photo from Concerned Artists of the Philippines
This year marks the 30th death anniversary of the nationalist filmmaker, Lino Brocka. Even after May 21, 1991, he’s been dying multiple deaths. Some may recall how Patrick Flores’ polemic against Brocka, incidentally published day after Brocka died sparked controversy as one which provoked later the extent of political criticism. Flores’ mistake however is merely practical: he called Brocka a political charlatan, but as seen from the history of mass movement, between them two, it is Brocka who got busy with organizing artists to forward political agenda and aligning themselves with the masses. As such, Flores failed to kill Brocka. Brocka’s deaths is closer to cinema than to criticism.
We can say anything that we want about Brocka’s approach. I myself do not agree with Rolando Tolentino’s reassessment of his works as “socialist realism”, as I’ve claimed elsewhere, there’s nothing socialist or realist in his works. And I do not really mean it in any sense of disagreement with Brocka, but more of an affirmation of what he has done versus what commentators would want him to be. His works do not fall close to the cinematic realist tradition from the west of his time. Brocka was an industry person. His works are melodramatic. And in the context of his time, melodrama is an important form to respond to mass consciousness: it is in this same form that the masses are being attempted to be pacified, and so a conscious attempt to use the same devices to combat pacification. Brocka, particularly of his latter career, has a more “alternative” mindset than the pool of the so-called alternative filmmakers of late 80s and early 90s whose single-mindedness brought “cinematic experimentation” to mere experimentation of form and not of cinema. Brocka’s mindset, as reflected in his more important works, may have lesser concern for “formal experimentation” but he’s doing so for a more political reason – exuding from a revolutionary philosophy of considering historical and dialectical materialism – than merely an aesthetic one. This brought a more cinematic effect than the “alternative cinema”‘s formal experimentations: suddenly, politics became a raison d’etre of filmmaking.
For politics to be the point of making films is considered by a more significant fraction of the filmmaking forum, particularly those who harbor the film-as-art ideology, as something heretical to the perceived pureness of cinematic art. Brocka’s more acclaimed works were called propagandistic, if not, merely didactic, as Peque Gallaga would say on multiple occasions. These accusations of propaganda are an attempt to align works by nationalist filmmakers with those who were produced with the clear support of the Martial Law state as non-difference. But this is where Brocka is actually radical: the film-as-art ideologues do not understand how politics work, Brocka did. Brocka is not doing political cinema, but rather doing cinema politically. His rival is already beyond the aesthetes who do not shut up about aperture or mise-en-scene or “performance”, his rival is the tyrant monster of his time. Gallaga can say whatever he wanted back then, but, then again, he’s the one between him and Brocka who depended on a Marcosian project to get his magnum opus produced.
Brocka dying in the early years of the 90s, the starting lines of the celebrated end of history, brought about death of another kind. In the 90s, suddenly, attempts to further place cinema outside of politicization began as a new breed of film studios arose. While more “social” attempts at filmmaking are happening at the margins via the NGOs, there’s virtually no effort at all in the public sphere to further use cinema politically.
Film criticism is no different. The re-industrialization of cinema in the post-Marcos Philippines has not really made any more development even in what should have been the intellectual fora of film reception. It may even be seen that Film Criticism further declines into agendas outside of radical politics. Wasn’t it zeitgeist in the 90s that the popular discourse suddenly reverted back to discussions between religious dogmatism and secularization, like how it was in the 1890? We can blame the Aquino government by further declining into this historical backwardness because liberals, of any time, have always understood history wrongly. They think that the calendar gaining in number is already a mark of historical progress, and not, developments in people’s lives. Gen-X euphoria of the end of history marks also this bigotry founded on them being stupid at history. Wasn’t it in this time when academic film criticism that aligned itself with a more globalist and liberal agenda took root? Film critics who wrote on periodicals are no better as they rode along with this historical stupidity and degeneracy and have consciously chosen to think with their genitals than with their brains.
