A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Film Review: ALIENASYON

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Screenplay and Direction: Arnel Mardoquio

Cinematography:  Arnel Barbarona

Editor:  Chuck Gutierrez

Sound Design:  Andrew Millallos

Original Music:  Jesse Lucas

Producer:  Quezon City Development Foundation in cooperation with –

The Talent Factory, Inc., Skyweaver Productions, Red Motion, Bord Werkz, UPLB Office for Initiatives in Culture and Arts, PelikuLAB and Voyage Studios

In 1975, the late award-winning British filmmaker, Ken Russell, known for his flamboyant and controversial films (Women in Love, The Devils, Altered States) directed  Tommy, based on The Who’s rock opera album.  One unforgettable scene in this musical film shows garbage literally coming out of a TV screen as  a lead character watches a trashy television program.  This satirical film takes on greater meaning in our garbage-laden popular culture in the post-modern era.

My mind recalled this scene right after watching Arnel Marodoquio’s recent film Alienasyon which is the filmmaker’s alternative offering in a film-scape dominated by all the garbage being produced by our ratings-hungry TV networks and profit-obsessed mainstream movie-making industry.

Mardoquio positions himself as a filmmaker who would oppose toxic films that not only insult the intelligence of filmgoers but make them consumers of trash.  As with his previous films (Hospital Boat, Crossfire, Sheika, Ang Tigmo sa Akong Pagpauli), Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim) – that now constitute an impressive filmography produced within a relatively short six-year timeframe since his debut film, Hunghong sa Yuta in 2008  –  Alienasyon challenges the Filipino film viewers to shift from what is seductive to their appetites to what is good for their soul.

Alienasyon’s great worth as a film is that it confronts the film viewers with the truth of their alienation from a whole range of their lives’ facets:  from the elderly’s wisdom gained through the vicissitudes of a life lived fully, their lifeworld so utterly colonized by capitalist incursions, nature’s gifts of lights and shadows, the depth of meaning in silence and from memories that would allow them to hold on to the treasures passed on to their descendants.  Alienasyon warns them of a possible descent to idiocy if they will not resist popular culture’s surrender to the demands of the market. Given all these, this film is a gem worth the patronage of all of us who love to go to the cinema.

Without being didactic about it, Mardoquio’s film surfaces once more  Tommy’s satiric point two generations later, made more relevant today by the easier and speedier access to what is available in both mass and social media.  We can only be grateful that there are active Pinoy filmmakers like Mardoquio – inevitably working mainly in the independent film circles – who are able to produce this kind of films even as they fiercely struggle to find an audience who not only admires such films but will pay the price at the box-office to make their advocacy fruitful (for their own financial consideration) and sustainable (for the sake of the Filipino film industry and cultural patrimony).

With Alienasyon, Mardoquio took a big leap from his past engagements as filmmaker. Before this film, he tackled mainly the Mindanawon landscape; now he moves into the very heart of the Republic by making a film about the time when what is now parts of Quezon City used to be rural, agricultural communities. The film’s budget seems to be a little bit more than what he could ordinarily mobilize which meant a little less headache finding the needed resources and a more solid production design. He has taken a less combative stance in terms of casting Mindanawon actors who could not boast of any level of celebrity-hood; while Alienasyon’s main actors are not megastars with legions of screaming fans, nonetheless, they do have a following among cineastes.

There is minimalism throughout the film which traverses the film landscape of the likes of the French documentary filmmaker Philip Groning, and the legendary favorite among the film art world but who still manage to make films in Hollywood, namely, Terrence Malick.  In Groning’s Into the Great Silence (2005), the lavishly awarded docu film on the life of Carthusian monks in a monastery in the French Alps, one hears only the sound of silence.  Exceptions are the sounds of nature and when the monks chant in the chapel or laugh as they roll down the hills of their monastery.

Malick’s films (especially the multi-awarded Tree of Life released in 2011), follows the same path of evoking strong human feelings by way of interplaying light and shadow as well as silence and intimate conversations.  This experimental drama film views life through the prism of the main character’s memory from childhood.  Malick’s singularly deliberative style proves to be unrewarding to some viewers fed with action-packed blockbusters, but for the patient moviegoer he offers an emotional as well as a visual treat.

So also Mardoquio’s style as can be fully appreciated in Alienasyon.  One does not rush through the process of viewing this film demanding instant gratification; one is fully satisfied only if one yields to the film’s delights as if one savors the taste of a delicious meal.  Neither the meal nor the film is enjoyed if one goes on a fast-track mode.  The patience, however, is fully rewarded because at the end of viewing this film, one is convinced it will be a long, long while before one encounters the pure delight of an extraordinary cinematic piece.

And yet Alienasyon’s plot is as ordinary as it can get:  Paulino Abenoja (played by Jess Mendoza as a young man and Spanky Manikan as a senior citizen) was born to a family of peasants tilling a piece of land as tenants of the Diliman Estate, owned by the Mendoza family.  He and his brother Manuel (played by Manuel Chua, Jr.) fought as guerillas during the Second World War; Manuel was killed before the war ended.

