What is the point of a documentary? Should it provide basic information to those uninformed or should it deepen the understanding of those informed? Should it stir the emotions of its audience or should it be purely rational in its approach? All documentaries differ in technique – but all serve to realize one goal: to deliver a message as clearly and efficiently as possible.
This informs the question of what the point of criticizing a documentary is. Would it aim to provide gaps of information in its presentation? Would it attack the very agenda it espouses? Or would it point out the flaws as to how the message was delivered?
Criticizing a documentary is a tough task. The person criticizing should have more knowledge of the subject a documentary provides, supposedly. As always the case, this already imposes an elitist presumption against the critic, distancing him away from the majority of the audience.
This article being critical of Alyx Arumpac’s Aswang and Ramona Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts does not mean that this article does not agree with the politics of both, nor does it propose that it is more of the expert on the subject than both. They had achieved their responsibility to report pressing issues with integrity and passion as alternatives to the already threatened press, serving as extensions to the watchdogs of the state.
However, unanimously approving both documentaries without reservations simply because they are in line with one’s politics is detrimental to the medium itself, lest it aims to be overt propaganda – to which I think they are not. But another question to ponder: is it more effective if they were? Queries of form come into play here.
Aswang escapes the traps A Thousand Cuts set upon itself from the beginning. Aswang is more on the ground – focusing on relevant people that are more affected with state violence. Even though both of them are backed by foreign investments, Aswang feels more of a Filipino experience documented by an actual Filipino, while A Thousand Cuts is a mere collection of disjointed anecdotes of personalities made by a curious reporter. Aswang has the greater edge – it knows that its priority is pathos, effectively mingling local mythology to tap with the target audience’s sensibilities.
Both are released for outsiders inside exclusive festival runs in which a free and accessible, yet still restricted, viewing is considered more of a privilege rather than a right. We feel indebted to creators for giving us the opportunity to watch these films even though mass accessibility is the obvious primary priority. It’s as if the point of these documentaries and its creators were to fetishize, not represent.
To their full defense, however, the dangers of a wide local release is very real for the crew. Foreign backing is a logical need if your national government silences critics with an iron fist.
Though it still begs the question: does both achieve more than what basic journalism already continues to do? If not, then are documentaries enough? Would propaganda be more far-reaching and direct? There is a need for documentaries to do more than show reality, to show extra fangs, or to offer solutions addressing what’s shown. But there’s no doubt the filmmakers already know this. There’s no intention to nullify the efforts or effects of both and all documentaries made.
To back down on the critic’s elitist position, it is genuinely good to see the audience’s feedback whether it be on the lapses of one or the effectiveness of the other. At least, it goes to show these documentaries are successful in their goals of engagement.
Aswang and A Thousand Cuts‘ greatest value is reaffirmation and revitalization – to remind someone that their anger, disgust, and sorrow are valid and that they should be redirected against oppressive institutions.
Read more from this author: I – The Filipino Critic Must be a Militant , The Spectre of Brocka’s Maynila Still Haunts Us with Gasping for Air