Saturday, September 21, 2013

THE GUERILLA IS A POET (Kiri/Sari Dalena, 2013)

Hitler, however, was a painter too. 

What I regret most about this documentary is how it sanctifies Jose Maria Sison as a trans-historical hero, and how it attempts to foist this on us with selective memory. Reenacting the anecdotes of an interview conducted recently by the Dalenas, The Guerilla is A Poet is the apparent meandering of memory, hither and thither, without dramatic structure and logic, only with a view towards glorious apotheosis. Never in doubt a hero, as wide-eyed reverence goes, it shows Sison from an early age already made aware of his feudalistic family's land grabbing and as a young man already fully formed laying the groundwork for the New People’s Army, to his becoming monument to the Communist Party of the Philippines. 

What is regrettable is the man of marble, a portrait that verges on the cult of personality, warts and all simply omitted, along with the thick accretion of crimes barnacled around him. What is regrettable is how throughout its duration of 2 and a half hours, this itinerant documentary fails to meet head-on much of the supposed apocrypha, but generously allocates time for Sison's height of popularity and heroics, his martyred coevals, even his famous contemporaries like Ninoy Aquino, as if to gloat over his own iconic status, while remaining silent on the more urgent issues raised against his past.

It is most exigent that this film wax enthusiastic not just about Amado Guerrero (Sison's pseudonym) and his poetic side, but about the negation of his perceived dark side, his putative ruthlessness, as a revolutionary leader. In recent decades, his image has undergone an all but total eclipse and this film, an overlong non-sequitur, strains to be his rejoinder. Sometime in 2006, snapshots of him exposed him dancing cheek-by-jowl with actress Ara Mina in a Christmas shindig in the Netherlands, as if captioned to question his lifestyle while in exile, whether his vow of solidarity with those still fighting in the hills of his country is an earnest one. But that is the least of his worries. For one he has been charged with the indiscriminate purging of the New People's Army in the 1980s, to root out deep penetration agents, but at the expense of thousands of innocents. He has disavowed any role in it, but there remains the allegation, too, of his having a hand in the assassinations of former NPA commanders in the early 2000s like Arturo Tabara and Romulo Kintanar, who were his vocal enemies and dissenters.

The Dalenas seem to tiptoe around the Sisons here, careful to ask sanitized questions and teasing out romantic displays of heroism and comradeship, poetry and song. Was this a documentary ever meant to be an objective one? Doubtful,  given that some of its collaborators -- a couple of actors here, a script writer there -- are recognizable partisans from the Left. If the crimes alleged against Sison are all part of black propaganda – perhaps by the state or by Sison’s enemies within the movement -- The Guerilla is A Poet is tantamount to an instance of revisionism and vanity press. Here there is an attempt at an iconic rehabilitation and restoration. His only crime, the movie deigns, is how he would obliviously forget his children and leave them unattended, all the while typing away committed literature and poetry. A slap on the wrist, while foregrounding the romantic zealousness of his passion as a man of letters. All venial sins, if at all, as opposed to the alleged mortal sins the movie should be investigating. The one imputation against Sison that he deigns to confront here is his widely believed responsibility in the Plaza Miranda Bombing, an accusation shared even by the irreproachable Senator Jovito Salonga. Sison deflects it and fingers the  convenient suspect: then-President Marcos. Easy out, of course. End of story.  

Interminable at a full 2 ½ hours, a time that should have been more than enough to answer all the rumors swirling around the man, what we get is digression and detour. Amorphous, there is no rhyme or reason, no dramatic arc to be gleaned, just anecdotes stitched together in an incoherent skein, with an occasional, intermittent line from Sison that makes us wonder about the veracity or fictiveness of what is being portrayed. What we get are relatively unimportant subplots and figures like Major Aure, the fearsome military torturer accompanied with portentous music, and Ka Teresa, the beautiful revolutionary and her equally doomed revolutionary husband. We are never certain about their facticity: most probably enthusiastic evocations of legends known in Communist lore. Simply, none of the hard questions get asked, not even a great deal of the man and his wife’s life in the Hague is touched upon.

What we are made to appreciate is a heroic man of commitment, the firebrand of the revolution, the writer of the supposed “bible of the Communist Party”. How he has risked his rights as an enemy of the state, how he has risked his freedom as a fugitive, how he has risked his life crossing treacherous terrain, mountains and rivers, while finding time by the flickering light of a kerosene lamp to create poetry in the middle of the night in the middle of the woods. All romantic, superlative stuff. There are several moments about the nature of life in the hills and in the armed struggle -- in particular the parity between female and male revolutionaries when it comes to love -- that sometimes prove interesting, but they come few and far between, amid the obligatory portrayals of fist pumping, intoning of committed slogans, revolutionary/Communist rhetoric and the singing of the Internationale and songs of protest.

