In the book “Huwaran/Hulmahan atbp: the film writings of Johven Velasco” which he edited, Joel David touched on the advent of independent films in Philippine cinema. From his discussion, it can be inferred that the main factor which triggered this advent is characteristically economical. The “increasing cost of film stock” (David 2009, 167) made filmmaking a seemingly expensive venture. This prompted the young, innovative filmmakers to search for and tap alternative technology (David 2009, 167) which costs cheaper and can keep their propulsion of film practice in the country.
The turn to digital tapes from celluloid lowered the cost of production as the latter may be “transferred to or blown up into film” (David 2009, 167). Either because of the repercussions of a large production cost in one’s profits, or simply because of the scarcity in resources in spite of the genuine ardency to make films, practicing independent film-making has indeed become lucrative and productive.
Filmmaking is largely, though not initially a commercial enterprise. The very word “industry” in the phrase “film industry” apparently connotes that this venture is being sustained chiefly because of its potential to make money. Coming from this prevalent idea about filmmaking, mostly young film practitioners, perhaps mainly because of their exposure to more unconventional perspectives, have come to introduce independent filmmaking. In a rough approximation, it was stated that Kidlat Tahimik’s “Perfumed nightmare” (Mababangaon Bangungot” was the first-ever indie film made in the country. Done in 1977, this was followed four years later by “Turumba,” also by Tahimik (Oller 2010, 3).” An obvious product of the dark days of Martial Law, the inception of indie films in the country is contextualized through the new filmmakers search for “new ways of defining Philippine cinema (Oller 2010, 15).”
Sylvia Havey sees independent films as
“forms of cinema that exist outside of a popular or commercial mainstream film industry. Independent films are usually characterized by a rejection of the aesthetic or ideological norms of the dominant industry and independent cinema is generally thought of as marginalized, alternative, or oppositional cinema within capitalist societies fighting for a voice relation to more economically and socially powerful forms of communication (Oller 2010, 2).”
Havey’s conception of independent films in general, as cited here in the thesis of Mikhail Oller has two main, underlying suppositions. First, the setting where cinemas are placed is a capitalist one; that is, a society primarily driven and governed by the goal of accumulating profit through the use of a capital. This goal is furthered by sustaining and expanding the accumulation through investing the profits as a new capital in a new industry. Second, this society is rife with social norms which relate to filmmaking in terms of aesthetics and ideology. These social norms serve as the starting point of films, whether mainstream or indie. These norms are part and parcel of the larger social situation where the films reside and which they definitely pass commentaries on. As an active discursive tool, films can propagate, question, modify, reinforce or revolt against these norms, and by extension, in the social situation where they are founded and sustained. It is in this situation that indie films erupt from and it is in relation to the social norms that indie films gain the sense of “being outside” — marginalized, alternative or oppositional. As a form of communication, these films may be considered as challenging the messages being conveyed and perpetuated in the films on the center.
It must be established that in terms of resources, indie films are not in an advantageous position compared to their counterparts in the mainstream. For one, they rely on a technology that is not as sophisticated as those which are used in the mainstream. They operate on a lower budget, partly accounting for the non-professionals or “non-celebrities” which are casted in their films. Aside from its effects in production, a lower budget will definitely affect the distribution and promotion of the film as well. It is therefore not illogical to claim that “indies” have lesser chance of being a commercial success (Eidsvik 1978, 283). As Eidsvik has observed and which is ostensible in the Philippine context, “(independent) filmmakers have come to rely on film festival as a way of publicizing their work (Eidsvik 1978, 284).”
The commercial aspect, though usually looked upon and considered when talking about films, must not exactly be seen as their most important function or motivation. In trying to understand where do indie films come from and what are their motivations, this aspect does not actually play much role. Their inattention to the commercial upshots may be the primary reason for their being “unique.” By not being directly held by large, mainstream film-producing and distributing companies, indie films gain that being “independent” which ultimately lead to the formation of their designation. As independent films, they have a greater freedom in terms of the content of their material and the way by which they can deliver this content. More often than not, the case with mainstream films is that the content of the films and their presentation must be amenable to the executive producer. This approval is definitely influenced by the commercial intention which is at the fore of their enterprise. The being “independent” of indie films can also be seen as a precedent case in delving at their motivations and intentions. Dodging the imminent task of defining these motivations, one significant thing must be reiterated: commercial interest, at least as of now, is not a primary consideration in the realm of independent filmmaking in the Philippines.
“Jay” as indie, a dangerously deceptive term
I will take “Jay” as an example in touching the possible motivations of indie films. It must not come as a surprise that “Jay” has received much acclaim, as stated in the test instructions. It is a masterful travesty of the dominant theory and practice of filmmaking, at least in the Philippines – films as generally cultural “commodities” (instead of artifacts) that are meant for public consumption (whatever its theme or messages is). As long as they are being watched, consumed by people, the films that are being made in the present will do. More observable in “Jay” is the mockery of the practice of mainstream films (specifically those which cloth themselves with the name “documentaries,” perhaps in order to separate themselves from the mainstream and the popular notions of “fantasy,” “escapism” and thus, “triviality” associated with the latter).
“Jay” is a movie that comprises in itself a “documentary” of the death of Jay. It is in this deceptive and crafty overlapping of the “movie” and the “documentary” that the film viewing experience is most disturbed and eventually, where the mockery of mainstream films most pronounced. It started with “Action” and then the “Ang susunod na palabas ay Rated PG” spiel. Suddenly, the female narrator, with her matter-of-factly and very firm naun kay Jay, lahat yan sa aming pagbabalik.” What happened there? It came under full light that everything that the film viewer has seen in all the preceding shots is part of a documentary, which is although part of the movie, is not similar to it.
