There is a stage in the humble filmmaker’s career when they conflate advocacy and quality. And it’s an understandable situation. The education system, award-giving bodies, festivals, and other canon-making institutions have instilled the notion that ‘art should be political’, in a bid against the mainstream film industry driven solely by profit.
It’s a misguided mindset, not because its negation that ‘art shouldn’t be political’ is true, but because in its nature that art already is political intrinsically. Even mainstream fads have politics through their narratives. To anoint a film as ‘good’ solely because it has honorable intentions which centers its whole production around an advocacy is a betrayal to storytelling and advocacies itself. In this mode, advocacies become only a currency to gauge quality.
But this is not to dunk on advocacy filmmaking, for an effective advocacy film trumps the most overt propaganda. However, what separates an effective advocacy film from pandering content is its intricate mastery over form.
The main mistake of local advocacy filmmaking is that form becomes only second to its message. Too much is given to the obviousness of the message, that to investigate how it is presented is criminally sidelined. Because of this, some advocacy films become victims to the pitfall of being a disservice to its message, rather than being its successful propagator.
Form (and therefore narrative) should be mastered to serve the message because frankly, to echo Marshall McLuhan: the form is the message.
Take the main competition short films of this year’s Cinemalaya for example. Most of the ten films try to address or comment on a distinct societal issue, but only few have successfully managed to deliver the message it wanted to tell in their narratives.
For the sake of avoiding crude categorizations, not all of them are strictly just advocacy films per se, for I would like to see advocacy filmmaking in a spectrum – some are subtle that convey social commentary through its subtexts away from the central narrative, while some are overt that center its whole narrative in an issue.
Ang Gasgas na Plaka ni Lolo Bert (dir. Janina Gacosta and Cheska Marfori) opened directly on an advocacy framing HIV awareness.And Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss (dir. Sonny Calvento) is upfront in its attack on low-wage worker exploitation. But to recount the good-natured commentary of these films is to beat the obvious dead horse and to disregard nuance for general blanket statements. It is more worthwhile to traverse its text and narrative to ascertain how these commentary is actually (consciously or unconsciously) shown and delivered.
Ang Gasgas na Plaka ni Lolo Bert would be sounder if the audience’s gut senses that Soliman Cruz’ character is the lost lover of Lolo Bert is validated. To sidetrack and reveal that his actual lover was already dead and that the former is just a random character caricatures the former and, more importantly, through prioritizing the narrative of moving on, had given lesser importance to the plight of the departed that the film’s advocacy in the beginning made us to believe.
There is a hint that it is Lolo Bert who has HIV. Or that both he and his previous lover had it. If so, the narrative did not touch on this any further. And their conditions wouldn’t even be established without the opening advocacy.
Excuse Me, Miss, Miss, Miss grounded its situations in absurdity, which in its misuse has unfortunately made the text reactionary. The film showed sentiments of coping and sympathizing with an abusive system, rather than showing sentiments of its abolishment. It’s main character, Vangie, is co-opted in the end, and we see how she just essentially became her own oppressor. It undermines the possibility of resistance from the side of the workers, and seems to be content with only contempt for the system.
Furthermore, Utwas (dir. Richard Jeroui Salvadico and Arlie Sweet Sumagaysay), Pabása Kan Pasyón (dir. Hubert Tibi), and Tokwifi (dir. Carla Pulido Ocampo) are more confused on what they want to say.
Utwas sidelined and forgotten its touches on the impacts of dynamite fishing to forward its disconnected narrative of a child learning how to swim. Failing to learn that is, as the film went for the usual and tired defeatist path most films oftentimes take. These two narrative threads don’t have a connection between them nor does the film try to properly develop the two, making both prematurely insufficient.
Pabása Kan Pasyón is just downright incomprehensible because of its multiple plot threads, although a religious theme is surely there somewhere.
