Noel Vera

“Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino” (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004) covers around fifteen or so years of Philippine history, from before the advent of Martial Law in 1972 to some time after the fall of the Marcos regime in 1986. The title refers to one family but the film actually follows two: the first lives amongst the rice paddies of Gerona, Tarlac and is headed by grandmother Puring (Angie Ferro); the second lives in the mountain forests of Itogon, Benguet Province, headed by Fernando (Ronnie Lazaro).

Linking the two families is the classic Diaz protagonist: loner-wanderer Reynaldo (Elryan de Vera), an abandoned child picked up by Puring’s daughter Hilda (Marife Necesito) in the streets of Manila, then brought back to Tarlac after an unspecified incident caused Hilda to lose her mind. Hilda’s insanity provokes Puring into complaining bitterly that the woman has brought bad luck to their family, plus a reputation for mental instability; Hilda’s brotherKadyo (Pen Medina) defends Hilda and Reynaldo and tells Reynaldo that come what may he regards him as his own blood. After Hilda’s death, Reynaldo wanders off to become Fernando’s adopted, helping him in his various enterprises–chopping up tree branches for firewood; panning rocky streams for gold; exploring abandoned tunnels for untapped veins of the same rare metal. Puring in a fit of conscience asks Kadyo (who has just served a prison term for theft) to look for Reynaldo, hopefully persuade him to come back to the family; in the meantime, Fernando has to confront a larger rival mining gang over exploration rights to the tunnels…

The film is less complex and yet more experimental than “Batang West Side:” while the running time is much longer, we know less about the characters because they talk and interact less (considering the stretches of silence between lines of dialogue, “Ebolusyon” might be considered a silent film). Perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of

the whole production was that Diaz brought the picture in on a budget of two million pesos–just under the budget of “Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion,” or $40,000 for a ten-hour film, so it may be forgivable, even expected, that the production suffer from serious flaws. Perhaps not the underlighting–parts of the film go on in almost complete darkness–because these portions add a touch of tension to the film, a touch of mystery (you know something’s

happening and you’re not sure what, but you badly want to find out).

Diaz probably wanted to shoot everything in 16 mm–the footage he did shoot in this medium has a harsh beauty–but there just wasn’t enough money for that, so he settled for video. Which should have been fine, but unfortunately Diaz couldn’t make the rational for doing scenes in either 16 mm or video consistent–what should have

been 16 mm flashbacks set in the ’70s are sometimes in video (presumably because Diaz found he needed to shoot new scenes set in the ’70s, and couldn’t scrape up the raw footage to do it). It’s interesting to compare the 16 mm footage to the video: where the earlier footage uses dramatic angles and shadows, the video’s lighting and framing is more serene, more confident; even in terms of visual style, Diaz’s film shows a process of evolution.

Perhaps more troubling is Diaz’s use of historical footage: a coup d’etat from the Aquino administration, for example, precedes the 1986 EDSA revolution that brought Aquino to power. Diaz is presumably showing us someone’s memories of historical events, and of course memories aren’t necessarily recalled in chronological order, but it isn’t clear whose memories these are–most of the characters seem barely aware of what’s going on outside their

immediate barrio–and why such-and-such memory is being evoked at such-and-such point in time. Diaz might also be trying to create parallels between historical events and peoples’ lives (the way Visconti did with “The Leopard,” or Bertolucci with “1900”), but you see precious little connection between events in Manila and events

in either Tarlac or the Benguet Province. When, for example, Ferdinand Marcos declares martial law on television, it isn’t clear why these folks’ lives are going to turn out for the worse–you see guerillas, and you see the military rounding up barrio folk, but these could have been going on (and did, actually) before Marcos’ announcement and after his fall. In fact, the worst events to occur to the two families aren’t caused by historical forces so much as by

immediate ones, by the people around them–a group of drunken neighbors, or a gang of rival miners…

What’s needed is a way to make these connections, to maybe have some character explain why this or that event has an effect on their lives, so many miles away. Rey Ventura’s rebel leader Ka Harim would have been the perfect choice–early on he’s seen explaining a few things to Kadyo, and presumably he would have gone on explaining

things to Puring, or Reynaldo, or one of Puring’s granddaughters–but Ventura tragically died in 2004. Diaz may also have felt that too much spoken exposition would ruin the film’s air of mystery (one might call this ‘The Kubrick Defense’–his line of reasoning for not explaining anything in “2001: A Space Odyssey”)–but I think a

balance could have been struck between being too obscure and being too explicit; “Batang West Side,” after all, had room for several long speeches, all of which were quite informative, and some of

which were downright zany, even hilarious.

