Independencia plays like Cocteau Twins' Blue Bell Knoll, form and pattern are forefront while the rest---actors, dialogue, chickens---drift like ambient noise, the swirling layers of synthesizers if you will that wall the experience within the confines of cinema. Independencia aims to capture the cinematic style of the period it depicts, here, the 35 mm films shot entirely in sound stages during the American occupation in the 1900s.
Free Form: A short rambling on history and why Jose Nepomuceno and co. are probably throwing a party in filmmaker heaven
The first picture with sound reached the Philippines in 1910, and in 1912, New York and Hollywood film companies started putting up offices in Manila to distribute films. The lukewarm reception led two American entrepreneurs to make a film about Jose Rizal's execution. With the curiosity of the Filipino audience piqued, Jose Nepomuceno produced the first Filipino movie, Dalagang Bukid, in 1919, which was based on a highly popular zarzuela piece by Hermogenes Ilagan and Leon Ignacio.
The U.S. colonial government then had already been using films for propaganda (in the guise of education and information dissemination) and locally-produced films---early film producers included American businessmen and local politicians---were only allowed to tackle "safe" issues of reconciliation among classes, religiosity and repentance, themes that prevailed in zarzuelas and theater. Ironically, the people who encouraged the Filipino film industry to grow were also the same people who limited its growth by setting rigid rules on expression.
The 35 mm film was a haunting reminder of our colonial past.
Independencia took that format, and the history that came along with it, and squashed the years of silence that the 35 mm format represented. Premiering in the Philippines on Independence Day makes the realization even more poignant.
I have only seen Japanese World War II propaganda films shot in 35 mm (courtesy of the Filipinas Heritage Library) but I could deduct that director Raya Martin celebrated and challenged both format and form. Independencia is stunning, a black and white magic eye that draws you with hypnotic visuals---look closely and details surface. And just as you get used to the shadowy reverie, Martin slaps you with sex and that clever bit of dialogue spoken to the audience. Apichatpongian in the dreamy texture of the jungle, and in the reveal of the darker side of nature reminescent of the tiger shaman in Tropical Malady, what Independencia lacks in momentum it makes up for with seductive mystery.
Raya Martin, whether consciously or not, has handed the 35 mm film back to the hands of early film makers Julian Manansala, Nepumoceno and everyone else who attempted to say something, say anything, but weren't given the chance to capture it on film. Pretty heroic stuff in my book.
Prisoners of Pattern: Thoreau and why that Robots in Disguise song never left my head.
A mother and son run to the woods to live deliberately, to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. The struggle for independence from the American colonial government is mere context to a romantic existential exploration of the absurdity of the concept of freedom. The family (along with the viewers) is plucked from everything familiar and is thrown into a disorienting tangle of trees, shrubs and rivers where they thrive in an illusion of freedom---the jungle itself is a prison of patterns and cycles, the world outside it more so.
Martin seems to say that freedom is not liberum arbitium where we can do as we please even if we are isolated from the rest of society and where values are insignificant to decisions made. In the jungle, there are no societal norms existing, but the values the family holds dear from folklore to, yes, their concept of freedom, is immutable, cultivated from the society of which they were a part of.
The crucial decision that the child makes at the end was dictated by the values he learned from his brief life with his parents.
Could our own values restrict our freedom? (Yes. Hello, Board of Censors.) Or does it dictate what we are free to do? Freedom and responsibility seem to be entwined; there is no freedom from being responsible for one's action. It's a cycle.
Keep moving, keep doing, keep breathing, stay living. Robots in Disguise's Cycle Song in a loop in my head while I am writing this. The mechanical absurdity of patterns, the "unfairness" of the world. Independencia is unabashedly arthouse in form but its thoughtful encounter with the absurd, whether mustached or veined leaf, is all too candidly angsty.
And just because I am free to declare this: It is fucking brilliant.
Independencia (2009) Directed by Raya Martin
Produced by Arleen Cuevas
Starring Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Assunta de Rossi, Mika Aguilos
Links consulted on history of Philippine cinema: