Rural life has been the ultimate trope and metaphor of Philippine social realist cinema for decades. Why the fascination? And what anxieties do these films reveal about middle class audiences?
A film directed by Francis Xavier Pasion (2014)
Mga Kwentong Barbero
A film directed by Jun Robles Lana (2013)
Philippine cinema has long stripped itself of the tendency to portray the rural periphery as a pastoral, Amorsoloesque idyll. Since the fifties, in films such as Manuel Silos’ Biyaya ng Lupa (1959) that criticized the predominant agrarianism in the country, rural spaces have been depicted as sites of resistance and class struggle, as frontiers where revolutions are fermented and territories contested. It is where the folkloric remnants of the past continuously clash with the creeping march of modernity. This way of depicting rurality became even more salient during the Marcos era when social realists like Lino Brocka and Behn Cervantes depicted the peasant unrest and concomitant military abuse that became prevalent in the countryside. Philippine rurality was never completely imagined as the pristine converse of gritty, modern, urbane Manila; it was more its equally dirty underbelly: the source of poor migrants (and hence, criminality), rebels, and aswangs that lurked in the fringes of the city.
The contrast between the pastoral ideal usually attached to rural spaces and the different modes of violence that simmer underneath it can still be seen in contemporary films. Driven by nostalgia and apprehensions about industrialization and urbanization, the recurrence of the countryside as a setting is one of the mainstays of Philippine cinema. Because rural identity, often perceived to be unspoiled by colonialism and cosmopolitanism, is still presumed to most accurately correspond to the “authentic” Filipino identity, the way rural life is depicted on-screen continues to reflect popular anxieties about nationhood and the dynamic between modern, bureaucratic Manila and the countryside.
Two recent films show the different ways the rural is imagined. Francis Xavier Pasion’s Bwaya, the Best Picture in last year’s Cinemalaya, is a retelling of a real-life tragedy that struck a Manobo family. That in itself should have set this film apart because non-Tagalog voices and perspectives are sorely underrepresented in local cinema, but for the most part, the metropolitan viewpoint is still acutely palpable especially because of the quasi-documentary style Pasion employs (clips of interviews he did with the real family are interspersed between scenes). This is a story told through the lens of the metropole and for the eyes of the metropole, and at times it even feels almost invasive, almost exploitative, as though the audience’s gaze is intruding into the lives of a community whose tragedies they would rather keep as private affairs. In one scene, the director directly asks the real mother to talk about the process of losing her daughter, and the entire affair comes off as stiff and uncomfortable, as if she was being probed to recount her experiences rather than having a real sense of agency to willingly tell her story herself. This is quite ironic given how predation is such an important theme of the movie, and it seems as though the audience is reaping entertainment from her tragedy.
Set in the lush marshes of Agusan del Sur, Bwaya is about a charming thirteen-year-old girl named Rowena and her destitute parents Divina (Angeli Bayani) and Rex (Karl Medina). One can see a bit of the “noble savage” trope in Rowena and her family. Despite her poverty, Rowena sings cheerful tunes as she rows her way to school. She dreams of becoming a doctor, or at least she shows an avid interest in playing with her toy stethoscope, even though medical school is an almost-impossibility. Meanwhile, her parents are, as is the convention in most films set in these locales, mired in poverty but still full of optimism and life. What they possess doesn’t necessarily qualify as ambition, but a resigned acceptance of their place in the world. One day, Rowena gets viciously attacked by a crocodile while rowing her boat to the village school; the movie largely dwells on the aftermath of her death. Divina and Rex struggle to appropriate blame for their daughter’s demise even when culpability doesn’t fall squarely on anyone.
There are many different layers of violence that assault Rowena’s family and her helpless community. The primal violence of nature that makes their very existence precarious, the skulking menace that can swallow a child whole, is the most obvious one, but the crocodile’s attack merely emphasizes the problematic social arrangements that make their lives even more fragile than they already are. For one, Divina and Rex live outside the ambit of any significant government institution; the only tangible footprint the state has in their tiny town that links them to the wider nation is the public school that Rowena attends. Their detachment from the state is associated with different kinds of danger. There is a lack of support during the search for Rowena’s body, a lack of services to deal with their daughter’s death. But beyond that, it is implied that the weak state made the attack possible to begin with by denying them protection from an inhospitable environment. It isn’t just their flimsily constructed houses perched above the waters like scattered little islands that serve as a physical reminder of their isolation; they are fundamentally disconnected from the rest of the country, and certainly from the world that the privileged movie-going audience occupies.
The school and the head teacher that runs it are the first to receive the brunt of Divina’s maternal wrath, understandably so because it is the most immediate proxy for any authoritative body in the community. It is at the school where Divina, upon learning of Rowena’s death, thrashes, wails, and releases all her rage at the system responsible for creating the conditions that allowed her daughter to be eaten alive. The school, an institution that is tasked to nurture and care, wasn’t really directly responsible for Rowena’s death even if she was on her way there the day she was attacked, but Pasion subtly hints at its predatory nature nonetheless: Prior to the incident, Rowena and her mother scramble to find enough money so she can pay her school fees and be allowed to graduate. It’s an ambiguous position to take for the film to both sympathize with and vilify the school, especially since education is often the first step to escape the poverty of the countryside, but this precisely reflects the complex and often contradictory push-and-pull forces that determine rural-urban relations. I should also probably mention the town mayor whom Divina approaches to ask for monetary help for Rowena’s burial— more a benefactor to the community than a public servant. He ends up giving her a trivial amount of money, hardly enough to cover all the costs they face, and she takes it as it is, as if the assistance he provided was all she could have reasonably expected. In this sense, the movie affirms a popular notion in describing provinical political relations as feudalistic, defined by ties of patronage. The mayor’s inert role represents much more than the failure of local politics to govern; it is also emblematic of how alienated Divina and Rex are from mechanisms of justice. In fact, Divina and Rex are completely defined by their distance – their distance from land, from money, from the government, from justice, from each other, and from the audience.
