Saturday, March 20, 2010

The 1st Awake! Film Festival

On 13 March 2010, the class of Political Science 167: Political Socialization and Film held the 1st Awake! Film Festival at the University of the Philippines, Diliman campus, Palma Hall Audio-Visual Room 207, from 8:00 a.m. through 6:00 p.m. In an effort to contribute to the relevance of Filipino films as part of the political socialization process, the festival theme centered upon "Identity and Representation," focusing on films that explore diverse issues which are critically important in the unfolding weave of the Philippine socio-political tapestry.

The following films were programmed as part of the festival:

Film 01: Filipinas, 2003, Joel Lamangan, Director

Filipinas (2003) by Joel Lamangan is about our country the Philippines as explicitly conveyed in the title of the film. The movie revolves around the story of the Filipinas family on which the siblings represent various sectors of our society. The film had won six major awards and had been nominated in seven others. Given the highly commercial nature of the film as an entry to the MMFF of 2003, it weakens the ability of the film to convey its political messages.

The story is narrated through the eldest child Yolanda. The story builds on by showing the different lives of the now grown up children. Their individual narratives did not unfold continuously as they were creatively woven together to make their individual stories appear very interrelated. As the movie progresses, the difference in orientations, beliefs and experiences between the siblings now become more apparent and problematic. It shows how these conflicting perspectives resulted into misunderstandings. The movie continues to show the problems experienced by the family and the death of one member even exemplified it. The movie persists and reaches a point where in their mother ended up into what was diagnosed as an irreversible state of comatose by being caught up in the melee involving Samuel and Eman. Given the cynical propensity of the circumstances, Yolanda asserted that they should not lose hope and muster everything they’ve got to keep their mother alive. At this point the movie suggests very explicitly that no matter how dire the situation maybe we should not lose hope and do everything in our capacity. Yolanda, representing the next generation took the lead.

The central theme of the movie was the Filipino family. The usage of the family in Filipino movies has been very common and is nothing new. The film tried to elevate the affections we feel for our family members into the national level by using it as a representation of the whole country. One of the good things about using the family is that everyone can relate to it since everyone has a family of his/her own. However one weakness of this is the absence of “suspension of disbelief” since the family is something we have extensive knowledge about, when something is wrongly presented we will out rightly mark it as wrong and will not give it a benefit of the doubt as opposed to something we have limited or no knowledge at all. The movie showed even the peculiarities of the Filipino family one of which is being extensive. The extensive nature of the Filipino family was highly demonstrated in the movie by showing that their neighbour was being treated as a family member. In this regard, the idea of using the family as a representation of the country’s problematic state could have been good if not for the movie’s overwhelming explicitness and ambitious intent of the inculcating everything in one movie.

The movie was very explicit in giving out its message. The thing I didn’t like most about the film was that the family in the movie was blatantly called Filipinas. It was like spoon feeding, not giving the viewers the luxury of figuring out the meaning of the movie themselves. It was very explicit to the degree that it suggests that the creator of the movie viewed the audience as to people cannot comprehend sophisticated movie making. However I cannot truly blame them since this film’s primary intention was to rake in pesos. On the other hand the movie tried very vainly to include everything into the movie. From Overseas Filipino Wokers’ to immigrants, from business to household, from activists to military personnel, the movie sure talks about a lot. It also includes the church and the satire of the priest being depended upon by their mother to have a funky looking child. It now results to a very unbelievable setting. The one portrayed in the movie is really one hell of a family. In the process of trying to consider everything, having limited screen time, the messages being conveyed become compromised. It is similar to the catch-all thesis that is being adopted by politicians to earn a lot of voters. But in this context it is being used to earn a lot of viewers.

Having a star-studded movie contributes a lot to the number of viewers and into the gains of the movie. However having such kind of actors and actresses talented as they are has its own draw-backs; viewers will find it hard to think of them as the people they are portraying. It is very difficult to perceive them as they are the “real” character, we can’t erase in our minds that they are just acting. Maybe due to their over exposure into the show business or we have very vivid pre-existing knowledge about them which are very contrary to the characters they are espousing. Another thing that makes the movie very unrealistic is the dialogues. Some of them are very unrealistic and are made in that way just to make the movie fancier. One notable err is on the conversation between Yolanda and the nurse attending to their mother. The nurse’s way of answering and the content was uncalled for.

In the end, the movie is weak in promoting is political messages. Weak not in the sense that the message are hard to comprehend but weak in the sense that the messages being evoke won’t last long.

Film 02, Kakabakabakaba?, 1980, Mike De Leon, Director

Kakaba Kaba Ka Ba?, loosely translated as Does Your Heart Beat Faster?, is a 1980 musical comedy film by Mike de Leon. It is a story about two couples who found themselves in conflict with the foreign commercial giants that control the Philippine economy, the Japanese and the Chinese. Moreover, it involved the Catholic Church which has a stranglehold on the Philippine society itself. The film shows how vulnerable our economy and our society in the manipulation of other forces whose primary aim is overall control for their own benefits and become instruments in performing illegal activities.

