Himpapawid (Raymond Red, 2009) November 24, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinemanila, Essay, Festival, Indie Sine, Literature, Noypi.
English Title: Manila Skies
Written and directed by Raymond Red
Cast: Raul Arellano, John Arcilla, Sue Prado, Soliman Cruz
Shortly after winning the Palme d’Or, Raymond Red heard the news of a hijack. The passengers of Philippine Airlines Flight 812, on their way to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from Davao, were stranded after a desperate man declared a hold-up. Holding a gun and a grenade, he asked for their valuables and kept them inside a bag. He ordered the pilot to descend six thousand feet above ground, went to the rear door, and jumped. He wore a ski mask and swimming goggles, in case of landing on water, and suited himself with a homemade parachute.
That was on May 25, 2000. His body was found three days later.
Our few relevant filmmakers know this: if there is a place where one can find the most important stories to film, they are on the papers. Read and everything is already there. The characters, the plot, the resolution. On his part, Red has a strong grasp of his inspiration, only he uses it to address a common problem, a problem so common it is easily ignored. He works on the same premise but makes his intentions clear: to put emphasis on the social perspective, and to make this premise relate without needing so much details. Not only he achieves credibility in terms of ambition, but he also delivers the image of poverty that we have long been wanting to represent us, fair and square.
Should we remember a meaningful statement released after the PAL hijack, these words from Rep. Roilo Golez could be handy:
I can’t understand why an armed hijacker would risk his life only for a hold-up. Possibly his main goal, besides robbing, is to deeply embarrass the government.
Considering the political climate that time, particularly the series of bombings in the city and the unending tension between the military and rebels in Mindanao, the incident could only be interpreted as politically-motivated, even if it sounds slightly uncaring to the hijacker himself, or more important than what provoked him to such limits. Red, however, wants to pursue the man, know him, get in touch with him, and identify with him. Red makes another story—a narrative less concerned about marital problems and dreams of skydiving—but he gives his character the same conclusion. After all, in light of our condition right now, there could possibly be more reasons to jump off a plane with a parachute with no ripcord than otherwise. It just takes an awful effort.
But an awful effort it is—Himpapawid.
Hunger and misery go hand in hand, and often it is hunger that delivers someone to misery. The way Red shapes the character of the hijacker, hunger is numbed implicitly—or maybe hunger is something we don’t notice anymore, and can only be shown through the symbolism of rats and cockroach crawling unnoticeably—and misery is shown otherwise. What could have led him to hijack a plane, amid the little chance of accomplishment, points to a single cause, something that could only be deduced from the simple truth—that we are poor, that we have a history of poorness, and that we have a strong culture of poverty. Only we feel it more than we see it in the film. Himpapawid isn’t keen on persuading, but it is persuasive enough to attribute the hijacker’s actions to our diminishing regard for social responsibility. We cannot ignore the changing economy yet we try our best to do so; we find ways to make a living and think of the future; we reflect on our steps to get there, while the reasons why we strive—mainly our growing families—are still there, remaining, staying, depending on us.
Red may be talking about the same social cancer that Rizal, through Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, made clear more than a century ago, only in Himpapawid we have a hopeless protagonist to follow, his circumstances closer to recognition, and his fate already known to us. One arguable similarity though: Red unfolds his story like a novel, pacing it through a series of carefully structured rising action, involving supporting characters to further define the main character, apparently to allow his situation to be seen as critical, placing a clever plant and payoff device to render his argument intensely, and, in the writer’s command of words, making all the effort deliver a view of how things had been, and how things are going to be.
Himpapawid may well be the literary highlight of the year, but it is also its filmmaker’s return to the language that has nurtured him most. During those nine years between Anino and Himpapawid, the situations have clearly not changed for the better. We’re still like hamsters running persistently in wheels—running in one place and time, running till we lose the will to run—only in our case, we are running a life that doesn’t do us any good as time goes by.
More than forty years since its first publication, Mga Agos sa Disyerto remains a resounding piece of literature. The twenty-five stories that compose the collection—five shorts from Efren Abueg, Dominador Mirasol, Rogelio Ordoñez, Edgardo Reyes, and Rogelio Sicat—deliver a strong command of both language and subject that one can easily smell and taste their settings. The subjects are broad; the descriptions varied; the stories bleed fire and filth; and the characters.are so familiar they seem to walk right past the reader. There is more to poverty than being poor, the book is explicit in telling, and more to depression than not having a place to live and food to eat. Poorness is described the same way they are felt. The pressing depiction of the characters’ lives and their struggle to make out with the little things they have, as they face every day with an empty stomach, leaves its mark on succeeding generations of writers and readers, quickly establishing the book as a canon of short fiction.
