Between a Rock and a Hard Place
by Richard Bolisay
Tundong Magiliw: Pasaan Isinisilang Siyang Mahirap? (Tondo Beloved: To What is the Poor Born? 2011)
D: Jewel Maranan
Poverty gives birth to many stories. It’s a subject so loud and close that audience members usually take for granted some of its sincerest depictions. Most of these stories, like myths and fables, have been told countless of times before, and only a few of them try to rise above from the commonplace. Unfortunately, a certain tendency of Filipino filmmakers is to turn poverty into a genre whose distinct elements have to be satisfied in order to please festival programmers. A number of these movies are preoccupied by the need to overstate the milieu and present characters struggling to survive life. That’s one view of poverty, but where are the others?
Jewel Maranan raises her hand, though it is difficult to see her in a crowd of acclaimed local directors, her documentaries only enjoyed and talked about by a select group of people, mostly peers and colleagues who follow her career. Her first full-length, Kung Balatan ang Bawang, which won the best documentary at the Gawad CCP for Alternative Film and Video in 2008, is one of the finest thesis films produced by the UP Film Institute. Suffice it to say, her academic background has been put to good use. Bawang not only documents women who spend long hours of the day peeling sacks of garlic for a living—receiving less than a hundred pesos for their service, sometimes even less, and being treated unfairly by their employers—but it also presents the perverse ironies experienced by people in dire straits, Maranan refusing to give in to the dangers of ill-mannered sentimentality. The film is shot in Parola, a small community in Tondo, but it’s only in her next feature when she decides to bear its name, seemingly wary of the stereotypes and misconceptions associated with the place.
If Tondo’s image has been blundered notoriously on television and in movies, it’s not because of misrepresentation—surely, there are crimes committed in the place as in any other community—but because of tolerance. No one cries foul when it is repeatedly called the armpit of the city; people are conditioned to accept that. Billboards in Metro Manila are luckier because at least authorities take notice of them and bring them down. On the other hand, who bothers to listen to the poor folk of Tondo? Who cares if they don’t have food to eat or a plate to put their food on? The police blotters and evening news can take care of that. Tondo raises human interest that is less socio-political than anthropological, the kind of stuff that reality television feeds on. Tundong Magiliw doesn’t put too fine a point on these truths, and never, in its 78-minute running time, is it also conscious about making a difference. Maranan is vocal about her advocacy, and she lays it patiently, the way a dressmaker places fabric on top of patterns, to make sure that every piece fits just right.
Tundong Magiliw focuses on a family that lives in a shack near the North Harbor, where cargo is delivered every day and industrial ships passing by the water are the only signs of activity. Virgie, the mother, looks idly at her surroundings as she waits for fish to tug at her pole, hoping that her husband and three children will have something to eat for lunch and supper. She is oblivious of the trash floating on the water or the insects crawling on the rock where she sits. Barefooted, she returns home and is welcomed by her children. On the floor of their house, an essential point of action in the film, is where her family spends most of their time together. They share a meal, they talk about Hilary Clinton, they fancy waiting for a gelatin to be sprinkled with sugar and milk. Virgie and her husband talk about finding work. Their kids busy themselves pasting pirated DVD covers on the wall and discussing war movies, zombies in the water, and killer snakes. Their everyday concerns are almost negligible, but the camera captures a handful of glitter in the air before leaving a sorrowful family portrait.
The beauty of it is that it does not try to impress. On the contrary, Tundong Magiliw’s aesthetic force is effortlessly persuasive. The images leap from pretty to picturesque without looking like generic postcards, a characteristic that evokes the paralyzing visuals of Agrarian Utopia (Urophong Raksasad, 2009), another recent documentary also shot at breathtaking angles. Maranan puts her subjects inside a transparent sphere, allowing her audience to observe them from a distance and feel their troubles vicariously. She is able to express the collapse of what separates life from fiction, both of them sharing parallel realities, the emotions of the characters carrying the narrative and not the other way around. In Robert Bresson’s words, “An old thing becomes new if you detach it from what usually surrounds it,” and Maranan, in her attempt to present life falling apart at the seams, manages to do that.
What holds Tundong Magiliw together is the discipline that connotes a penchant for minimalism, emphasizing the importance of balancing elements on and off screen. For instance, the sound of the water and the noise of children playing outside Virgie’s house are not only audible but also visible, as they provide a graphic impression of movement. Unlike Jim Libiran, Maranan prefers morning to night, running the risk of depicting ennui instead of hostility, pregnant silences rather than wearying noises, unaware that her geographical inflections are given away by the thriftiness of her action. Halfway through the film, one realizes that Virgie and the rest of her family speak for their own and not for their milieu. They shift unknowingly between internal and infernal, the circle of their life failing to miss a turn, eventually giving birth to another offspring of uncertainty, yet another hungry bastard.