'Tribu' and 'Pisay' show starkly different sides of Filipino youth
Vicente Garcia Groyon (groyon)
"Tribu", directed by Jim Libiran, and "Pisay", directed by Auraeus Solito, both of which emerged from the 3rd Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, will be screened at this year's Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea. These two films, both about young Filipinos, are among the best of the most recent crop of independent digital movies from the Philippines. The Pusan festival will run from Oct. 4 to 11.
The name "Cinemalaya" is a contraction of the words "cinema" and "malaya", a Filipino word meaning "free". For the last three years, the Cinemalaya festival has been providing seed money grants of PhP500,000 (about US$10,000) to ten promising movie concepts each year. Festival rules stipulate that the directors must not have directed more than three feature-length films, and the last three years have seen many first-timers taking a crack at directing.
As with much independent cinema, Cinemalaya films offer stories, characters, and treatments not to be found in mainstream Philippine cinema, which is usually represented by genre movies -- comedies, romances, action, melodramas, fantasy, and horror films; often a combination of all. "Tribu" and "Pisay" show strikingly different pictures of the Philippines -- different from those shown by mainstream cinema, and different from each other, as well.
The name "Pisay" is slang for Philippine Science High School, a real high school in Quezon City that focuses its curriculum on the sciences. Students who wish to attend Pisay must undergo a difficult entrance exam for admission and maintain a high grade point average to remain as students for the rest of the four years of high school. The brightest teenagers from all over the Philippines are brought together in Pisay, which hopes to nurture the future scientists, researchers, and inventors of the Philippines. This unique socio-cultural mix makes for a lot of social commentary as well as melodrama.
Near the end of "Pisay", director Auraeus Solito pays homage to one of the greatest films about childhood ever made -- Francois Truffaut's "Les Quatres Cents Coups" -- making it clear that Pisay is Solito's love song to his youth. Solito and the film's screenwriter Henry Grageda are Pisay alumni from the same batch, and the film is set in the mid-80s, during a turbulent period in Philippine history, when Solito and Grageda were students.
"Pisay" is by no means a perfect movie, but it comes from a genuinely heartfelt place, and this affection permeates every scene of the film. Much is made about movies with "heart", but so very few actually have it.
The film is structured as four interlocking short stories, one for each year of high school, each one highlighting certain characters from the ensemble. Because the stories take place between the years 1982 to 1986, the tumultuous changes that the Philippines underwent during those years (foremost among the them the murder of Benigno Aquino Jr. and the subsequent toppling of the Marcos government) are woven into the narratives, underscoring the changes that the characters go through as they deal with adolescence and the pressure of studying in a prestigious school.
Solito (who also directed the highly successful "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros", a product of the first Cinemalaya festival) has assembled a fine ensemble of eight unknown young actors, each one playing a fully defined character. All of them are relatively inexperienced, although Elijah Castillo starred in Clodualdo del Mundo's "Pepot Artista" (also a product of the first Cinemalaya festival). Their acting is uneven, at best -- all of them have moments when they tap into something authentic in their performances, but they seem unable to sustain these moments.
Other things seem "wrong" about the movie as well. The dialogues and monologues tend to become theatrical and stilted, adding to the difficulty of delivering a convincing performance. The set dressing, props, and costumes seem makeshift. The references to historical events seem tacked on to the plot, with characters delivering lines that could be straight out of a history book or a political tract. The camerawork is unpolished, with clumsy movements and uncertain framing. Overall, the film has an air of unreality about it -- it's a period piece, but the attempt to recreate the period seems more stylized than believable.
However, it eventually becomes clear that the rough edges of the film could actually be deliberate. Given that Solito reached into his past to create this movie, it makes perfect sense that the movie feels like it was made by a starry-eyed, enterprising seventeen-year-old boy. Pretend that the entire film is a series of high school skits, and its charm and poignance rise to the surface. The medium is the message, and the message is lovely.
The best segment of the movie is clearly Sophomore year, which follows the travails of a lonely student from Cebu (a province south of Metro Manila) struggling to cope with his studies while enduring dorm life, bullies, and homesickness. Carl John Barrameda shines in the most natural, affecting performance of the film as Mat, whose journey is as moving as it is inspiring.
