What isn’t in What Isn’t There

Alice Sarmiento

ang nawawala still 3 big1

Alice Sarmiento responds to Mara Coson’s MR essay on Ang Nawawala–a film that continues to provide fodder for class analysis.

Personal narratives create an opportunity to spend time inside a character’s head, exploit cinema’s immersive quality to get lost in their thoughts, and make use of a genre that has rarely been explored in Philippine film. In brief, Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala  (2012) is the story of 20-year-old Gibson Bonifacio, who is home for the holidays from his studies abroad. During this short trip, he reunites with old friends and is reminded of the futility of reconnecting with his dysfunctional family. He also meets Enid – a pretty girl who likes the stuff he likes, but is still in love with someone else, and we all know how that story goes—especially when the dude she’s still pining after sees her with her friends at a restaurant and tells her to “try the adobo,” because in case it hasn’t been made clear, this story is set in the Philippines.

The particularities of this location however are muddled by the film’s deterritorialized aspects—from the language to the production design—which have incited a number of conflicting and conflicted reactions when it was first released, in mid-2012. Despite the mixed reviews (because who reads reviews, really?) the movie nabbed the Audience Choice award and was given a second run at this year’s Cinemalaya, and this time it was completely sold out.

This is no small feat for a story that revolves around a highly nuanced character, one who represents a very small segment of the society that was also supposed to make up most of the film’s audience. By setting Ang Nawawala in the middle of Metro Manila’s independent music scene (with a little cameo from the art world), Jamora manages to erase the specifics of time and space, manipulating a universal medium to speak to a broad audience about a very particular subject. This is where she is most successful: by taking the bricolage of her own life—formed by literary nerdiness, bands with small audiences, and pockets of the city that were never very popular to begin with—she manages to weave a web of references that can safely cradle anyone’s experience, whether actual or aspirational.

It is this element of aspiration that has drawn the most ire from her harshest critics, who claim Ang Nawawala myopically portrays an imaginary subculture. And by turning a blind eye to the Philippines’ social realities (i.e., by not trying to emulate Bernal or Brocka, probably), can only speak for those lucky enough to access the cultural capital that form the story’s backdrop. Jamora however has been quick to shrug off the criticism, so maybe there really is no point in bringing it up—except to point out Rolando Tolentino’s dismissal of her work, calling the film “burgis na juvenilia,” in a country where allusions to immaturity and privilege are spat out with so much venom. Coming to Jamora’s defense, in “Every Cloud has a Silver Spoon Lining,” Mara Coson points out that the refusal to harp on class issues as they were (or were not) portrayed in Ang Nawawala comes from Jamora’s allegiance to telling her story as “sincerely” and “authentically” as possible. To close her section, Coson describes it as a “a film written for music and for itself,” and “the director’s homage to her experience.” So fuck y’all-y’all.

But to declare oneself or one’s work as apolitical is a political declaration in itself, and no claims of authenticity or sincerity can steer one’s work into a zone of political neutrality—which was precisely what may have prompted Tolentino to call out Ang Nawawala’s lack of self-reflexivity, further complicated by its having made use of a public grant. More than a dismissal of the film’s shallow (bordering on glorifying) aestheticization of privilege, what Tolentino’s article sought out was whether Jamora was speaking for or speaking to her audience. Prepositions matter, and coming from Tolentino, who is also the Dean of the UP College of Mass Communication, this review serves to remind cultural producers of how the work they’re expected to deliver—especially those which strive for broad distribution—means risking interclass losses in translation.

And there’s really nothing wrong with that.

What both Coson and Tolentino failed to address is that the spectre of the layperson at the heart of these already tired arguments about speaking to or for the “greater public”, as well as claims to serving their needs, are in themselves constructed prior to being institutionalized. What filmmakers like Jamora are enlisted to do is neither to follow nor simply resist these prescriptions for a public that’s more subjective than it is given credit for; but to transgress these very same institutions. Aside from acknowledging their existence, this includes describing the damage already done: in the case of Philippine cinema, the damage comes with enabling the mutual exclusivity of education and entertainment, and prioritizing audience expansion over audience development.

By questioning Ang Nawawala’s capacity to reach its public, despite having been awarded a publicly funded grant, Tolentino only affirms the displacement of market segmentation practices into the categorization of audiences – a method which has so far only enlarged the gaps by equating intellectual mettle with financial capacity. And as Coson points out, the cinematic canon proves how audiences lack the vocabulary to understand what comes with privilege – portraying the upper and middle classes “within the context of subaltern desire”, as contrasts to the beauty of a “simplicity” that can only be embodied by those belonging to “the greater public”.

Aside from questions of who even constitutes this “greater public” of which she speaks, Coson also ignores the numerous portrayals of wealth and privilege that have already extended their panoptic presence over Metro Manila, bombarding the Filipino public in the form of billboards, daytime television spots, and of course, cinema. A familiar case in point would be the best film of forever (if by best we mean money): No Other Woman (2010), starring some girl and a stuffed shirt that looks like Derek Ramsey. Heck, we could even swing as far from the mainstream as possible, with Lamberto Avellana’s take on Nick Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1965), which uses a single setting and multiple burgis protagonists to illuminate the ambiguities of affluence. Both cases definitely contain images that portray the privileged as protagonists, and vice versa—although not on the terms that Coson might be looking for.

