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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, February 19, 2011

entry arrow5:44 PM | Don't Look Away

God help me, but a month or so has passed since I last saw Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay [2009], and yet the memory of that visceral journey through Manila's dark underbelly has stayed with me with a malevolent power I can't exactly define -- it is a prickling under my skin, a kind of labored breathing, a haunted voice that plagues the consciousness. It comes and goes, and when it does descend, it unsettles -- as it must. Last night, near midnight, I was bored and had nothing to do, and so I wandered the empty city streets in search for something, anything. That was how I found myself in a wayside eatery, a place I usually go to only after a full night's drunken debauchery, and always with friends. This time, I was alone, and I was hungry. The bored-looking waitress lazily considered my presence and barely made an effort to conceal an undefined irritation. She asked, "What do you want?" Or to be more exact, she gave me a look, her silence more than enough to convey that query. I said, "One order of tocilog, and a bottle of mineral water."

That instantly brought me back to the last few scenes in Mr. Mendoza's film when the men, straight off their fresh butchery of the prostitute Madonna, find themselves back in the streets of Manila and with such unsettling nonchalance, they go back to the ordinary rhythms of life: it is early morning and they enter a karinderia, quite similar to the one I ventured in last night, and they tell the woman who waits on them, "Isang tocilog..." In the foreground of that scene, a pork dish is being chopped, while the woman intones brightly: "Magandang umaga po, may lechon kawali po kami." The juxtaposition of butchered pig as delicacy and butchered woman, of course, is intended, and is meant to unsettle. Coco Martin, playing the rookie cop whose descent into hell is the story of this film, excuses himself from the murderous group and goes to the lavatory, where he retches.

His night and my night are not necessarily far apart. Of course, the crucial difference comes with the fact that he has participated in a murder and I didn't -- but what's to stop with that glaring difference if I had on my own stumbled on the same sort of evil, and like him, did nothing? His day began as ordinarily as I usually begin mine -- or you with yours. And this is the story of most evils. They are completely ordinary. They come to us not with the warning sound of trumpets or the blaring screech of eerie synthesizers, but in quiet, in insidious entrance. And sometimes when we finally realize we have gone past the invisible portals and evil now requires our participation or our indifference, I bet most of us will become accomplices, willing or not. Film critic Roger Ebert, writing about Claude Lanzmann's Shoah [1985], a 9-hour documentary about the Holocaust, tackled that idea of the ordinariness that often cloaks great evil in our midst:

Some of the strangest passages in the film are the interviews with the officials who were actually responsible for running the camps and making the "Final Solution" work smoothly and efficiently. None of them, at least by their testimony, seem to have witnessed the whole picture. They only participated in a small part of it, doing their little jobs in their little corners; if they are to be believed, they didn't personally kill anybody, they just did small portions of larger tasks, and somehow all of the tasks, when added up and completed, resulted in people dying.

And that is how we participate in evil, when we somehow know what's going on, and yet we excuse ourselves by saying, "I was just doing my job," or "I was just being told what to do." Many ordinary people in Nazi Germany knew what was going on -- and yet did not do anything about it.

There are two clinical studies that explain the possibilities of evil that reside within every human being. One is the now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 where one set of participants (the "prison guards") started exercising their sadistic impulses on another set of participants (the "prisoners") without inhibition the moment they were "permitted" to do so by a "higher authority." The other famous attempt is the Milgram Experiment of 1961, where participants perplexingly allowed themselves to "electrocute" an unseen subject to certain fatality -- even when they protest -- as long as a "higher authority" orders them to do so. The men in Kinatay perfectly captured that. Acting on the orders of Kap -- a captain in the police force who is also (not so ironically) a crime kingpin -- they extort from roadside vendors, and they kill. And they do so without protest. It is "just" a job.

I quote Mr. Ebert's appraisal above because it is ironic that he would see a fine film in Lanzmann's effort, and not see the same in Mr. Mendoza's. When Kinatay was shown in Cannes in 2009 (where it won Mr. Mendoza the Best Director prize), Mr. Ebert was one of its most vocal critics, calling it the worst film ever presented in the august festival. He decries its abuse of idée fixe, its murky darkness, its incessant noise -- and then wisely puts up an armor to deflect the coming criticism:

You mark my words. There will be critics who fancy themselves theoreticians, who will defend this unbearable experience, and lecture those plebians like me who missed the whole Idea. I will remain serene while my ignorance is excoriated. I am a human being with relatively reasonable tastes. And in that role, not in the role of film critic, I declare that there may not be ten people in the world who will buy a ticket to this movie and feel the money was well spent.

I am a great fan of Mr. Ebert -- but I found that all-encompassing dismissiveness a little appalling. But I will be one of those critics. The murk? It's the perfect atmosphere for this story about the descent, this long journey, to hell. The incessant noise? That's the ordinary, bone-reaching sounds of the streets of Manila -- alien perhaps to Western ears, but perfectly common to ours. (The ambient sounds, compounded with the sheer tension of Teresa Barrozo's music, is the apt soundtrack this kind of story demands.) Was my money well-spent? I am also a human being with relatively reasonable taste -- and you bet it was. Yes, it is a discomforting film about a wretched story, and its aesthetics, as far as I am concerned, is what the story demands -- because how else to handle such a story? Certainly not with subtlety, something so prized by Western critics; we are beyond subtlety in this regard; what we need is art that is also a slap to our face. And this is certainly a slap. I don't think I can watch this film a second time, but that is a testament of its power. It is already so heavily imprinted in my brain, anyway, so I don't need to.

You see, Mr. Ebert, I watch the film and I see it as a dark but painfully true reflection of my sad country. Ordinary evil like this exists -- persists -- in my midst. The politicians are corrupt. The cops are murderers. The religious men are charlatans. And the common tao knows, and has reached the point of no longer caring.

Last week, for example, a six-year old girl in Cebu was kidnapped -- and later her battered body was found in a dirty sack thrown off a cliff. (What kind of people would do that?) Two years ago, a massacre of journalists exploded in a province called Maguindanao, a barbarity apparently sanctioned by its governor. There are a thousand other similar tales, but I don't want this post to become an encyclopedia of these dark things. The thing to realize is that these atrocities happen so often in my country, Mr. Ebert, that most of us have learned not to be shocked anymore. We have lost that crucial capacity for real outrage, because evil has become so pervasive, it has become ordinary. And most of us have learned to look away, to ignore that these things do happen. These people who have chosen to ignore these things are people one might even call God-fearing, even decent. But what they do not know is that by sheer indifference, by looking away, they participate in evil as well.

What I do know is that we need movies like Kinatay, if only to act as unwanted but needed reminders. When the film was shown in Dumaguete a few months back, the opinions were sharply divided. In the Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee Facebook page, a certain Cereu Romero commented: "A grues0me,h0rribLE, ridicUL0Us, w0rst m0viE EvER pr0dUcE." (I have retained the original spelling and grammar for a reason.) And there you go. Such ignorant sentiment underlies the importance of films such as this. For these people perhaps, films are to be thought of as "for entertainment only." Which is sad, and largely myopic about the role of art in our lives. But not all films, not all great art, are meant simply to entertain. Sometimes they are meant to unsettle, especially when they show a true and hard reflection of what's happening in the society that surrounds us. What we see will most likely repulse many of us, make us retch the way Coco Martin's character did in the end. But retch all you want. That's an important reaction -- it marks you as human still capable of shock.

But don't look away.

And do acknowledge that these things really happen. Most of all, however you can, do something about them. Don't just look away.

[This is not a review of Kinatay. If you want a great review, read Francis Cruz's take on it in his blog Lessons From the School of Inattention.]

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