Every story in the collection flows from the stream of social realities; each seems to emanate from a small opening of light that lets every observation cut deeply; yet it is in this little opportunity where hope springs forward—hope not only for Philippine literature but also for its inspiration, the poor society that continues to be poor, and the cruel situations that remain more and more cruel. But the writers are less concerned about solutions than problems—problems which cannot be ignored once one goes outside and observes. In these stories hope exists but it doesn’t come in the most appropriate time. Dire situations, however, give way to realities that can only come in such circumstances, a view of life that, for instance, can only be apparent to Ida and Emy in “Di Maabot ng Kawalang-Malay,” or to Impen after brawling with Ogor in “Impeng Negro.”
Included in the anthology is Sicat’s “Tata Selo,” a story that is widely read because it is required reading among high school students. Its language strikes the students first. Words like “istaked, “kahangga,” “gris,” and “nakiling” are new to their ears, or too old to be recognized that even their parents are not familiar with them. The clause “Kinadyot ng hepe si Tata Selo sa sikmura,” may elicit laughter, as the word “kadyot” is mostly used now to suggest sexual action. The names of the characters are also uncommon; “Tata” and “Kabesa” are rarely used in the city at present; and people now are more comfortable to say “Meyor” than “Alkalde.” This being a suggestion of difference in locality, one cannot discount the fact that the story endures because of its subject. Effort, then, is expected from the teachers to explain to the students not just the meaning of difficult words and its plot structure; but more importantly the author’s manner of description and characteristic language, the context and subtexts of the milieu, and how they still relate today.
Right at the very start it is clear that the tragedy of Tata Selo is his killing of the landowner who forces him to leave his farm. But his greater tragedy—if there is such comparative way of looking at it—is not being able to fight for his reason. The crime undresses him of respect, fair treatment, and humanity; and that crime is a cruel equalizer. In the eyes of the people who look at him in detention, he is an old man—and they pity him. In the eyes of the police and the mayor, he should not have killed his lord—and they also pity him. It is in Sicat’s absolute sensitive control that Tata Selo comes to life as a powerful representation of poverty—both of body and spirit—that is borne out of greed and injustice. The feeling of helplessness is incredibly felt; the thought that the poor will only become poorer looms, and the truth that the rich won’t give a damn about them becomes stronger.
One could imagine Tata Selo as he looks outside his cell and the people look at him back—only the old man isn’t aware of them, isn’t aware of their look of pity, isn’t aware of anything at all—and one of those eyes knows he’ll die soon, hungry and bruised. Sicat breathes life not only to Tata Selo but also to countless farmers and laborers who live in deprivation, them who are abused even more because of their situation, them who have to work hard and get less in return without complaining. This value for humanism that Sicat punctuates in his story—a humanism based on character and dignity—also predominates in Raymond Red’s Himpapawid.
Raul and Tata Selo suffer from similar fate—only in different situations and different company of people. Like in “Tata Selo,” age isn’t a virtue to be proud of in Himpapawid; in fact, the older a person gets, the less likely he is to settle down comfortably. The older he gets, the harder the situations can be. And the older he gets, the bleaker his future is. Getting enough food to eat for every day becomes a luxury. A good work is hard to find; and once work is found, keeping it is even harder. In the film Raul asks permission from his boss to leave work in the morning because he plans to complete his papers for his job application abroad. His boss refuses, despite Raul’s plea and display of desperation, at his wits’ end just to convince him say yes. His boss agrees, only he’ll lose his job—and Raul, alone in his dismay and hopelessness, goes home, jobless.
His conversation with his boss is the first instance of seeing him on edge. His anger is understandable; but his steadfast demeanor, revealed in his tone and manner of reasoning, is, for lack of a better word, bizarre. Certainly, the boss wouldn’t go out on a limb to yield to his request. Like he says, people line up every day just to get Raul’s job—a job that demands no rest day, no valid excuse for absence. Raul is just another worker that can be easily replaced. The boss reasons out to his plea like the decision isn’t coming from him. There is a sense of detachment; a feeling of higher control. The order needs to be observed, or else the other workers will follow suit and the whole business will fail. Raul loses his job because he isn’t privileged to have a better work environment, the same way Tata Selo is socked by the police while in jail because he is an old man who killed a powerful person in the community. Their reasons are irrelevant.
Important is the reaction of other people to Raul’s character. The boss maintains his cool as he talks to him, though he almost loses it if he hasn’t been busy. An emotional turning point, however, is seen when Raul goes to the agency to finish his papers. The day, unlike any other day, is a succession of mishaps. He loses his coins in the sewer; he is riled by a dismissive customer in the photocopying shop; he steps on a poop. In the agency he flares up when the clerk tells him that his requirements aren’t right, thus his application cannot be processed. He goes in a shouting spree, denouncing the applicants who will themselves to condescend just to get work, scaring them. He tears up his papers and throws them away. He curses the system; he curses the plight of the unfortunate. He tells the truth, but in the eyes of these people, he is a madman. He is a threat to their dreams of greener pastures. But in the eyes of the audience, is he really acting strange?
