Though admittedly not the best of speakers, it was difficult not to be enamored by young independent filmmaker Raya Martin on a Saturday afternoon at the Lopez Museum. Even when he sometimes lost his train of thought, and dared speak of filmmaking as an ultimately personal thing – almost a refusal to consider us as audience.
What Martin had going for him wasn’t just his youth and its contingent rebellious streak, but a consciousness about his craft that was surprising. Here, Martin proved he wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill indie filmmaker who’s wont to churn out the now familiar movie on slums and sex, violence and volatility. For this lecture, which had a mix of film practitioners and students as audience, Martin revealed why he was more than just a kid with a digital camera.
Because he spoke of history and the personal. Cinema as image. Sound as a distinct element. There is the interest in film versus the digital. There is the project of the anti-narrative. There is the reinvention of genre – from documentaries to the autobiography. There is the dream of making a commercial film.
It is clear that Martin has more than just all those international grants going for him and his films. There is a thought process to Martin’s creativity that he admits comes from his upbringing, but also is borne of wanting to go against this upbringing and everything that this requires.
No rebel without a cause
And yet this is no stereotypical rebellion. In the case of Martin, this is about a critical mind’s resistance to the conventional ways of seeing and speaking. He hated the way in which history was taught in school, where his grades were dependent on how many names and dates he could memorize. The product of this has been a conscious effort at creating films about and of history, with a very personal perspective.
That these are the films that have made Martin a rock star elsewhere in the world is really quite a spectacular thing. At least his films aren’t about what are now stock images of the Philippines. Martin’s films remind us that sex doesn’t need to be explicit, violence need not be gory, poverty need not be about the slums. And that there really is more to talk about and create into films, and there is more than just the social realist genre.
And yes, he reminds us too, that it was Lino Brocka who began this stereotypical representation of nation. But who has criticized Brocka for it, really? And why this distrust of all indie films based on this stereotype?
Talk about the films
Though Martin is the first to say that he doesn’t make films for a particular audience, he also doesn’t shy from criticism. What he insists on though is that his films be watched by the critics who are wont to dismiss it. As far as he’s concerned, the critiques against the indie film and its (mis-)representation(s) of Filipino conditions is borne of hearsay – very few people actually go out and make an effort to watch these films, yet the tendency has been to critique them based on what international critics say.
Martin also refuses to take the blame for the lack of viewing opportunities for his films. This to him is a distribution problem that’s extraneous to his role as filmmaker. To him, what it truly points to is a lack of interest in, and respect for, contemporary independent cinema. Martin asserts that what we have is a “cinema of the press” whose enterprise it is to celebrate a film that has become successful elsewhere, without actually helping these films out.
Martin is correct of course. Amidst the applause and praise, there is very little that has changed for the independent film: it is still rarely distributed, the commercial audience has yet to be interested, and filmmakers still celebrate anywhere but here.
And yet Martin seems to be unfazed by all these – the lack of local support for his films, the small niche he has created for himself, the tiny segment of the movie-going public whose interest he holds. His one truth is the fact that he continues to be surprised by his and his films’ survival not just in the context of commercial filmmaking, but also in the context of stereotypical independent productions.
There is also the truth that he knows his filmmaking sensibilities are a product not so much of his age, as it is of his being born into a family for whom creativity was important, and with parents who exposed him not just to art and history but to popular culture as well. Martin refuses the notion of the artist as someone who doesn’t watch television. Instead he admits that he enjoys it tremendously and appreciates its bombardment of images and sounds, all of which he knows informs the films he creates.
The truth is, Martin’s creativity seems to be propelled by a need to grapple with his own individual contradictions – ones that his personal, which is to say his educated, intellectual and artistic, life has made all-important. His need to historicize in film, his play with imagery, his interest in sound as a unique entity, his retelling of Ishmael Bernal’s City After Dark, his dream of a commercial film, are all informed by this personal process of becoming.
And while he admits that his sadness may not be all ours, at least this sadness isn’t simply translated into sex, drugs and violence. It could be a sadness of the times, one that is calm and quiet, one that hasn’t given up, but isn’t all about rising up in arms. It is a sadness that’s borne of a critical mind that knows its limits yes, but also refuses to be bogged down by the bandwagon. Martin sees a dead-end and decides to go the other way, even when the path to that has yet to be created. In this sense, and in my mind, this is even more reason to consider Martin a rock star.