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Visual Mediations: Documentary filmmaking as countercultural practice

18 Mar 2008

From within the underbelly of a moribund Philippine film industry, a genre is crying to get out. For years, the genre of the “documentary” has flourished among the ranks of independent filmmakers, marginal members of the film industry, and political acitivists. And it has yet to reach its full potential as a filmic form.

The recent Philippine theatrical release of the Sundance-winning documentary “Imelda” by Fil-American Ramona Diaz only made obvious the commercial as well as propaedeutic potential of that supposed bastard child of “fiction” film. In the US, the political maelstrom that surrounded Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” not only brought to American mainstream attention the Bush administration’s complicity in the 9/11 attacks. It also underscored the vitality of a community of independent filmmakers in the US who for years flourished and gained loyal audience within the interstices of Hollywood.

But for Filipino documentary filmmakers, the necessity of, and audience for, such forms is apparent. The country’s colorful recent history, after all, made for such rich material for the documentary form to thrive even in the most repressive of conditions. Under the ambit of “social realism” that thrived amidst Martial rule, the documentary form was continually used by both established directors and unknown filmmakers in the resistance movement as visual mediation into the foray of the social and political.

For the same obvious reason that more journalists than fiction writers become politicized, documentarists generally become more concerned with reality than fiction filmmakers. It is easier, after all, for imaginative writers of the formalist mold to dwell into the personal, myopic world of their fictional characters, while journalists deal with social issues firsthand. Similarly, documentarians tend to resist cinematic gloss and artistic, technical flair in favor of more gritting, “in-your-face” images.

In a interview, Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha (whose documentary Bus 174 was exhibited at Makati Cinemanila festival recently), expounds on the point: “[D]ocumentaries are simultaneously concerned with the question of presenting a real story in a true way and also presenting it with a compeling dramatic structure. So documentarists are concerned not only with the art of film, but also with the truth-value of the stories they tell.”

And as with journalists, most documentary filmmakers routinely reject the demand for “non-partisanship” in their works. Padilha, in a separate interview, offers this view: “I cannot perceive the thoughts you have, so they are subjective. Since we can both perceive the film, on this sense it is objective.”

It must be said, though, that Padilha and many other renowned documentary filmmakers are products of both academic film schools and the film festival circuit (i.e., Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, Tribeca, etc). Both worlds – the film school and the festival circuit – are of course heavily influenced and patronized by corporate interests. To a much smaller extent, documentary filmmakers from the Philippines are similarly rooted; a majority having been trained at film schools such as that of UP and Mowelfund, and whose works have undergone the “rite of passage” of being exhibited in festivals such as Cinemanila, CCP, Mowelfund’s Pelikula at Lipunan, etc.

But the very demands of documentary filmmaking and the social milieu in which they work dictate that filmmakers be fully “partisan.” Thus, Filipino documentarists today unavoidably turn to feminism and gay activism (Deocampo), to nationalism of whatever color (Lamberto Avellana, the early Tikoy Aguiluz), or even anti-imperialism (Sari Lluch Dalena). Or, at the other side of the spectrum, turn to the more privileged filmic practice of making hagiographical retrospectives of the elite and propaganda TV programs in government-owned stations.

In any case, its potential as cultural weapon – either of the marginalized or the ruling class – is endless.

Because of this, many political activists with the agenda of “arousing, organizing, and mobilizing” the masses inevitably turn to the documentary genre. Noted documentarist Kiri Dalena of the activist multi-media collective Southern Tagalog Exposure (STEx) expounds on such potential: “Sa tingin ko malaki ang kinabukasan ng documentary filmmaking sa ating bansa. Tatak ng documentaries ang masasabi nating urgency at timeliness. Sa isang bansa kagaya ng Pilipinas na patuloy na dumaranas ng kahirapan, inhustisya at katiwalian, malaki ang maiaambag ng documentary filmmaking sa pagmumulat at paghihikayat na kumilos ang mga tao para sa pambansang pagbabago.”

Dalena likewise rejects the widely-held notion that ideological partisanship hampers the art of filmmaking – a notion expressed in recent years by directors of “social realist films” like Aguiluz, Marilou Diaz-Abaya and even Mike de Leon. She says: “Hindi ako naniniwala na sagabal sa trabaho, sa pagiging malikhain, ang pagkakaroon ng political advocacies. Sa sarili kong karanasan, ang pagkakaroon ng sinasaligang masa at paninindigang pulitikal pa nga ang higit na nagpapayaman sa likhang sining.”

Dalena and her group’s filmmaking achievements in dominant cultural institutions like the CCP (their documentary “Alingawngaw ng mga Punglo” won second prize in the documentary category of 2003 Gawad CCP para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Bidyo) and Cinemanila (which screened Dalena’s short film “Red Saga”) only partly disproves such notion. The more powerful vindication, of course, has been the mass response to their works, as well as the subsequent harassment they received from the military (STEx’s Virgilio Catoy, for instance, was among those kidnapped by military elements who killed human rights activist Eden Marcellana and peasant leader Eddie Gumanoy).

STEx’s success has, furthermore, emboldened many like-minded activists from across the country to start their own audio-visual groups. Word has it that similar outfits have been formed in chapters of progressive mass organizations, in places like Mindanao, Cordillera, and Bicol (whose group is cleverly named “Bikol X-press”). The propaganda reach of these groups have now supplanted the limited audience of similar audio-visual groups like Kodao and Ibon.

In the “underground” front, meanwhile, the cultural arm of the National Democratic Front has similarly tapped into the genre’s the vast potential by making documentaries of life of the masses and the red fighters in the guerrilla fronts.

Both the STEx experience and the “underground” practice exemplifies a cinematic mode of production and distribution that is wholly independent of the mainstream, its film festivals, its “rites of passage.” With its use of the progressive movement’s organizational structures to reach mass and activist audiences, filmmakers are able to resist what film theorist Jonathan Beller calls the “[fusion] of [cinematic] representation and capitalist production” or the cinema “as money that thinks.” Having limited financial and technical resources, these filmmakers are fuelled by the desire for advancing its cause in tapping on the rich, unlimited material of everyday oppression and revolutionary experiences.

It is in these filmic practices, therefore, that one finds a genuine “counter-cultural” cinema. While the independent film industry has flourished under the lens of major movie outfits, progressive filmic practices have developed their own structures of representation, appreciation and distribution. Which means, of course, that we would never get to see an NDF partisan’s documentary being awarded an Urian or Famas. STEx productions would never be widely previewed in SM theaters. Like the proverbial “codename” in the underground, the filmmakers will remain obscure, their successes and growth “invisible” until the very political and economic infrastructures they advocate are in place.

To illustrate the point, one only has to look at countries like Cuba, whose film industry is one of the world’s most vibrant and has produced some of the most respected filmmakers (like Tomas Gutierrez Alea and the feminist documentarist Sara Gomez). Canadian Nettie Wild (who directed an award-winning documentary on the Philippine underground movement entitled “A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine revolution), says of her experience with Cuban cinema: “I went to the first Latin American film festival in Havana, and I was really struck by how extraordinary the documentaries that were there were. I thought they were going to become fuzzy and out of focus and well intentioned, or whatever, and they were extraordinarily in focus, and beautiful, and inspiring.”

Meanwhile, even the practice of “unorganized”, “independent” filmmakers must still be viewed as counterpositional to that of Viva, Star Cinema, and the like. Even as it functions within the rules and structures of “capital cinema” (Beller), it threatens dominant modes of filmic representation. Like the bourgeiosie that threatens colonial and feudal relations in the economic sphere, the independent documentary filmmaker suffers from marginalization and therefore threatens the privileged conventional film practitioner. Its allegiance is easily geared towards “truth-telling” not only because of the form but because of its subject-position as “independent” filmmaker.

The future of the documentary – even the entire film genre – rests on the interweaving of these two strands of filmmaking.# Kenneth Roland A. Guda

Beller, Jonathan. Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century, in Postmodern Culture v.4 n.3 (May, 1994)
Kaplan, E. Ann. Women & Film. New York and London: Routledge, 1983. for Nettie Wild’s views on Cuban cinema
Interviews with Jose Padilha and Kiri Dalena

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