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Raya Martin and His Visions of Postcolonial Realities

An in-depth look at the films of Filipino filmmaker Raya Martin.

The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is hosting a retrospective on Raya Martin, running October 19 - 27, 2012.


Above: Raya Martin. Photo by Buccino de Ocampo.

Raya Martin’s multiplicity as a key filmmaker in experimental cinema in the Philippines remains a complex subject to undertake. His radical and polarizing films earned him not only a reputation as a visionary of the film form, but also a mask of an aesthete, an art-for-art’s sake director detached from the social paradigm of Philippine cinema. These assertions led me to reassess Raya Martin’s career path to look into his films in terms of his varied style, his appropriations as a result of his post-colonial inquiries; and to position him within the ideological paradigm of Philippine cinema.

Raya Martin’s filmography can be divided into three modes based on style: documentary (Island at the End of the World [2004], Autohystoria [2007], Next Attraction [2008] and Now Showing [2008]], filmic (A Short Film About Indio Nacional [2005], Long Live Philippine Cinema! [2007], and Independencia [2009]), and abstract (Track Projections [2007], Ars Colonia [2011] and Buenas Noches Espana [2011]). This categorization facilitates a thorough elucidation of Raya Martin’s motivations for his highly experimental methods which others may find hard to break through.

DOCUMENTARY MODE

Above: Island at the End of the World.

Martin’s documentary mode in filmmaking originated from his experiments with Island at the End of World. Island is Martin’s most geopolitically rooted film in his oeuvre. It explores the marginalized community of the Itbayat, an indigenous group located in the northernmost part of the Philippines. Martin’s nonintrusive style in recording their way of life is reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s realism wherein the camera is at its most humanistic position, illuminating the frailties of human life and the universal truths embedded within it. This allows Martin to paint a seagoing village detached from the modern world, yet suffering from the institutional repression experienced by most marginalized communities in the Philippines.

Above: Island at the End of the World.

Island also introduced Raya Martin’s interest in post-colonial inquiry as he highlighted the people’s recollection of their land during the Spanish occupation, their culture of siesta, their problems with land ownership, and their Catholicism as central veins in their culture. The Itbayat community is predominantly composed of old people drawn towards old beliefs, whose women are terrorized by their drunken husbands. What is perhaps most striking in the film is Martin’s interest to the intellectual culture of the region. The talk with the librarian and the postman gave an insight into the isolation of the region; their culture of book lending, and the many political aspects about the government presence in the region. Island would be the first time Martin ended a film with poetic overtures using shots from nature, a method which he would repeat in his other films. These overtures are Martin’s way of synthesizing and condensing the density of his images. It re-situates the viewers to the familiar scenes of the everyday life, and returns them to the photographic source of the image.

Above:  Autohystoria.

The aesthetics of Island at the End of World (Isla sa Dulo ng Mundo) would later be replicated in Martin's three other documentary films and, to a certain extent, in the first half of A Short Film About Indio Nacional, with Autohystoria as the diametrical opposite of Island in terms of its use of camera. Autohystoria somewhat connects aesthetically to Island because of its identifying mark as a realist-motivated film. But its use of camera is very non-humanistic: stalking the subject, trapping the subject in its frames, and killing the subject in the end. It is a highly modernist film, yet it lacks the multiplicity of its subject matter that Island has. It somehow only alludes conceptually to its subject matter, the Bonifacio brothers—making it a conceptual film—and reasserts the significance and political dimension of other filmic elements such as the space, the film camera, and film sound. In Island, the multiplicity of Martin's subject, the Itbayat, allows him to use the documentary style to paint a community. In this manner, it embeds the film within the mass-based dimension of Philippine cinema. In Autohystoria, the documentary style is detached from the social sphere, limiting its social embedding. Autohystoria’s monotonic view of the ebb and flow of the cosmopolitan space can be viewed in solidarity with the many avant-garde films about conceiving the sense of place of a city. The alienating location of the road, the bustling cars, the cemented walls of the building facades that are all products of the cosmopolitan vein of Manila’s city culture, shape the spatial dimension of the film's opening. Autohystoria houses monotony in such a way that the process elucidates questions about the possible extensions of urban space to cinema and also the extension of the urban space to the revolutionary consciousness of its people.

Above: Autohystoria.

