On Privilege in Independent Cinema: Every Cloud has a Silver Spoon Lining

Mara Coson

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Philippine cinema has never had a tradition of depicting characters from privileged classes as protagonists; if they are depicted as such, they are usually placed within the context of subaltern desire: rich boy meets poor girl and through her, changes for the better. This notion has been popularized by the romantic comedies of Viva or Star Cinema, which bank on increasing social mobility and the rising power of “young professionals” who might identify with these narratives. In these films, we see fresh graduates pining for dashing CEOs; we see knees bending when a young face steps out of a sleek car.  Take, for example, the recent film, The Mistress:

Tinagalog ko para maintindihan mo, ” says the wife of a philandering businessman, after berating her husband’s kabit, a sastre played by Bea Alonzo, in the recent Star Cinema film. In the tradition of forcedly complex mainstream dramas, however, the sastre also transforms the womanizing businessman’s son, played by John Lloyd Cruz, by making him fall in love with her and the beauty of her “simplicity.”

Class dynamics have long played a major role in contemporary Philippine cinema, not only in mainstream romantic comedies, but also in dramas and nationalist cinema.

In Celso Ad Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak, the relationship between a young “delinquent” named Dido (Bembol Roco) and his rich young lover Julie (Vilma Santos) falls apart soon after a hasty attempt to elope, and out of heartbreak, Dido responds to Julie’s preferring to maintain her lifestyle over love by joining Hukbalahap rebels. In Lino Brocka’s Bayan Ko: Kapit Sa Patalim, we see Turing (Philip Salvador), a factory worker caught in the middle of a worker’s strike, who robs—to horrific ends—his employers out of a desperate need to pay for his wife’s hospital bills.

In this cross-section of Philippine cinema, the distance of the mainstream cinema audience from the privileged appears to be a reminder that, given their patronage, it is the greater public that holds the fort in Philippine cinema, and thus it is the greater public that these films speak to.

But what happens when the upper classes begin to incorporate their stories into the Philippine cinematic canon through independent films made by and for the privileged, which have no tropes that are recognizable to the masses?

In a country where less than one percent of the population can identify with these narratives, can plurality exist? 

Give up Tomorrow: The Rich Victim

The laurels emerge first in the trailer of Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins’s Give Up Tomorrow, a film that gained recognition in over fifty film festivals before it was screened at Cinemalaya last July.

Give Up Tomorrow tells the story of Paco Larrañaga, the tough-faced mestizo who was the alleged leader of the group of Cebuano boys accused of murdering the two Chiong sisters in 1997. The documentary asserts Larrañaga’s innocence in what was known as the “Cebu scandal of the century,” revealing that Larrañaga was in a different city when the murder happened (as all his classmates witnessed), that the body unearthed wasn’t even the body of a Chiong sister, that the police witness, Davidson Rucia (who claimed to be part of the gang), was a stranger to Larrañaga, and other alarming facts, which—to the astonishment of the audience—the judicial system swept under the rug.

It has thus become the mission of the documentary, and of its filmmakers, who have become filmmakers solely for this purpose, to free Larrañaga by exposing the weaknesses of the Philippine judicial system and media.

Mrs. Chiong, the mother of the murdered and also the “villain” in the film, has insisted that Larrañaga is indeed guilty, and to this day, Larrañaga remains in jail, with this year marking his fifteenth year in spite of protests and international support following the film.

While its later commercial release in Metro Manila gained some traction, its Cebu screenings were more difficult to arrange.

Last July, a GMA News TV anchorwoman asked Mrs. Chiong how she felt about a possible Cebu screening: “Marami silang gimik. Kaya nila yan kasi may pera sila . . . Pati paggawa ng dokyumentary, kaya. [They have a lot of gimmicks. They can do that because they have the money . . .  They can even make a documentary.]

Screening in Cebu, according to the filmmakers, was their biggest goal. Only one major cinema—although it nearly pulled out at the last minute—screened the film in Cebu. But its screening, uncommon for an independent film, was extended. The general response following the screening was a distinct realization that nobody is above the law, and that the stereotypes associated with the “coño” nearly left Larrañaga guilty as mistakenly charged. “Finally,” remarked Syjuco, “I feel complete.”

