The term misogynistic implies a view which treats women like idiots.
- Claire Denis
In the just concluded year, yet another bonanza year for independent films, there was a remarkable bumper crop of films centering and foregrounding the various fates of women. Now more than ever, the running theme of these films was a suspect, misogynistic form of martyrdom, as though for women, it is far preferable to a nondescript fate consigned to the background.
Women as martyrs then, women as sufferers of hapless circumstance – economic, socio-politcal, religious, cultural and otherwise – if only to feed the sadistic fantasies of the other half of the gender divide, and perhaps the male-interpellated impulses of the filmmakers themselves. Offhand, one can reel off the following films that in varying degrees illustrate the focalization of beleaguered women: Limbunan, Chassis, Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, and Sheika.
Surprisingly, these independent films were not there to make the numbers up. In many instances, these portraits of women attracted the full breadth of the spotlight and received the loud clamor of lionization. They have not just made the rounds of the local independent circuit – Cinemalaya, Cinema One, Cinemanila – but have been invited to appreciative festivals abroad.
But to return to the crux of the matter: a good majority of these women films are apt to reveal a sadistic streak; they project their subjects in hopeless and helpless distress. An entry to the Cinemalaya Festival in 2010, Limbunan is a tale of anguished betrothal, counting down the last days of sequestration before a woman’s wedding, held hostage by circumstance and culture. Chassis, newly minted under the auspices of the Cinemanila Festival, is about a homeless woman who lives under cargo trucks and is forced to provide for her child through prostitution. A Cinema One production, Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria charts the travails, by turns suicidal and cynical, of one woman who is forced to ransom her family’s future with marriage to a foreign man. In Sheika, the title character and her two teenage sons – refugees fleeing war in Mindanao – meet a tragic fate worse than what they had left behind. It was screened out of competition at Cinemalaya.
Common wisdom suggests that these films may have, at this point, gone beyond scrutiny and question. They are decorated world-beaters, says one kibitzer. They have become instant classics, says another. They have passed the rigors of academic discourse, says a third. Aye, they are beyond reproach, they all say in unison. That’s that.
Then again, maybe not. Exploitation films have not so infrequently put us on the world map, but often for vulgar reasons. In a way, many of the 2010 films aforementioned are no different from exploitation films. Each spotlights and exploits a social problem that features the suffering and brutalization of women, but the cards are so stacked against these distaff protagonists as to offer little circumvention and subversion of their sorry plight. The heart of the problem always proves bigger and more insurmountable than any woman protagonist can ever handle.
The philistine platitude is that cinema proffers no panacea, so the atrocities against cinematic women should not be taken too seriously. Cinema corrects little and resolves little – not the enormities against the world, not the sad plight of women. But the truth may be closer to the contrary: we, for one, have sworn by cinema like nothing else. In our country, so much faith and esteem are projected onto the icons of cinema that we see them as saviors and liberators from poverty and mundane hardship. We give them pride of place, in more ways than one.
In France, Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or and Isidore Isou’s Venom and Eternity have had such galvanizing power on audiences as to have caused riots at their premieres. In Belgium, the so-called Rosetta Law was enacted to shield and protect its young workforce, all because of a little but potent film made by the Dardenne brothers. In Iran, filmmakers are so feared and regarded as threats by the state that they suffer harsh repression, are imprisoned or exiled. (Jafar Panahi is now serving a 6-year sentence in jail, while Mohsen Makhmalbaf has to go abroad to make films.) That is the transformative potency of cinema.
Meanwhile, our independent filmmakers are still grappling with the Weltanschauungs of the past. Limbunan, Sheika, Chassis and Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria: these films, in various gradations, are still peddling antediluvian characters with mostly antediluvian motivations. What is regrettable remains how they naturalize the image of the suffering woman. To say the least, it is not easy to sit through these films. Martyrdom, our films keep repeating, becomes women.
