Rochel (Matt Baguinon, 2013) February 8, 2013Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema Rehiyon, Docu, Noypi.
Written by Pol Singson
Directed by Matt Baguinon
Produced at the Franco-German-Filipino 2012 Documentary Workshop
In the morning of Feb. 29 last year, a dead body was found in a private lot in Barangay Batong Malake in Los Baños, Laguna. The police identified the victim as Rochel Geronda, a 14-year-old student at Los Baños National High School and a sampaguita vendor. Her jogging pants were used to strangle her, knotted so firmly that it suggested the cause of her death. Her blouse was folded neatly and rolled up to her chest. Bruises covered her arms, hips, and feet. Her bra was found behind her neck and her underwear was pulled down. A sharp object seemed to have hit her head.
On her way to the crime scene, Rochel’s mother, Lani Geronda, was prepared to see the worst. When she arrived she immediately checked Rochel’s genitals, thinking that some objects had been inserted, but she didn’t find any. The body had been washed clean. There was a clear sign that she was raped, but her genitals weren’t defiled, as she feared they would be. What surprised her was the swarm of flies on Rochel’s eyes, their noise seemingly louder than that of the onlookers huddled in the area.
It was likely that Rochel was killed the night before. She was last seen at around 8 o’clock, when she left her house in Riverside Subdivision to visit a nearby Internet shop. The police later found out that she didn’t make it to the establishment. Three weeks after her murder, two suspects were arrested: Fredolin Presenta, a security guard, and Alberto Sigue, a farm caretaker. Presenta, the assailant, owned the flashlight that was found in the lot and Sigue helped him dump the body and hide from the authorities.
Months before Rochel was killed—in October 2011, specifically—another rape-slay incident took place in Los Baños. The corpse of 19-year-old UP student Given Grace Cebanico was found on Apec Road, with bruises and stab wounds all over her body, her hands tied behind her. There was a bullet wound on her forehead and a masking tape covered her mouth. Two men took turns raping her. In July of the same year, Bradley Inway, 16, and Gilbert de Ocampo, 23, were found dead on IPB Road in the university compound, less than 50 meters away from where Given Grace’s body was located. Inway and de Ocampo were thought to be victims of summary execution, which the police denied.
But the tragedy in Los Baños didn’t stop there. A few days after Rochel’s death, another UP student, Ray Bernard Peñaranda, was held up and stabbed by two men on a motorcycle. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Los Baños is no Ciudad Juárez, a city in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico where hundreds of women had disappeared and had been killed since 1993, but this succession of crimes in a once peaceful community is alarming enough to send people to the streets and demand a call for action. In light of Rochel’s case, the Laguna police director reshuffled the officers deployed in town and ordered some to undergo training, but clearly this is not a lasting solution. Whereas these incidents reveal a major shortcoming of security, it is not an issue of the local police force being completely incompetent but being caught off guard, unable to respond as effectively as they could because they are used to violent crimes happening only on occasion and between long periods of time. It doesn’t sound like a valid excuse, of course, because it isn’t, but taking this into consideration can partially explain why the killings have ceased recurring for the time being, unlike in Ciudad Juárez where female homicides continue and become intolerably dreadful over the years.
But then again crimes, oftentimes driven by desperate economic situations, are also cultural and political. They are specific in every nationality and neighborhood, the factors that contribute to their occurrences dependent on many aspects, and even the effect on the families of the victims is varied, the acceptance ranging from profound resignation to counter-violence to death itself. The only thing certain is that death, especially when brought about by a gruesome murder, always leaves an impression on both the individual and the community, and it persists.
The documentary Rochel, directed by Matt Baguinon and written by Pol Singson, may have started on this effect. It’s obvious that their proximity to the subject, them being UP Los Baños students, has enabled them to adopt a suitable sensibility, the kind that is propelled by social duty, and their youth has helped the film materialize almost immediately, resorting to resources at hand to pursue their careers without losing their initial objective. After all, documenting Rochel’s case does not require a strong personal voice. What it needs is a distinct smidgen of maturity to handle the sensitive material, which can be easily exploited for dramatic purposes, an ability to do emotional math to reach a sum that does not betray the actual events involved. This maturity comes with wisdom, as most viewers aren’t convinced without difficulty, and singling out Rochel’s case as opposed to Given Grace’s or Peñaranda’s poses more questions and raises more doubts than the filmmakers could imagine, a decision reflective of their artistic preoccupations. One can infer reasons, but hard to dismiss is the compliance of the main subject, Lani Geronda, whose unaffected manner lends the film its most persuasive quality.