Even as this movie plays in major theaters across the capital to the enthusiastic slumming of bourgeois audiences, the mysterious deaths of Sison's opponents remain unsolved. It is said that a series of fatwas still remains in force against the man’s enemies within the movement. If you saw this movie without knowledge of his alleged past, you would never suspect the man of any evil and wrongdoing. You might even swoon over this idealized man who can wield the armalite as well as the writing pen. There is a scene here that encapsulates the thrust of the film: Jose Ma. Sison waxing eloquent with revolutionary tirade as he, even under military custody, confronts the buffoonish figure of President Marcos. Did this dialogue ever really happen? The film – Sison himself in voice-over -- claims it did. But perhaps all too late, even the man may be uncertain about his recuperation now -- never to be embalmed for worship, never to lie in state like Uncle Ho, or his idol, Chairman Mao. Ever.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

TRANSIT (Hannah, Espia, 2013)

The need for roots, writes philosopher Simone Weil, underlies the most vital and essential of necessities which constitute "the needs of  the soul." Few people take this perspective more to heart than the Filipino diaspora, several millions strong, trapped in transit, scattered around the world in uncertain provisional chronotopes. As dramatized by Hannah Espia’s feature debut, Transit, the striving wish to reterritorialize in their place of exile is of uncertain liminality. 

Filipino expatriates and their families are precariously subject to the ever-shifting domestic configurations of their adopted countries. In Israel, after the passage of an immigration law in 2009 that aimed to curtail the rights of children born out of foreign workers (primarily those under five years old), there is a sense that they are deemed "hyphenated" and forced back to their supposedly foreign country of origin. In Transit, its Filipino-Israeli subjects must learn to live and hide -- like the film's elapsed migrants -- in the inconspicuous margins of the country they have grown – and grown up -- to call home. 

Espia’s deeply affecting first film dramatizes the lives of these Filipinos and part-Filipinos who are in the process of once again being displaced, deterritorialized and broken apart. Set in Tel Aviv, the film is framed as five perspectives of five primary characters: Moises, a caregiver to a sympathetic old man, and his son named Joshua, not yet 5 years old and subject to the new immigration law; Janet, a domestic helper who must contend with her teenage daughter Yael, who is undergoing adolescence and a crisis of identity that favors her Israeli upbringing; and their niece, Tina, who must go into hiding after her visa has expired. Their stories all imbricate, and thus amplify, the bigger picture of a sense of home and identity under threat of forfeiture.

In Transit, the fate of 4-year-old Joshua bookends this film, his impending repatriation means a harsh fate, a destiny of displacement that might be beyond his comprehension, one which will take the deportee to an irregular future of familial separation, an unfamiliar country he will be forced to inhabit and adapt to. Repatriation seems even a misnomer -- Joshua's young worldview is instinctively Hebrew, adopting few Filipino attributes, tendencies and loyalties -- the place of one's birth and childhood is most certainly the place of one’s home and culture, familiarities and customs.

Rootlessness characterizes the fate of Joshua's kind. An absence of freedom -- an instinctive agoraphobia -- in Joshua's known birthplace, is a strong undercurrent within the film. Nurturing spaces across Tel Aviv and the rest of Israel are not meant for children of immigrants anymore – playgrounds have turned desolate and barren. Children subject to the new immigrant legislation must learn to keep indoors, out of sight, and fear the approach of law enforcers. The first things they learn to do is to lie about their identities, to even wear disguises and hide. They must learn to become “invisible.” Such is Transit's indirect indictment of a homeland that cannot provide and sustain, so that it is preferable to hide, fugitive-like, in another country.

If Espia focuses on the Filipino immigrant and his uncertain transit, his efforts at reterritorialization in their adopted country, which they have served with earnest labor and loyalty, face a complicated reality: none of the children here, for one, seem to identify with their parents' ethnicity. What the film calls into question, in the main, is the severity of the new immigration law – protestations against which are made by Moises and Janet and the presence of Israeli advocacy groups seeking the law’s repeal -- which seems blind to its harsh repercussions of dispersing and fracturing families.

As an exilic and diasporic film, Transit is a deceptive example that does not show the usual artisanal aesthetics, but it certainly qualifies as what Hamid Naficy calls "accented cinema" -- not the least for  its multi-linguality (not unlike those true-to-life characters they portray, even the cast literally acculturate by learning Hebrew and internalizing "a double consciousness") -- that foregrounds the spirit of uncertainty and liminality at the mercy of countries of migrancy. 

While the film depicts the common Israeli as a compassionate human who takes in the Filipino, the law proves to be another matter: a merciless institution to be feared and, helplessly, to reckon with. Espia, however, does not demonize Israeli immigration with draconian cruelty, but they are no less strict, uncompromising enforcers of their domestic and immigration policies. Against this background of unsparing enforcement of laws, Espia weaves human stories of silent dignity and struggle, doing so with mature dexterity and emotions, although momentary, impressionistic narrative gaps in one or two episodes appear (e.g. the episode involving Tina seems muddled and elliptical), seemingly glossed over, presumably owing to logistical constraints. But maybe it's just as well, Transit is better off understated than bogged down in sentimental overload.

Never, it must be said, has a Filipino production on foreign soil demonstrated such a mature and elegant assurance -- never with such controlled drama, with such a familiarity of time and place, with such a marshaling of resources, with such scope and detail, with such texture and tone -- that easily outpaces preconceptions of what the world has come to dismiss as the conventional Filipino film. Espia is a director to watch out for and Transit stands head and shoulders above the field at Cinemalaya 2013.