Vinita Ramani

DESAPARECIDOS-

LAV DIAZ AND THE EVOLUTION OF A MISSING PEOPLE

by Vinita Ramani

 

“I distrust summaries, any kind of gliding through time, any too great a claim that one is in control of what one recounts; I think someone who claims to understand but is obviously calm, someone who claims to write with emotion recollected in tranquility, is a fool and a liar. To understand is to tremble. To recollect is to re-enter and be riven… I admire the authority of being on one’s knees in front of the event.” Harold Brodkey, Manipulations.

 

  1. introduction

 

When I was asked to write about Lav Diaz’s film, The Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I realized the endeavour would involve a response as much to Diaz’s remarkable opus as it would to the concepts of cultural amnesia and collective history. These are not new preoccupations, though some may argue that the struggles with self, memory, historiography and culture have taken on a more immediate resonance in recent decades. However, they bear a particularly visceral edge and present an almost burdensome obstacle in this strange geopolitical collective we’ve come to call “Asia” .1 Whatever claims theories of postmodernism have made on the ambiguous character of our times and the doubts it has produce about modernity’s promises, the rhetoric around national values of modernization still seem to have a powerful influence. Its grip isn’t all encompassing, but in some respects, it has set up the terms of engagement as a bargain: amnesia has been demanded in return for capital and apparent progress. Personal and collective historical narratives have been elided in exchange for the idea of a nation with its material promises – a dubious chimera at best.

 

As Luis Francia has observed, in the context of the Philippines, the 1950s saw something of a reaction against this chimera with filmmakers such as Lamberto Avellana, Eddie Romero and Gerarado de Leon taking a more neo-realist and humanistic approach to filmmaking. The blow to the gut came with the declaration of Marital Law by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. It was in this period that the betrayal of an authoritarian state selling a fallacious idea of national prosperity took hold with such intensity. It produced a state of disbelief not least because the lie came from within and not from a foreigner, an imperial power or the colonial presence that the Philippines had already struggled with. But it also marked the emergence of a “New Wave’ in Filipino cinema, led by filmmakers such as Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and Mike de Leon. This collective force not only tackled the systematic censorship laws instituted in earnest during the Marcos regime’s rule, but also began to produce seminal works such as Brocka’s You’ve Been Judged and Found Wanting (Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, 1974) and Bernal’s Speck in the Water (Nunal Sa Tubig, 1976).

 

I see Diaz’s film and his approach to filmmaking as an ongoing response to the condition of the Filipino people that began with a real sense of urgency during the 1970’s. If it bears any kind of a call-to-arms, it simply asks Filipinos to remember, to look back and to choose willingly to engage their collective histories. Evolution of a Filipino Family is also the expression of an artist’s vision. As such, it offers a deluge of powerful images and narrative choices that are worthy of nothing less than thorough critical engagement. This essay is hopefully one of many attempts by numerous writers to do precisely that.

 

  1. National myths, myths of nationalism

 

It is almost unavoidable to mentioned the concept of the nation without making reference to Benedict Anderson (1983). Briefly, his ruminations suggest that the nation is an “imagined community” forged through several critical factors, including anti-colonial struggles, the existence of print media and public debate. But some theorists who ascribed to this theory and extended it to the concept of a national cinema observe its possible limitations in retrospect. Andrew Higson’s essay “The Limiting Imagination of National Cinema” (2000)2 notes that this reading isn’t sensitive to the “contingency or instability of the national. This is precisely because the nationalist project, in Anderson’s terms, imagine the nation as limited, with finite and meaningful boundaries… the focus is on films that seem amenable to such an interpretation” (Higson 2000: 66). In essence, both the concepts of a “nation” and “national cinema” lack clarity and specificity. As Anthony Smith observes in “Images of the Nation – Cinema, Art and National Identity’, the nation is “the product of modernization and modernity, and of the secular, modernization and modernity, and of the secular, modern intelligentsia which creates and disseminates the historical myths of nationhood” (Smith 2000:47).

