In his review in Pinoy Weekly, Rolando Tolentino criticizes Ang Nawawala for not possessing any substance beyond the mere glorification of the upper class, projecting their lifestyle as an object of desire for its audience to consume. He says:
Purong pabalat at artifice—purong imahen—ang pelikula…pero hanggang imahen lang, walang substansya maliban sa transformasyon ng elitistang buhay bilang kanasa-nasa sa mas higit na mayoryang umaasam lang ng ganitong buhay.
While I agree that what made Ang Nawawala distinct in this year’s Cinemalaya is its romantic treatment of the elite (unlike, say, The Animals where the elite get their comeuppance simply for being rich), I have a lot of things to say about the accusations he has lobbied against this film, some of which come from a misguided sense of what he thinks independent cinema should be (which ironically, contradicts the very notion of an independent cinema).
To say that this movie is somehow inferior because it is not “self-reflexive” or does not induce guilt in its audience is such a normative, prescriptive take on cinema. It does not behoove any local filmmaker, independent or otherwise, to make movies for the sole purpose of provoking some sense of culpability or moral self-condemnation, particularly because of one’s class, from its audience.
Not all movies have to be a commentary on the sociopolitical status of the country. If anything, local independent cinema is saturated with poverty porn, a trend beautifully satirized by last year’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank. While some movies admirably are able to incorporate issues of the poor (Engkwentro, Ang Pangagahasa kay Fe, Adela, to name a few), it is not a necessary condition to make a good film. In fact, it is worth celebrating that Ang Nawawala is able to shed light on a class that has been reduced to cringe-worthy telenovela caricatures in Filipino pop culture.
Moreover, it is an extremely hasty generalization to make that films that feature poverty are automatically, inherently, superior because, according to him, they create some sort of distance and therefore enable its audience to establish a critical objectivity by which they can reflect and meditate on their selves and roles in society.
First, I find this very exploitative — isn’t he also commodifying the experience of the poor, making it a required element in art so that it would spark emotions that we otherwise wouldn’t feel? Second, not all movies featuring the poor produce that affect. What about those that use poverty merely for shock or disgust? What about bad movies that don’t inspire audiences to think because well, they’re horrible? I find it very unreasonable to make a universal claim that all movies about the poor are better than all movies about the rich, a conclusion that Tolentino was willing to make. Third, how is aspiration, assuming it does incite that, any less meaningful of a response when it is accompanied by doubt and ennui?
Sa pelikula hinggil sa maykaya, ang kritikal na distansya ay nawawala, na tulad sa Hollywood films, nilalamon para ang sarili ay magkaroon ng (mis)rekognisyon na ito rin ang kanyang mundo, ito ang gusto niyang maging mundo, at ipagkanulo ang sariling mundo. Ito ang reafirmasyon ng komersyal na media at kulturang popular ng kapitalismo.
Why is he reducing the audience’s response to this movie as simply a conditioned product of capitalist culture? His continuous claim that the movie is simply reproducing the value system that underlies capitalism ignores the humanity of the movie’s story that transcends class boundaries. Universal themes such as the process of grievance, recovering from loss and dealing with a broken family, were subtly developed, albeit in a setting unfamiliar to him and to Philippine cinema in general. One simply had to remove one’s blinders and preconceived expectations on what makes a “Cinemalaya film” in order to see the substance and emotional depth of this movie, that unlike Tolentino opined, were clearly present.
Marie Jamora didn’t have to write poor characters living in the slums in order to tell a compelling story. She didn’t have to infuse her movie with experiences that were foreign to her for the sake of adding gravitas or weight. When Tolentino says, “Napapanahon na rin sigurong ibuyanyang kung tunay nga bang independent ang namamayagpag na indie cinema sa kasalukuyan,” she shouldn’t be fazed by this grim assessment because it is through unique voices like hers that Philippine independent cinema will continue to thrive.