It is easy to see where Raul is coming from. He stays in a dirty house, an apartment whose rent he hasn’t paid for months. His father is ill in the province and he cannot go there to visit him. He just lost his job. He tries to apply for a work abroad only to find out that his papers are incomplete. He is hopeless; he would lick any dust of hope that comes along his way. In the company of his beer friends, though, he finds it. And in their group he isn’t different; he isn’t bizarre; he isn’t tense. The long talk in front of the store best describes the “Filipino inuman,” humorous, tacky, and honest. The audience becomes a listener to truthful rants and a witness to a crime that will yield grave misfortune. The group welcomes him. He becomes part of their plan. He agrees to help the heist.
Raul isn’t at the center of the plan but it is through his participation that the film is able to convey its strongest point. The life of the poor is like dominoes falling in longer intervals, but the effect and outcome are still the same: the fall of everything. However difficult the situations are, there is still one that will come after another, an action that will trigger another situation to happen.
Everything topples onto another until there is nothing left to fall onto, until the end of everything, until death. And Raul, in the middle of everything, refuses to be defeated by circumstances and loses himself—his sanity letting go and completely leaving him on his own—hungry and bruised, choosing death by deadening. He jumps with the parachute of workers—of strikers who fight for fair treatment—and that isn’t enough. He dies beside their protests, beside the wails of empty stomachs, beside the clamor for little food, beside the cries of the young, beside the dead cause. He lies on the mud with his feet up, still trying to stand.
The fate of the poor is living and dying all the same. Like Tata Selo, Raul could only repeat his words and no one will ever care to listen.
Halfway through the sequence inside the plane, before the hijack happens, Teddy Co points at the two flight attendants. “Look at that,” he says in the vernacular. “Look at that. Raymond is telling us that women now have become workers and men have become bummers. Good-for-nothing. Useless.”
The observation is spot-on, so truthful it hurts. The reversal of the set-up is not anymore unusual, though; male chauvinism, at least in the Filipino household, has become lax and impractical. A family that stays together starves together; that’s an acceptable principle. Pride breeds hunger; and that pride is something that Filipinos have learned to set aside and reconsider. If the husband is out of work and the wife takes care of financial support, the former is expected to take over her duties. In some cases, however, such swallowing of pride on the husband’s part harbors guilt, laziness, and misery.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath sets a formidable example. At first, it has the impression of patriarchal solidarity—there’s Tom, Pa, Grandpa, Al, Connie, Noah, Uncle John, and Casy active in making important decisions. But when the family moves out of Oklahoma to find work in California, the said impression of fraternity slowly crumbles and each of these men has shown great weakness that leaves the family down-and-out. Ma, her mind clear and her voice stern and assured, now gives the orders and makes sure they are followed. She pulls the family together; when a member of the family dies, leaves, or gets killed, she is there, thinking, knowing what needs to be done, and doing what needs to be done after. She shows her strength to her husband, telling him in his face that gone were the times when he rules the family and when his decisions matter, especially now that he cannot give the family anything to eat. From pillar to post, she never gives up; she has elected herself to the position of not only being the head of the family, but its light—its direction.
Ma talks with a lot of weight but never inconsiderately. She talks coming from her experience and observations, knowing she has gone through enough hardships to grant her the privilege of shedding enlightenment, of telling what she thinks is unavoidable about their plight. Her words sum up the truth of their condition:
I’m learnin’ one thing good. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need — go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help — the only ones.
Only ones. That will help. Poor people.
Strikingly, Himpapawid also makes the league of extra-unlucky gentlemen prominent. The men dominate the narrative, that aside from Raul there are also characters that the story takes time to explore, namely his beer friends and the father and son in the province. On the other hand, there is a particular woman that stands out, not just because she is the only woman in the crowd of men but because she appears in three personas, Red making sure not to tell whether or not they are the same person.
The suspiciously promiscuous woman, the clerk, and the stewardess—Sue Prado plays them with the required ambiguity to further emphasize the mental torment of Raul. Red may have the intention of keeping her characters worthy of probe, especially in relation to Raul’s resolve to hijack a plane, as each of them figures in his moments of utter defeat (first, when he got fired; next, when his application papers weren’t accepted; and last, when he was about to hijack the plane). The woman is primarily seen as the object of his sexual desire—may it be her image specifically or just her as the lone woman in the desert of unfortunate men the viewer is not really advised—but unlike Ma in The Grapes of Wrath, she does not help Raul in the course of the story. The only time she helps him is when she pushes him out of the plane door to his death. Instinctively, that is the culmination of her purpose: bringing him to his grand finality.
