A Response to ‘Burgis na Juvenilia’, or A Defense of ‘Ang Nawawala’

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.

9 comments
  1. Priscilla Pamintuan said:

    Lalaki po si Rolando Tolentino. Paki-proofread nang kaunti ang sulatin ninyo.

    ” 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.”

    Hindi nga. Pero kapag sinabi mong hindi dapat maging “prescriptive” ang kritisismo sa paggawa ng pelikula, hindi ba prescriptive din iyun? Ang totoo, lahat ng kritisismo ay prescriptive, may sinasabing tama o mali, dapat o hindi dapat. Sa pagkritika sa kritika ni Tolentino, nagpe-prescribe ka rin ng uri ng kritisismo — kritisismong dapat suriin lamang ang isang obra batay sa porma nito, sa kasiningan nito at hindi sa nilalaman dahil “normative, prescriptive” iyun.

    Ang totoo, luma na ang debateng ito, at matagal nang nanahimik ang mga pormalista sa panitikan, dahil bali-baliktarin mo man ang sining, at anumang sining ang pinag-uusapan mo, hindi ito makakawala sa ideolohiya. Ang kritisismong pinanggagalingan ni Tolentino ay kritisismong nakaugat sa pagtatanong na “para kanino ang sining?” Kinakailangang self-reflexive ito at kritikal, dahil dapat malay ang filmmaker sa pinaglilingkuran nitong interes. Kritisismo ito batay sa tindig pampulitika labas sa sining. Kritisismo ito sa lipunan, at dahil nakaugat naman ang sining sa lipunan, magagamit ang kritisismong ito sa pagkritika sa sining.

    Ngayon, sa sinasabi mong “humanity that transcend class boundaries.” Pag-isipan mo nang mabuti bago magbitaw nang ganyan. Nabanggit mong mga halimbawa: “process of grievance, recovering from loss and dealing with a broken family.” Naku, pumunta ka sa isang maralitang komunidad, o sa mga magsasaka, tingnan natin kung unibersal ang proseso ng pagdadalamhati ng maralita sa mayaman/naghaharing uri. Kahit ang sinasabi mong “recovering from loss and dealing with a broken family.” Sa maralita, sala-salabit ang senaryong ito sa napakarami pang ibang isyu: isyu ng pang-ekonomiyang karalitaan, halimbawa. Sa kaso ng isang OFW, isyu ng puwersahang migrasyon. Implicated din dito ang pampulitikang mga isyu, tulad ng labor-export policy, globalisasyon, atbp. Sa middle class din siyempre iba. Kaya hindi mo maaaring sabihing unibersal ang mga ito. Ipapanood mo sa isang maralita ang eksena na ipinapakita sa Ang Nawawala, tingnan natin kung may mahuhugot kang empathy sa kanya.

    • Saan ko sinabi na hindi lalaki si Ronaldo Tolentino?

      1.) ” Pero kapag sinabi mong hindi dapat maging “prescriptive” ang kritisismo sa paggawa ng pelikula, hindi ba prescriptive din iyun?”

      Hindi — dahil una, hindi ko kinakahon ang depinisyon kung ano ang magandang pelikula batay lamang kung tungkol sa mahirap ito. Ang sinasabi ko ay hindi sapat na batayan ang tema ng kahirapan upang masabi na ang isang pelikula ay may substansya.

      Pangalawa, wala akong sinasabing mali rin ang kritisismo ni Ronaldo Tolentino. Maganda ang sinulat niyang rebyu. Maari rin siyang sumalungat sa mga sinasabi ko. Sumasagot lamang ako sa mga sinabi niya dahil iba ang aking pananaw tungkol sa sining. Wala akong prineprescribe.

      2.) “Kinakailangang self-reflexive ito at kritikal, dahil dapat malay ang filmmaker sa pinaglilingkuran nitong interes. Kritisismo ito batay sa tindig pampulitika labas sa sining. Kritisismo ito sa lipunan, at dahil nakaugat naman ang sining sa lipunan, magagamit ang kritisismong ito sa pagkritika sa sining.”

