Fauna non grata

In Photo: This is purportedly the dog that was bludgeoned to death and gutted for a scene in the infamous 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival entry Oro.

tito genova valienteTHIS is our reading of the issues that have materialized regarding the film Oro, an entry to the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) that went on to win a few awards, including the Best Actress prize for Irma Adlawan and the FPJ Memorial Award for Excellence:

A real dog was killed to reenact a scene where dogs are butchered as part of the folkways in the area.

In the past, directors were able to shock us with similar reenactments even as there were no animals harmed or killed in the process. What worked and still works is the suspension of disbelief, a mind and visual state realized through the artistic and technical acumen of the filmmakers and production associates. Reality, which is always gross and plain in the field of arts, is not the intervention, but rather the element intervened. Reality in cinema, as well as in other arts, is out there, for the quotidian to sense and for the artist with his mighty imagination to reconstruct, to deconstruct even; to appropriate for his narrative its meanings to negotiate for us to learn from or struggle against, to repudiate, as well, with our own sociology and politics.

A good director aiming for reality reaches for the jugular and never aims for the facile. That easy way out in nurturing shock value resides in the basic, like murdering animals and trying to run away with some excuse or any ideological positioning.

Going around rabid on the Internet are comments defending the filmic decision to kill a real dog as being not equal to the fact that three or four human beings were killed in the mining site, the core of Oro’s story. But this is precisely the point why people are seeking an explanation for the murder of a dog. There is no justice in killing an animal as it’s ultimately as unjust as taking the life of another person. What will this purported realism do for what the film valuably seeks, which is the documentation of injustice committed against the already oppressed?

The gross injustice, which the filmmakers (to include everyone, including the actors, as they were part of the thinking organism of Oro) want to redress by way of cinema, is ultimately the same unjust instrument used against an animal. The killing of a dog recognized by a law that proceeds from a sensible acknowledgment of our culture owes its weight to the law that nurtures the life of human beings.

On the Internet, more rabid simplifications happen when people ask the question about the primacy of the life of, say, insects; believe me, there are ethnic communities that exist where insects and animals less respected in our culture are given primordial importance. Be that as it may, let it be said that our laws are not made in a vacuum but in the core of the specificities of cultures where we reside and in which we nurture our valuations.

These are ideas that are understood clearly by those who have evolved. Filmmakers, by the act of their own exposure to realities, are those more evolved than other artists and other thinkers. Why the director of Oro chose to ignore these ideas is an interesting problem to better explore how we use our arts to build nations or topple bad administrations.

The road to the discovery of what happened during the shoot is littered with lies and the absence of any articulated ethical struggles. Comments made earlier about how the life of a dog doesn’t match that of a person have been deleted. This is the journey of comments made without introspection: they are snatched away as if the deletion of the sadly vicious statement will wash away the culpability of the guilty party. The ephemera of the online rant is a newly discovered vice, and the means of escape from that deed is marked by cowardice. That person who deletes or edits what he posted is one who will not stand by his position because such posture, from the beginning, could not maintain its hardness and was empty of moral strength. The technology of screen-capture seems to be the phantom to correct that vice, and so the excuses are recovered and truth is crystallized.

As I started writing this column, a meeting with the executive committee of the MMFF with Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) and the people responsible for Oro had been scheduled, and I resumed writing it with initial reports of the said meeting making their way to the public space via social media.

It was reported the filmmaker of Oro had offered as a compromise to blacken the scene where the dog is killed and its guts exposed. This solution reminds one of the hypocritical approach done by the Japanese censors about their pornographic films, where the genitalia are either shrouded in black pigmentation or pixielized. You can see the action—the pummeling and the insertion, even the oral jobs done on the receiving genitals—but you don’t see anything.

Anyhow, the MMFF execom as represented decided the scenes had to be edited out.

I don’t know how Anna Cabrera of PAWS felt when she arrived at the scene of the meeting. She was there amid people who knew each other. And the decision was given. Cabrera is said to have been disappointed with the decision of the execom. I’m not disappointed at all; I’m disgusted with it.

PAWS and all those who are on the side of animal welfare were there to ask one question: Was a dog killed during the shoot?  Simple, PAWS was interested in a human/animal question and not a cinematic question. The execom should have known that. But their solution was cinematic: edit. What a desolation!

There have been admissions that, indeed, there was a dog killed. In a legalistic land like ours, we should ask the next question: who killed the dog? The filmmaker has found this question to be on his side, for now the statement is that they shot a butchering of a dog, which is part of the ritual of violence in that town. This statement is not only naïve but insipidly ignorant, freckled with biases only a city-bred artist can conjure. The killing of a dog for meat is not part of a ritual killing and you do not need to situate that on an island. Dogs are butchered in Cubao and Marikina, as well, but I doubt if it’s done for some need in a TV series. The question is whether a dog was ordered killed because it was going to be used for a scene in Oro.

As it is, the MMFF execom proved to be inadequate for the crisis. The decision appears to take lightly the issues this controversy has given rise to. Anna Cabrera, having realized this, is reportedly suing the Oro filmmakers. That is a wise move.

In the meantime, let us take a look again for the necessity of killing a dog while a camera is trained on the animal. There must be only one reason for this: realism. This urge to be realistic is founded on the desire to convince the people of the issue being tackled, that the filmmaker is damn serious about the politics of things.

The filmmaker cannot convince us of his rabid aim to be realistic. As it is, he has already employed the filter of the Tagalog language instead of the piquant Bikol language common in Caramoan, where the film was shot. Deterritorialized, the killing of the dog cannot be attributed anymore to the ways of that island. It could be anywhere.

The filmmaker has also, it seems, recklessly ignored the power of artifice. One of the achievements of independent cinema is the exploration of narratives, of self-conscious storytelling that has created, to borrow the words of film historian and film theorist David Bordwell, “a vast appetite for artifice.” Stories are told and retold and, most often, the themes that didn’t touch us because they were developed by the dryly objective approaches of mainstream TV journalism, are now viewed “cubed”, as if the phenomenon is being turned around and around for us to deliciously and deliriously take in the realities made super. That, among other things, is the legacy of good cinema: Reality is achieved without resulting to plain reality. In plain words, actors need not die in their death scenes, dogs need not be killed for the committal of injustice to be less assaulting.

As it is, I agree with Anna Cabrera and her decision to bring to court the Oro team and the Oro filmmaker. I, however, do not agree with her move the awards be taken away from the group. I don’t think the killing of a dog contributed to the performance of Irma Adlawan. She’s a good actress because she knows the magic of artifice. That is what I mean by the power of artifice.

Now, if, somewhere down the road, a decision is reached and the person or persons connected with the film are found guilty, then we can slap him, or them, with the penalty called for by the law. Then we can call him, or them, “fauna non grata”.