There is no room for revolutionaries here!
Matron Densmore in Black Mama, White Mama (Eddie Romero, 1973)
First of all, a brief historical premise is needed because, as A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (2005), Autohystoria (2007) and Buenas Noches, España (2011) clearly show, in Raya Martin’s films “History” is more a matter of emotional resonances than of accurate dating and naming of names.
In 1898 the United States of America – a democratic constitutional republic – acquired the Philippines from Spain and, after having crushed the local revolutionaries trying to establish the First Philippine Republic, ran the country more or less openly until World War II broke out in the Pacific. After centuries of Spanish domination, decades of American rule and three years of Japanese occupation, on July 4th 1946 the Philippines were finally granted independence by the United States celebrating the 170th anniversary of their own Declaration of Independence. They say you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but the passive verbal form “to be granted” immediately throws up crucial questions such as: what kind of freedom needs the official approval of your former rulers? Not to mention the fact that holiday gifts are never quite as disinterested as they may seem, as Marcel Mauss convincingly argued in Essai sur le don.
Doubting that there really is any substantial difference between the colonial era and the post-1946 period, in Independencia (2009) Martin narrates the evolution and the extinction of a Filipino family during the American occupation of the archipelago. However, the mood of the film and its attitude towards the past have nothing to do with melancholic resignation, even if what happened cannot be changed. As a matter of fact, the director's primary concern is not mourning over the past: if no major anti-colonial revolution took place in the real History of the Philippines, why not the making of a revolutionary Filipino fiction film now?
In order to understand the revolutionary impulse on which Independencia is grounded, it is necessary to analyze the physical space in which Martin’s historical (melo)drama is set. Moreover, in order to understand this 2009 jungle we have to find our way through another jungle, that of the United States/Philippines co-productions from the Sixties and Seventies.
Roger Corman is an embodiment of the American Dream. His aptly-titled autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime is very interesting reading and offers a privileged access to his oeuvre. As a famous American Dream rapper named after Indio revolutionary Tupac Amaru would say, Corman is “a self-made millionaire”: since the mid-Fifties, he has been making huge profits by producing low-cost movies and distributing them in theaters (mostly drive-in theaters), on television and, more recently, on home video. This is no place to account for Corman’s amazing entrepreneurial skills. Suffice it to say that, by the early Seventies, he was well-established in the filmmaking business as a producer and occasionally as a director of lucrative exploitation flicks made outside major Hollywood studios. At this point in his career, as an independent in perennial search for schemes to maximize profits, Corman added a new, exotic ingredient to the usual sex-and-violence formula: the Philippine jungle. The results can be seen in movies such as Beast of the Yellow Night (Eddie Romero, 1971), The Big Doll House (Jack Hill, 1971), Women in Cages (Gerardo De Leon, 1971), The Big Bird Cage (Jack Hill, 1972), Night of the Cobra Woman (Andrew Meyer, 1972), The Hot Box (Joe Viola, 1972), The Twilight People (Eddie Romero, 1972), The Woman Hunt (Eddie Romero, 1973), Savage! (Cirio H. Santiago, 1973) and Black Mama, White Mama.1
Now let’s consider the films I have just mentioned from a purely economical perspective – a “materialistic” conception of cinema I am sure Corman would appreciate. All these movies are United States/Philippines co-productions, meaning that either an American and a Filipino company invested money in a Filipino-set film, or an American company financed the whole film and had it shot in the Philippines by hiring professionals from the local film industry. In both cases, only the main actors had to be American and actually travel to the Philippines: the workforce (specialized or not) was, by the vast majority, Filipino. Nothing particularly innovative on this front. For instance, the very same thing happened in 1964 with Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury, two action-packed, Filipino-set films auteur-to-be Monte Hellman directed on location for Lippert Pictures. Basically, if an American independent company wants to make a low-budget jungle flick, it is more efficient to shoot it in a country that 1) has the non-transportable “raw material” jungle and 2) where labour – required professional qualifications being equal – is cheaper than in the United States. The lower the production costs, the higher the sales profit: a golden rule that equally applies to the films Corman’s New World Pictures produced in the Philippines as to the, say, Nike shoes manufactured in China and all over South-East Asia.