 

This brief outline gives us some window into understanding the ways in which Diaz’s film actively demonstrates the contingencies of defining both a nation and a national cinema. The film charts a period from 1971 (just prior to the declaration of Martial Law in 1972) to 1987, a year after the People Power Revolution, which brought down the regime and led to Marcos’ exile from the Philippines. In one of the barrios, matriarch and grandmother Puring Gallardo farms the land with her son Kadyo and his three daughters Huling, Ana and Martina. Kadyo’s wife has passed away and in a sense, the girls both depend on and learn from Puring who is the emotional centre of the Gallardo family.

 

The film opens with a long take that brings us into the world within which the family farms and takes care of its buffaloes in the fields. This opening shot reveals a wondrous depth of field, complete lack of extraneous sound and the centrality of time unraveling slowly as people go about their tasks. Diaz’s proclivity for a realism that doesn’t subordinate time to movement and the dictates of plot continuity sets the scene and tone of one aspect of the film. The other aspect of Evolution draws from another form of realism. We see the first of many scenes composed of archival footage. As men with guns react against protestors burning American flags, newsreel vignettes show Marcos reading the Declaration of Martial Law (1972). Markedly, it is at this juncture that we hear of Hilda, Kadyo’s sister and Puring’s daughter, whose mental stability isn’t explained. Hilda is first seen wandering aimlessly through desolate urban streets at night, where she finds an abandoned baby near a garbage dump, a little boy later named Raynaldo who comes to live with the Gallardos. Her introduction is significant in that it is contiguous with the onset of Martial Law with all its attendant forms of oppression. Diaz stated in an interview that Raynaldo is “this melancholic figure–the solitary wanderer and lost child. We feel him… The search to find and redeem him is a symbolic thing. It is the Filipino soul that needs to be saved.”3 If Raynaldo is literally the product of fragmented families sundered by poverty, anxiety and struggled and symbolically the Filipino soul, then Hilda is one of the many mothers in the film as well as a representation of the Filipino psyche. Her surreal musings, her inability to remember her past or herself and her apparent madness are not an inaccurate rendering of the collective state of a people undergoing a struggle.

 

Subsequently, after Hilda’s death, Raynaldo leaves home aged nine. Wandering like Hilda through urban desolation in Quezon City, he eventually goes to the mountains where he is adopted once again by a family who live there. The father Fernando and his wife Marya are already playing surrogate parents to two boys, Carlos and Bendo (who is deaf). Fernando’s life is another strand that represents an irony and tragedy in the country. Hew obsessively scours the hills and waterlogged valleys for gold with the boys. Meanwhile, wealthy urbanites comment casually over a coffee and conversation that Marcos has 8000 tons in his valut – tellingly, as they articulate this it is apparent that they are utterly disconnected from the events occurring in the rural areas or mountains.

 

As these familial tales thread in and out, the archival footage reveals the growing presence of the army in the barrios. While this is not a summation of the complex narrative voices and characters that occupy the cinematic landscape in the film, it demonstrates the numerous ways in which Diaz’s film is less an example of a “national cinema” and more accurately a film about peoples’ trials and existence. As Higson noted, this fractured narrative style demonstrates who contingent the very idea of a “nation” is. The various families tackle problems and celebrate some genuine moments of quiet pleasure. Juxtaposed with this, archival footage reveals the political tensions and shifts occurring in various parts of the country. As viewers, we can neither attribute causality nor linearity to what we witness. We simply have to watch, undergo, wait an accept not knowing.

 

As stated earlier, the bounded, neat idea of a nation is also frequently applied to the definition of a national cinema. It is no surprise then, that the inception of the Manila International Film Festival in 1982 inaugurated by Imelda Marcos, wanted to present a sanitized, glamorized portrait of a nation that could be publicized abroad. Within its territorial boundaries however, the government had established the Board of Review for Motion Pictures and Television, which closely monitored and censures anything it deemed to be “subversive”. The most antagonistic force to counter this was Brocka’s My Country: Griping the Knife’s Edge (Bayan Ko, Kapit sa Patalim, 1984). In this same time period, the Concerned Artists of the Philippines had formed to build a systematic opposition to the violations of their freedom. In CAP’s manifesto with reference to My Country they stated that, “Among the deletions demanded by the censors are scenes of actual rallies and demonstrations… Adding insult to injury, the censors have also ordered the bleeping out of the patriotic song, Ang Bayan Ko, from which the film got part of its title – a song aired almost daily on radio…”4

