Engkwentro (Pepe Diokno, 2009) July 21, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemalaya, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Pepe Diokno
Cast: Felix Roco, Daniel Medrana, Eda Nolan, Zyrus Desamparado
Nowadays when you call a young filmmaker brave, that would be making a complete fool of yourself. Because seriously, young and brave, they go together, they never lose each other’s hand, they hold on like couples facing the sunset. Only when you are young you have the guts to do things that most people think are stupid, despite you thinking otherwise. And when you look back it’s fine because, yeah, you can just shrug it off and say, That’s me, I did that, I was 21, I was young and stupid, but I did that, I was brave, wasn’t I?
But Pepe Diokno is not stupid. He’s just young. You can choose to be stupid but you cannot choose to be young, young at heart maybe, but there’s no such thing as old at heart, right? So that nulls it. First films speak of love and labor, of affirmation and discouragement, of fate and options, so comments about it, half-meant or not, would be taken seriously. Admit or not, we are all paranoid about our own work; we would love to hear what other people think, the subtler way the better. And this is what I think: Engkwentro tries hard to be significant, while in fact what it says about the state-sponsored vigilantism down south is like watching a lame coverage of the subject on late-night news, the surface full of fearful reports and startling interviews, but once the TV is turned off, it all boils down to one thing: we never really know what it’s all about. We just pretend to know.
When you have a subject like this, it almost gives you every reason to do it. You have a buffet of important subjects to choose from; you choose the hardest. You choose the one that is most ignored; you choose what can speak very well for yourself, what your parents have instilled in you, what your environment tells you to be part of. It is brave, but before you go ahead and shoot it, the narrative based on the subject must also be well-thought-of, mature enough to be taken seriously by your target audience, and if your market is everyone, then mature enough to be taken seriously by everyone. Diokno chooses a very sensitive subject; in fact it is so sensitive almost every year we have two or three films about the war in Mindanao, and at least one of them winning in festivals abroad, getting citations yada yada yada.
There is completely nothing wrong with that. We are at this festival that requires camaraderie and civility, all for the love of Philippine cinema, because yeah, cinema is about life and capturing life and all that jazz but have we really become more critical on the films that we watch? Not that being critical is that important at all, in fact it ruins the experience, but have these films inspired us a lot to move us to thinking and acting? Sure thing, Engkwentro has moved me to thinking.
Once the film starts to feed you its politics right at the very beginning, even before you see its visuals, and by feeding I mean giving you some sort of demographics, numbers, quotations, all those things, as if you’re too ignorant not to know exactly how many civilians are killed this year in Davao by these squads, who sponsors them, et cetera, et cetera, then it will always remind you to think twice before saying anything bad about it, which isn’t fair because not every film is about the war in Mindanao. Should Mangatyanan replace that Baudelaire quote by showing how many tribes up north are already losing their tradition? Or should Astig show us how many cases of snatching are blottered in police stations daily? But it’s a more alarming thing you say, it’s a bigger problem than that how dare you, the killings in Mindanao, more frightening in fact that you could just get shot in the middle of the road if they mistake you for some NPA or whatever.
But Diokno has allowed his subject to eat him alive, disabling his vision to penetrate the many veins of his film. His adherence to his style is admirable. The sound becomes a vital element to create an atmosphere of fear, and the unseen is clearly more crucial than what we see. We get how these people struggle just to have something to eat every day, how they barely survive, how the youth now belongs to hopelessness, their ambition robbed so early by poverty, and Diokno decides, well, those things could add to my grand point. They did, because those are necessary, but we also get the impression that the film could only bring us to the surface and nothing deeper – – not that depth is a priority, but a good direction to reach that depth is. Engkwentro is a student work by all means: ambitious, experimental, angsty, and brimming with force and energy; but it is also a student work of superficial thoughtfulness. It goes nowhere.
Celso Ad Castillo’s voice embodies the powerful, fascist dictator, and even without seeing his face we get to feel for the main character, his need to run. Through the long takes in the dark alleys of the slum community, we find ourselves involved with these people, their activities and their way of life. But this is the subject alone. The subject is doing the film the whole favor; Diokno sets out with a thin narrative in hand, with that big bang thing in the end, and that’s it: it passes off as shocking and brilliant.
Now I’m starting to wonder how come these young middleclass filmmakers, well-educated and properly exposed to dire socio-political conditions of our country, still haven’t learned that hard-hitting preachiness doesn’t work. I believe Diokno and I are almost of the same age. I hope when I look back and read this journal a couple of years from now, finding myself sounding so stupid wouldn’t hurt so much. Because between being bravely stupid and stupidly brave, I would always choose the latter.