As for movie content, it is highly improbable that the commercially-oriented, imperialistic filmmaking practice described above could put forward heartfelt revolutionary cries. In general, Corman’s movies depict the Philippines like Spaghetti Westerns portray Mexico: a brothel-and-gambling-house country whose population is composed of a few corrupt Government officials, many outlaws, countless peasants – and just like the Mexicans, Filipino people live on the verge of a revolution that never really happens. Quoting Sid Haig from The Big Bird Cage (apropos of Spaghetti Westerns, he plays a revolutionary leader named Django), it's as if the motto was “Tomorrow the revolution, tonight we feast”. Indeed, there’s a lot of talking about revolution but Filipino revolutionaries are rarely shownin action on screen, if they can be seen at all: most of the time they are just said to be hiding somewhere in the jungle, a cliché touch of “local color” used by the screenwriters to highlight the many dangers of the tropics. Furthermore, on the few occasions revolutionaries appear in the flesh, fully-armed and ready to fight, they do little or nothing to overthrow the oppressive Government. If you pay attention and follow the dialogues closely, you'll even realize that nobody ever utters the word “Philippines”: in the here and now all the revolutionaries seem to care about is American girls, to the point that they do not hesitate for one instant to go on suicidal missions to help said young ladies in distress escape from prison and flee the country. After the mandatory shootout climax in the jungle, Anitra Ford and Pam Grier sail to their safety, and, before the end credits start rolling, we eventually get emblematic shots of those who bravely lost their lives for the girls’ freedom. Thus, the Filipino freedom-fighters find their cinematic apotheosis: they are sympathetically represented as heroes – a little bit crazy, maybe, but after all kindhearted, fearless gentlemen with a strict code of honor.2
Considering what was said in the above paragraph, I think the most surprising thing about Independencia is its jungle being built on a sound stage: from an economic point of view, reconstructing natural sets indoors is not efficient for an independent, low-budget film production, especially if the real location is available “for free” in the country of production. So why did Martin do it? Couldn’t he shoot Independencia in the actual jungle, as he did for the execution scene in Autohystoria? Of course he could have, but then – in his own words – “Independencia would have looked too much like a Lav Diaz film”. Rather than a critique of Diaz’s filmmaking practice, the statement represents a warning against the dangers of the “independent trap”. Diaz – who by the way makes a cameo appearance in the very first seconds of Independencia – has shot the most magnificent scenes in the Philippine jungle, armed only with a digital camera and a handful of actors: that’s the production strategy he chose as an independent artivist (artist + activist) opposing the commercial policies of the Philippine studio system. However, if every Filipino director making films away from the mainstream shot movies outdoors, in digital, with extremely long takes and in black and white, there would be just as much conformism as in the industry, and “independent cinema” would become a meaningless label in the same way that imperialism has been depriving the word “independence” of any real political meaning. Hence, indifferent to cost-effectiveness, Martin decided to recreate the Philippine jungle on a sound stage via props and painted backdrops and, on top of that, the whole movie was shot on 35 mm film-stock. With a military expression, we could say that, forfifteen days,Martin and his one-hundred member crew “occupied” a space usually destined for mainstream cinema production, but it would be more accurate to say that, in order to realize the Independencia film project, the division of labour, the tools and the in-studio filmmaking techniques of mainstream cinema have been “appropriated” and “converted” to an alternative use. In fact, sensible to Lino Brocka's call for a balance between total capitulation to the industry on the one hand and experimental extremism on the other, Martin accepted the challenge of confronting with and working within the existing economic and power structures, to see if they can be used for something else other than producing entertainment to be sold to a mass audience for profit. Of course it takes a lot of money to finance a film like Independencia, so much so that for now Martin's inquiry into the nature of independence remains an unicum in his career and, I believe, in the panorama of present-day Filipino arthouse cinema. However, Independencia manages to achieve what every act of rebellion tries to achieve: creating a rupture, no matter how briefly, in the status quo, and showing that it is possible to walk alternative paths.