      Sino ang lipunan? Ang mga maralita lamang ba ang kasama sa imahinasyon nang kung ano ang “Pilipino”? Hindi ba lehitimo ang karansan ng mga gitnang uri at ng mga maykaya? Bakit hindi ito pwedeng isapelikula? Sino ang nagtatakda kung ano ang mga karapat-dapat na tema ng sining?

      3.) “Naku, pumunta ka sa isang maralitang komunidad, o sa mga magsasaka, tingnan natin kung unibersal ang proseso ng pagdadalamhati ng maralita sa mayaman/naghaharing uri.”

      Ang sinasabi ko, unibersal ang mawalan, ang mamatayan, ang mawasak ang pamilya. Alam ko iba’t iba ang pinagdaraanan ng mga tao sa iba’t ibang antas ng lipunan. Pinapakita ng pelikula ang isang paraan nito, kung paano to dinadanasan ng mga may kaya. Bakit bumababa ang “artistic merit” ng isang pelikula kung hindi niya kayang makahugot ng empathy sa mahihirap? Bakit iyon ang batayan?

    • erwin said:

      —-“Naku, pumunta ka sa isang maralitang komunidad, o sa mga magsasaka, tingnan natin kung unibersal ang proseso ng pagdadalamhati ng maralita sa mayaman/naghaharing uri. Kahit ang sinasabi mong ‘recovering from loss and dealing with a broken family.’ Sa maralita, sala-salabit ang senaryong ito sa napakarami pang ibang isyu…”

      Hindi ko maintindihan bakit kailangang gawing halimbawa ang “pagdadalamhati ng mga mahihirap” sa diskursong ito. Heto ang isang pelikulang tapat na nagsasabi na posible o nangyayari ang ganitong kwento sa mga nakakaangat sa buhay, at sa kabilang banda, lahat ng tao, maging nasa pedestal man o lugmok sa kahirapan, ay pareparehas na may pinagdaraanan; na hindi lahat ng kabataan (o pamilya) ay isang kahig, isang tuka, o runner ng droga, pokpok o di kaya gangster sa Tondo. Hindi ko malaman bakit may puwang ang “class struggle” para sa paguusap dito.

      —-“Ipapanood mo sa isang maralita ang eksena na ipinapakita sa Ang Nawawala, tingnan natin kung may mahuhugot kang empathy sa kanya.”

      Oo, may mga bahagi na masyadong referential. Pero nasaan ba ang puso ng kwento? Masyado mo atang minamaliit ang kapasidad ng mga sinasabi mong maralita para sabihing hindi nila kaya makaramdam ng lungkot o makibahagi sa temang pangkalahatan ng pelikula. Hindi kaya maari nilang isipin na “Ah, hindi pala lahat ng may kaya eh masaya,” o di kaya, “Ah, may ganitong klaseng eksena/musika pala, hindi lang iyong naririnig ko sa radyo o napapanood ko sa TV.” Hindi kaya naging daan din ang pelikulang ito para culturally mamulat ang lipunan (lower, middle at upper class) na may ibang mukha ang Pilipinas at di lang puros kahirapan na napapanuod nila sa TV o nakikita sa tunay na buhay? Ano pang pinagkaiba ng ganyang klaseng ideolohiya sa mga TV networks at film outfits? Sino nga ba ang mga kapitalista?

      Gasgas na nga ang debateng ‘to. Pero maibalik ko lang ang tanong ni Tolentino: “Para kanino nga ba ang sining?”

  2. Jerrold Tarog said:

    I confess to an initial resistance to the upper middle class milieu of the film. At first, I was like “Uh oh…problems of the rich, here we go”. But as the sincerity of ANG NAWAWALA’s themes and the filmmaking became apparent, I settled in and focused on the story and the humanity of the characters. The main character’s issues may not be as “heavy” as someone who has to deal with poverty—let’s face it (spoiler alert): Gibson’s refusal to speak is sometimes bordering on the petulant (all he needed was to get laid to say that first word?)—but that’s the whole point: it is about what it is. It says it sincerely with no propaganda and that makes it a valid piece of filmmaking (and a charming one at that). Plus, on second thought, a case could be made for the trauma of death being overtaken by the joy of losing one’s virginity. I mean it could happen if you waited that long.