Later on, Paulino married Manuel’s ex-girlfriend, Ramona (played by Meryll Soriano).  When President Manuel Quezon decided to set up Quezon City as capital of the Republic, the lives of those living in these communities of Diliman were transformed as it became the campus of the University of the Philippines. Paulino and Ramona finished their studies at UP. Hired as professors, they were provided a house inside the campus.  After retirement, Paulino is served an administrative order of eviction from their house.  To add to the symbolic uprooting of Paulino’s family from their abode, the eviction notice is served after a typhoon when trees that grew around the house were uprooted.

The power of Mardoquio’s story-telling is in the juxtaposition of the intimate story of the Abenoja family with the unfolding significant historical events defining the post-colonial character of our nation-state. In this film, the personal is political; the portrayal of everyday lives is as significant as the reference to our country’s historical grand moments included in traditional textbooks.  The main characters make choices as they are impacted by decisions from the top, even as in the end, they suffer the consequences of these harsh decisions.  In the in-between, however, they assert their agencies in dealing with life-and-death options, some of which haunt them till the end of their lives.  The dream sequence in the film’s opening scenes show us how trauma can last a lifetime.

The film insinuates Abenoja’s engagement with theatre as a UP professor.  In one scene, he and his wife watch a student theatre group rehearse a play that he wrote dealing with the atrocities of the Japanese soldiers who victimized civilians during WWII.  While this scene brings us back to his past as a guerilla in the 1940s, it brings us forward to what would happen to the next generation with their own context of struggle in the late 60s and 70s.  Historical moments are thus connected in this play-within-a-film segment, as the theatrical production’s staging parallels closely the dula-tula or street theatre of the martial law years. In a constant flow of images, Alienasyon reminds the Filipino viewers of their country’s alienation through the years even as they see Paulino’s constant struggle to assert his own self-determination.

Mardoquio’s vision to craft this powerful film is served very well by his cast and crew.  There is the seamless interfacing of all members of the cast; the viewer is totally taken by the high level of ensemble acting.  Everyone’s performance in this film deserves acting nominations especially Tessie Thomas (the senior Ramona), Art Acuña (Paulino’s father), Shamaine Buencamino (mother) and Meryll Soriano.

Best of all is Spanky Manikan; there is no doubt that his best performance ever as a stage and film actor is playing Paulino in this film. From the film’s beginning to its end, Manikan dominates the screen with his sheer talent.  There are few words to speak as the screenplay is limited to a few pages; Manikan does not need the words. He acts with his whole body in silence.  But so much more is communicated loud and clear.  His Paulino is the quintessential Filipino Everyman who bears the burden stoically and manages to survive, no matter what. Watching him is seeing a face marked with lines of life; a life lived through suffering and tears, but also laughter and love.

Arnel Barbarona, the film’s cinematographer captures Manikan’s face and the rest of the cast in varying shades, mostly lit by natural light. When the contrast of light and darkness is quite intense in some scenes, Barbarona opts for Rembrant’s lighting technique of maximizing a rich, dark and transparent background.  The images of the opening dream sequence can all be put on pause and each image would be as poetic as anything painted by the Dutch painter.  If the camera is the tool that defines the film’s magic, Barbarona ably assists Mardoquio in crafting a work of art.

All the film’s key crew members all contribute to the making of this astonishing film: Chuck Gutierrez and his unobtrusive editing; Andrew Milallos whose sound design captured not just the sound of silence but those of nature (water flowing, canopy of trees swaying, cicadas singing); Rom Factolerin’s production design (a major challenge as the film goes back to the 30s-50s and given a limited budget) and Jesse Lucas’ original music that helps to keep the film’s meditative, contemplative mood.  Alienasyon is truly the antithesis to TV networks teleseryes with all their tendency towards excess, thanks to the desire of everyone in the cast and crew to opt for the opposite pole of filmmaking.

The cynical will claim that this kind of filmmaking is foreign to the Filipino, that it follows the path of the European film artists especially those whose films are only shown during  film festivals or in art film houses.  Not true, as Mardoquio – who have been immersed among the lives of Mindanao’s indigenous peoples – would posit.  His filmmaking is inspired by the magical world of the Lumad who live in the serene and mystery-filled uplands which are far from the noise and garbage of the lowlands, unless the highlands have attracted the greed and violence of the urban jungles.

In this sense, Mardoquio echoes the words of the novelist, Nicholas Sparks.  “We sit silently and watch the world around us. This has taken a lifetime to learn. It seems only the old are able to sit next to one another and not say anything and still feel content. The young, brash and impatient, must always break the silence. It is a waste, for silence is pure. Silence is holy. It draws people together because only those who are comfortable with each other can sit without speaking. This is the great paradox.”

Go watch Alienasyon if it comes to your nearest Cineplex.  Savour a film that rejects popular culture’s garbage, celebrates the wisdom of ancestors and the importance of history and helps us rediscover the deep mystery of silence. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)

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