On a larger frame, the further decline of socialist states and the symbolic victory of American capitalism, along with the universal implementation of neoliberalism in the global north, contributed to what Fredric Jameson noted of the weakening of historicity as one of the more essential quality of a “postmodern” that imperialism is implementing in the global superstructure. Aligning still in this radical class politics is the nationalist-democrat’s campaign to combat postmodernism within the public discourse. But these attempts fail from time to time as a more relaxed and more liberal approach to class politics took root from both sides of the left after the reaffirmist-rejectionist split. What was left in the public sphere at the time, if not a clear contempt of the middle classes (that both sides of the left coddle) against the working classes and the lumpen proletarians, a one-dimensional view of “classes” merely as another identity issue, as reflected in the mainstream cultural productions.
This weakening of historicity further pushes the decline of class consciousness in the superstructure. Both culture and what should have been “counter-culture” have exhibited this symptom for long. However, it is only recently that this suspicion of non-difference between those who pose as “alternative” or “counter” culture and the status quo has become more vocal, with Mark Fisher’s theorization of capitalist realism. And with this that we are looking back at the so-called alternative cultural scenes and see how the ideas and the logic of sense (i.e. ideology) that they try to express those ideas do not fall far from the status quo.
We can look into this settling of the “alternative”, being settled as mere “alternative”, as part of the deaths of Lino Brocka. We can see how these experimentations to form are merely attempts to not intervene with political realities. Methodically, the works done, for example of Raymond Red or even of Roxlee, all fall within this single-minded approach to aesthetics and idealist naivete of art’s “power” to change by merely “being art”, which effectively fall within the non-intrusiveness of liberalism to actual politics.
Historically, those who first claimed for the term “independence” in Philippine Cinema have gained ground with their abandonment of working class struggles. The 1960s workers strikes of Filipino Film workers, as it is claimed through various claims, on one side led to the decline of bigger studios, but on the other, led to the birth of actor-owned film productions, effectively identified as “independent” studios. While the shift of configuration in the ownership of production has changed some things (some productions giving more compensation as bigger studios), the conditions of production do not radically change. As time moved forward, it became more clear that this model of independent production has more tended towards further exploitation of labor and women than it has become avenues for more actual independence. The demand of the Film Workers’ Strikes for a more just conditions of work further declined to more exploitative conditions as more “independence” from the industrial studio system happened.
Another naivete coming from historical stupidity: the early 2000s celebration of digital technology as “liberative”, often proclaiming the rebirth of “independent cinema” in the country. As recent times will prove, this rebirth of “independent cinema” marks also the rebirth of the same kind of exploitative manner of working conditions justified first as collaborative labor among artists. Suddenly, filmmaking reverted back to a condition of labor which was perceived initially as new, but historically, a degeneration to working conditions dating back older than cinema itself: artisanal modes of production proved to be a more fruitful way to exploit workers believing that it is an act of mutual respect among artists. It isn’t surprising also that films and commentators of the 2000s tended towards agreeing with the War on Terror agenda of US Imperialism: where celebration of individual artistic enterprises is often partnered with general suspicion to any collective political action that is being seen as terrorism (also when Noel Vera openly tagged the New People’s Army as “terrorist” in his 2005 translation of Mario O’Hara’s openly leftist partisan film, Pangarap ng Puso (2000).)
Newer commentators help aid Brocka’s further death. The late Alexis Tioseco reminds “older” commentators and filmmakers alike of Brocka’s death. His remark is informed by, again, this historical stupidity that “times have changed” as the calendar moves forward or as we now can own a digital camera for ourselves, as aligned with a campaign against the abandonment of the film industry as an economic structure.
This general comment is present not just in Tioseco’s writings but also from the productions now considered as “independent” from film festival grantees and those which are aligned with them. As singular “artistic vision” is promoted more than industrialized modes of intervention, stopping Cinema from further developing its capacity for mass communication. This is not a unique instance in the Philippines, mechanisms of artisan patronship became more open as organizations from the first world opened opportunities for third world artists for more diversity tokens. But often, these patronships are done to align with first world ideologies than it is to support third world struggles.