Should one think of Filipino novels in a similar vein, Edgardo Reyes’ Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Norman Wilwayco’s Mondomanila: Kung Paano Ko Inayos Ang Buhok Ko Matapos Ang Mahaba-haba Ring Paglalakbay come to mind. The former is adapted into film by Lino Brocka in 1975; and the latter is being helmed by Khavn dela Cruz and is set to release next year. Considering that local cinema and literature don’t have a wealthy tradition of working together, there is no question why both novels are picked up for the big screen. Both have strongly defined main characters—Julio Madiaga and Tony de Guzman—who are molded by their experiences in the city, changed by their ill fates, and scarred by their bloody encounters. Allowing these men to represent the proletariat, Reyes and Wilwayco have made their characters distinctly alive that the reader starts to smell them and feel the sweat dripping on their foreheads as they run for their life.
The characterization of the city is by all means integral to the writers’ social criticism, which in closer inspection goes deep into their personal background. Both Reyes and WIlwayco are sons of the streets, children of grief, and drunkards who know the way of the world better than the aristocrat. Reyes, with his understated and careful force of description—always putting importance on precision and truthfulness—is a deserving inspiration to Wilwayco’s savage control of language, whose style has always matched the filthiness and putridness that pervade his stories. They have come to regard the city as a character on its own, defining their human characters, and not allowing them to escape the truth of their condition. They offer no world of beauty, no make-believe world of happily-ever-after—because in reality no paradise can exist in a city that was built in hell. Their city has pushed the animal out of Julio and Tony; and like Raul in Himpapawid, the beast is a creature that evolves grimly and hopelessly.
Are they looking at the same person?
In Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Mondomanila, the clear conflict is man against society. Julio and Tony struggle to survive; they struggle to achieve their goal—Julio to finally be with Ligaya, and Tony to live a comfortable life out of the slums; and both struggle alongside their need to fill their stomachs with food. Himpapawid follows the same theme; scene after scene, layers pile up to reach the peak of Raul’s desperation. His primary need to go home in the province to visit his ill father blows up when he loses his job and gets involved in a failed heist. In a streak of luck (or unbelievable negligence), he is able to sneak his gun and grenade into the airport. He decides to hijack the plane, collect all the passengers’ valuable possessions and jump off with a homemade parachute. He hasn’t expected his death, for sure; he has overlooked it. Despair has numbed his mental state; he has lost his mind, though not fully. His logic is intact; only his plan isn’t. His distress has robbed him of the right frame of mind, proving the truth of his words, “Bato na ang utak ko!”
Red has gone literary without sacrificing the language of film. His literary devices—the flashback inside Sir Fernando’s office, the tripleganger character, and that particular scene when Raul has slept inside the taxi instead of looking out for his cohort—are woven seamlessly with the storytelling, allowing the images and sound to stand out without too much emphasis. The viewer gets to feel poverty without seeing similar images in the community—unlike, for instance, in Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador or Lino Brocka’s Insiang where the image of the community strongly appears and reappears in the narrative; instead, the emotional equivalent of these images is given: the behavior of Raul, the inebriated Lav Diaz mouthing “Wasak,” the interview of Pen Medina on television, the news clip of hostage-taking, and the numerous close-ups of Raul’s face, dripping with sweat. There is no particular place where Raul belongs—not the slums, not the workplace, not the store—except the streets. Red shoots Raul walking like he has walked these streets all his life, like he was born in them, grown in them, and slept in them every night. The pavement is his home, his last and only place in the city.
Like a flying vulture, Raul is always looking for something; but essentially, he is looking at something. He looks down at his feet; he looks up to see the plane approaching; he looks at his boss with contempt; he looks back; he looks at his side as he eats his crackers and drinks his softdrink; he looks daggers at the passengers of the plane, looking at them as if looking at himself, again, contemptuously. More than anything aesthetic, there is a reason why Red keeps angling towards the sky, from the audience’s point of view to Raul’s. Compassion—Red wants the audience to feel that—but really, is compassion enough? Will compassion help Raul ease his suffering? Will it alleviate his loss? (On second thought, could loss ever be alleviated?) Will it feed him? Will it give him hope?
It is no lie, however, that shared suffering does not guarantee intimacy. Having put the unfairness of human life into perspective, Red seems to say that Raul’s greater tragedy is indeed having us, all of us, as his companions. And around us, those who stay, tragedies like Raul are just waiting for the right moment—the right flicker of despond, and the right sharpness of knives—to happen.