Tokwifi is an intriguing case altogether. Its director’s previous film should inform its politics if it is too cloudy for the viewer, but it seems contradictory. If to follow Walang Rape sa Bontoc, Tokwifi is an introspection of indigenous culture penetration – of how Bontoc lifestyles are ‘colonized’ by the outside.
However, the sentiment cultivated by Tokwifi is that this colonization is a positive thing, as the text portrays this ‘penetration’ as a sincere love affair between the Igorot and the woman-in-the-television-box. If the point of the film is to show the insidiousness of modernity and Western culture through an insidious narrative, then it did more harm than good because the point was not clearly made across the audience. The text made the audience warm-heartedly accept this love affair, rather than scrutinize it. And if it was successful in its attempt, then it risks demonizing the already boxed (and subjugated) female character – a different set of politics altogether that should be factored in more carefully by the film.
Fatigued (dir. James Robin Mayo) and The Slums (dir. Jan Andrei Cobey) are more effective in their attempts than the previous films. But Fatigued got its point across through the failure, rather than the success, of its gimmick. It’s unclear if it was aware that it never could be an interactive film, because the viewer will always be passive in its narrative, regardless of whether they participate in the instructions or not. Such is the nature of film viewing – its ending will always be the same. Futility of the film’s ‘interactive’ elements only leads to fatigue, which may or may not be Fatigued’s intent.
The Slums did what Tokwifi failed to do. It made the audience laugh while making them in on the joke for the audience knows precisely what they are laughing at and the implications of their laughter. The reclamation of the family’s agency and self-image through the capturing of the camera is a clever way of successfully conveying its message of uplifting the lower-class suburban family.
It’s only a shame that the version Cinemalaya had of The Slums didn’t have the defecating subtitles the director intended to throw onto the least suspecting people outside of the film’s joke, and would have made the film more radically insubordinate to foreign eyes and institutions it aims to attack. The exclusion of said subtitles, a relatively minor element of form, and the potential co-optation of the text (i.e. the film becoming the same type of poverty porn film it satirizes) because of this minor exclusion exemplifies the bearing weight form has on the whole message.
Ang Pagpakalma sa Unos (dir. Joanna Vasquez Arong) is the film that clearly and effectively got its message delivered best thanks to its directness in form. It helped that it was a documentary-styled anecdote film, imbuing real-life images and situations with heavy emotionally charged lyricism that makes you both somber and enraged at the same time.
So the question would be: do seemingly neutral films exude more concrete and defined politics or advocacies than those that deliberately do so? Quim Lalang Nim Aldo (dir. Reeden Fajardo), with its light and touching narrative, affirms the existence of underrepresented LGBT demographics without the need for unnecessary defeatist nor depressing devices that may negatively impact people that would identify with the protagonists.
Finally, Living Things (dir. Martika Ramirez Escobar) defies the rest of the short films with its politics of ‘unmoving’ as it tells us that it is okay to lie low, be fleeting, and let everything be in an already chaotic world. It’s an amusing paradox – that through its insistence to be resistant to any form of social commentary, it advertently becomes a commentary on desistance without having to disregard the presence of issues at large.
Living Things proves that explicitly saying your cause or agenda is not necessary. It even does away from the practice of deliberately charging any social message at all in the narrative. But it does not mean entirely ridding or discarding politics or commentary altogether, as this can never be avoided in a piece of text. Instead, Living Things prioritizes on emotion, and relies on subtlety to solidify that a good and cohesive narrative is enough for clarity, as the audience will be ready to fill in the gaps themselves.
The allure of advocacy filmmaking is understandable in a country rampant with issues here and there. Especially also considering that canon has focused more on artists that have something ‘relevant’ to say. The easiest way to address this is for filmmakers to put more trust on their audience. Not everything has to be spoon-fed. Likewise, audiences should be more critical of what they consume. Not everything with good intentions emits the message it wants you to believe it emits.
Read more from this author: Charlie Kaufman is probably thinking of something in I’m Thinking of Ending Things. It’s not your fault if you can’t figure out what it is. , Aswang and A Thousand Cuts: Are documentaries enough?