In this era of single-minded independence, artistic egoism further takes over effective politics. What is openly promoted in films of the independent brand is further doubt to actions and agency. Nihilism taking root from the end of history melded with more aggressive campaigns against collective and direct action often coming from a Rizalian counter-revolutionary ideology and idiocy. Rooting in structural sources, the gun in Rae Red’s Babae at Baril (2019) was placed in opposite of the woman. However, both gun and the woman are seen merely as symbols: the gun as a symbol of male chauvinism, branding violence also as something that is inherently aligned with it; the woman, therefore should be it’s opposite symbol This is clearly expressed when, in the end, the violator was never killed, and the gun is thrown at the river. This is the limit of contemporary cinematic discourse posing as political: it sees things and actual objects in a crude metaphysics coming from positions of comfort and privilege, and so, single-mindedly see things. Guns are bad. Violence is bad. Complementing this is Antoinette Jadaone’s Fan Girl (2020) whose resolution to sexual violence is… to call the police.
Revolutionaries understand it best, from Bonifacio to Luxemburg to Fanon: violence is a tool for power and not by itself an ethical problem to be solved by non-violence. Often, as seen in Fan Girl, calls for non-violence were not really done in support of militant action, but mainly with appeals to authority disguised as democratic discussions. Either we should consider listening to feudal lords, not to antagonize capitalists, or trust in the justice system more. The so-called independent cinema in the Philippines happily embraces Rizalian non-violence that often comes with a naivete either of trickling-down of freedom at the expense of giving up actual ethical agency to revolt.
It isn’t any accident that Brocka’s most affective, if not most directly political film is done not within the Marcos era, but after it. The resolution of Father Jimmy in Orapronobis (1989) makes a more rational decision against state oppression than a dialogue: to join the armed struggle. Brocka, in his most radical, chose red in a time when red-tagging means Liberal Party-sponsored death squads, like the Alsa-Masa, are aiming to kill legal activists and communists alike extrajudicially.
In this time of having similar cases of death chasing not just activists and also citizens in a genocidal neglective state response to the pandemic, how does Philippine cinema respond? Aside from further escaping to their caves, like how it is in the Marcos times, the state, through the FDCP, openly supported the so-called independent filmmakers, on its vision of One-Nation, One-Cinema, to work within its agenda of making the state look like it’s doing its work. Our film-artists, desperate not to fall within insignificance, took hold of the opportunities with more stories of escape than facing antagonism. What the so-called independent cinema has been doing for long is merely to promote its brand of escapism while it critiques the same attitude of escapism that is supposedly promoted by mainstream studios. By its core, this is what “art cinema” is for: an attempt to escape massification of cinema, in effect an act of avoiding the masses as an expression of bourgeois disgust against them, by further willingly marginalizing themselves towards the obscurity of bourgeois fine art. And the fascist state is more willing to support them.
What of the seemingly increasing “social consciousness” in cinema? They are merely treating things ideologically. Georg Lukacs noted of this decadence to merely critique capitalism ideologically (to merely critique profit-as-goal for the benefit of film-as-art ideology) as merely something that is imaginary. Impotent critique coming from impotent politics from people impotent of revolutionary imagination. This, in effect, resulted in a cinema impotent also of its basic function: to entertain. Even as means of escapism, more recent film releases trap themselves more in cycles of abuse, of romantic non-closure, of the confines of their rooms with further exploitation of desktop cinema without historical consciousness. This can be seen in the vulgar psychologism of John Denver Trending (2018) and Goyo (2018). Or even in the non-action films of Erik Matti, whose recent films have a lot of action scenes where the punches of people do not even land their enemy (and of course, films who treat the masses The Enemy). Despectacularized violence as aligned in their bourgeois nihilism. Capped in the death of filmic catharsis, the killing of agency, as Carlo Cielo states it, is where the bourgeois cinema aims to shut the last nails of Brocka’s coffin, to prevent revolutionary tendency from ever flowing to cinema ever again.
People die, weapons don’t. Brocka’s death meant for the revolutionary artists not the decommissioning of the weapons he initially uses. Weapons must be used and combatants be trained further. Until time when shooting films will also mean shooting enemies in the head, and not miss it again. To embrace the gun and not throw it away.