by Jansen Musico
Kamera Obskura (2012)
D: Raymond Red
S: Pen Medina, Joel Torre, Nanding Josef, Suzette Ranillo, Sue Prado
What is Raymond Red up to? Why, in the age of talkies and mumblecore, does he give us a silent film? And he doesn’t just produce any movie in mute, he goes further to give homage to 1920s relics. Kamera Obskura, with all its strong political tones, is a film that alienates its audience. It makes them squirm with a certain level of discomfort in their seats. This is, perhaps, caused by his reanimation of a dead art form or his lack of subtlety in discussing a topic so belabored to his Filipino viewers. If it was Red’s main intention to pique his audience’s interest, then he succeeded.
Silent film was born without sound not because it was the filmmaker’s choice. There was an obvious lack in technology during the time of its conception. In the advent of recorded sound, talkies took over, and soon, stars of the silent film era started scrambling to adapt. Films with sound, the kind of films we know today, became the norm. Kamera Obscura is only a silent film in part. It’s bookended by two straightforward sequences created as expositions that dissect the film’s meaty core. The explanations, to some extent, are gratuitous. Red’s “salvaged” silent movie is strong enough to tell its own story. What is the need for this excess? What justifies their presence?
There are reasons why a filmmaker decides to add certain elements to his films. The more these reasons make sense, the more intact the film gets. Treated as a machine, a film only needs certain parts to keep it running well. Everything else is excess embellishment. What justifies Kamera Obscura’s opening and closing sequences? It could be that Red really wanted to drive home his points, but Red isn’t the kind of filmmaker that belittles his audience’s intellect. Red could have done it merely for kicks, but I’d like to believe that he isn’t as reckless as that. The answer lies within both the film’s content and form.
Kamera Obscura’s silent film within a film begins with a man (Pen Medina) trapped in a dark place. His only source of light is a hole in the wall, through which seeps images from the outside world. He magnifies them with a pair of lenses and projects them onto the opposite wall. It’s a makeshift camera obscura, the film’s namesake. The film follows this man’s escape and his assimilation and ascent into society—one symbolized by a tower whose several floors depict its stratification. It is the Philippines, a heavily tainted microcosm of it. It is a place where status is supreme and politics is the lifeblood. Such a concept, although prevalent throughout our history, is so provocative when placed within the context of this film. The silent movie within the movie would’ve been radical in the supposed time of its release. This is where the layer of commentary comes in; it’s essential.
The bookends serve to temper the film’s audience. They don’t aim to educate the oblivious, as most would think. Their main purpose is to enrich the narrative, to drive home Red’s intention. Kamera Obscura is both a celebration and lament for the lost silent cinema and the society it represents. It is both an experiment in form and a personal reverie of a talented creator.
On its own, Kamera Obskura’s silent film segment is competent and well-crafted. Red’s treatment is respectful to the period, scrutinizing every detail captured by his lenses. Yet he’s also very liberal, giving reverence to the art form and its history without sacrificing his personal style. Although I do have qualms about his choice of actors, his decision to put Medina in the lead was inspired. The man was made for silent movies. His performance throws away meekness but retains subtlety, an ability reserved only for the stars of the silent film era.
Given its form and content, in a time where sound, color, and the popular are given much weight, a film like this can be easily shelved in a dark corner, never to see the light of a commercial projector. It’s a pity, but it’s not a tragedy. Red is very aware of this. He is very aware that a film like Kamera Obskura is a hard sell, but hawking it was never really his goal to begin with. The film’s very existence in the age of talkies is enough. Kamera Obscura is Red’s way of salvaging a long lost Filipino art form from the clutches of total obscurity.