Supporting the youngsters is a plethora of teachers, the standout among whom has to be Eugene Domingo, who embodies a type of teacher that anyone who's gone to high school in the Philippines would recognize. Domingo, who is best known as a comedienne, has some trouble getting us to take her seriously in a dramatic monologue late in the movie, but does better in an earlier scene in which she's shown stitching a tear in one of her school dresses. Arnold Reyes pulls off a difficult role, that of Mr. G -- an energetic Pisay-alumnus-turned-teacher who harbors some theatrical ambitions. That Reyes manages to play this idealized role (complete with appearing in a political lightning play written by his students) without looking stupid and winning us over in the process attests to his skill.
The film begins on a wobbly note, but gradually grows in power and resonance, much in the same way a Freshman would adjust to high school life, gaining confidence bit by bit. By the end of the movie, with its bittersweet coda, we're completely charmed by these young people and the stories they've shared with us. The best narrative movies take us on a journey; here the journey is into the past, through an experience that might be specific to Solito's personal history, but which we all remember and empathize with.
Jim Libiran's "Tribu", on the other hand, is a darker, more cynical view of the Philippines. It throbs with a raw, visceral energy from beginning to end, as befits a film about gang culture in Tondo (the "tribes" that roam the streets), one of the toughest neighborhoods in Metro Manila, populated by thousands of families from the middle and lower classes, and a good number of squatters.
"City of God" and "Amores Perros" are clearly strong influences, as seen particularly in the film's frenetic editing and camerawork, as well as the pulsing Filipino rap songs that weave the scenes together. The world of this story glows sinisterly in bright, acid tones that pop out of a muddy, threatening darkness.
On the other hand, Libiran's use of non-actors culled from the gangs of Tondo recalls Hector Babenco's method in "Pixote", in which he cast real street children from the slums of Brazil. Libiran sent out a casting call for gang members in Tondo and put the respondents through a series of acting workshops. The results are astonishing, and the ensemble cast of "Tribu" went on to win the Best Actor award at the Cinemalaya festival.
Part ethnographic documentary, part tragedy, "Tribu" manages to balance the impulse to show how life in Tondo is with the need to show something happening to characters that we can care about.
The film's plot is structured around an escalating sense of doom set off by the murder of a gang member by a rival gang. An informal investigation is carried out, revenge is plotted, and events swagger towards the inevitable conclusion. There is no moral lesson here, only the grimmest of pictures of a secretive, violent community.
Libiran shot on location in Tondo and managed to tease out solid performances from everyone, though he throws in some experienced performers for good measure. The realism and conviction of the performances draw the viewers into this unfamiliar world immediately, and by the time bad things start to happen, we already care about these human beings and their fates.
"Tribu" also uses digital video in ways appropriate to the medium, refusing to imitate the look of film. There's a lot of chaotic handheld camera, low-level lighting, and long takes, all expertly edited in a way that keeps every beat of the action clear to viewers. The roughness of the film's technique imbues it with indie cred, even as the complexity of the cinematography and editing tells us that these filmmakers know exactly what they need to do to tell the story they want to tell.
Amid all the grit and gristle, though, Tribu manages to locate an unsentimental heart. A father gruffly warns his son about joining gangs, a mother trades good-natured jibes with her son's friends, a boy and a girl walk down an alleyway strung with fiesta lights while some boys rap a love song at a friend's wake. These characters speak in tough, loud voices, but their affection for each other, their unquestioning loyalty, is palpable under all the bluster.
Despite the presence of love, though, there appears to be no hope for these boys, this community. Indeed, how can there be when children grow up in a world of amoral sex, arbitrary violence, and casual drug-taking? In the world of this film, poetic justice only occurs when those who reject or do not understand violence take up a knife or gun and use it. It's as far from a "positive message" as one can get, and perhaps the filmmakers err in being so unrelentingly bleak. However, any gesture towards a happy, even a hopeful, ending would be a false note in this movie.
"Tribu" shows us a secret, hidden world in graphic, unflinching detail, with an eye towards understanding it. Perhaps what the film is really trying to say is that any prescriptions for improvement or change are going to be hollow and patronizing unless we have lived in the skins of these desperate characters. "Tribu" tries hard and succeeds at making this happen.
Directed by Auraeus Solito
Written by Henry Grageda and Auraeus Solito
Starring Glecy Atienza, Carl John Barrameda, Rowena Basco, etc.
Directed by Jim Libiran
Written by Jim Libiran
Starring Lloyd Labastida, Sheilbert Magat, Raynoa Aguillon, Billy Cruz, etc.