Mike de Leon, the director of the film, is an acclaimed Filipino filmmaker, producer, cinematographer, and producer. His awards include Best Cinematography in the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards for “Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag”, and Best Director and Best Screenplay in the Gawad Urian for “Sister Stella L.” He also won Best Director in the Gawad Urian for the film “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?”. This film is a stark contrast to his other critically-acclaimed films such as “Batch ‘81”, “Sister Stella L.”, and “Bayaning Third World”. What makes “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” different from his other films is that while all of these tackle important social and political issues in Philippine society, “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” presented it in a comedic, satirical way. This is De Leon’s film after a three year filmmaking hiatus and is also considered a comeback of LVN Pictures (a film studio company partly responsible for the “Golden Age of Philippine Cinema” in the 1950’s and is one of the country’s biggest film studios in the first half of the 20th century) to the production business after it stopped producing motion pictures in 1961 and shifted to post-production services.

The film is about a bumbling Japanese Yakuza, Onota, after he failed on three separate occasions to smuggle contraband past Philippine customs at the airport. But on his latest attempt, he managed to slip a cassette tape into the jacket of an unknowing Johnny’s pocket, who then easily slid through customs unchecked. Things started to unwind when De Leon and his three acquaintances (Charo Santos, Jay Ilagan and Sandy Andolong) discovered that they are being spied on and followed. They late found out that De Leon’s house had been ransacked and her maid tied up but there was no sign of burglary since nothing was taken away from the house. The Japanese and his Bodyguard tried different confidence tricks (con) just to get at the tape but to no avail. The four later found out through one of their hippy friends that the cassette is actually laced with Opium. It turned out that the Japanese weren’t the only ones who were after the tape. Surprisingly, also the Catholic Church and the Chinese Mafia wanted to get a hold of it. Everyone from the Yakuza, the Chinese mafia and even the Catholic Church are all trying to get their hands on the tape. The conspiracy? A plot to use opium, distributed through communion hosts during mass, to turn the Filipino people into docile subjects under foreign control. Through this film and the technique used by De Leon, we get to see that indeed, there are many ways of which a film can be effective in communicating its messages to its viewers. Ultimately, we will realize that a director’s motivation in terms of the methods he used boils down to his perception of how receptive his audience can be, during the makings of the film.

The claims of this film being one of the finest Filipino comedy films ever made were rooted from its satirical tone, its uncanny humor, shrewdly concealed moral and social predicaments and its striking reflection of the situation in the Philippines in ways no other films viewed from this class ever did—simply because it was locally made. But that is not without any of the creativity and brilliant output from its director, Mike De Leon. For to merely claim that this film could rightly fit our society’s, consequently, the Filipinos’, predicament, because it was just made by a Filipino director, shot in the Philippines and starred by Filipino actors will render everything we had learned in this class as junk. It was the different films showed in class that enabled us to see that films are product of the collaboration of the writer’s motivation, the perspective chosen by the director, and the context from which it was made and shown.

Using this film, De Leon was able to espouse on the relationship our country had, at that time, with its neighbours concealed with a metaphor of the chasing parties in the film: the Japanese and the Chinese. During that time, they were the prime investors of our country, and De Leon masked this fact by the possible amount of money that can be involved in this story. Onota’s boss, the head of the Yakuza after Johnny and his friends, seemed to have been trying to smuggle goods inside our country for quite sometime now. This, in some ways showed the public, its viewers, how the Customs worked, and the motivation of some people in outwitting them. And this is what set this film apart—because it was shown in an unconventional manner: through humor.

De Leon’s choice of capturing multifaceted issues that still haunts our country today like the control of the Catholic Church, drug addiction and foreign control of our economy using humor was, we thought of, as a way of desensitizing its viewers to the otherwise harsh realities of life. The unimposing and light nature of the film seemed to have come from the use of music, love, and exaggeration that concealed the graveness of the issues it had tried to cover. De Leon incorporated humour in this film in such a way that it puts its viewers at ease, all the while opening their eyes to the dilemma it chose to expose. Just the cheap disguise of Onota, who should’ve been a notorious Japanese drug pusher, and his failed attempt to get away from the Philippine customs during the start of the film can make one roll their eyes heavenward in despise, but it certainly posted a light, unassuming viewing atmosphere that is more comfortable to the general public—when in fact, that first scene alone could’ve turned out as a very effective venue to impose its content in an array of ways. De Leon could’ve made Onota an extremely sinister and horrifying character that no one will ever dare to mess with him. But he did not. De Leon could’ve also shaped Johnny’s character in such a way that his eyes would’ve been focused to his goal, no distractions. That would’ve seemed like he can be someone who seriously wants to face and end an equally serious moral quandary. But he did not. For in a way, this film resembled No Country for Old Men (2007), in that they were both about a wild chase involving money and drugs, yet their techniques can be found from extremes of the spectrum. This should’ve been more than No Country for Old Men for its nationwide concern laid in the hands of Johnny and his acquaintances, but its not, and such can be attributed to the motivation of De Leon as a director, along with the issues faced by Philippines by that time.