At the level of movie content, for instance, the rupture is evident in the way Independencia portrays the revolutionaries. First of all, none of the main characters – Mother, Son, Girl, Child – is labeled as a revolutionary. As a matter of fact, contrary to the “big speeches” about revolution we hear in New World Pictures' features, the word “revolution” is never spoken in Martin's film. As the American army approaches an unnamed Filipino town, Mother and Son leave their house: in order not to become subject to the foreign invader, they take shelter in the jungle and start a new life in an abandoned cabin dating back to the Spanish colonial period. Mother and Son – later joined by a Girl and her Child – do not have big subversive plans to carry out, and they are not part of any underground organization. They simply and stubbornly refuse to surrender their freedom to the Americans. Grandiose rhetoric being banned, in Independencia there is no epic showdown in which the outnumbered underdogs fight till death, reaching immortality by proving their valour against a better-equipped enemy. In short, there is no emphatic representation of the oppressed Filipino as a hero: Martin's film is not a monument to the extraordinary soldiers who died for the cause, but a chronicle of common people struggling to create a little space in which they can live free. Consequently, a great deal of the film's running time is dedicated to the daily routine of the family in the jungle – getting dressed, repairing the hut, feeding the chickens, farming, hunting, taking walks, eating, drinking and telling stories around the fire... Although it is a fiction film, Independencia is very much akin to the spirit of Masao Adachi's and Kōji Wakamatsu's 1971 Palestinian newsreel in its truly revolutionary idea that filming how rebels cook meals is as important as filming guerrilla warfare: while fighting for freedom, there should be no distinction between “frontline” and “behind-the-frontline” because, at the most basic level, every revolution is an everyday practice of resistance enacted by ordinary men and women against economical, political and military structures of oppression.
By contrasting Martin's Independencia with Corman's exploitation flicks, the aim of the present essay is to highlight the biggest irony of them all, i.e. that the adjective “independent” currently designates two economically and ideologically conflicting (if not opposite) filmmaking practices at the same time. Having discussed the theme of revolution in relation both to independent cinema's real economy and fictional worlds, as a conclusion of sorts, it might be interesting to briefly recount the strange case of the Filipino on-screen revolutionary/off-screen reactionary leader Joseph Estrada. Born in 1937, Joseph Estrada has been a major film star and producer in the Filipino film industry for at least three decades. In 1964 he played a revolutionary bad guy (“a terrorist”) in the already-mentioned American independent production Flight to fury. After a few years, he started a parallel career in politics and in 1998 he was elected President of the Philippines. As the 13th President of the Republic, among other things, he declared war to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – more or less the kind of organization he led in Flight to Fury. Impeached for embezzlement in 2001 and later sentenced to permanent imprisonment, he was pardoned by his successor President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and he is now the Mayor of Manila. They lived happily ever after...
The French version of this article will be available – together with many other essays – in the book accompanying the two-DVD boxset edition of Raya Martin's films. The first DVD will contain Independencia andA Short Film About The Indio Nacional; the second DVD will contain Now Showing. The two-DVD boxset plus book will be released by Shellac on May 6th 2014.
1. Black Mama,White Mama is an American International Pictures production and Corman was not involved, having left the company in 1970 to found New World Pictures. Eddie Romero’s movie could easily pass for a Corman production though, and that’s probably what American International Pictures wanted.
2. A partial yet no less reactionary exception to the rule is the movie Savage!. In this crossover between jungle flick and blaxploitation, the revolution happens only because an American man becomes the leader of the freedom-fighters (the Filipino woman in charge of the guerrilla operations gladly gives leadership away after realizing she can't match up with him). Moreover, in Savage! and in The Hot Box, the Philippines have become an imaginary Central or South American “banana republic”.