Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (Remton Siega Zuasola, 2010) November 16, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Indie Sine, Noypi.
Written and directed by Remton Zuasola
Cast: Donna Gimeno, Lucia Juezan, Gregg Tecson, Fedwilyn Villarba, Daday Melgar
Based on a story by Ma. Victoria Beltran
Pardon me for writing this in a hurry, but there’s no other way but string these thoughts I am about to share in haste, and I fear that last night’s experience need not be recounted in clarity anyway. It’s hard to tell whether my purpose has been renewed or has merely blended into the anonymity of the night but there I was, watching Remton Zuasola’s Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, cursing and unable to control myself during the first few minutes, fraught with a mix of sadness and disappointment, only to see myself two hours later, walking out of the cinema frantically overjoyed, realizing it’s one of the best nights I’ve ever had, despite the stress of the evening and the usual kick of drowsiness. I felt that if Philippine cinema could at least have a single film this good every year—like Anacbanua the previous year, or Now Showing two years before, or Endo three years before, or Todo Todo Teros four years before, and so on and so forth—then there’s really no point proclaiming, every now and then, like a madman, that Philippine cinema is either dead or dying, and that it needs a few rounds of spanking. People assume that digital cinema has come to the rescue, but let’s say it has, so what? Couldn’t we talk about something else? How about regional cinema?
Damgo tells the story of Terya as she spends her last few hours with her family in Olango Island, Cebu. Soon we find out that she is leaving for Germany to marry a rich old man, an agreement her mother made with a recruiter, who offers, I must spoil you, some of the most priceless entertainment in the film with her shrieks of “Oh Lord Jesus!” near the end of the journey. Remton does everything in one take. Yes, one take. Clearly, he is ambitious; but what’s more impressive beyond doubt is that I cannot feel that ambition at all. It’s as if shooting a ninety-minute long take is the most common thing to do, if not the easiest and least daunting. I’ll choose this over Russian Ark any time, for the latter, even if it brags the beautiful hallways and galleries of Hermitage and has all the elegance and boredom of presumptuous art, lacks instinct and interest, whereas Damgo brims with curiosity from start to finish, in every nook and cranny, imperfect but immeasurable, the script going as far as the deepest pretexts and subtexts of its subject.
Watching Terya and her family walk from the coast to the harbor, where Terya will take a boat to the airport, and as they are joined by various characters, each of them never reduced to a lousy symbolism—the first sign of failure among local writers, always reducing a character to a metaphor—the audience is treated like a gossipmonger, hearing the most personal of their troubles. Remton knows that their stories—the intimacy of their stories—are the closest way to our heart. Never has he indulged for the sake of sentimentality; on the contrary, the sparseness of his treatment is striking, how visceral its realness is, how its poetry is wrapped in the barest of words, how its prose has no other direction but sideways, and how the movie hangs onto the basics of cinema: storytelling and visual language.
The film moves like an elaborate dance, but the only thing complicated about it is our participation, how we feel for Terya, seeing her take everything that’s set for her, gripping on her not too many options, knowing that the greener side of the grass is no longer hers. It’s easy to laud the style, but look at it this way: if the story hasn’t been that interesting, if the dialogues haven’t been that engaging, and if Remton has opted to rely rigorously on his script and has not considered improvisation (or has followed the original idea for the film, for that matter), then where will that one take take us? To another exploitation of the countryside by a young filmmaker? To another misrepresentation of poverty? To another caricature of hopelessness? To another poor idea of rural life? Fortunately, Remton does not allow any speck of posturing in his first full-length. He’s aware that Damgo is more than a film about mail order brides; it’s never about them, really, but the people around them, their families, the friends they parted ways with, the community they left, the town they will no longer recognize when they return. To add insult to injury, the choreography ends when the gloomiest part of Terya’s life begins.
It’s a shame how little we know about mail order brides, coming across the subject in the news or on the Internet, usually accompanied by a fit of laughter and a shot of pity. It’s a disgrace how little we care for them, how detached we are to their plight, and how we look down on them and the life they lead as if we are that different. Sherad’s guidance has truly helped Remton a lot—the economy of shots, the frugality of the narrative on the surface as opposed to the abounding arches of angry politics underneath—but Remton and his painful sense of humor have proven that “No one escapes art unhurt,” and really, by the time I got home after the screening I checked my arms and legs and saw that they were all covered in bruises. Probing further, I also found out that some of my fingers and toes were missing. And the strangest of all is that my mind, can you believe it, after slipping out of my head, took my pen from my pocket and wrote this entry by itself. Happiness honestly hurts.