October 12, 2006

Reeling: Truths, Art & Classification

by Tito Genova Valiente

THE silent film opens with a man and a woman, strongly reminiscent of a primordial scene in the Garden. The two ill-fated lovers, as the program notes of the filmmaker label them, are looking up to a mango tree, a blackened fruit dangling and seducing the female. The woman named Guima says: I want eat mango. The man Aras replies: No eat mango. Sand god forbids. You know the rest of the story—the man turns his back and the woman eats of the fruit of some Tree of Whatever Good and Whatever Evil. In this tale, the woman partakes of the forbidden fruit as her man cools off and takes a dip. As the man walks to the water, we glimpse upon the warning that the waters are not fit for swimming or wading.

We know what happens when people do the forbidden. Something horrible is bound to befall upon them. Aras is drowned and resurfaces as a zombie and Guima is transformed into witch having frenzied sex with the men on the island. Mang Kepweng, the hermaphroditic witch doctor who is the only one who survives the killing caused by the toxic mango, chases the two monsters and slays them. As they lay dying, Aras asks: Why you eat mango? Guima replies: Why you very black? Then the screen darkens for the ending.

The short film bears the title Toxic Mango. It is part of the “Guimaras: Shortfilms from the Oil Spill,” a project by the Philippine Independent Filmmakers Cooperative for the TV network ABC. The Philippine government through its instrument, MTRCB, has X-ed the film.

It is quite a journey for a film that is part of a company that involves such names as Kidlat Tahimik and my good friend Roxlee, and figures known for pushing the boundaries like Raya Martin, Milo Paz, Emman de la Cruz, Jeck Cogama, Paulo Villaluna, Wilfred Galila, Kidlat de Guia, JP Carpio, Seymour Sanchez, Ann Shy, Victor Villanueva, Drei Boquieren and Oscar Nava.

It is quite a slap, too, against a move by a group aiming to raise the awareness of the people regarding what is considered the worst oil spill in the history of this country’s islands through a potent and quirky medium they have individually and as a group developed.

Hexed and vexed

Documentaries have always been a problematic tool. They are neither here nor there in approach. In fact, as Pauline Kael has put it: Many of us grow to hate documentaries in school, because the use of movies to teach us something seems a cheat—a pill disguised as candy—and documentaries always seem to be about something we are not interested in.

But documentaries change. One thinks of Michael Moore, who, in the words of James Wolcott in his Vanity Fair February 2006 article “Through a Lens Darkly,” had the brazen effrontery to bring the documentaries to another level. Otherwise, as Wolcott phrases, documentaries “might still be poor cousins [to other media] camped on the stoop, ringing the buzzer and being ignored.”

You may not like Toxic Mango. The anthropologist, Dr. Hiroko Nagai Yabut calls it a strange joke while marveling at its textured cinematography. Bloggers giggle as they try to decide what to do with the work. Our columnist Stella F. Arnaldo says it “is not a Sundance candidate” but surely it does not merit an X. Watching the short film, there is no debate: the piece does not merit an R or even a PG as we understand the implications of these subjective letters.

Legal minds say that when a piece is censored or “classified,” it is the duty of that censuring body or authority to explain its decision. It has to articulate and, even as most of you would wince, educate us about its informed decision, its avowed taste. Even for the nonlawyers, this makes sense. Picture this: the authority—be it censoring of classifying—demands that you appear before them. In their midst, you are asked to explain to them why your work is obscene.

Obscenity in the Philippines has generally been about bodily matters: frontal nudity, breast exposure, sex acts especially if they are represented by the disturbing “pumping” acts.

Lately, it has gone into the fashion tastes of singers and to the humor of our comedians. It is a scary proposition that people we do not know are up there, quiet and concentrated and isolated, are deciding for us what we should see, what we can see and what we cannot see.

These select few are our conscience, our arbiter, our taste. They explain to us why we cannot see things that they see. Most of the time, they do not explain.

Toxic Mango does not have these “sex” and violent things. What it has in terrific quantity is an irritatingly disturbing discourse on an environment gone crazy in a land that is lazy about its own salvation.

As of this writing, there are no documents out there explaining the position of MTRCB and clarifying its stand. For those, with access to computers, though, a service called YouTube is running for us the short film. YouTube is a consumer media company that allows people to watch and share original videos worldwide through a Web experience. (It was acquired recently by Google—Ed.) Through its technology, users can see firsthand accounts of current events, find videos and interests, and “discover the quirky and unusual.” In the meantime, the poison of Khavn de la Cruz, the man behind Toxic Mango, is dripping in and on the Internet without control. And without boundaries.

UPDATE: The filmmaker who has won awards in Tokyo, Spain, Germany, Italy and here in the Philippines says he is submitting a recut of his film to MTRCB so that it can be shown to the public. I, however, wait at the gate of YouTube to watch the condensed poison—to be irritated, to be angered, to be aware of how oil spill is not limited to Guimaras and other small, poor islands. To take a candy only to find out it is a bitter pill.

As for my promised Part II about the rebirth of OPM, I will continue my rhapsody on Tuesday; this topic on oil spill is more urgent.

(Originally published in the BusinessMirror, Life, Oct. 12, 2006)

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