island of Mindanao have come up a few times. It’s the region where the majority of the nation’s Muslim inhabitants can be found, and it has also been the site of a number of separatist movements, as well as, in John Gianvito’s documentaries, a site of historical genocide against indigenous populations. That means there’s a lot of history and conflict that makes for a strong drama, which is perhaps why so many of the country’s hard-hitting dramatic films have been based around there.


A drama set in the southern islands of the Philippines, just off the coast of Mindanao, where there’s a greater Muslim population but also a lot of internecine conflict that has gone on for generations. Without glamorising or simplifying the sources of resentment, this film covers two families who have been taking lives back and forth. In terms of the dramatic construction, though, it’s not straightforward but almost sidles into the conflict through the eyes of Satra in particular (Laila Ulao, just one of many first-time and non-professional actors, and certainly the stand-out in this film). The filmmaker isn’t interested in delivering speeches or wordy context, so instead we slowly get a sense of the stakes, at what each person has lost and that gives a sense of weighty sadness that perhaps accounts for how quiet Satra so often can be. As you might expect for a film in such a remote island setting, there’s a real feeling for the scenery, the lush vegetation and especially the river, that seems to divide the two families at war; plenty of the images have a beautiful pictorial quality, although the underlying misery of the conflict is never far from the surface.

Women of the Weeping River film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sheron Dayoc; Cinematographer Rommel Sales; Starring Laila Ulao; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 2 November 2019.

Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Weighed But Found Wanting, 1974)

An early feature film from Lino Brocka, who would go on to direct some of the Philippines’ best-known films Manila in the Claws of Light (1975) and Insiang (1976). He grapples here with society’s hypocrisy and maltreatment of those who are the most vulnerable. If his compassionate conclusion is specifically rooted in Christianity, nevertheless it’s a feeling that speaks to many societies, and one can only hope it someday receives proper restoration (like those other films, which are on the Criterion Collection).


There’s something in this film that reminds me a little of classic melodramas (for example, from the golden age of Mexican cinema), possibly because of its characters, who conform to certain types found in these films. The style is also quite simple (not simplistic) yet expressive in the way it presents the moral quandaries for the central characters, who are the young man Junior (Christopher de Leon) and the town outcast Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez), who is treated abysmally by the people of the village for her perceived simplicity. Junior initially is part of mobs of braying fiends, pushing her and the town’s leper (Mario O’Hara), by virtue of necessity, into one another’s arms, but eventually Junior reassesses his life’s choices and finds sympathy for the outcasts. It’s no surprise that in such a Catholic country, and with the film set in a deeply Catholic village, that this choice should be framed so explicitly in terms of Christ, and the final scene makes this symbolism fairly clear. It’s a film with a great depth of religious feeling and the compassion rooted in that, while keen to expose the hypocrisies of those, and made at the time it was, it’s difficult too to avoid linking this to the Marcos regime. The DVD I saw had the best available print, but you get the real sense of the lack of funds in the Philippines for film restoration and preservation — the first few scenes are shockingly poorly preserved, though the bulk of the film looks fine — which is a real shame, given the quality of so many filmmakers in this country.

Weighed But Found Wanting film posterCREDITS
Director Lino Brocka; Writers Brocka and Mario O’Hara; Cinematographer Jose Batac; Starring Lolita Rodriguez, Christopher de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Eddie Garcia; Length 128 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 5 June 2019.

Nervous Translation (2017)

I’ve covered Filipino mainstream romcom films directed by women, and also a personal essay film, but this is a tender indie festival drama about a young girl growing up in the 1980s, an impressive film from a new director who has made a couple of period dramas so far this decade.


In many ways this is quite a wonderful film, in the way it focuses on a child’s point-of-view without being cute or sentimental, and sets it in a period (the 1980s) without overreliance on reducing that era to a series of easy cliches. Yael (Jana Cassandra Agoncillo) is a quiet, slightly lonely child who listens to tapes sent by her father from Riyadh, and there’s a growing sense throughout of why he’s there and what’s going on with the family, but it’s never fully developed because the point-of-view remains rooted in the young girl. This means that while it can be frustrating not always knowing quite what’s going on, there’s a really consistent and beautifully evocative sense of atmosphere, with a precise use of camera and a sure visual sense suffusing the whole piece.

Nervous Translation film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Shireen Seno; Cinematographers Albert Banzon, Jippy Pascua and Dennese Victoria; Length Jana Cassandra Agoncillo, Angge Santos, Sid Lucero; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 31 May 2019.

War Is a Tender Thing (2013)

A Filipino film set in the southern, more contested, part of the country, around the second-largest island of Mindanao. This is a personal documentary that looks at the conflicts from one woman’s point of view, and that of her family, and deals with interfaith marriage.