I feel ambivalent about the use of Lino Brocka (played with remarkable vigor by film critic/iconoclast Gino Dormiendo) as a crucial plot point. Not in my wildest dreams could I imagine Marcos finding Brocka threatening enough to actually plot anything against him; on the other hand, that Marcos might find Brocka at all worrisome would so tickle the vanity of any film enthusiast–cinema can change the world, yes!–that it’s difficult to find fault with

Diaz’s conceit. Plus there is the possibility that the plotters are in fact deranged (a charge that could be leveled against all film enthusiasts), so that this subplot is in fact an elaborate prank on Diaz’s part, a reminder to all of us to take ourselves seriously, but not too seriously.

Overall, I prefer “Batang West Side”–Diaz’s previous film, I felt, had better characterization, was more visually consistent, and was for me (to use Diaz’s favorite phrase) more ‘organic.’ More, I would argue that Diaz’s protagonist and method of storytelling is more at home in “Batang West Side’s” milieu than in “Ebolusyon’s”–the

alienated wanderer-hero, who looks askance or at least skeptically at family relationships and rootedness, has the temperament to emigrate rather than cultivate. Diaz has spoken of “Ebolusyon” as being some kind of prequel to “Batang West Side,” and I see hints of this design; I just don’t think the design is altogether

clear. “Ebolusyon” is an impressive accomplishment, a work of art created despite near-impossible odds (including, at one point, the loss of an entire cut of the film due to a computer disk drive

crash)–but it still feels like a work of progress that could do with more tinkering, more refining, perhaps even additional footage…

That said, I’d say “Ebolusyon,” even in its present state, is a remarkable work of cinema, and indispensable viewing. If its themes of history pressing against the lives of ordinary people could use further clarification, Diaz’s inclusion of certain footage nevertheless creates considerable impact: the chilling calmness with which Marcos reads Proclamation 1081; the awe-inspiring shot of EDSA as seen from a helicopter, lenses sweeping across miles of people

clogging the wide highway (in defiance of the soldiers and tanks surrounding them); the chaos of farmers running from Mendiola Bridge as soldiers strafe their ranks.

More than the documentary footage, though, “Ebolusyon” is perhaps the greatest, most comprehensive attempt ever made to capture the quality and flavor of provincial life. From rice paddy to highland forests, from harvest to planting, from merciless noon heat to the absolute dark of the nighttime countryside, Diaz shoots it all, and

more, shoots enough of it that we get to savor the kind of measureless existence the people experience within the various landscapes. Women walk down a path, sit to rest, rise up to continue their trek; a pair of boys wrestle, pause from exhaustion, then wrestle some more–this is life in the provinces, and if we city folk think we’d go crazy trying to live like this (much less watch it on the big screen) we had better brace ourselves: civilization, when you look at the big picture, is a mere blip on the big screen of existence. From living this way to living in a modern apartment

to going back to living this way is possibly the space of a few hundred years–maybe less.

It’s not all silence and angst–much of the melodrama you find in Filipino films is shunted by Diaz to the radio dramas, which the people follow religiously (I can’t help thinking of “Burger Boys” on audiocassette). Here you find tragedy and horror, sexuality and humor galore; the fact that the stories are make-believe–and Diaz

emphasizes this by showing us the recording sessions, where actors with headphones and hanging microphones shriek and weep and groan, all in deadpan–seems to liberate Diaz into writing the most outrageous situations (at one point it’s suggested that a hysterical woman was raped by a radio). It’s his way of reminding us of the

huge disparity in attitude between the actors–who are at times visibly embarrassed to be mouthing such tripe–and the listeners, who take all this seriously, as if it were gospel truth.

Into this world–mostly quiet, sometimes absurd, occasionally violent–Diaz injects moments of unbearable poignancy: Puring by the fire, singing a heartbreakingly lovely song (Felipe de Leon’s “Sapagkat Mahal Kita” (Because I love you)); crazed Hilda discovering the crying child in a heap of garbage (she is Diaz’s version of Sisa, the classic character from Jose Rizal’s great social novel “Noli Me Tangere” (Touch Me Not)); Kadyo speaking to Reynaldo about their relationship; Fernando and sons scrabbling for gold amongst the dried-up river’s rubble; Fernando’s wife standing up to cook dinner, discovering she is going blind; Kadyo coming to Puring, and being sent away to lifelong exile.

You have Kadyo in prison, singing Rey Valera’s “Kung Kailangan Mo Ako” (If you need me) in a plaintive, off-key voice to a cell full of sleeping convicts (singing to himself, in effect). You have Fernando, desperate to find his son, angrily confronting the rival miners. You have Kadyo crawling on the sidewalk, his hand pressed hard against his side, his moment of agony stretched almost to eternity. You have Puring, all the photographs she has ever owned

scattered about her, looking sadly upon one. Finally, you have Diaz’s painfully poignant epilogue, titled: “The Story of Two Mothers…”

It’s not a perfect work, and I think a not fully developed one, but if only for this series of moments–fleeting, yet unforgettable–I feel it was a more than worthwhile experience, watching this film.