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On things between poverty and porn (like research and experience) May 8, 2010

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Essay, Noypi.
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“Foster Child” and “Slumdog Millionaire” – To piss and to kiss poverty

An interesting observation among local films recently is the heavy amount of research against the personality of experience.

Overlap happens naturally, but a quick look at them—especially those that win in festivals—reveals an overwhelming number of works that rely so much on research. Writers go out of their way to find subjects to interview. They seek the help of professionals, lean on their thoughts, and get inspired by them. Directors, on the other hand, borrow the style of films they love. They pay homage to them, proudly admit their influence, and lose themselves in the fantasy of wearing other people’s clothes.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, except that almost everybody is doing it.

In narrative films, research is integral to the film, but a good filmmaker can tell a story effectively without showing off how much knowledge he knows, or how much effort it took him to deliver his statements onscreen. That talent to shape subtlety—not subtlety to be defended as art, but subtlety to command stronger turns of plot—defines authorship which makes films deserving of careful probe and analysis. For no trivial reason must research steal the show. Research will provide the meat, but it will not and should not take away the interest from the film. Furthermore, research can command a work only as much as the filmmaker will allow it, and when that happens—when the illusion becomes too indispensable to be confused with the factual—the personality of the filmmaker’s experience surfaces.

Personality takes over. And when it takes over, clichés are no longer trite; and instead they tell us that something is different, something is rational.

A cliché, for instance, is that every national cinema needs its share of porn to draw viewer interest. However, between lurid/sensational and little/no artistic merit, there must be a proper use of the term “porn” because boxing the trend as such is not only risky—it’s prejudicial. The more frequently the term is used, the easier it should be defined; but unfortunately, definitions only come after the damage is done. Like poverty and porn as individual truisms, poverty porn becomes too definable to define that it is often taken for granted.

Two years ago, the term was severely used to discuss Slumdog Millionaire. A string of heavy write-ups added to the film’s cultural significance, even more than its artistic merits, especially after critics were unanimous in honoring the film. Now, poverty porn becomes another cozy place in which to categorize the films of Brillante Mendoza, Jeffrey Jeturian, and several others who earn recognitions abroad. In the dynamics of foreign festivals, it is the programmers who rule—they dictate which films to include in the fest, which films to represent the country. This way, foreign audiences are led to a common perception: a four-cornered description of life in the country, an interpretation of the filmmaker.

Take the case of Mendoza: his films, no matter how divisive they are, offer drastic shifts between research and experience, but they complement each other in different ways. The movie theater in Serbis is not only a movie theater that houses pimps and perverts; it also serves as a remembrance of things past, an allusion to ways that used to exist, like the family that used to live comfortably or the cinema that used to show decent films. Research is also very powerful in Kinatay, but Mendoza candies it with experiments in form, making it feel like a dissertation on the abstract rather than the tangible. But this dynamic is best illustrated by Jeturian’s Kubrador. Rarely does a local film invoke a sense of alarm that is driven by a perfectly written principal character, that the moment the elements walk freely between the real and the imagined, the marriage of poverty and porn becomes completely relevant.

Upon reflection, it is not incidental that the three films mentioned above were penned by Bing Lao.

Only those who concern themselves with the necessity of terms—and their ability to simplify—are bothered by poverty porn. You ask, why make films that depict/promote/exploit/argue poverty? Why, because we’re still poor. And films cannot do anything about that. The personal politics of cinema can only do as much as make us think. Action lies elsewhere.

*Published in The A/V Club, The Philippine Star, May 7, 2010

Comments»

1. dodo dayao - May 10, 2010

When I say that making a fuss about Filipino filmmakers making too many films about poverty is a bit like making a fuss about Hong Kong filmmakers making too many movies about organized crime, am I oversimplifying things?

2. Richard Bolisay - May 10, 2010

Uy, pa-intelligent ang comment, haha. Joke.

But exactly, that’s the point. Why make a fuss about it? Parang nagalit ka kay Jackie Chan dahil lagi na lang siyang nagkokomedi at nagku-kung fu. And do Hongkong critics and viewers get pissed off when Johnnie To and John Woo earn recognition abroad for their crime films? Should we equate “violence” to “poverty”?

3. critic after jizz - May 11, 2010

Like :)

4. Edgar Allan Paule - May 12, 2010

It’s inevitable that Filipino filmmakers will make works about poverty. As you said, we’re still poor. At this point, we should go beyond the question “Why poverty?” and move on to more important questions: what do they say about poverty? How do they view the issue?

5. Richard Bolisay - May 13, 2010

That’s true, but somehow I think this must be clarified, as some people always insist on the negativity of the term.

6. John Santos - May 14, 2010

“It’s inevitable that Filipino filmmakers will make works about poverty.” Is it inevitable? Based on the history of film industries outside of the West, the exact opposite is true: having to deal with poverty daily makes it inevitable that one will not want to see poverty on screen. And if poverty is such a given, why would it be an “issue,” and why would I anticipate anyone having anything to say about it?

I think the real difference lies on the role of povery: is it a movie about poor people, or is it a movie with poor people? Slumdog Millionaire is porn because it was about poor people. You can’t even conceive of that story with non-poor people in it. The web of complexities that develop between the characters, no matter how complex, are constructed simply upon the fact that they are poor. Our sympathy/empathy towards the characters–the experience of the experience–is elicited by their hope of escape froom poverty, all the while perpetuating it (i.e., you want the poverty to end even if only for the sake of your own catharsis, but you’re only made to want it to end because you are able to see/watch it).