A personal essay film about the filmmaker’s family in Mindanao (an area also known as the Southern Philippines), this uses family history as a way to represent and interrogate ideas about the past, not least a long-running conflict ostensibly between Christian and Islamic populations in the area. Mindanao isn’t much represented in mainstream cinema, so it’s good to see some attention paid to the area and its people and histories. Certainly, the filmmaker’s family are sceptical about this idea of religious conflict, given that many members of their family have intermarried, and that becomes a theme that moves through the film, of understanding political turbulence through personal connections, and the film eschews any editorial contextualising of the conflict, aside from occasional snippets of television news. Technically, there are some messy edges to the filmmaking (a lot of shaky handheld shots), but it captures a lot of beauty of the region, and there’s an abiding mystery at the film’s heart.

War Is a Tender Thing film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Adjani Guerrero Arumpac; Cinematographers Arumpac and Victor Delotavo Tagaro; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 15 April 2019.

Two Filipino Romcoms Directed by Women: That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) and I See You (2017)

There actually seems to be a large number of Filipino films directed by women, especially along the more commercial, mainstream end of film production. A swathe of comedies and romcoms have filtered through, in particular, to Netflix and much of them have a light, fluffy tone and likeable lead actors (who may be the same ones as we see in the serious arthouse festival dramas, but playing much different characters). Some are fairly tedious in the way of such films, but there are plenty which reward viewing and provide a rather likeable distraction from some of the more serious artfulness we associate with the Philippines and its cinema.

Continue reading “Two Filipino Romcoms Directed by Women: That Thing Called Tadhana (2014) and I See You (2017)”

Bontoc Eulogy (1995)

Setting itself apart from other films about Filipino history is this striking hybrid documentary, or rather more of a pseudo-documentary that blends actuality with propaganda and staging to create a critique of historical representation on film. There are a huge number of ideas bubbling throughout this hour-long film.


A strange hour-long piece that plays out as an earnest personal essay film about a Filipino-American man’s search for his grandfather, taken from the mountain region tribe of the Bontoc in the Philippines to be a performer at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. This man, ostensibly the filmmaker Marlon Fuentes (indeed, played and voiced by him), reflects on his children and their lost ancestor, while Fuentes the co-director marshals archival footage to illustrate this (personal) historical lacuna. And yet, from the outset, there are hints that something more is going on — for example, the use of clearly fictional material (such as contemporary American propaganda representations of the US-Philippine war of 1898) without context, or implying their status as actuality film, or modern interpolations of ethnographic displays, tribal dancing, or images of his children holding cameras or doing magic tricks, as if representations of the filmmaker’s own practice. So this pseudo-documentary in fact interrogates the uses and purposes of image-making to shape historical representation, so sadly lacking in the education system not just of the US but the Philippines too (as seen in John Gianvito’s documentaries). In other words, there’s a lot going on here that’s worth unpacking.

CREDITS
Directors Marlon Fuentes and Bridget Yearian; Writer Fuentes; Cinematographers Rubén Domingo, Fuentes, Tommy Hafalla, Chris Manley and Yearian; Starring Marlon Fuentes; Length 56 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Tuesday 30 January 2018.

Independencia (aka Independence, 2009)

Following on from my post about John Gianvito’s documentary diptych about the Philippines, which touches on Filipino independence in the late-19th cenutry, another film set touching on the same historical events was made by a Filipino filmmaker in 2009. It has a distinctive style, different from that of his more famous compatriot Lav Diaz, but captures something about how the past intertwines with the present.


There’s a strange and haunting atmosphere imbued with the uncanny that haunts a lot of Guy Maddin’s similar pastiches on silent films, but with more poise and mystery. For a film so short it also nevertheless reminded me of Lav Diaz’s (much longer) film A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in that both are set around the turn of the 20th century, at the time just after the Philippines gained its independence from Spain, and which spend a lot of time in lush jungle terrains, though Independencia brings up the American occupation that came soon after independence (and whose effects are arguably still felt, as John Gianvito covered in his documentary epic, mentioned above). What sets Martin’s film apart is the style, which mimics that of early cinema, shot of sets using the sometimes harsh and inconstant natural light of the sun, lending that uncanny quality I mentioned earlier, a sense of a film dealing with a distant past and yet one which nevertheless persists.

Independencia film posterCREDITS
Director Raya Martin; Writers Martin and Ramon Sarmiento; Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Alessandra de Rossi; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 November 2017.

People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose (2016)

A different kind of Filipino history is claimed in this sort-of-documentary, which reconstructs an old, lost Filipino film, as an experimental conversation with lost film history. It’s difficult to describe, and can be difficult at times to watch, just because of the way the images have been comprehensively destroyed by time. There’s a hint of what Bill Morrison does in his film works too, a tactility to the decay that affects not just film history, but history itself.


Not precisely a documentary, not exactly a fiction either, this film presents itself as a reconstruction of long-lost, heavily-decayed footage from a 1986 Filipino film which was never completed. Evidently the soundtrack has been re-recorded, but so too has additional footage been shot, and all are matched to the barely-there haze of the original reels. What was clearly a fairly rote, exploitative drama about a young Vietnamese woman becomes in the retelling a meta-narrative about the making of a film (this film, ostensibly), and about its unmaking too, wherein the physical decay of the film itself becomes the looming tragedy that the film’s characters — and the actors portraying those characters — seem to fear.