The film’s political reference—the killing of Andres Bonifacio and his brother Procopio Bonifacio, both historical figures of the armed revolution in the 1890s Philippines—enlarges Autohystoria’s dimension from a mere exploration of urban space to the reassessment of the past and present revolutions. The prominent positioning of a famous high tower monument, which contains the figures of Andres Bonifacio and the 1890s revolutionary front, surrounded by a highly urbanized space, alludes to the current revolutionary landscape in the Philippines. It shows of how modernity traps the ideological consciousness within the circularity and redundancy of urban life. The offensive positioning of the camera in the latter part of the film gives a sense of the visual media can terrorize new revolutionaries to a fault. The movement from the city to the forest at the end of the film retells the usual tale of contemporary leftists taken hostage in the city to be killed in rural areas, which is integral to Autohystoria’s political layer.

Above: Next Attraction.

The conceptual fabrication of history, the revolutions, and its many tangents in Autohystoria appears very differently in his two films: Next Attraction and Now Showing. Next Attraction was made in the documentary vein of Autohystoria and Island at the End of the World. What is different about Next Attraction is that, instead of distilling ideas about the revolutions and its perplexing histories, it rediscovers the dichotomous concept of filmic and the non-filmic processes and places both practices in the hierarchy of contemporary Philippine cinema. The active use of digital camera in the film, which documents the behind the scenes of a fictitious film production that uses a 16mm Arri camera, assimilates two modes of filmmaking practice in the Philippines: the traditional celluloid cinema and the digital cinema. Next Attraction somewhat gives importance on the role of each camera in the exposition of truth and in the creation of an economic divide between two practices. The BTS (Behind the Scenes) camera, or the digital one, records the activities of the film production with an observational eye reflective of current social-realist filmmaking practices in the country. Its use of social realism raises a deconstructing gaze to the illusory grasp of the 16mm tradition predominantly used in commercial studios in the country. The restrictions in the 16mm film production—its intricate demands in film stock technology and also its high requirement for manpower as observed in the film—give it a limitation to record reality, and above all, to expose the truth. The digital camera records these elements more freely and with very few restrictions, thereby positioning it higher in the hierarchy of independent cinema in the Philippines.

Above: Now Showing.

These allusion-based and conceptual assertions of the film camera and the filmmaking traditions in Philippine cinema in Next Attraction would then be expanded in Raya Martin’s magnum opus, Now Showing. It is a five-hour film about a coming-of-age story of young girl living in Manila divided into three epochs or modes of filmmaking: the 1950s, the 1990s, and the mid-2000s. Its documentary style is uniquely periodized and highly observational. What separates Now Showing from the other three films is Martin’s intent to define each epoch with a stylized use of the camera, illuminating the differences in its milieu. It traces the development of filmmaking practice from amateur to skilled parallel to the development of Rita, the main character, from her innocent childhood to her sexual awakening during her late teens. This embeds the film in a society of transformation. Martin’s use of found footage in the middle part of the film, a film by Octavio Silos entitled Tunay na Ina (1939), alludes to the inaccessibility of today’s film culture to that lost era in the past.

FILMIC MODE

The distinctive documentary style of Now Showing, which borders on appearing like home video movies, achieves a startling picture of how realism can be situated within the everyday. In his three films, A Short Film about the Indio Nacional, Long Live Philippine Cinema, and Independencia, Raya uses the filmic mode characterized by his use of drama to create a fictional world appropriated from the colonial past. With the exception of Long Live Philippine Cinema, a comedic critique of the current commercial cinema in the Philippines, this mode can be viewed as his re-connection with traditional cinema. His usage of all the elements in filmmaking creates a tapestry of the two historical epochs of revolutions: the 1898 revolution against the Spanish in Indio Nacional, and the 1930s resistance to American imperialists in Independencia.

Above: A Short Film About the Indio Nacional.

In Short Film about the Indio Nacional, the enigma is about the origins of the revolutionary consciousness of three entities: a young bell ringer who witnessed an eclipse, a young Katipunero (or revolutionary) who got sick, and an actor who refused to leave town and witnesses the falling of stars from the sky. Indio Nacional opens with a woman waking up from slumber next to her husband. The scene, shot in a long take form, plays on the documentary layer of Martin’s other works. Her husband wakes up and tells the woman a story about a boy and an old man alluding to the present-day problems of Philippine society: a struggling post-colonial country with a dismal political landscape of “false leaders who pretended to know the law.” The man's story ends with a succinct note: “Not all people are asleep during the time of our forefathers.” The film then shifts to the iconic short movie, A Short Film about the Indio Nacional, which runs for the rest of the film.