The motivation of the director can be traced from being known for his varied experiments in directorial style, he ushered in the birth of the new musical in Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, a landmark film which spoofs a number of self-important totems of Philippine society (Kabayan Central). “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?”, as de Leon explains, was a “ibang klaseng commercial” that aimed to “tap a larger market”. He says he is aware that film is a business, and claims that after releasing his film Itim (his directorial debut) he had developed an “awareness that you don’t make a film for yourself. You make a film for others to watch” (Campos, 2006). Press write-ups on “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?”, labeled de Leon as an “experimental filmmaker”. But according to Napales (1980), he explicitly refuses the label, and says he is just willing to do something new, to try out various genres and exploit them originally.

The part played by the Catholic Church in this movie also mirrored the significant role by the Church have in the lives of Filipinos. This seemed to have been a very sensitive issue in our country for the Catholic Church had been with us for more than three centuries now and it had been undeniably a part of the state. We saw this as a remarkable way to see the degree by which we Filipinos trust on it, and how other people from different country perceived us as Christians—they see it as our weakness. It had shown us how vulnerable we are to the Church—for us, Filipinos, in a good way, but to others clearly not. The opium in the communion host can also embody how prone we are to possible addiction and the exploitation of the church by believing that they couldn’t such to us. De Leon, in incorporating the church in the film, portrayed the different forces that were bound to affect our country, be it political, economic, and even our social stance. And just like Johnny, we were clueless of those truths—as much as we are also bound to give in to social adversaries.

Campos (2006), in his journal article about de Leon’s filmmaking, described what Kakabakaba Ka Ba? really is all about:

“Conceived in the “commercial compromise” (MDL’s words) and the absurd possibilities of the movie musical, Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980) is strategically self-effacing in its political intent and double-edged in its artistic intent. By treating as a joke the foreign control of the Philippine economy and the Filipinos’ blind religiosity, the film makes popularly palatable a political posturing. And by exploiting time-honoured generic closure, like the triumph of unlikely heroes and the getting-married happy ending, the film simultaneously subverts, conceals, and announces the stupidity of a nation that dreams of its own heroism and victories, unaware of its systematic entanglement with imperialism while lapping up pop entertainment.”

Through this film and the technique used by De Leon, we get to see that indeed, there are many ways of which a film can be effective in communicating its messages to its viewers. It is the choice of the director what to cover in his film, and at the same time, how he does it based on his motivation and his preferred takes on such issues. These preferences are then linked to the context from the time the movie was made, which includes the pertinent social and moral concerns, economic status, and other relevant issues. But through this film, we realize that ultimately, a director’s motivation in terms of the methods he uses boils down to his perception of how receptive his audience can be, and whether or not he chooses it to become a tool for political socialization. For today, we get to see movies that are strictly for entertainment purposes only, while we also have those films—films like Kakaba Kaba Ka Ba?—that targets a specific erudite audience with broader mindsets and respective senses of conscientiousness for our country.


Campos, P. F. (2006). Looking Over the Nation, Uneasy With The Folks: Locating Mike de Leon in Philippine Cinema. [Electronic version]. Humanities Diliman, 3:2, 35-73.
Napales, Ruben V. (1980) I Don’t Want to Be Identified with Experimental Films – Mike de Leon. Parade 2: 4+.

Film 03: Serbis, 2009, Brillante Mendoza, Director

The brilliance of Independent film director Brilliante Mendoza is proven through the numerous international recognitions his films have received. Usually his films get attention because his ingenious and no-nonsense approach to Philippine issues which garner awards, but Serbis (2008) stands out as it caused several film critics to walkout in the middle of the film’s showing due to its controversial scenes. The film is a stark account of the values and morals that the most basic microcosm of Philippine society, the family, embodies: sooty and venal, but indomitable in the face of all hardships.

Serbis, as set only in one day, gives a snapshot in the lives of the Pineda Family as they run their old and dilapidated theatre. The story touches the issue of unwanted pregnancy, sex workers, bigamy and a possible incest as seen on the stories of the different characters. But what could be considered as the main character of the film is the theatre that the family runs. The once-magnificent theatre now serves as the family’s home and source of income. Within its walls are the successes in the past, challenges of the present, and the uncertainty of the future.

