The truth is that while we celebrate local films, especially independently-produced ones, it seems important to point out that many other things come into play at this point as far as declaring any movie a critical success. That is, there is the social media bandwagon, where “public perception” is deemed powerful, and no one is allowed to think differently about a movie lest one is pounced on like some enemy.
There is also the fact that the independent film industry has ceased to be an alternative system for making films. It’s becoming more obvious how it has fallen prey to patronage and favoritism and politicking, just like the mainstream. This isn’t a matter of co-optation, as it is just a matter of how large the independent film industry has become, how much money is being put out for it, who exactly is putting out that money, and how much time and effort and energy is being spent on making sure that the better films get an audience (which is close to nothing, one wonders why).
But the bigger problem for local cinema, independent and otherwise, might be that no one is keeping track of its history-as-it-happens and no one is taking stock of local cinema’s unraveling, revelations, destructions. And I don’t mean just pointing a finger at what ails commercial films; I mean looking at the manner in which the independent has been changed by the commercial, and vice versa. I mean discussing films honestly and openly, without fear of being eaten by the wolves that make up the bandwagon.
One perfect example of this state of things? Eric Matti’s “OTJ” and Hannah Espia’s “Transit.” The Film Academy of the Philippines panel was called out by “OTJ” director Eric Matti for bowing to political pressure and choosing “Transit” as the official Philippine entry in this year’s Oscars. Matti was of course coming from all those glowing reviews for “OTJ.” And “Transit”? Well, I don’t know that many can even talk about it when many haven’t seen it. As such, there is no debate at all.
But the bandwagon of “OTJ”
I took forever to watch “OTJ” because I decided to spend time and money on the films that I knew would only last that one week they’re given by commercial cinemas. On its third week, I caught “OTJ” in one of two Manila cinemas still screening it.
I was going into that theater with a very clear sense of the kind of praise that most social media, and online and print movie reviews, have showered on the movie. Many talked about how this was the revival of the action genre we’ve been waiting for; others talked about the movie’s daring to deal with the underbelly of society, and go as dirty as it goes, and as high up as it is.
I stepped out of that theater wondering what it was that I missed; or what was it that others saw in this film to have praised it to high heavens. One realizes: it’s what they haven’t seen.
They haven’t seen the local films that have done the action genre differently; which by most counts level up the local treatment of the action film as form. Say, Ron Morales’s “Graceland” (2012) and Chito Roño’s “Badil” (2013). Ah, but these did not have good looking NBI agents, or mestizo convicts, or beautiful girls, and as such might not be considered as “action.”
Of course that “OTJ” had all of these doesn’t bode well for it either. In fact these go against the grit and grime of the “real” that people have loved about this film, and it’s easy to see how miscast these actors are. Save for Joel Torre as the aged hitman Tatang, and Joey Marquez as Sgt. Acosta, the one uncorrupted cop, there is no one here that shines in their characters, and you don’t forget that Piolo Pascual is playing an NBI agent, and Gerald Anderson is playing a convict. They’re playing cops and robbers is all. Which is also to say that these characters are not well-thought-out, where the backstory of Daniel (Anderson), and Atty. Coronel’s (Pascual) motivations, are not well defined. Neither is that NBI agent believable at all if you actually live in this country.
What ails “OTJ” is in the fact that it’s a commercial film pandering to an indie audience, or trying to get some of it, if not actually taking a chunk from its market. One might think this a level-up of the mainstream, yes. But those archetypes and stereotypes, those women who are there to have sex with the men and nothing else? Those tell me otherwise. What I fear is that in its appropriation of the indie, it has also now created a sheen and shine for it, raised expectations to some extent. Which of course not many of our indie films deliver – and rightfully so.
The reality in “Transit”
There is a grit and grim in fact, in the realities that aren’t put-on for show, where we are forced to deal with the truths about the current state of nation, without having to go dirty and violent. It is violent enough after all that nation’s biggest exports are its people; even more violent that they are not cared for where they go. Pinoys don’t just live in fear, they live in order to be invisible.
This is what Hannah Espia’s “Transit” dares discuss, where siblings Janet (Irma Adlawan) and Moises (Ping Medina) live and work in Tel Aviv, in fear of having their kids taken away. Joshua (Marc Justine Alvarez), Moises’ son, is shy one year to be able to become legal under a newly-passed law; Yael (Jasmine Curtis Smith), daughter of Janet, is teenage girl with no sense of who she is, even as she only knows of Tel Aviv as home.
The kind of invisibility these Pinoys need to live by is at the heart of this story; the fear is of course already in the care that Janet takes to step out of the house, her anger at Yael for being so carefree. The fear is in the tiny home they keep in an apartment building: it is shelter, but also it is prison. Family is in the laughter they are able to keep, as it is in a Hebrew folk tale that Joshua likes to hear from Janet, an ongoing story, but also one told over and over.
The greatness of “Transit” is in the way it is told from the perspective of these four characters (plus one new OFW from Manila who they welcome), so that it is the spectator who knows the uniqueness of each experience, no matter that the critical moments are the same. That both Joshua and Yael speak only in Hebrew, and their parents in Filipino and Hebrew, adds a critical layer to the disjunction: if words define the world we live in, then these four people across generations were in very different worlds. This is the kind of relationships that the impoverished diaspora go through; these are the families that a lack of nation create. This is what government chooses to forget about celebrating the Bagong Bayani, which can only be a measure of how shameful it is, if not how unjust.
A portrait of the director as sore loser
To think “Transit” safer, less political, less dangerous than “OTJ” is to fail at understanding the daring that was in this film’s decision not to make the discussion bigger than the life in of this family in danger of being torn apart by a national policy not theirs. That the acting in “Transit” was perfect, from that little boy Joshua to Moises, from teenage girl Yael (Curtis Smith holding a candle to Adlawan means she is miles ahead of her contemporaries), and Janet (the most brilliant I’ve seen Adlawan); that these actors did not compromise in terms of being their characters just draws the viewer in. You come out of that theater knowing Janet and Moises, Joshua and Yael, and you know them as Pinoys who live, who are alive.
You cannot say the same for most of the characters in “OTJ” and neither can you say it of the narrative itself. There was nothing extraordinary about the way this story was written, nothing great or new about the way it was told. I’m not surprised the FAP board of judges decided against it. Matti’s tirade against FAP meanwhile seems to be his way of imbuing his own work with political relevance, which is just sad.
It could also all be a marketing tactic, to keep “OTJ” in the news, never mind that it paints its director in a bad light. Someone’s laughing all the way to the bank, and I do mean Star Cinema.