    ANG NAWAWALA is, at its core, about an upper middle class kid who grows up a little. Why should it be about anything else? Must all indie films bring class struggles into play in order for it to have merit? Must it always have an agenda for social change for it not to be criticized as being from a privileged (and, therefore, narrow) perspective? If all teen movies are like that, I’d probably lose my mind. Say what you will about the world in which these characters move in—which, in this case, is the same world the writers move in—but a film should be criticized for the way its story moves inside the world it is trying to depict. It is about how it says what it says. Outside of that, it’s all politics from the critic’s end.

    If anything, that freedom to say what you want to say and to be criticized on those lines (i.e. craft, content and execution) is the only privilege indie filmmakers from all walks of life really have.

  3. renpaul said:

    Reblogged this on Thinking and Doing and commented:
    Dr. Tolentino’s critique, and Tagle’s response, is indeed an indication of how Ang Nawawala has spurred a discussion that is much needed about the contours of Philippine cinema, especially about the recurrence of attempts to make films in a different voice. (I avoid using the “i-word” here for that reason.) Erwin’s comments are telling–these debates have been going on for a long time. But these debates, much like the slogans for the posters I often see posted around the UP Diliman campus, endure, because in the eyes of some, we have not gotten to where we are about the true purpose of art. Here, Erwin has rightfully brought us back to the first question Tolentino asked: “For whom is art?”

    Fortunately, Tagle’s reply did not directly address the ideological weight implicit in Tolentino’s question and critique. If art is meant for the masses, as a means of awakening their consciousness about their suffering and true condition of society and the need to overturn the status quo, then the art of Jamora and her peers have failed, and therefore should be disregarded. This is yet another example of Ricoeur’s characterization of Marx as a master of suspicion, where the suspicion is that art produced by the upper-middle, nay, upper class serves to keep the working class in their present state. (More generally, the suspicion is that the human condition is determined purely by hidden economic forces.)

    Jamora’s film is remarkable because for a while there, the particular milieu of cinema from where it emerged was dominated by particularly strong voices that, implicitly or explicitly, privileged a particular understanding of society and art. For a different voice to emerge, from a different frame of reference, is to invite contention. Whether the quality of that expression is good or not is of course a matter of dispute, but whether an alternative understanding emerges to challenge that relationship, or to ask whether we should still persist in begging that question, is turning out to be a bit controversial. I think Jamora did not intend the film to deal with these questions, and I agree with Jerrold Tarog that her “agenda,” if one wishes, was quite simple–to tell a story from where she sits.

    That sense of confidence that Ang Nawawala exudes, not only in how it told the story, but in the way the film’s makers compelled people to watch it, is what I suspect Tolentino is wary about. I hope that he and his fellow critics of a particular school would continue to write and criticize art, whatever its provenance. This should not stop Jamora and indeed other filmmakers from challenging the insularity of the counter-establishment that, for all the good it has done to address questions of injustice and inequality, is still singing from the same hymn-sheet of fifty years ago. Since then, the world has moved on.

  4. I absolutely agree that even the upper class members of Philippine society deserve to be represented in Philippine cinema. For so many years, films about poverty and homosexuality have dominated the indie sphere- not that there is anything wrong with such themes, but there is definitely more to society that those two overused topics. It is refreshing to see movies like “Ang Nawawala”, “Rakenrol” and “The Animals”, which all present the reality and problems of the upper crust of society, without being apologetic. I salute Marie Jamora, Quark Henares and Gino Santos for having the courage to create such films. Also, kudos to your defense of “Ang Nawawala”. I agree with everything you said.

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