Above: A Short Film about the Indio Nacional.

Indio Nacional's perfectly composed and arresting images create a totality in filmic experience. The visual impact of its images mount perfectly with its musical score acclimating to a crescendo; and, at one point, during the scene of the eclipse, evokes the masterworks of filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr. Indio Nacional's melancholic imagery of the old world fits the awakening consciousness of its characters. The three characters that have awakened from their slumbers—the young bell ringer, the young Katipunero, and the young actor—are all connected through their visions of the sky. It was as if they are summoned together by the same visual force that appears to them, returning the viewers to the transformative power of image and of cinema.

Above: Independencia.

The powerful monochromatic images of Indio Nacional will be again be reconstituted in Independencia. This film reflects on the colonial attitudes during the American colonial regime. Martin drapes it with studio aesthetics to situate the story within the period of its appropriation, the 1920s to 1930s Philippines, when studio-filmmaking in the country was at its height. In the vast rhetorical canvas of Independencia, two attitudes were observed: resistance in the first part and resignation in the second part. These halves are cut by an intervening video insert featuring a fictitious tale of American troops gunning down innocent people who did questionable deeds. It was this part that Raya Martin demonizes the imperialist Americans reasserting the political and post-colonial dimensions of Independencia.

The film positions its first part, about the flight of the mother and son from the village to the forest, as a sign of resistance. American forces colonized the Filipino people by teaching English and the American way of life to them, a neocolonialist strategy for usurping a nation. This is very different from what the Spaniards did, for they used predominantly militaristic force through religion to colonize native Filipinos during the 1500s. In a way, the Americans weaved their culture within the Filipino cultural sphere, transforming a Spanish-colonized country into a Americanize neo-colony. The mother in Independencia is aware of these transformative forces and flees with her son to the forest to prevent the possible infiltration of neocolonialist ideas and to resist from the violent and terrorizing grasp of the American usurper. The son finds a young woman in the forest who was raped and impregnated by the Americans. The mother is doubtful about the woman's obscure origins; but soon, the mother died of an unknown sickness unable to witness the birthing of the woman's child.

Above: Independencia.

In the last part of Independencia there is a formation of a family unit: The son and the woman rear the child with care and construct a reality of rural life within him. Yet the child’s curiosity of the outside world leads him to further explore the forested region surrounding their home. This hints at the child’s conception of an imagined world exterior to his reality, but it remains inaccessible for him because of his father’s over-protectiveness. The child's exploration of the forest leads to the downfall of the family, with the father dying after a storm and the child escaping from the colonial usurpers. Martin's iconic ending concisely portrays one of the many endless ramifications of the broken Filipino consciousness. There is resistance felt when the child flees from the American troops during this final part. It is an instinctual type of resistance, the one that comes naturally. But because of his innocence and lack of knowledge to fight back, being only a child, there is no other way but to jump resigning his life for his nation. 

Above: Independencia.

ABSTRACT MODE

While Independencia and Indio Nacional deserve merit for their completeness as films displaying Raya Martin’s impressive command of the filmic language, the director's other films like Track Projections, Ars Colonia, and Buenas noches, España add another less complete but no less rich dimension to his career. Track Projections, Ars Colonia, and Buenas noches, España are Martin’s most experimental and least accessible works. However, what is surprising about these films is their percussive nature to borrow their subjects from the historical sphere of his previous films, if not from cinema itself (as in Track Projections’ reference to the rolling of celluloid film in a 16-mm fashion).

Above: Ars Colonia.

The color play in Ars Colonia and excessive use of repeating monochromatic shots in Buenas noches, España are extended reflections carefully designed to re-imagine old visual processes Martin used in his other films. Looking closely at these works, one can trace back their visual origins to Martin's animated caricatures in Indio Nacional and to the colorization of the mountain in the last part of Independencia. Ars Colonia’s looming image of a sole soldier walking at sea towards an island extends the stylization into a postcolonial image. In Buenas noches, España, his extreme use color fields and repeating frames ruptured old styles and conventional aesthetics of traditional Philippine cinema and defied audiences' expectation. Its reference to a soldier teleporting from the Philippines to Spain links the two films and extends further the imagery of the post-colonial relations between Philippines and Spain after a hundred or so years after the 1898 revolution.