 

This historical example of Brocka’s film and censorship in the Philippine is important for several reasons. Firstly, Diaz’s aesthetic and political decision to use significant scenes of archival footage, particularly of protests and marches, shows his commitment to visually remembering (not just via print media or radio) the country’s recent historical struggles. In another sense, Evolution pays kudos to Brocka and thus, Diaz is acknowledging his artistic debt to his predecessor. It is an act that attempts to repeat Brocka’s own protest and thus, via repetition, shows how the visual medium can influence and affect minds and souls.5 The silencing of the song in “My Country” is in itself symbolic of how patriotism is so dependent upon context. The Marcos regime had recognized its potentials as a rousing rally to forge faith in the state. Brocka reinvented the song by placing it within a revolutionary context in which workers rise against the misery inflicted upon them. This repetition of a familiar anthem in a radical context was clearly a provocation because it demonstrated all too clearly how contingent the idea of a nation (the Philippines) was – fact not lost on Diaz.

 

  1. Time in evolution

 

Film is “the opportunity to live through what is happening onscreen as if it were his own life, to take over, as deeply personal and his own, the experience imprinted in time upon the screen, relating his own life to what is being shown.”6

 

As some critics have noted, conventional narrative dictates what motifs must be used to signify memory and the passage of time in cinema. As Shirley Law states (with specific reference to the Italian film Cinema Paradiso), a number of visual and aural devices are often used to signal flashback, be it the close-up or objects/sound that trigger memory. They “create the mood for regression, interiority and personal reflection… ellipsis is a conventional narrative filmic device used to move quickly from one period of time to another.”7. In vivid contrast to these examples, Evolution is a film manifestly opposed to the notion that the passage of time and its character’s lives must be subordinated to a narrative thrust that explains every action within a neat causal grid-work. David N. Rodowick offers a reading of Deleuze’s concept of the time-image (as opposed to the movement-image) which seems to be an apt reading of time in Diaz’s film. Time-image “fluctuates between actual and virtual, that records or deals with memory, confuses mental and physical time, actual and virtual, and is sometimes marked by incommensurable spatial and temporal links between shots.”8 As Deleuze goes on to explain, “rational cuts always determine commensurable relations between series of images and thereby constitute the whole rhythmic system and harmony of classical cinema… In summary, the classic movement-image is based on a rational ordering system (the continuity system) that is intended to make the story as legible and smooth running as possible.”9

 

This summation of Deleuze’s concept is strikingly resonant when applied to the sense of time in Evolution. If ellipsis is used in the film, it is not an attempt to leap over the slow passage of time in order to provide rational narrative continuity. Rather, it is to remind us repeatedly that we cannot always attribute a cause to an event or occurrence. The form almost completely avoids using linearity in storytelling precisely to prevent the characters from being stigmatized, judged or typified by a series of descriptors and cause-related events. There are numerous such instances worthy of recollection.

 

As radio broadcasts and the footage of the military presence in the outlying areas of the country increase, we see scenes of Kadyo living with a group of men, in the midst of training exercise. This scene is not preceded by a clear explanation as to why he is there and therefore, the moment remains elusive for a length of time until we realize Kadyo has been incarcerated for something we have not yet witnessed onscreen. It is only much later in the film that a scene emerges in which Kadyo hides a stash of guns and ammunition in their shack in the barrio. He later supplies the loot he stole from the army to the rebels in the countryside who are in opposition to the government. Kadyo’s journey into and out of the penitentiary is also fragmented, interposed with his own quiet but pained search for Raynaldo. Fernando, Marya and the boys Carlos and Bendo are anchored in the story by the fact that Raynaldo lives with them for an extended period of time. But once again, they aren’t given a specific identity, or place in the narrative through which they can be categorized as family with particular background or history.