It could be that we are not looking for the privileged to be portrayed as protagonists, but for characters coursing a narrative arc that doesn’t climb the social ladder, but goes through a more nuanced portrayal of the everyday. To quote Walter Benjamin, “Indeed, each sphere of life has, as it were, produced its own tribe of storytellers,” therefore what lacks representation may be the luxury of individual choice that acknowledged the futility of searching for accuracy and authenticity in the multiple facets of individual subjectivity that comes with privilege.

In Ang Nawawala, this is shown through the Bonifacio family’s access not only to economic opportunity, but to cultural capital –as seen in the bubble of carefully curated esoterica, spanning a lifetime of globalized consumption practices  that would no doubt spawn multiple, and at times, disparate readings. According to one of the writers behind Taglayag, “What isn’t there in Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala is the Filipino audience connection to a Filipino filmmaker and her film.” To many middle class, private school educated millenials, living in the Philippines could mean knowing of the fare peddled by mainstream channels that could pass for Philippine pop culture; it could also mean never forming a strong enough connection to speak its language, which may have been the case with Jamora and De Veyra—given that there actually is a solid and identifiable vocabulary for Philippine pop culture.

While this is one of the more mundane problems of third world interclass warfare, it is a problem nonetheless, and one that can be addressed through the stories of individuals. On the whole, Philippine cinema is lacking a branch dedicated to personal histories—even in the independent circuit.

If the individual narrative at the heart of the coming-of-age genre offers potential for identifying the complexities of uneven social development, while unpacking the particularities of Filipino cosmopolitanism, then this is where Jamora and De Veyra fall short in their inconsistent depiction of Gibson Bonifacio. Despite refusing to talk out loud, Gibson has still somehow retained all other aspects of typical adult behaviour, making it apparent less than halfway into the film that communication is not even an issue. If silence is central to Gibson’s character, then allowing him to speak for himself as the story is still unfolding only defeats whatever purpose was to be served by denying him speech in the first place, making his silence seem implausible at worst, incidental at best, and, frankly, a little obnoxious.

To look at Ang Nawawala’s place within a (young) cinematic tradition would also mean acknowledging that the spoken word is a vital component of the medium’s development, making speech a technology in itself. While the soundtrack and production design do a beautiful job of showing what Gibson refuses to tell, his recourse to conventional means of communicating with his peers, less than halfway into the film, raises doubts about the integrity of their testimony (and how can he even have peers when he hasn’t said a word in a decade?).

This is particularly unfortunate, because rather than being a broad statement about family politics or Filipino youth, Ang Nawawala is a personal story for which there are high expectations in terms of careful attention to character development. I really can’t think of a lot of autobiographical and exhaustive explorations of everyday people in Philippine Cinema, at least none in which the blame is not shifted to the state, a force of nature, or someone’s boss’s floozy daughter repatriating from New York. Maybe we really don’t know what to do with stories of our-selves that don’t fall on either end of the spectrum of praise and outright defamation; so rather than call Jamora out for trying to pull off a tradition that goes back to Fellini, Ang Nawawala and the sector of society it represents grants the convenience of calling her out for her elitism, where elitism is considered a dirty word, often taken out of context amidst so many stories of so much dirty, dirty money.

But to sling crap at Jamora for belonging to the bourgeoisie ignores the more ambiguous discussions surrounding the self-interest which accompanies any mode of autobiography. Unless we’re talking about fashion bloggers or Kris Aquino, Philippine media has not been hospitable to those looking to begin with themselves in writing what they know. Fortunately, it’s okay to sling crap at Kris Aquino, because that’s what you do when crap is what you’re served: you return the gift. In the case of Ang Nawawala, because of the dearth of local precedents in the personal history department, what we’re being served is not quite as clear. At least not yet. What is clear though is a shortage of stories that delve inward, rather than externalize conflicts, and this is where it could get cultural; because I also can’t think of a single Filipino who hasn’t been called some variation of asshole for choosing to tell his or her own story. When it comes to personal narratives, it’s easier to find space in this country’s archives for hagiography rather than for autobiography, making it safe to risk an idea—so long as it’s done in someone else’s words.

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Bobita, Paulo Angelico and Vae Dadia. “What isn’t there in Maria Jamora’s Ang Nawawala (2012),” Taglayag: The Season of Travel. Posted 26 Jan 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.taglayag.com/2013/01/26/what-isnt-there-in-marie-jamoras-ang-nawawala-2012/

Coson, Mara. “Every Cloud has a Silver Spoon Lining,” The Manila Review, vol. 1, Issue 1. 2012.

Tolentino, Rolando. ”Burgis na Juvenalia,” Pinoy Weekly.