Tuesday, March 09, 2010


Before finding words to describe my pleasure in viewing my first Lino Brocka film You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (1974), I'd like to render a few comments on the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) and this year's focus on Filipino and Filipino American Cinema. When Festival Director Chi-hui Yang first mentioned to me that the festival hoped to build connections with the Bay Area's Filipino American community by "bringing them into the festival", I was impressed with CAAM's strategic outreach to the second largest community in the Bay Area after the Chinese; but, I was also slightly confused because I had long imagined the Filipino community as being more of a Latino community by way of shared colonial histories and a Catholic substratum. In retrospect, I realized this understanding had been shaped by a 1994 Mexican Museum exhibit "Paraiso Abierto a Todos" curated by Enrique Chagoya, and featuring the work of Philippine artist Manuel Ocampo.

I phoned my friend Tere Romo, former curator for The Mexican Museum, and asked her what she recalled of that exhibit. She remembered that the Manuel Ocampo retrospective was already in the works when she arrived on the scene and—though she did facilitate it—it had largely been set into motion by curator Enrique Chagoya and fellow artist Rupert Garcia, who were both enthusiastic about the political dimension of Ocampo's work; a dimension they felt affirmed a shared identity between Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chicanos and Filipinos.

I asked Tere if it had been the exhibition's intention to diversify the Mexican, Mexican American and Chicano community by focusing on a Filipino artist? Romo confirmed that Chagoya and Garcia approached the Mexican Museum to mount an exhibition of Ocampo's work simply because they loved his work and wanted to show it; but, Tere saw it as the perfect opportunity—not only to extend the community to draw in another audience for the sake of drawing in another audience—but, more, to enunciate linkages already present historically, socially and culturally. She accomplished this by setting up a complementary exhibit in the orientation gallery next to Ocampo's retrospective. She drew pieces from the Mexican Museum's collection that showed the actual influences via the Manila galleon trade in Mexican art. For example, she looked at the Chinese influence on Mexican laquerware and floral rebozos. The Museum's collection even had a Filipino buto—a statue of a saint—which confirmed a direct reference. These trade items manifested during the time period when Mexico was—in a sense—the viceroy for the Philippines. Trade passed through Acapulco, was transported across Mexico to Vera Cruz, then transferred to Spain. In the process, handlers—often artists themselves—influenced by the work from China and Japan, adapted the imagery.

But Tere wanted to emphasize that the connection between Mexican and Filipino communities was not only a historically distant trade connection. More recently—with the United Farm Workers effort—the Filipinos were the first to go on strike for farm workers rights. Filipino organizer Larry Itliong formed the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). César Chávez and Dolores Huerta became involved when the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—which they co-founded—voted to join the AWOC, creating what is now known as the United Farm Workers of America. Additionally, the first martyr in that cause was a Filipino farm worker.

Having now experienced the Filipino community approached by both the Mexican Museum and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), I can more fully appreciate what
Dina Iordanova has proposed in her contextual essay "Mediating Diaspora", published in Film Festival Yearbook 2: Film Festivals and Imagined Communities (2010:12-44).

The concept of "imagined communities" comes from Benedict Anderson's 1983 study Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, wherein Anderson proposed "an imagined political community" as a definition for "nation". Iordanova found this applicable to film festival communities. She writes: "The festivals that we zoom in on here are all linked in some way to the concept of the nation as 'imagined', precisely as Anderson conceives it, and, in most cases, to 'diaspora' as well. Members of the community probably will never meet face-to-face; however, they may have shared interests or identity as part of the same group." Film festivals, however, instigate community by being a live event that convenes "only in one place at a time, usually at regular intervals as yearly events. For the festival to happen, organizers and audiences must come face-to-face in exactly the same place at exactly the same time. They practically suspend the 'imagined' element of the community by substituting it with a very real one that is, nonetheless, configured around the same axis of imagination that drives the ideas of nation and nationalism. There is a double-step process when transnationally-positioned film festivals are involved. On the one hand, audiences and programmers involved with the festival are invited to experience themselves, by an undisguised act of imagination, as an extension of a community that is 'headquartered' somewhere else but to which they, by virtue of their very attendance at the festival, now relate to through a mental image of affinity and through the act of their very real togetherness. Yet, a secondary act of imagination is implied as well, linked to the need to experience a certain degree of identification with imaginary, fictional characters whose stories are told in the films projected at the festival. In the 'live' space of the festival, organizers and audiences form a community, an actual one, that congregates face-to-face for the purpose of fostering an 'imagined community' that comes live in the act of watching a film and imagining distant human beings becoming part of one's own experiences. Thus, the festival's set-up extends an invitation to engage in what is essentially a political act of imagined belonging and to continue the nation building process that is pre-supposed by extending it to the diaspora and beyond." (2010:12-13, emphasis added.) This concept of festival attendance as "a political act of imagined belonging" speaks to me on many different levels.