 

Even after extended footage of the People Power protests shows how an overwhelming segment of the population brought the Marcos regime down before Aquino’s inauguration, it is muted by the presence of a humiliated, limping Kadyo who finds himself unable to return home and resume normal family life. Periods of anguish are relieved by the sense that resistance is always building somewhere in the country. Despite Purings evident struggle to earn money and educate her granddaughters to release them from poverty, there are flashes of abandon and pure pleasure when they sing folk songs in almost pitch-darkness to the glow of candlelight. These moments of realism bear a startling simplicity and intimacy that almost makes us feel as though we are intruding upon a private moment of peace amongst friends and family.

 

3.2 Fiction in evolution

 

A motif that arcs over almost the entire film is the aural presence of radio dramas. In fact, aside from Puring and Huling’s occasional nights of singing, there is no extraneous sound or music in the film other than these soap operas. They, both, play out in the Gallardo household and feature as an incessant form of distraction and preoccupation for Carlos, Bendo and Raynaldo. Ironically, even Bendo’s deafness cannot deter him from having an avid desire to know what happens next in these dramas. In the first instance we hear one of these soap operas, it is used almost as a contrapuntal device; as a woman wails and dramatizes her emotions, this flood of heightened anguish blares out of a radio in a scene with relatively silent and stationary people in the barrio. It is both an ironic and telling moment as radios (and eventually, television) come to play significant roles in the film.

 

In one particular scene, the female protagonist of a radio soap opera is having an impassioned exchange with her family about rising from poverty by doing photo shoots for a tabloid magazine. These are recurrent themes in the dramas, just as scenes of the girls and Puring or Raynaldo sitting in rapt silence, waiting to hear what happens next also recur throughout the film. The radio soaps play several roles. In one sense, they serve to show how much melodrama has dominated the consciousness and modes of fictional expression in the Philippines, so much so that they occupy a prime place in the lives of those who see in them, a vicarious escape from the grip of poverty. However, Diaz’s inclusion of shots from inside the studio where we watch the actors and actresses reading their near-hysterical lines with a well-learnt cadence also serves another purpose. For one, it is another unexpected instance of realism in the film. It reveals in plain terms, how disparate the lives of urban dwellers, the farmer’s miners and mainstream performers are. The dramas bear no connection to those performing them and they offer a neat conclusion of a kind the avid listeners may never experience in reality. In other words, the empathy they offer and the denouement that marks their structure are both a sort of lie.

 

In another sense however, Diaz’s critique of the soap opera is tempered by the predominance of scenes in which we too sit with Raynaldo, Carlos, Bendo, or Puring, Huling, Ana and Martina, listening to the fights, struggles and dreams of “ordinary Filipinos” in these soap operas. As Francia again noted with reference to Brocka, “he took elitist notions of what constituted good and bad film and stood these on their theoretical heads… most local melodramas were seen as bakya, a pejorative term literally meaning, ”clogs” – the everyday wear of the proletariat – and used to denigrate popular taste. Brocka and his contemporaries made the so-called bakya films, socially acceptable, a mini-revolution in itself” (Francia: 355). In a sense, Brocka took the melodrama and moved it in a direction quite unlike its otherwise formulaic structure. This was his skill and prerogative living under the strictures of a censorious regime. Diaz’s strength is in showing us the unseen people who listen to these daily soap operas, to juxtapose the exaggerated emotions of fiction against the quiet banality and anxiety of daily life. As stated earlier, he compels us to live in the moment with the families, to listen to these strangely distant tales of suffering and redemption after an entire day of relentless, back breaking work in the fields or mountains.

 

If the radio damas are disconnected from the reality of the constituency they often claim to represent, then the news on the radio and television about the protests and Brocka’s efforts in the 1980’s seem to be even more distanced from the likes of Kadyo and the Gallardo family. When Kadyo in particular, has been housed in a hideout under the dubious charge of former inmate who may give him a “job” to do for some cash, he turns on the television and watches a short documentary on Brocka by Taga Timog. But the separation between what he witnesses onscreen and where he finds himself could not be more profound or pronounced. In a room without windows, uncertain and angst-ridden by the situation in which he finds himself, Kadyo’s predicament is deeply disturbing particularly as Brocka’s call-to-arms should speak to him, but cannot and does not reach him with that immediacy. There is an emotional dissonance in Diaz’s actual use of footage of Brocka and film critic Gino Dormiendo (who plays Brocka). These extensive vignettes speak again, of the power the cinematic medium has to transform lives and speak truths. However, placed against the immense uncertainty his characters must wrestle with, even this is shown to be contingent, rather than a guarantee that freedom will come with revolution and struggle.