The original actors provide the voices, which narrate in a weird sense their experiences of making the original film, but in a present tense which suggests they are still doing that, and what we’re seeing is them telling the story while it’s happening. As we start, images of people loom out of the warp, mould and noise of the decay, the penumbra of film history, barely there, ghostly vestiges of what could have been. The film never relinquishes this oneiric tone, continuing its strange pursuit of these hidden meanings within this lost footage, perhaps the potential stories that all images contain. It’s odd and avant garde, but it’s quite affecting.

People Power Bombshell film posterCREDITS
Director John Torres; Cinematographers Malay Javier and Jippy Pascua; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 24 September 2018.

A Diptych about the Modern Philippines: “For Example, the Philippines” (2010/2015)

I’ve done a number of themed weeks around genres recently, and I wanted to get back to a country. This Friday sees the UK cinema release of Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker, so my week’s theme is going to be the Philippines — mostly by Filipino filmmakers, but I’m starting with an American director looking in. Filipino history isn’t exactly well-known in the west, though a number of the country’s directors have told historical stories in film form, notably Lav Diaz with A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in which independence leader Andrés Bonifacio’s wife is a central character (even if the film is more of a poetic-historical interpretation), and the question persists throughout about why Bonifacio was betrayed by his compatriots — one of the reasons why his birth of 30 November (and not his death) is the date used to celebrate him now in the country.

However, there are still questions about the extent to which the Philippines is truly independent from outside political influence (not exactly unusual amongst any country in our globalised modern economy, into one tangent of which recent documentary Overseas provides a fascinating glimpse). The Philippines may have overthrown its former Spanish imperialist masters, but the Americans quickly swooped in during the early-20th century and retain a presence. Over a hundred years later, in the early-2010s, American director John Gianvito put together a carefully-researched documentary diptych themed around the two largest overseas US military bases (at least, until their closure in the early 1990s), both of which were in the Philippines. He calls this diptych “For Example, the Philippines” and one can imagine similar stories in other territories in which the US (or other colonial imperialist powers) have meddled. It’s at once unsurprising, yet illuminating about this specific history, and also in the end utterly focused (even over its cumulative nine hours) about just who is paying the price for this century of imperial ambition. It gives voice to people never usually afforded time in grand political documentaries, and thereby extends the form.


Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

As a documentary this initially comes across as somewhat academic: lots of black leader, intertitles and subtitles with dense historical text and quotations, and an odd interplay of sound and silence, but over the course of its 4hr+ running time, it builds up a complex picture of the legacy of US imperialism in the Philippines, and more specifically the environmental and human cost of their abandoned Clark military base (used as the staging post for all of America’s wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East until its closure in 1991). The interviews with the key modern players in this environmental crisis play out at length, supported by relevant clips and quotes where necessary, and there’s a constant throughline about the fraught history between the two nations (most notably the war with the US which took place after the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898), and director John Gianvito continuously probes his interview subjects about what they’ve been taught or know about this war, the answer generally being very little. And so the environmental catastrophe — with its toll on human lives (expressed through images of many many gravestones for children, many of whom never lived beyond a single day), not to mention some pretty harrowing interviews — plays out against a backdrop of historical erasure, the suggestion being perhaps that those who don’t pay attention to their history with respect to American imperialist and militarist ambitions are doomed to repeat it.

Wake (Subic) (2015)

Whereas the earlier film was set at the former Clark airbase and its nearby community, this follow-up in Gianvito’s diptych focuses on the legacy of Subic naval base. Both have some protagonists and interviewees in common, notably Teofilo aka “Boojie”, who leads several organisations dedicated to cleaning up the environment around these former bases, which have been so toxic and destructive to the communities (people who originally worked at the bases and even found some economic stability, but now live in great poverty afflicted by diseases brought on by toxic contaminants).

If it were just a journalistic piece about these families, it would be an angry indictment of governmental corruption and lack of responsibility. However, even more than the earlier film, Wake (Subic) weaves in the contested history between the US and the Philippines, in which the former was for a long time the aggressive imperialist power and which even now largely controls many of the political decisions being made in the country, with less direct responsibility than, say, in Puerto Rico (colonised around the same era) but every bit as much disrespect — much of it grounded in racism (alongside, of course, economic profiteering). Indeed, the documentary evidence of early-20th century US military interventions — part of a US-Philippine war which, it becomes evident, is barely taught officially in the country — are chilling, with a series of photos of near-genocidal acts of extermination, alongside written accounts from senior politicians (including a future President, Taft) minimising all this brutal repression in the language of smug westerns spouting their Christian civilising influence (in a country already devoutly Catholic).

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Gianvito; Length 541 minutes (in two parts of 264 minutes and 277 minutes).
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 4 November 2017 and Sunday 5 November 2017.