And so from there begins the presentation of what works behind the scenes of films, of documentaries; the presentation of how things are presented in this medium, how they present the reality (talking about documentaries) which they claim to present.
We see the all that went with process which lead to the creation of the documentary, deceiving us at the onset of the film. Summed up in one word, the documentary which we have seen as a result of the process is, staged. Jay asked for permission from Nanay Luz in
“documenting” their struggle after Jay’s death. This “asking-for-permission” already foreshadows a “stagedness.” Definitely, the presence of the camera alters one’s “real” or natural behaviors of people. This may have motivated the “make-up” tendencies of most of the characters in the documentary produced and directed by Jay (Baron Geisler). Moreover, Jay is forever present in altering the natural behaviors of the people. He would usually give instructions to the people who “act” in or his interviewees in the documentary. Usually, these instructions refer to the lines which the characters are supposed to say in front of the camera. These instructions can be interpreted as being in line with what Jay wants his documentary to be in the end. This is further in line with the fact that the documentary will be televised or aired in the future and its producers want many people to watch this documentary. In one scene, while talking through the phone with his network boss perhaps, Jay shared apt his discovery of Nanay Luz’s “grudge” towards Edward, Jay’s ex-boyfriend and its potential to be tapped as a conflict of the “show.”
To the film viewer, this scene acts to remind them again that Jay’s data-gathering and documenting are all for a show, a literal reality show entitled “Silang mga naiwan.”. And this show has its own objectives and these certainly affect the angle which the documenting process will select. Apparently, no single representation, whatever medium it may take, can entirely capture “reality.” In that sense, every representation selects only a part of that reality, and this selection speaks of a slant, a bias.
Operating above the realm where this filmmaking bias is laid down, the movie “Jay” in a way challenges further our notions of mainstream films. We barely see artificial lights, most of the scenes were shot in actual locales and there were no notable exaggeration or romanticizing of human life. What I see is the representation of the common, everyday events, without all the glamour and the fanciful. In “reenacting” the polcemen’s ambush of the arrested suspect of Jay’s (the school teacher) murder, Jay (the producer) notices the panties hanging outside the door of the house. The “seizing-the-suspect” scene in the Divisoria-like area also depicts the everyday, the ordinary. The profusion of swear words is also in the opposite side of mainstream films. While the mainstream is teeming with dream come trues and surpassed family trials, the alternative magnifies the putang-ina or the nakasampay na panty. The characters’ dialogues within the film but outside the documentary were very much like our daily conversations. In terms of techniques and their effects, noticeable is the choppiness of the camera for some parts of the film, most notably in the “seize-the-suspect” scene. Again, the film viewers’ experience is disturbed. Hey, this is not how they do it in the mainstream? In the final scene of the film, Jay transformed into Baron Geisler, no longer the character but already the actor, muffing in his acting of a scene, and the director’s voice heard from the screen. As the film officially ends, we are left all at disturbance and perhaps, the accompanying insights of such disturbance. Why is there such disturbance? Because in viewing he film, we are bringing into that experience expectations which we have formed out of viewing mainstream films. The last scene precisely disturbs these expectations which we brought with ourselves as we begun viewing “Jay.” “Jay,” just like all of the movies we have encountered in our lifetime is not a close-ended material representing our lives and experiences as human beings. It just a movie, just a re-presentation of what is already there, of what we really experience out here, in the world where the movie theater is a part of. The film we just saw is different from our own realities; it poses a different level of reality.
The destructive, psychoanalytic reading
However, a much interesting, although self-distracting reading of this last scene is given light by Slavoj Zizek. More than being “returns to the real (Zizek 2006, 58), scenes like this are its opposite, “escapes from the real” (Zizek 2006, 59).
The underlying idea here of course is that films, as “fictions” are the exact vehicles of our deepest realities, the “fundamental fantasy” that enables us to come across with our deepest, most genuine desires (Zizek 2006, 59). In general, films are nothing but the real we are desperately avoiding or denying in the guise of an illusory spectacle, a fiction. Just like our dreams that expose us and sort of enable us to confront this real, films do as well, but through this exact form that makes it more bearable for us to deal with the flood of desires offered to us by films. Hence, the last scene in “Jay,” by admitting its fictitiousness and seemingly sending us back to our realities (our previous, common realities, i.e that I am sitting in this movie theater with a friend or something and that the storm goes on outside or something, depending on the viewing situation), also balks in daring us to confront the real veiled in the guise of the film. Nawalan ng bayag ang “Jay,” enabling us to engage with the troubling realities we disturbingly keep in our hearts, enabling us to confront them, even only subconsciously in the entire span of the movie, only to designate these realities as mere shots in a “fictitious” film, not worthy of deep contemplation after the credits roll. “It’s just a film” is probably our retort and this only finalizes our yet another fall and failure in enacting our desires, even only with the aid of a phantasmatic screen that is the film.
Daniel, Joel, ed. Huwaran/hulmahan atbp: the film writings of Johven Velasco. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.
Eidsvik, Charles. 1978. Cineliteracy. New York; Random House.
Oller, Mikhail Paolo. 2010. Independent films and the Philippine society. Undergraduate thesis, University of the Philippines Baguio.
Zizek, Slavoj. 2006. How to read Lacan. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.