On paper, Rochel sets out to paint two key portraits: of Rochel, a loving daughter and hardworking student, through the testimonies of people around her, and of Lani, a mother at the worst phase of her life, through her everyday activities. Onscreen, the absence of the former provides contrast to the presence of the latter, and the whole feels fractured but complete.
The filmmakers are able to draw interesting nuances from everyday actions: Lani waking up at 3 a.m. to prepare her children’s breakfast and uniform, reviewing their lessons, reminding them repeatedly to study hard and avoid trouble, accompanying the three of them to school but not without praying together before leaving the house, spending time with her grandchildren, doing the laundry and watching her small store when she gets home. They pursue Lani because she understands not only the intentions of the movie but also its artifices. She isn’t dismissive of suffering—in fact, she builds her defenses around it. Her honesty shines through, her relentless faith in god never off-putting, and her will to live to continue the search for justice is stirring in its openness. By placing Lani at the center, Rochel’s death becomes more resonant, the loss even more pronounced because of how meaningful the fourteen years had been and how, if only she had not been murdered, the succeeding years would have been steeped in optimism, hope being every poor family’s sense of new beginnings.
Baguinon and Singson recognize the sturdy groundwork, so they focus instead on creating a structure that will stand on it, which will not only serve as a visible exterior but also as a bridge to an isolated territory, a place where most media stories are having a hard time dipping their toes into. In addition to detailing the circumstances around Rochel’s life and death through the people closest to her, it sketches a map of emotions surrounding her absence, the singular and submerging feeling that hovers after her passing, the nondescript way it walks in and out of a person’s consciousness.
The storytelling, however, suffers from a few hiccups. Opening with messages of concern from Boy Abunda, Gloc-9, and several resource persons, the film rests on the mistaken need to have this introduction, more or less making the viewer aware of the scale of the situation. Apart from that, it has no purpose, and it seems to put an air of vanity to the issue about to unfold. One can feel that this idea of heightening the drama to connect better to a young audience and make the narrative more accessible becomes too persistent, as illustrated by the use of maudlin music in numerous scenes, either to underline the family crisis or draw attention to the poignancy of little things. For example, one of the most effective moments in the film is when Lani is seen playing with her grandson, Wilmer, and the two are enjoying each other’s company. That long sequence is not accompanied by anything—the candidness of their actions is striking enough. On the other hand, that part when Lani decides to watch a video of Rochel and her other grandson, Dayo, wipes her tears, the music in the background emphasizes the scene too much, making it feel unnatural and contrived. Granted, it gives the audience its first actual glimpse of Rochel’s face, but it pushes too much, disrupting the tone of the documentary.
It’s only fitting that Baguinon and Singson decide to end with a family affair. With her sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren, Lani pays a visit to Rochel’s grave on All Saints’ Day. They pray and talk to Rochel. There is nothing much to say but words of longing and promise. For several minutes, the filmmakers manage to isolate the Gerondas and their emotional state, as if telling that they are alone in their pain, which is actually truer than any medical or autopsy report, that in such time of terrible apathy and darkness their sorrows can’t be shared. Death brings people together, it seems to say, but only the family members can bear the cross on all sides: the weight is seldom in the middle. Evidently these intimate moments are more meaningful to the bereaved than to the audience, and the film is able to send a bit of that burden to the viewer. For a moment it brings to light the documentary’s main weakness: it strikes shadows, not human flesh. It doesn’t sniff around and follow trails. It doesn’t sink its teeth into the industrial landscape of Los Baños. It deliberately shows dramatic shots of streets and sidewalks instead of rendering the depth of the town’s monotony. Its restless editing tends to miss several highlights. But these failings only emphasize the film’s modest accomplishments, the sincerity of its makers, and the genuineness of its intent. Its scope is hardly encompassing, but what it manages to deliver is firm and levelheaded. Rochel not only recalls an incident but also offers a look into the future, a view of a bleak house, and in it a family about to realize how fast life is fading away.