A scream, a plea, and a film festival

A MAN is seen drawing with crayon the Mayon Volcano. He finishes the drawing and recites the allure of the famous mountain in Bicol. He then gathers taro leaves, a plant that is linked to the hot cuisine of the region. The man again rhapsodizes about the leaves. Next, he is shown with the broad leaf of a taro with beads and crystals of water on its waterproof surface. The water slides around the leaf as the man tries to catch and drink the drops. He then eats the leaves like a wild man. We wonder what wisdom pushes him to do that. As the leaves are masticated in his mouth, he spits them and declares: Taro leaves must be cooked before one could eat them.

The audience laugh at this wit.

The same man now is seen putting on a black windbreaker. He struggles with it. After he has zipped up the jacket, he covers his face with a black plastic trash bag. He wraps the thin plastic around his head and presses the material against the features of his face. He looks as if he is suffocating; we feel we cannot breathe.

The man takes a toy gun and fires away. He inserts the wooden gun inside the plastic that covers his head and face, pokes through the dark cellophane-like material and fires the gun.

The scene moves to a dark theater where a concert is happening. The man is there again but this time he is ranting about being god and being the owner of China. He looks mad and sad. He is Nietzsche’s madman full of poetry and fury. His scream is drowned by the music that gets louder and louder.

Onscreen, a strong man from an old film smashes a statue. A clown walks around selling balut. The sound and music get more furious and ear-splitting. Then the show—the short film—abruptly ends.

RoxLee is back in Naga, his hometown, the place of birth of the wild man of Philippine independent cinema. He is there to open the 12th edition of Cinema Rehiyon not with one but with two films.

In the other film, RoxLee pays a tribute and, at the same time, subverts an already subversive work—Edvard Munch’s The Scream. In German, its title is The Scream of Nature.

RoxLee’s work begins with a drawing. This time though the act is wholly part of the subject, which is a drawing or a painting. But for this filmmaker and visual artist, the scene showing a man with his mouth open is not a piece of stasis but of great and moving movement.

From the drawing of the scream, RoxLee sculpts with clay the form of that scream. He is now the divinity of creation, half-insane and half-inspired. The mask becomes a face of a man imitating the scream of Munch. Or is RoxLee reminding us that the painted cry does not come from art but from life?

To call the film disturbing is an understatement. RoxLee’s Manila Scream is anguish taking over faith, pollution ruling over politics, and poverty caught in the open mouth of a humanity running berserk. There is no smile in this world, he seems to say, no grin and no smirk but that cursed opening of the mouth broken apart for eternity.

RoxLee does not make films as he unmakes the tools and traits of a film. It is not so much as being anti-film as it is being into non-film and non-narrative. It is, however, this lack of linearity and logic that makes his intentions and achievements easy to measure in terms of a different cinema.

In a period when short filmmakers are turning out feature films under a new studio system, RoxLee’s two films are admonitions about the kind of cinema needed in a disrupted world.

Why create sensible films when the surroundings do not make any sense at all anymore?

As RoxLee’s second film finishes, I turn away from the screen because another filmmaker wants to share with me his thoughts about the two films. Jay Altarejos is telling me something. I could read the word “Primo,” for that is clear from the movement of his mouth. Cousin. Kin. Paisano. We address each other that way because we know we are both from Ticao Island.

Altarejos is in Naga because he is screening after 10 years his work, titled Pink Halo-Halo. Gender and politics when they are surfaced from the film are almost over-reading given how subtle and utterly simple the narrative of this film. This must be the quietest work dealing with growing up, the tenderest rites of passage ever made by a Filipino filmmaker. Nothing disturbs the surface of this peaceful film about the death of peace in the childhood of a boy.

But Altarejos is also in Naga after the news about his latest film, Walang Kasarian ang Digmaang Bayan (Revolution Knows No Gender), is released. It has been pulled out from 2020 Sinag Maynila Film Festival. We know the story: as the film ends, the character of Rita Avila regrets not having enough strength to kill the president.

Altarejos is in Naga and the worlds around him are bothered. Everything has been disturbed. There are no ripples and no bubbles. There is an impending explosion.

Two Bicolano directors—RoxLee and Joselito “Jay” Altarejos—open Cinema Rehiyon, held for the first time in the Bicol region. There is no need for guns or vows to kill. The films different in the telling and told in different languages are protests against the timid and tired stories from the big production houses.

It is Cinema Rehiyon—a gathering of independent filmmakers from all over the country—and it is not just a celebration but a plea for freedom, a revolution in how we narrate the nation.

The 12th edition of Cinema Rehiyon happens from February 24 to 29, in the city of Naga, with screenings in SM Naga and in selected halls inside the Ateneo de Naga University Campus. It is a flagship project under the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, with support from the Film Development Council of the Philippines. The local government of Naga City has supported significantly the film festival, with additional funds and logistical assistance. Ateneo de Naga is a main sponsor. The provincial government joined the festival by sponsoring a night in the provincial capitol.


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