Independencia (Raya Martin, 2009) June 18, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, French Spring, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written by Ramon Sarmiento and Raya Martin
Directed by Raya Martin
Cast: Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Alessandra de Rossi, Mika Aguilos
The first thing you notice in Raya Martin’s Independencia is its color. Assuming that before you enter the cinema you see things in their usual hues, your eyes are quick to tell you that betraying them should be the last thing on your mind. The sudden adjustment of your eyes to its palette, as if revolting to the uncommon sight of moving black and white images in the big screen, suspends early judgment, for whatever it is that Martin has yet to prove to make his films “accessible” to “common” moviegoers only becomes relevant to people who consider themselves superior to the films they watch. I am not everyone, so I suppose if I may speak against the few whose bias is cultural, and whose thought balloons argue that if a recent French film is shot in black and white it is art, but if it is a Filipino film it is pretentious, my dear friends, I tell you, modesty is overrated. Let the film argue for itself.
Its color is not only noticeable. It is salient; it leaps out of the screen to claim your attention, to hold you still, as if bringing you to the setting of its narrative despite seeing its artificiality. There is consent, but it is not given sincerely. When one is not paying attention, there are many things that get lost, that are not appreciated, that are preempted by the fact that we are seeing a film that is clearly out of our league, whose world is some place we already left to move on. My first viewing of Independencia had me close my eyes because I could not stand Martin’s images. I was not disinterested; I just felt the need to close my eyes to focus more – – and it actually worked. There is an admirable effort to make the dialogues sound faithful to its time – – that is, during the early part of the century when the Americans took over – – and the stories of its characters bring to mind some childhood tales our friends used to tell us during recess, or legends our grandparents used to tell us to put us to sleep. The sound feels more than what it should be, which like the painted backdrops used throughout the film, aims to mimic the filmmaking trend of its time: the use of studio and the theme of resistance. The disbelief is suspended, but other things are also cut loose.
One clever part of the film is when the narrative is interrupted by a newsreel, the partly tragic and the partly humorous account of a boy with “unquestionable motive” shot dead by a soldier, who supposed that the kid was stealing some fruits in the market. I find the reel particularly amusing, that aside from the fact that Martin uses it to simulate the period when watching movies in theaters also meant reading the papers in between (and contrary to the fact that the news is not particularly amusing), it has also worked for the narrative, allowing us through the pause to follow more clearly the young man’s life as he bounces from his mother’s lap to his wife’s arms. The dream sequences and animation, which are also quirkily used in Indio Nacional, soften its uptight texture and provide humor to its somewhat humorless facade.
Martin is severely criticized in his previous films for his storytelling – – or as some would say, his lack thereof – – his indulgence in non-importance, his narratives that reek of boredom, his stubborn ambition. Independencia proves that he can do well with a plot as thin as a hair strand, a linear story that recalls early cinema, especially when the plot is only used to say other things, to suggest multitude of ideas, to bring to life a universe of histories. He tells the story the way his requirement needs it to be told, but he is still in touch with the style that he is hated for. While last year’s Now Showing really begs for walkouts, Independencia earns its right to be taken seriously, with less diabolic murmurs and more indicative silence (does sleep fall under silence?).
That he has put his four characters in isolation – – each portrayed wondrously by its actors (except my complaint about the kid’s rather incredible tone) – – is both logical and ironic. Our geographical location gives the logical part away, and the thousand islands that constitute our land intensify it even more. The ironic part is that we are also isolated within, that we are trapped in our own isolation, and that we are running away from that thought. Again, the use of color in the end becomes crucial in showing that.
But what becomes significant is not the story but the events that caused them to happen, which I believe Martin has the least concern to tell. In his films he has strived for the heart of subtlety by connecting with the tangled wires of our identity, not by untangling them but by going through them, following the knots till he reaches the end: the understanding. I will not claim liking Martin’s style – – liking it will make it more complicated to explain, and liking it risks more dishonest statements – – but I am surely affected by his films, confounded by their distinct voice, pained by their torturous storytelling, excited by their newness, amazed by their defiance. Independencia, all things considered, cracks open another feeling for me, and that maybe is the guilt in doubting it.
As an audience it is depressing to be hounded by questions instead of answers, that while films may not be entertaining they should at least be modest enough not to pain us emotionally, or confuse us to the point that even the simplest questions like Did you like the film? come out like the most difficult question in the world to answer. In fact in Martin’s case, the question Did you like the film? seems rhetorical, and if one obliges to answer it he will soon realize that another question is required to be answered, like If you didn’t like it because it is not entertaining, I wonder, should films be entertaining to be liked? Things like that. Independencia, like Martin’s previous films, poses questions that are not unanswerable but they are difficult to answer because I think Martin doesn’t know the answers to his questions either, so why bother. Why should I bother? Why should we bother?
And I guess that’s where I see the point of his films, and the reason why he should continue doing them. He stands alone as the hopeful one, the peerless storyteller of Philippine history that forces us to see the image that we refuse to look at, even for a second. We complain that we are always seen as a poor nation, that the films that represent us in foreign festivals are always about poverty, that Kinatay isn’t exactly the proper image of the Philippines that we should project outside. We do not complain about Independencia’s subject because it alleviates our guilt – – our guilt for not caring, our guilt for not letting these things matter – – because it is fed to us that history is important yet we do not really know why. Yet Independencia also shows how poor we are, how malignantly distant we are to our past, and how unrecognizable it is, as if our past is only what our textbooks tell us. If Martin’s films represent the true Filipino, then maybe that’s the reason why we choose to be another, to imbibe the culture of another, to become another. That’s why his films are such agony; it is easier not to recognize their power because they leave us powerless. They are not a source of enjoyment because otherwise we should redefine enjoyment.
Our history, if I may borrow Paul Simon’s words, is like a distant constellation that’s dying in a corner of the sky. Like the young man’s failing eyes as he looks at his home, vaguely making anything out of it, his feet barely moving, leaving him at the mercy of leaves and thunder, it all becomes a matter of recognition, of our memory failing us or us failing our memory. And Martin, if I have not yet expressed my sincere admiration, for taking the road less traveled, has surely made all the difference.