As seen in the scenes of the movie, Serbis centers on the family. Here, the Pineda family was seen as an important factor in the development of the character of the family members. It was as if each member held a particular responsibility. With this, we can see how Nanay Flor is seen as the head of their family. She is the one whom they run to and give their utmost respect. However, with this respect and given authority within the family come all the pressures that she gets from them. Despite the fact that she herself is problematic with regards to the bigamy case she filed against her former husband, she is also carries the burden when it comes to problems such as the operation of their movie theatre, and as well as Alan’s unexpected marital responsibility. It was as if she has become the absorber of the Pineda family’s problems, because one way or another, she finds a way to find solutions to these. However, her actions have somewhat caused the rest of the family members to depend on her and be contented with their lives.

And with such an attitude towards life, we can see how the rest of the members went on with their personal lives. At first, you would think that the Pineda family is poor. With the unprofessional way of maintaining the cinema, to the individual character of them members, one might assume that poverty is the primary concern of the family. But as surprising as it may seem, they are all educated. They have college degrees. However, what probably restrains them from looking for a decent job is their contentment of their lives. They seem to have somewhat accepted this as their destiny, accepting any menial form of work and responsibility. What only concerns them is their day-to-day survival, such as having something to eat. But other than that, they have no drive to strive for something better. Because they were too busy with what’s going on with their lives, they become unmindful of what consequences their actions can bring about. To them, no matter how small or big a problem is, their treatments of such are all the same: somehow, they’ll get past it.

Lastly, another theme that can be examined is regarding the viewing of nudity and sexual acts as a normal thing. People tend to automatically label everything that is sexual as already being pornography. However, one must understand that nudity and sexuality can also be seen as means of showing reality, with the intention of making the viewers understand the important message that it wishes to convey. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that some may see this form of expression in a negative light. With the conservative Filipino culture that we have, our interpretation of nudity and sexuality can be relative. It all depends on the person’s point of view as to whether he or she sees nudity and sexuality as either a form of exploitation or just a means of conveying the truth.

Looking at the political aspect of the film, one can take note of the gender and power relations in here. Most films usually portray a patriarchal type of society wherein the male characters are dominant over the female characters. However, in Mendoza’s film, it is the other way around. Serbis tends to empower its female characters more than its male characters. An evidence of this is that in the story of the film, one can see that the head of the household in the Pineda family is Nanay Flor, which obviously is a woman. Thus, all the members of the family consult with her and seek her approval. Every time a problem rises in the family, it is Nanay Flor that the family members run to. In addition, one could also take note of the fact that the male characters in the film are usually the ones who do the household chores or tasks more than the female characters. A main example of this is Nayda’s husband, Lando. One can notice that Lando is the one who does the household chores such as cooking food and washing the laundry for the family. He even accompanies and fetches their son to and from school. On the other hand, Nayda manages and oversees not only the family theater, but also their family in general as well. This indicates that in the Pineda family, Nayda is superior over Lando. This is also apparent as Nayda always orders Lando to do a task. All in all, the male characters in the film are subordinate to the female characters as they are less powerful compared to them.

Another thing in the film that we can see as something that is political is the lawlessness in the theater. Though everyone in the theater recognizes an authority in the form or in the image of Nanay Flor, there are really no rules or laws strictly established or implemented within the theater. Furthermore, even if there are rules implemented within the theater, no one strictly complies with them. An example of this is the allowing of minors to get inside the theater even if it should be strictly prohibited.

The group would also like to take note of the issue of structure and agency in this film. Is the change in the purpose or role of the movie theater due to the behavior of the agents or in other words, of the people? On the other hand, does the change in the norms of the Pineda family can be attributed to the movie theater itself? Nevertheless, the film shows a great interaction between the Pineda family and the movie theater, and how both affect one another through this constant interaction. We see that the movie theater is indeed a character in its own, a place where secret trysts and concealed identities come to life, an alternative venue for the characters to relieve themselves of the brash reality outside the comforting darkness of its interiors. Overall, it seems as though Serbis was indeed able to explicitly lay out its agenda: to depict a typical Filipino family that is able to make both ends meet because of their business. However, just like the movie theater that they run, these characters are just as prone to the fatalistic circumstances that their situation brings. For instance, the dirty walls scrubbed vigorously that still exhibit vandalisms parallel the lives of those who attempt to conceal their imperfections to the outside world, yet give in to their carnal desires as they enter the darkened theater rooms. We thus see a clear delineation between the public and private domain that eventually crumbles, as what happens in the private would certainly affect the public arenas. In the end, we find that it is the family that endures despite the obstacles in society—both figuratively, as each character finds strength in one another despite the deeply engrained conflicts within and beyond their household; and literally, as the old and dilapidated Family Movie Theater stands despite the social and economical metamorphosis.

No comments: