Of Independent Cinema: Notes on a Critique

Any curious movie goer would eventually have encountered the rise of Filipino Independent cinema industry as a total opposite of mainstream film and whatever it stood for as a mass produced cultural product, meant simply as entertainment with minimal thought provoking elements. Perhaps, the symptomatic evidence of independent cinema’s separation with mainstream cinema can be seen in the work of Brillante Mendoza. While the cinematic tropes and choice of topics that Mendoza chooses dwell on the reality of poverty, one should examine the technical and narrative elements that he chooses to portray poverty. Take for example Lola (Grandmother) which is set in a perpetually flooded community where the characters engage either in legal or illegal underground economies but always end up successfully or unsuccessfully dealing with the struggle of being on the margins of government bureaucracy; these tropes that are apparently the mainstay of Mendoza’s films are presented in a social realist way, progressing in a quasi-documentary manner following the characters in different moments of daily struggle. Given the choice of ways to deal with the source material, Mendoza’s films can be described as following a social realist stance, of describing poverty as it is in its crudeness and the incapability of state mechanisms to curb poverty in an effective way.

However, despite the director’s sensibilities in dealing with poverty as a subject matter, presenting it as the other that requires our immediate authentic response, it is precisely this goal that keeps Mendoza’s films as the very symptom of neoliberalism. By creating the image of the poor as engaging mainly in the underground economy, earning their daily bread by placing themselves at the niches of the status quo, the immediate response is that of providing them an inclusive market space where everyone can properly engage in entrepreneurial ventures. Take for example the NGO Gawad Kalinga, the organization that provides free housing for the urban poor, they organize communities around the original site of the original urban poor communities where uniform single floor houses are constructed (funded by different philanthropic organizations). The condition granted by GK was that the poor who were given free housing are not allowed to rent the refurbished houses and that each family had to undergo a strict catechism in (Filipino) Catholic family values where the authority of the father is emphasized and the determined role of the other members of the family is indicated. While meant as a disciplinary integration to prevent the poor from ripping off their donors, the re-imposition of traditional Catholic values keeps them from the creation of an entirely new coordinates of communal life, remaining only at the level of paragons of Filipino Catholicism. Returning to Mendoza’s films, is not the conservative GK organization the implication of Mendoza’s supposed social realism that an authentic response to poverty is to further bourgeois philanthropy?

Social realist cinema is close to communism as it formed the dogma that dominated Soviet and Chinese film theory. However, the technique of quasi-documentary was inspired by Italian neorealism where real life traumas caused by the war are dealt as everyday problems. The fundamental difference between social realism and neorealism lies not eventually at the technicalities or the choice of topic, but in the way both cinematic movements deal with the source material. Neorealism championed the virtues of individuals in the struggle to make ends meet as historical events played in the background (considering how Rossellini’s neorealist films happen ex post facto of a historical event e.g. World War II). Soviet realist films, on the other hand, explore the role of individual human beings in the making of history (as in Sergei Eisenstein’s films) as they deal with different historical conditions and contradictions. Perhaps, the quintessential realist here is Dziga Vertov whose films do not proceed in a quasi-documentary narrative but removes the narrative element altogether to present Soviet society as a totally different world, a utopia to be but still operated by men. Everyday life in the Soviet Union, for Vertov, is presented like a machine, functioning properly and at the same time the camera is presented merely as a gaze unto the objects of its lens (as seen from his Man with a Movie Camera, where the camera bows to the screen as if to end its visual performance).

Are we then looking for Vertovs and Eisensteins of our time? Definetly not, but the allure of cinema passes as a gaze into objects, an arrangement of what people think, should be, must be and will be, a picture of our current ideological condition. While I do not glance at mainstream cinema as junk food for the sole purpose of entertainment, the entirety of cinema must examined as the symptom of our time. At this point, Edel Garcellano puts it better in his review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento: the problem is not so much the lack of great technical masterpiece or of epic storylines (two of which can be seen in the delivery of Novecento), but of showing the underlying contradiction that occur within the universe of the film.[1] As such that when Garcellano in the previous essay indicated, both the source material and the technicalities of the film converge to form the cinematic text; however, it is not entirely the technical or the narrative aspect that truly makes the film a liberating art form. “Artistic unity must correlate with historical logic and dialectics.”[2]

We can thus divide the cinematic tendency of our time into two: phenomenological and dialectical. Brillante Mendoza’s films belong to the phenomenological tendency, remaining solely at the level of experiencing (pag-danas) what shows itself in the public as poverty (corresponding to the existentialist notion of “showing what shows itself” and our experience thereof that breaks conceptual trappings). At the side of dialectics is Lav Diaz and his insanely long films such as The Evolution of the Filipino Family and From what was Before that do not deal with what shows itself as poverty but brutally traumatizes the viewer with long shots and still shots showing not what occurs but how the characters create history, culmination in the film Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery as a dialectics of the Revolution of 1898 by dealing with its traumatic corre: the search for the corpse of Andres Bonifacio i.e. the search for the proletarian core of the revolution repressed by bourgeois compromises with colonial powers. What Diaz does is not the typical mastery of technical or narrative emplotment of his pictures, but includes the structure by which the universe of the narrative circulates. Hence, despite the length of Diaz’s films, they are the presentation of deeply ingrained contradictions within society, manifesting in various ways. Take for example the class struggle in Norte: End of History, two main characters are two variations on the character of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolinikov; Fabian, a law student embodying the guilty Raskolinikov, belonging to the upper class, tries to save Joaquin, the patsy Raskolinikov belonging to the working class, by reopening the case of the murder of loan shark Magda and her daughter without implicating himself results in the outburst of sanity. Incapable to place himself again in the (traditional) symbolic register of everyday life, he commits symbolic suicide by raping his own sister. Here, one should reject the new age interpretation, given by the producers of the film (astral travel and so on) and instead see Fabian and Joaquin’s characters as subjects that deal with the symbolic register and the flight thereof. In Fabian, we have the outburst and eventually symbolic suicide and death where the scene culminates in Fabian riding a boat, a clear allusion to the Charon. Joaquin does not find reconciliation with the system but fully begins to transverse the fantasy by dreaming that imprisonment itself became a condition of freedom (as seen in the final scene where he floats in midair, presumably dreaming).

While Diaz’s films dealt with poverty and injustice as source materials for his films. He does not end with the characters reconciling with the inevitability of their plight or the enjoyment despite the ordeal. Thus, he posits that the dialectical structure of social life and the irreconcilable nature of the elements within this dialectic, presented as the failure of the subjects to experience what is as the sole way of fully experiencing the structures as such (i.e. as a traumatic kernel that cannot be symbolized).

Given this difference, returning to Mendoza’s films and perhaps the tendency of most Filipino independent cinema, their approach to the narrative, technical and structural elements present only “what is” as a homogeneous and united entity i.e. as merely showing itself that needs experiencing and so on. It caters to the aesthetic of bourgeois tastes whose place needs to be situated within a fetishistic construction of social life and urban dwelling, offering itself to philanthropic acts, replacing emancipatory politics. Genuine exposition of superstructure and structural elements are replaced by the surplus jouissance of participating in the aesthetics of squalor that in the consumption of its cultural products lies the sole fulfillment of our socio-political duty that is to only know.

 

[1] Edel Garcellano, First Person Plural: Essays, pp. 110-111.

[2] Ibid., 105.

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Of Independent Cinema: Notes on a Critique

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