And the names and faces of the tyrants change But poverty, pain and murder remains And the voices of truth are locked up in chains Darkness remains, freedom in flames
—The Jerks, Rage
In Lino Brocka's big-city melodrama Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), set at the height of Ferdinand Marcos's 1972-1986 military-backed dictatorship, construction worker Julio (Rafael Roco, Jr.) and his colleagues are subjected to a form of labor abuse nicknamed "taiwan": if at the end of the working day they want to receive their salary, they have to buy it from their employer by waiving 10% of the money they are owed. Moreover, on a nominal daily salary of 4 PHP per employee, the foreman takes 1,50 PHP for himself as a commission (possibly a job-brokerage fee, although the exact reason for the deduction is never explained in the film and the employees who ask too many questions to the foreman end up being fired or having workplace accidents). Finally, if Julio and the other construction workers have no place to live in Manila and wish to sleep in the construction site, they can do so in exchange for yet another deduction from their salary. This way, after spending the whole working day not-so-metaphorically breaking their backs in an extremely unsafe work environment, they are left with a few coins to buy themselves a pack of cigarettes and a handful of rice.
Set in the mid-to-late 1990s, Lav Diaz's 160-minute Genus Pan demonstrates that very little has changed from the Marcos era depicted in Manila in the Claws of Light, as most Filipino workers are still living hand to mouth. The twenty-minute prologue of Genus Pan—which shows miners Baldo (Nanding Josef), Paulo (Bart Guingona), and Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) receiving their hard-earned wages from the foreman and preparing to return to their native Hugaw island for a few weeks' leave—makes it painfully clear. For three months, fifty-something Baldo, fifty-something Paulo and twenty-something Andres have lived "like rats" (their own words), digging tunnels underground and hunting for gold, just like the members of the Santelmo family do in the claustrophobia-inducing, flashlight-lit mining sessions in the bowels of the earth that punctuate Diaz's fresco of 1971-1987 Philippine history, Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004).1 A wrong pick stroke, a wrong move, and Baldo, Paulo and Andres could have been buried alive at any moment: they have seen it happen so many times over the course of their three-month contract, and they have even begun to suspect that some of these deaths were no accidents at all, since the victims often were the very same workers who dared to complain about unfair salaries and unsafe working conditions at the mine.
At the end of this hellish work period, it's pay time, but the exploitative ordeal for the three protagonists has only just started. First, the manager of the mining company demands a share of the miners' salary to cover the job-brokerage fee and the accommodation expenses, plus an extra fee if the workers want their stuff to be looked after during their leave. Second, the military authorities in Hugaw island—the Captain (Popo Diaz) and the Sergeant (Noel Sto. Domingo), controlling the land on behalf of the Vargas family—want a share of the miners' salary too and, in order to obtain it, they are willing to kidnap, imprison, torture and kill in cold blood. Not to mention a whole bunch of (mis)informers, fear-mongers, and petty crooks who make a living by exploiting their connections with the soldiers in Hugaw island to extort howsoever little money the local people have left after being bled dry by the powers that be.2 What makes the situation even more tragic is that, as seen at the very beginning of the film, exploited worker Baldo aggressively demands from his friends and fellow villagers Paulo and Andres a share of their salary as a job-brokerage fee (apparently, it was Baldo who convinced the manager of the mining company to hire Paulo and Andres). In sum, in Genus Pan as in Manila in the Claws of Light, in the Marcos era as in the post-1986 democratic Philippines, you are exploited and you have to accept it. You have to keep your head down and your mouth shut, otherwise you are as good as gone. In order to survive, the only thing you can do, since you can't beat the exploiters, is to serve them until you slowly become an exploiter yourself ("With our condition here, it's survival of the fittest. Use your brain, not your emotions!", Paulo warns Andres upon seeing the young man's anger against the status quo and desire to rebel).