 

3.3. memory, dreams and truth-telling

 

“We do not remember; we rewrite memory, much as history is rewritten.” 10

 

There is of course, no comprehensive truth-telling in the final analysis. Tarkovsky was attacked for his films which were deemed “too naturalistic” in their “deliberate aestheticisation of cruelty for its own sake.”11 He retaliated that “things that exist ‘in themselves’ only come to have existence ‘for us’ in the course of our own experience; man’s need to know functions in this way, that is its meaning.” 12 Evolution is an expression of a journey that took over a decade for Diaz to realize. In a sense, it is not completely disconnected from its predecessor, the five-hour long Batang West Side (2002). In Batang, a film largely set in Jersey City around the troubled occurrences within the Filipino-American community, there are fragments of black and white film footage that seem to be disconnected from the narrative that takes precedence. They seem like memories of Hilda in the barrio, but certainty remain elusive. Again, ellipsis with regards to memory functions in both films as a form of survival. In David Gross’ analysis of memory in the writings of Proust and Bergson, he states that there is a third type of memory, the “unsanctioned or perception… A person dominated by these unsolicidated recollections would be overwhelmed by the flood of images and hindered in their ability to cope with reality.” 13

 

In a sense, what is elided in Evolution and what appears to be disjointed or incomplete is precisely a defense against this type of memory. Yet, we cannot easily delineate dream from memory or the present. In a particularly arresting scene, a vivid long shot reveals silhouetted trees and figures walking against a pale dawn (or evening?) sky. As they slowly trudge into view, we see that one of them is carrying as cross. This sequence once against recurs after a rare instance in the film of a medium-shot to close-up of Huling and Ana speaking to the camera (to Kadyo?), to say that Martina is missing and that their grandmother Puring is dead. Kadyo struggles to do something for his family from afar and yet, inevitably, he is aware that he cannot stem the tide of time or death.

 

As the film’s end draws near, a series of almost incandescent images begin to play before us. Kadyo’s gradual demise as he shuffles through the sun-bleach streets is seen concurrent with Puring’s as she embraces a framed photograph of family members and shuts her eyes. A still more wondrous shot of Huling and Ana wrestling, laughing, play-fighting and collapsing in giggles in the rice fields is juxtaposed against a shot of Raynaldo and Hilda sitting waist-deep in water, the sand-bed ebbing gently around them. Water shimmers and flows over rocks, smoothened by gradual attrition. It is a simple and immediate image, in counterpoint to Raynaldo’s train ride home and eventual reunion with Huling, Ana and Martina. As Huling says, no matter what happens, life will inevitably continue. And so it does.

 

  1. Desaparecidos – bringing the missing back to life

 

“That the people are missing means they require an enabling image that can summon them into existence.. If there were a modern political cinema, it would be on this basis: that the people no longer exist, or not yet.. the people are missing.” Deleuze14

 

“the so-called desaparecidos or “missing people” – usually those who were suspected of alliances with the Left or with communists or just plain people who had aired their views against the dictatorship–who were silenced with guns or who had jut vanished.” Lav Diaz’15

 

In an age of irony and skepticism, it is hard to find an artist who would claim to be one without any hesitation or embarrassment about the struggle it entails and the scorn it may produce. Diaz’s work is astounding both within the context of Filipino cinema and outside of the cultural, social and political parameters that have produced it. Evolution of a Filipino Family, at nearly 11 to 12 hours (morphing all the time), is nothing short of a journey. But it is a journey that does not presume to speak for the people whose stories unravel onscreen. That these stories are incomplete attests to the fact that Diaz recognizes the difference between the compelling need to speak his truth and the assumption that the truth is perfect, or finished. I use the term desaparecidos in both senses – as articulated by Deleuze and Diaz. Evolution of a Filipino Family is both a bringing into being of a people who have thus far remained under-represented and in Diaz’s historical sense, a remembering of those who prematurely passed away.