“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History
Have you ever wondered what would happen if men weren’t in the picture? In the absurdity of this absence, what are we left with? In this freedom, what can women discover about themselves and the world around them? Carlo Francisco Manatad‘s three short films – Junilyn Has (2015), Sandra (2016), and Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month (2017) – attempt to tackle these questions through a unique Filipino cinematic perspective.
Junilyn Has (2015) sees its titular character caught in a tight spot, quite literally. The papal visit has left her unemployed for weeks as stripping and sex work is put to a halt. As they wait for him to leave, she is asked by her boss to practice bizarre vaginal tricks picked up from Thailand, recover a lost list of lucky lottery numbers, and stay inside a metal dram as a part of a new comeback routine. At odds with her circumstances, the tension forces Junilyn into a personal crisis: does she stay in this thankless job or can she aspire for better? The camera work mirrors her entrapment and her personal struggles – in each of the earlier frames, it almost seems as though Junilyn isn’t the protagonist in her own story; a passive, lineless observer. Though out of focus and with no clear direction, she makes her choice and walks away from the life that she’s known and towards us, the audience. The film ends with Junilyn partaking in an act of confession and with her boss fooled by her own Thai trick.
Sandra (2016) opens with what I can only imagine as a gay man’s nightmare: almost ritualistically, Sandra collects her ‘period blood’ and unblinkingly slathers it across her face in front of a mirror. Cut to a gay man’s sweet dream: the middle of a forest where a dozen girls are practicing an energetic dance routine to ‘Happy Birthday’. Sandra holds her cake as she sweats it out, but we never see her eat it. What happens next makes preposterous seem like an understatement. They drink each other’s blood, then have a karaoke session while a large fight occurs outside. They eat lunch, and proceed to break almost everything inside the household. The film flits from absurdity to normalcy and back again, and we are left dazed and unsure of what’s happening. Mirroring this cinematic contradiction, we see Sandra rebel, run, and, surprisingly, return.
Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month (2017) lives through a series of unfortunate events. Despite being employee of the month for the entire year, she is unable to stop the foreclosure of their gas station, Gas 86. After witnessing a murder, failing to sell their last bottles of gasoline, and being deceived by her co-worker into drinking gasoline, Jodilerks takes out her frustrations by keying a passing car. But like all things in life, these actions come back to haunt her: her co-worker is beaten up and taken away by the police, and she is left alone to wet herself in public. In a final attempt at kindness (or is it desperation?), she decides to sell the gasoline for a promo price. In each of these misfortunes, there is comedy: she commits the forbidden act of smoking at a gas station, and even refills the tank of the policemen who take away her friend. Yet we do not laugh. Instead, we hold our breath as she ponders on her choice: does she light up the same place that brought her prestige or does she tear it down because it’s destroying her? Like Jodilerks, I have yet to exhale.
In all three films, director/writer/editor Carlo Francisco Manatad goes into what seems to us ‘the absurd’ through the lens of a tragicomedy, only to reveal something mundane and true: in the face of polite society and our oppressors, how must we act and how do we act? Each of the films call for us to be brave: Junilyn fulfills her duties then leaves, Sandra runs away, and Jodilerks attempts to burn down the entire establishment. Only by leaving the spaces that tell us who we are and what we should do and be do we ultimately find ourselves and what we fight for.
Note: These short films were viewed on January 19, 2020, thanks to Richard Bolisay and Cinema Centenario, as part of the CINELAB workshop.