Over this extremely bleak background, the plot of Genus Pan unfolds, following Baldo, Paulo, and Andres's homeward journey from the mine and their struggle to behave like human beings in the face of the beast-like violence, egoism and greed displayed by almost every inhabitant of Hugaw island—a society that, one century after the 1898 Declaration of Philippine Independence from the Spanish colonizers, remains feudal and predatorily exploitative in nature, thereby showing, in Diaz's own words, "this endlessly-repeating cycle that we [Filipinos] seem unable to break":
"...the Spaniards came, the Americans came, the Japanese came... and, tragically, after centuries of being exploited, tortured, imposed upon, some evil power within us has become the oppressor. It is the typical post-colonial scenario: after the colonizers left the Philippines, the colonized grappled with their own identity and ended up copying what the colonizers had done. So people who have the power now in the Philippines are mostly Filipinos exploiting their own people. There still are plenty of multinational corporations of course, exploiting our environment, our labor, our weaknesses. But I think that it’s not a matter of the outside world invading us anymore, it’s a threat from within. It’s the colonizer within us, the imperialist within us."3
Indeed, as Diaz implies in Genus Pan's radio broadcast about the differences and similarities between the various genera of hominids, there can be no socio-political revolution, and therefore no actual change in the exploitative status quo, without an evolution of the Homo Sapiens species, that is to say without people taking a long, honest look inside themselves and seriously questioning what means to be a human being, what separates mankind from its closest living relative, the chimpanzee of the genus Pan. In accordance with Diaz's didactic aims and penchant for telling stories about concrete, everyday struggles, in Genus Pan the big, philosophical question about the ontology of the human is broken down into a series of more specific, down-to-earth sub-questions relating to the three protagonists' physical and spiritual journey through the forest of Hugaw island in order to reach home safely with their hard-earned wages. For instance, will Baldo return the money he took from Paulo and Andres via the job-brokerage-fee scheme? And, regardless of what Baldo will decide to do, will Paulo and Andres forgive their friend for what they call "his extortion act"? In the immense darkness and solitude of the virgin forest, will Baldo and Paulo manage to confess the terrible crime they committed four decades earlier, so that they will finally put an end to a life of guilt and paranoia? Upon his return home, will Andres be intimidated by the threats of the powers that be and stop investigating the death of his brother at the hands of the soldiers on the payroll of the aggressively territorial Vargas family?
Focusing on the latter question, the last sixty minutes of Genus Pan expose the "dirt" of "Hugaw" island4 and indict the brutal ways of the kleptocrat ruling class and its henchmen, so that the dilemmas around which the film revolves become which side the characters are on and what are they going to do about the oppressive feudal system they live in. What are Andres and his fellow villagers willing to risk for truth to triumph and for the wrongdoers to pay for their crimes? Who will have the courage to put his/her own life on the line to make up for injustice and bring about a change in the order of things? Who will surrender to the prevailing madness and go with the flow? Moving from the fictional 1990s world of the narrative to the present-day real world in which the movie was made and shown (a move that is not often made in the case of Diaz's cinema unfortunately, as critical discourse tends to privilege stylistic issues over anything else), these sure are resonant questions. In fact, over the curse of Rodrigo Duterte's presidency (2016-ongoing), police and military brutality, and cybercrime, anti-drug and anti-terrorism laws are being commonly used to intimidate and silence human-rights activists, politicians, reporters and artists criticizing the misrule and corruption of the Philippine establishment—the most blatant example being that of senator Leila de Lima, incarcerated on fake drug charges for denouncing the extrajudicial massacres perpetrated during Duterte's ongoing Drug War (Leila de Lima's real-life case is alluded to en passant in Genus Pan through the fictional character of Aling Imang). Not to mention the fact that the TV channel of ABS-CBN—a Filipino media conglomerate hostile to Duterte, and a creative and financial supporter of Diaz's cinema since 2015—has recently been forced to go off the air due to presidential pressures. Considering that the previous time ABS-CBN went off the air was at the beginning of Marcos's military-backed dictatorship, Genus Pan appears to be a film more urgent than ever with its firm exhortation to the Filipino people (and to people all around the world, for that matter) to never give up the fight against exploiters and oppressors.