In Limbunan, the notion of extreme self-sacrifice on the part of women extends to Muslim societies. When Ayesah questions her enforced betrothal in Limbunan, she is operating along a sound understanding of her predicament, but curiously she submits meekly to the antiquated traditions of her society. Could she not have made the liberating gesture of flight? No, the film argues, Ayesah has bigger roles to fulfill – hers will be a marriage to ensure peace pacts -- a soothing balm in an uneasy landscape. It is worth looking into a film like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh for a refreshing contrast, a tale that brooks no parental and cultural edicts stacked lopsidedly against its female character.
Suspiciously analogous to Limbunan is Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria. Central to this film is the specter of another unwanted marriage; this time Terya, the main protagonist, is a mail-order bride, about to be shipped off to her would-be husband in Germany. The trade-off, for Terya’s family, is practical and financial security and prosperity. Terya is inconsolable at first – to the extreme extent that she tries to take her life at the start. Like Ayesah, Terya is presented with the option of flight: she has a man that she can elope with. She doesn’t take it.
Towards film’s end, Terya's family -- that is, her domineering mother -- has a change of heart, and presents the daughter a way out. But Terya, again, opts out of it. Instead, she mysteriously becomes compliant, and agrees to the ruinous marriage after all. As though sleepwalking to the overtures of a headlong script, she goes from attempting to kill herself to becoming a resolute bride-to-be in the space of one schizophrenic hour. Part of the blame goes to director Remton Zuasola's intent of doing it all in one plan sequence. (The one-take poetics may be impressive, but it also highlights the jarring transformations of characters and the zigzagging of motivations.)
Cynical, benighted martyrdom has entered into it: through this marriage, she will be acceding to her family’s requests, but her deeper motive seems to have the weight of scorn and accusation, with the design of disowning her family afterwards. There is the suggestion that Terya will go the same route of her supposedly exemplary cousin who has enriched herself from the same prospects Terya is facing. By implication, Terya has become an exchangeable piece of commodity. Her decision is not just one of senseless self-sacrifice, assuaged with the prospect of hefty monetary recompense, but one that seems to have destroyed her soul.
If women are so frequently threatened and harmed by external forces, Sheika presents a portrait of psychological annihilation and extreme bereavement. Sheika has been variously trumpeted as the latter-day Sisa, or our version of Mother Courage. Like her predecessors in the realm of drama and literature, Sheika loses her children in incomprehensibly violent ways; her life story is so traumatizing that she ends up mute and catatonic in a sanatorium. Even there, her tribulations are not over, she must endure being raped by the janitor, with his masculine act, his masculine seed, consequently stirring her back to life. (For this, Mardoquio obviously steals a page from Almodovar's Talk to Her.)
Chassis, a film about a homeless woman’s extreme poverty, may represent the darkest of the entries here, its tone one of unrelieved hopelessness, but surprisingly, albeit narrowly, it justifies its bleak outlook on the world and its very subject. Nora, a homeless woman, is forced into low-rent prostitution to make ends meet and to provide for her child, but something happens to dispossess her completely. Her final gesture, a symbolic act of emasculation, must be parsed as one of revolt, against a world that offers little, but takes and dispossesses what she has. The violence, too, could be symbolically against us, voyeurs who provide so little succor.
Here then is an array of women painted with a narrow ontological palette, all so martyrized as to seem dramatically interchangeable (Ayesah and Terya: unwilling brides-to-be; Sheika and Nora: bereaved and vengeful mothers). There has to be a hidden page or chapter on creating characters in that slim volume our independent filmmakers keep consulting. But make no mistake about it: there is no invoking here of the dramatic paradigms of, say, socialist realism: the emphasis on hyper-positive characterizations, all rose-tinted portraitures, all idealized and heroic figurations.
Diegetic women, this side of identity politics, can only hope for the same variety of fortunes reserved for the privileged other. Perhaps it remains more naturalistic – and more cinematically dramatic – to depict these women in threatened circumstances, especially according to Third World settings. But, in the final reckoning, let them not be lost causes. Let them transcend passivity and impossible subjectivity. If they go down fighting, if they are vanquished in the end, afford them some measure of moral victory. If they trump their adversaries, let them for once keep their souls intact.
The function of art, after all, is not just about the reproduction of realities, but perhaps more importantly, the production of possibilities.