Ang Nawawala:  Tragic Youths

Gibson Bonifacio, the protagonist of Ang Nawawala, is a well-off twenty-year-old who comes home from his studies abroad for the Christmas holidays. Gibson hasn’t spoken in ten years, and fills his silence with local music, weed, and imagined discussions with the ghost of his dead twin. As the film unfolds, we discover why Gibson has been evading the confrontation of long-seated familial problems, and what it will take to break his silence.

Film critic Rolando Tolentino called Ang Nawawala “burgis na juvenilia,” a dismissal based on the assumption that the greater public cannot have affinity for the middle and upper classes. Tolentino may have been right, but seeking this affinity does not seem to be the film’s intention.

“Honestly I wanted to make a movie with a good story. Just very simple. And make it something that is sincere and authentic, not pretending to be something that it’s not—not trying to make a sweeping statement about life and about class,” claims director Marie Jamora. “Putting [the film] in any other social class is false.”

While it was extremely popular among pockets of the local music scene, its commercial release failed to produce the numbers it had hoped for, and the film was nearly pulled out before its run had ended. There were many things that may have been lost in translation for a mainstream audience: the stylistic influences of Wes Anderson, the portrayal of “young love” in the context of an opaque “scene,” and the role of music as a character in the film. But in a sense, the confused reception was expected. Ang Nawawala is a film written for music and for itself; it is the director’s homage to her experience, and for this reason the film’s near mainstream failure hints at its success.

The Animals: The Upper Class Animal

A film often compared to Ang Nawawala in this year’s Cinemalaya because of its portrayal of upper class youth is Gino M. Santos’ The Animals. The film shuns the notion of a “protagonist”, opting instead for an almost masochistic free-for-all situation in which upper class kids can indulgently play victim to their own excesses: parties and drugs with minimal parental supervision. Of course, as though indebted to the moral teachings of their Catholic private schools and the love of their parents, the characters rush to a heavily moralized conclusion of schoolyard schadenfreude.

The Animals engages the more mainstream upper class, making use of easily recognizable tropes like “wild house parties” with Top-40 DJs, Rohypnol, and other images that appear in many Hollywood teen films and magazines. The portrayal of this gated inner circle, the way Ang Nawawala portrayed the inner “indie” circle, is the accomplishment of The Animals as it successfully shows what private school kids do when given a camera and a curious audience. It is deliberately unapologetic in the way it reveals the reckless underside of the young upper class, and for that the film was well-received.

To this date, The Animals has not had a commercial release. This is not a reflection of how far the film had notgone but rather how far the film had gone with its portrayal of the “spoiled rich kid.”  Since it is a film made for the upper class with social codes that cannot be understood, having no commercial release hints that the filmmakers are aware of the film’s limits.

The End

From being successful commercially (Give Up Tomorrow), to barely succeeding commercially (Ang Nawawala), to not going commercial at all (The Animals), these three films offer a rare image of the privileged as they see themselves.

In his review of The Animals, Ronaldo Tolentino hints that portraying privilege in cinema might be a desperate trend tolerated by an independent cinema in creative limbo:

Matapos ng pagtungo sa mga subalternong karakter, rehiyonal na subalternong karakter, ngayon naman ay tumutungo na ang mundo ng indie cinema sa isa pang subalterno: ang aktwal na napakaliit na bilang ng maykaya sa lipunang Filipino—ang mayayaman.”

[Tr.: After we’ve reached the subaltern character, regional subaltern characters, now the world of independent cinema is headed towards another subaltern: the small number of people who can afford life in the Philippines: the rich.]

With local cinema being made for and supported by the greater public, it is indeed difficult for films made for and by the privileged to assert their status as more than just a passing trend, as more than an intermission from poverty porn, or a momentary intrusion into the already small space where the purported “singularity” of the Philippine experience exists—especially in the subsphere of “independent” cinema. But what these three films suggest is that their existence is possible.