Serbis on the other hand is not porn in a sense that it’s a story about cultural memory that happened to have poor people in it. It has something to “say” about poverty, only to the extent that it is there. Now of course it is possibly more repulsive in portraying poverty than Slumdog Millionaire–covering people with shit aside–but this is as a result of the reality being exposed. Nevertheless, ultimately it isn’t about the squalor of their environment, but about the people that live within it–and the daily complex of decisions they make, inflected but not determined by their economic condition.

7. Richard Bolisay - May 14, 2010

Not that I’m defending Slumdog Millionaire, but I don’t think it’s only about poor people- – it’s also about rich people and with rich people. And not because Serbis has that so-called cultural memory exempts it from poverty porn. I think the term has gained a notoriety of nastiness which is a total misconception, and that we must also try to cultivate its importance as the present vogue in local cinema.

Serbis is richer in terms of what it has to say about poverty, but could we really blame Slumdog Millionaire and all its friends?

– – > “And if poverty is such a given, why would it be an “issue,” and why would I anticipate anyone having anything to say about it?”

It’s an issue because we’re trying to find a solution. It can never be not an issue. If corruption is such a given, don’t you think it must not be an issue?

8. Edgar Allan Paule - May 15, 2010

Hi John,

1. “Based on the history of film industries outside of the West, the exact opposite is true: having to deal with poverty daily makes it inevitable that one will not want to see poverty on screen.” There are several things problematic about this. The first is your seeming parallelism between “West” and the third world, as if the West’s experience of poverty is the same as that of the Philippines and other underdeveloped countries. It’s not true.

Next, about poverty as an issue, the fact that it is a given, the fact that it is an institutionalized and systematized phenomenon, makes it an issue. I can’t fathom how you can shirk poverty as a non-issue. Perhaps you haven’t tried living in it?

Third, when I argued that Filipinos filming poverty was inevitable, it is because I believe that filmmakers do not live in a vacuum, they draw stories from their contexts, and in the Philippines’ case, the context is one of dire poverty. You cannot read Filipino films independent of such, regardless if they tackle poverty or not.

2. About poverty porn, I think this is “about poor people” or “with poor people” is largely just wordplay. Poverty porn, or at least in the way I see it, is the prurient use of poverty in cinema. In the same way that bodies are objectified and decontextualized in pornography for viewing pleasure, poverty porn is filming poverty with the same objectified/glorified sense for reasons other than engaging people in the issue (ie to gain “legitimacy” as a “serious” filmmaker, to embellish make a story “interesting,” etc). It is made to derive pleasure at the spectacle of poverty.

And that is why “Slumdog Millionaire” is poverty porn” not because it’s just “about poor people,” but because poverty ends so easily. Because it’s “inspiring” or “heartwarming.” In reality, poverty is neither of those. Poverty is systematic, and it cannot be remedied by a gameshow, yet the film leads us to believe that even the worst and most harrowing cases of poverty can be ended by a set of deus ex machina questions (a convenient storytelling device to boot) and an infectious dance number.

On the other hand, you talk about Serbis (“not about the squalor, but about the people and their decisions”) as if you can completely redo it in a non-poor context. Of course you can’t, and that would be an insult to its scriptwriter to say the least.

9. John Santos - May 15, 2010

1. “There are several things problematic about this. The first is your seeming parallelism between “West” and the third world, as if the West’s experience of poverty is the same as that of the Philippines and other underdeveloped countries. It’s not true.” The idea behind specifying “film industries” outside the West is to point out that there are distinctions between the West and places other than the West. Now, the contention still stands that in studying pop cinema in places such as India, China, South America, etc., cinema for the most part is valued as an escape from one’s lot in life, not a reminder of it.

2. ” I can’t fathom how you can shirk poverty as a non-issue. Perhaps you haven’t tried living in it?” True, I have not lived in abject poverty, but we’re talking about filmmaking, not saving kids in Africa. This is an art form of access, funding, and technology–that is, of the privileged. If you, me, and everyone we know have the time to talk about movies, none of us get to use the question “do you know how it feels to be poor?” as a qualifier for what each of us say on the matter.

I don’t shirk from poverty being an issue. I shirk from using its givenness as a justification from making movies about poverty, as if poor people have no capacity to see their place on earth other than through the lenses of their economic situation. I guess for me, the contention is not if it is an issue (note, issue not problem) or non-issue, because ultimately “issues” are always the preoccupations of the uninvested. The most important thing for me is if Filipinos are using poverty as a baseline for how they see the world–and to what extent is it justified.

3. “poverty porn is filming poverty with the same objectified/glorified sense for reasons other than engaging people in the issue ” Danny Boyle sure as hell would disagree vehemently. He was very explicit in his intentions to “engage [the] people in the issue”. I think in the end, he is successful in engaging issues (as evident from all the subsequent fluff pieces about the poor children of India after the film’s release), but not in engaging problems (those children are still poor, and the rest of the world still pretend that they do not exist).

And in the same token, glorification of poverty does not necessarily qualify as porn. The exuberant opening in Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah, which made a point of emphasizing the ramshackled neighborhood where the main characters live, used this “glorification” to extrapolate narrative and psychological points that are independent of that poverty. In short, Lamangan did take it as a given that people are poor, but also took it as a given that people are also other things besides poor.

4. “On the other hand, you talk about Serbis as if you can completely redo it in a non-poor context.” That isn’t really the point. I was trying to suggest that Serbis’ narrative is about the people that live in or pass through a theater, not on the poorness of the people or the squalor of the theater. But taking your offense to what I said in consideration, Nolot did the same concept with Porn Theater and Tsai Ming-Liang in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Now, are all three films completely the same? No. But remember that Gus Van Sant shot his version of Psycho in color. Is this necessarily an insult to Serbis’ screenwriters? Only if you think the capability to render common human experiences is made less successful by the product’s commonness.


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