This film reminded me of Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, not just because of the similar imageries in both films (Zeitlin’s film is set in the communities in the Louisiana bayou) but because of the way it deployed the archetype of the noble savage. Critics have attacked Zeitlin’s film for encouraging its audience to take inspiration from the high spirits and can-do attitude of people who are in reality impoverished and live in miserable conditions. There is some of that in Bwaya. In the final act, Divina accidentally encounters the eggs of the crocodile implied to be the murderer of her daughter. She is presented with the opportunity to crush them with a rock, but the crocodile silently creeps up to her and she sees a part of herself in the beast. She changes her mind. This scene is presumably meant to show Divina’s capacity for humanity, her ability to dole out redemption even to creatures that don’t deserve it because her indomitably righteous nature will prevail despite personal tragedy, reminding us of the popular cliché about the Filipino spirit being “waterproof.” The film tells us it is crocodile-proof as well. It is representative of the flawed notion of how the rural folk are imagined to be above their material conditions because of their superior attitude towards life.
A richer depiction of the vicissitudes of rural life can be seen in Jun Robles Lana’s latest film Mga Kwentong Barbero (2013). Lana, a former collaborator of Marilou Diaz-Abaya, comes from the classical social realist school of Philippine cinema and is known for setting his movies in small barrios. Set in the 70’s, Mga Kwentong Barbero tells the tale of Marilou (Eugene Domingo), a widow who becomes the town’s barber after her husband unexpectedly dies. Her barbershop functions as a gathering place for the townsfolk, and she becomes involved with the multiple problems that plague her friends and neighbors, eventually getting caught up in the anti-Marcos insurgency.
There is a lot to unpack in the fully-realized world that Lana paints because he uses the village as a metaphor for the tumultuous politics of the country. Whereas Bwaya derives its meaning from alienation and otherness, Mga Kwentong Barbero demonstrates how parochial our nation is by using Marilou’s barrio as a microcosm of Philippine society. The most noticeable statement the movie makes is about gender, perhaps one of the oldest tropes in the social realist canon. Lana’s barrio is rife with patriarchy. Lana implies that the town’s perverse sexual relations is what underlies all the conflicts in the village, from the gendered division of labor that made it hard for Marilou to assume the traditionally male profession of being a barber, to the hideous masculine sensibilities that underpin martial law and the rebellion against it, to the ideology that pushes men to leave their mothers, wives, and daughters to take up arms. Marilou and her best friends Susan (Gladys Reyes), whose husband keeps on impregnating her despite her objections, and Tess (Shamaine Buencamino), whose nephew keeps her in the dark about his involvement in the insurgency, are all susceptible to the decisions made by the men in their lives and are victimized by these men’s endless sexual appetites and capacity for violence. By taking up the reins—or scissors, I should say—from her husband, Marilou is symbolically emancipating herself from her subordinate role in her household and the community. In doing so, she takes on a public role and undermines the masculinity embedded in public discourse. Her barbershop becomes the modern day agora, and she tries to wrestle power from the patriarchs in her community.
This portrayal comes off as a cliché – it certainly isn’t original, after all, Marilou’s story can be read as an allegory for Corazon Aquino’s assumption to power after Ninoy’s assassination. However, Lana approaches it with refreshing candor and humor, especially in the scenes that focuses on the minutiae of public life. Eugene Domingo and Gladys Reyes are also known for their comedy, and they infuse their characters with wit and frankness. But the light-hearted tone of the movie is disrupted by moments of real seriousness, particularly when the more overt political elements of the movie surface. The mayor, Alberto Bartolome (Nonie Buencamino), is a virtual stand-in for Ferdinand Marcos, whose charisma overshadows his corruption. Like Marcos, he represses and manipulates information in order to portray the rebels as the real threats to society. The difference in the lifestyles between Bartolome and his townsfolk is immediately recognizable to us: He lives in a mansion, far away from the shacks and huts of the town he governs. Similar to Bwaya, the fraught relationship between the rural folk and their government is a defining feature of their way of life.
Marilou’s spiritual and political awakening truly begins when she befriends the mayor’s wife, played by Iza Calzado. When Marilou becomes Alberto’s barber, she also develops a relationship with Calzado’s character and becomes privy to the physical and emotional abuse she is subjected to because of her husband’s affairs and quick temper. It is this friendship that motivates Marilou to take action and seek revenge for the injustices done by Alberto; scissors aren’t just tools after all, they are weapons too.
But like Bwaya, Mga Kwentong Barbero also makes the intrusion of the capital into the rural felt. In Bwaya, the media, hungry for a human interest story, hunts down Divina and Rex for a scoop (again, ironic because this is precisely what the movie seems to be doing). In Mga Kwentong Barbero, it is the military and the national government that keeps on knocking on Marilou’s door, trying to see if there are rebels hiding inside. And this is perhaps the common anxiety that lingers in films that are either wholly or partially set in rural areas. While they display the instability, the backwardness, the destitution—but also the tenacity, the fortitude, and the communion—prominent in the countryside, they also act like visual reminders of our failure to incorporate them and their stories into our broader national narrative. These two movies act like a clouded mirror to our faces; the rural folk are like us, but also not exactly like us. They are perhaps what we—the middle class viewer—used to be. And this tension is a huge reason why films such as these are so mystifying: In the face of a seemingly growing economy and increasing prosperity, they still are, for the most part, left behind and distant. And maybe that’s what we have been doing all along. Staring, watching, waiting, just like audiences in a movie theater, examining them under our gaze but keeping our distance from the untamed, unruly countryside.