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Sunday, June 14, 2009

As Freeing As “Independencia”

Stitched photos are taken from the film's trailer in this YouTube video.

I was one of the lucky few who caught the free screening of Raya Martin’s “Independencia” at the Shang last Independence Day. It was part of the whole day tribute by the French Embassy to the Filipino films who made it to Cannes Film Festival. Needless to say, the opus was a finalist in Un Certain Regard (Wikipedia translates this as “a certain outlook”) category, a first for a Filipino film.

Let me have a disclaimer here. “Independencia” was the first Raya Martin film that I watched, or better yet, experienced. I had the chance to catch his “Maicling pelicula nañg ysañg Indio Nacional” during the 2006 Rotterdam Film Festival but the programming was too impossible (I was in Utrecht then, 45 minutes away from the festival proper). I always missed the Mogwai screening of “Autohystoria” and “Now Showing” while Cinemanila 2008’s crazy schedule (or was it laziness?) made me miss “Next Attraction”.

For a first Raya Martin film, it was overwhelming for me. For sure, a film artist is born in him with this latest work.

“Independencia” begins at the turn of the century, when we were about to be invaded by the Americans. The first sequence gallantly boasts of an impressive production design and costume shot in black and white. It shows an ensemble of barrio folks in the advent of war. Bombings are booming everywhere. Amidst the impending chaos, a mother and her son (Tetchie Agbayani and Sid Lucero) are seen packing their belongings. They went through the jungle, settled in an abandoned nipa hut and started a living. They took care of an abused woman (Alessandra de Rossi) who is left alone in the forest and considered her as part of the family. The mother died, probably because of sickness, and the woman and the son became a couple who later on was gifted with a son (Mika Aguilos). As the family made their way to survive the serenity and isolation of their nest, they were bound to be chained again with violence, sickness, fear and eventually death.

The first thing I declared after watching the film is that Raya Martin, only 24, has the eye for visuals. Not most of our current Filipino directors, indie or not, have that gift. Recreating the look and feel of the time through costume, hair, make-up, music and the like is definitely one of the superior achievements of “Independencia”. Not to mention the speaking lines that are both minimal and believable. I have a feeling that our dear ancestors are smiling on their graves for giving this generation some snippets of the air they once breathed.

Acting is also a feat in the film. I’m wondering what Vilma Santos is feeling right now after rejecting the role that eventually went to Tetchie Agbayani. All the actors deliver in the film; from the young Mika Aguilos to Alessandra de Rossi’s controlled body language to Sid Lucero’s sustained pathos and Tetchie Agbayani’s powerful eye expression. Superlative.

There may be an absence of clearcut storytelling in “Independencia” but I guess that’s the price of enjoying a Raya Martin film. It sometimes feels like a prolonged short film. And the cardboard backdrop reminds me of Lars Von Trier’s ideology in “Dogville” and “Manderlay”. It doesn’t tell exactly what the deal is all about, how the turn of events can be interpreted as a local soap opera’s take on enduring the tides and embracing the light at the end of the tunnel. Is it about having an elusive independence? Is it just about a foretaste on the lives of the Filipinos back then? Is it about paying the cost of living away from war? Is it about the forest? It is grim and grim as it can be. It’s also anti-climactic. Forget the thought that you can relate with the characters. They are natural but they are living in a different time capsule.

My initial take was that Raya Martin needs a good scriptwriter to pinpoint the point. But then again, I also realized that it’s part of the whole experience and that the director’s magnificence is beyond an obvious storyline. “Independencia” is as freeing as whether you extremely like it or extremely dislike it. And that the freedom in me is shouting that I would always want to crave more of Raya Martin’s many versions of truth.

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