SFIAAFF's focus on Filipino Cinema finds precedent—according to Variety reporter
Christopher Alford—in a comparably-mounted program at the 2006 Hawaii International Film Festival whose "generalist approach of the festival," Iordanova observes, "cuts across ethnic divides and aims to draw large crowds of diverse backgrounds." In a way, Iordanova adds, festivals such as the Hawaii International and SFIAAFF "work with a political vision of a certain imagined community and target a diasporic audience that is intrinsically diverse." (2010:24)

Here, Iordanova expands her thesis to juxtapose diaspora with "the global city". She writes: "Within multicultural societies, film festivals related to diasporas and 'imagined communities' all happen at the periphery of the mainstream public sphere." Though conceding that some skeptics criticize that such ethno-specific film festivals not only remain isolated from each other but contribute to "the profound fragmentation of an ideally public sphere", Iordanova balances with an alternate viewpoint that celebrates multicultural hybridization, "undoing diaspora in favor of the global city concept." In other words, though "the existence of various 'imagined communities' within the multicultural sphere may lead to fragmentation, there are also processes of hybridization and integration, of 'situated' yet mobile identities that come about as a result of [what Dr. Avtar Brah (1996:1, 187) has termed] 'the honing of diaspora'." (2010:33) Mobile identity is an apt term, especially in light of SFIAAFF's "Filipino Or Not?" phone game app.

All of this is to suggest that I no longer see SFIAAFF as a film festival catering to diasporic identities as much as a festival committed to celebrating its hybrid citizenry in a global city. Their focus on Filipino cinema confirms as much and allows for the Latino community to share equally in solidarity.

Here I will reiterate Michael Hawley's consummate overview of the Filipino sidebar: "One of the strands running through 2010's festival is a Focus on Filipino and Filipino American Cinema, the highlight of which is a long overdue tribute to Lino Brocka. Openly gay and often at odds with Ferdinand Marcos' regime, Brocka directed 60-plus films between 1970 and his death in 1991, most of them melodramas with a social/political bent. To the best of my knowledge, with the exception of one-off screenings of 1988's Macho Dancer (for better or worse, his best known film in the U.S.), the Bay Area hasn't seen a Brocka film since the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) showed Dirty Affair in 1992. (And if memory serves, the screening I attended was cancelled after the film broke midway through). Even the venerable Pacific Film Archive lists only one Brocka screening in its entire online archive; again the 1992 SFIFF presentation of Dirty Affair.

"The SFIAAFF mini-retrospective consists of only four films, but they seem very well chosen. Yang explained that SFIAAFF wanted to program more, but prints were extremely hard to acquire. 1975's Manila in the Claws of Neon is a neo-noir about a country boy in the mean city, which I first saw at the 1980 SFIFF under the title Manila in the Claws of Darkness. (Oddly, the film is a.k.a. Manila in the Claws of Light). SFIFF also screened Brocka's mother-from-hell masterpiece Insiang in 1984, but I missed it. Bayan Ko is the film that got Brocka's Filipino citizenship revoked, and a print had to be smuggled out of the county for its competition screening at Cannes in 1984. The fourth selection is 1974's You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting (what a title!). All four films will be screened in 16mm or 35mm prints.

"The rest of SFIAAFF's Focus on Filipino and Filipino American Cinema can be found scattered throughout the line-up.
"Classic Filipino American Shorts" is, well, exactly that. From this year's Documentary Competition comes Ninoy Aquino & the Rise of People Power, about the revolutionary leader, political prisoner, exile and martyr to the cause of Philippine democracy. Manilatown is in the Heart—Time Travel with Al Robles is part of the CAAM@30 Documentary Showcase and the latest from director Curtis Choy (The Fall of the I-Hotel). From the Narrative Competition we have the world premiere of Gerry Balasta's The Mountain Thief, a docudrama about one family's struggle to live amidst a garbage dumpsite. And finally, the one I'm most looking forward to, Raya Martin's hyper-stylized allegory of early 20th century American colonialism, Independencia."

I also replicate my capsule review of Independencia from the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival:

Listening expectantly in the dark is Miguel (Sid Lucero), the son in
Raya Martin's lustrous Independencia who—crouched still with vigilant eyes—hears the sounds of war approaching within a raging storm that ravishes the Philippine rain forest. The wet foliage—as Joni Mitchell phrases it—"looks like slick black cellophane" and as if to emphasize the film's irreality, Martin purposely employs theatrical devices and fabulist artificiality to emphasize not only the history of his country, but the history of his country's cinema. Martin describes Independencia as "an intimist film in the woods."

Cross-published on


Peter Nellhaus said...

I've been making more of an effort to see Filipino films, and coincidentally saw You have been weighed . . . last week on DVD. Devastating ending.

Michael Guillen said...

I was going to indicate in my next entry that the only Brocka film in SFIAAFF's mini-retrospective available on DVD is You Have Been Weighed.... I strongly recommend people to rent it and watch it. It's like Flannery O'Connor, Larry McMurty, Douglas Sirk and Fassbinder all mashed up together, with one of the strangest--yet integral--soundscore ever.

Jim Gerow said...

Michael, let me echo the praise for You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting, which I recently saw on Netflix. It's a compassionate, haunting film about society's outsiders. I envy you Bay Area folks the chance to see four of Lino Brocka's best films on the big screen, a rare event. I would love to be able to see Manila in the Claws of Neon. Also, don't miss Raya Martin's beautiful Independencia.

Michael Guillen said...

Faithful (though a bit shy) Evening Class enthusiast Maria emailed me a comment that I felt would appropriately texture this entry. With her permission: "I am sure this was not the intention, but I can't help thinking that this year's focus on Filipino film at SFIAAFF would have made Alexis Tioseco proud and can serve as a small response to his death. I would never have heard of Lino Brocka's work without his writings. I never met or corresponded with him, but was very touched by his writing as well as his love for Filipino cinema. I look forward to seeing some of the works that inspired his passion."

Anonymous said...

On Brocka...


Adrian Mendizabal said...

Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang is one of the best Filipino films ever made. T.T