Above: Buenas noches, España.

SOCIAL PARADIGMS

In connection with Raya Martin’s work as a filmmaker is the problem of situating his work within the social paradigm of Philippine society. In his fond recollection of his experience with his first film, Island at the End of the World, Martin wrote:

Hearing ceaselessly about the island from social science professors and seeing its charming scenery in pictures, I had decided to take loads of tapes and a digital video camera (my parents had bought it for me as a graduation present) for an almost guerilla shooting.1

The intensity of the Batan image captured Raya Martin with such force that he dropped all the possibilities of the day to surrender himself to cinema. However, the word “guerrilla” comes up rather piquant. In fact, the very group of filmmakers that exclusively uses the term “guerrilla shooting” would criticize him as too apolitical, too art-for-art’s-sake, and an outsider to the dominantly socio-politically charged, neorealist, and Third-World-bounded film culture.

In the Philippines, aesthetic or political-aesthetic endeavors are reserved only to a small group of filmmakers, often working at the fringes of Philippine cinema. They rarely survive financially; yet they cling to scraps of government funding and support from international funding institutions. Experimental filmmaking in the Philippines, to which Raya Martin and Lav Diaz are the flag bearers, suffers from institutional repression as they are subjected to bureaucratic forces shaped by hegemonic culture of the ruling class and also to the censorship of state especially to sex-themed films. Local experimental films are also subjected to the critique of core leftists who do not acknowledge films with radical forms. This evidently shows what French film critic Nicole Brenez identifies as the schism between art cinema (the cinema of forms) and ‘political’ cinema (the cinema of insurgence).

I refuse to consider Raya Martin as purely an aesthete, a socially detached filmmaker, whose films are purely self-indulgent. The leftist groups champions films that elucidate social realities of marginalized people in the most realist form. The socio-politically dedicated filmmaking in the Philippines serves effectively as the backbone for the resurgence in independent filmmaking. It has been the dominant model for independent filmmaking in the Philippines since the 70s with Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, and Mike de Leon as founding fathers of this movement. In a way, leftist camps have always associated the commercial triumphs of 1970s-1980s local cinema as the evidence for the success of the social realist filmmaking movement in empowering the public sphere to reconnect with their nationalistic roots. Their goal was to revive this mass-based cinema in the spirit of independent filmmaking through the use of the digital camera.

But what leftist groups overlooked within their context was Raya Martin’s resistance to the contemporary cultural hegemony. This hegemony was the result of transformation of Philippine society during the 90s when its progressive national cinema was replaced by commercial machinery with an assembly line that restricts creative freedom. Subversion, to the point of aversion, defaces this dominant and lethargic form of local cinema, colliding head-on with its visual and narrative structure. Martin's explorations of alternative and subversive routes of aesthetic experiences led him to shape his films politically and have it rooted within the colonial past and contemporary issues of revolutions in society.

Raya Martin’s oblique reinterpretations of Philippine’s national history is a form of covert insurgence against popular forms. Covert subversion in filmmaking reassesses the internal battles of individuals within a transforming society through emotional, philosophical, and spiritual catharsis. This is very different from overt subversion which resorts to a social realist and propagandist filmmaking with high commitment to social-political foregrounding, guerrilla style, and Soviet montage editing. Raya Martin’s disarming style in portraying history in his films, and also his reconstruction of familiar narratives into new ones, reaffirms his covert and subversive intent to revolt against this hegemonic front. This has always been his political commitment to New Philippine Cinema.

ENDINGS

Raya Martin’s films are works of a politically and aesthetically committed filmmaker. His concern has often been, to a point, ruminative of the past and present Philippine society. They are reflections about history, revolutions, cinema, people, and perhaps the staggering sorrow of the Filipinos from its colonial past. Martin’s baffling oeuvre and innovative style paint for us his multifaceted impact to the Philippine cinema discourse. He extended it in such a way that he risked the faint and sensitive mask he carried all these years in order to tell and retell his visions about the postcolonial realities of my country. His films are separate entities of their own, but they are connected seamlessly, functioning all together, forming a dazzling tapestry of nation who has lost its consciousness in the tides of time.

Above: Autohystoria.


http://www.criticine.com/feature_article.php?id=19

I’m reading some alluring writing on Martin lately. Hopefully I get to see his feature films soon.
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Nice work!

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