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A boy, a girl, manongs and musicians

06:47 AM August 05, 2014

NEW YORK, New York—A young boy through no fault of his own is deported from the very country he was born in. A teenaged girl growing up in a small, rural town imagines parricide, or does she actually commit the gruesome deed? Agricultural workers go on strike against powerful grape growers in California, resulting in the formation of a union.

These are bare-bone summaries of three films I saw at the recently concluded 37th annual Asian American International Film Festival: two from the Philippines, and one by an American of Philippine descent. A fourth film was screened as well but I was disappointed not to be able to see “The Cotabato Sessions,” by L.A.-based Joel Quizon, in collaboration with New York-based composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra, on the kulintang practitioner and National Heritage Artist Danongan Kalanduyan and his family.

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“Transit,” the debut feature of Hannah Espia, concerns the real-life plight of kids born to foreign workers in Israel. Below the age of five, these children are liable to be forced into an unwelcome exodus to the parents’ country, one that he or she has never even seen. Joshua is a loveable four-year-old boy, whose native tongue is Hebrew. His father is Moises, a caregiver, desperate to hide Joshua from the prying eyes of the immigration police, who patrol neighborhoods on the lookout for precisely such kids. (This is one Moises who may have to lead his son out of the Promised Land.) Based on actual policies laid down by the Israeli government in 2009, and the subsequent deportation of hundreds, the film more interestingly examines the complicated tangle of ethnicity, cultural heritage, family ties and the idea of home.

While Moises works in a suburb, Joshua is cared for by Janet, Moises’s older sister, who lives in Tel Aviv and herself has a teenaged daughter, Yael, by an Israeli man long gone from the scene. Yael’s in no danger of deportation. Moreover, she identifies as Israeli (as does Joshua), much to the distress of her mother. Part of the film’s larger context is the continuing reliance of the Philippines on its citizens working abroad, whose remittances keep the economy afloat—a reliance that can be traced to the Marcos regime and its deliberate policy of exporting human capital, beginning in the 1970s. With the lack of jobs at home and no systematic plans to industrialize, what choice do people like Moises and Janet have? The film is timely, as the issue of deportation, of longing and belonging, resonates globally, whether in the United States, Hong Kong, or elsewhere in the Philippine diaspora.

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For his indie, thought-provoking, and stylized films, Raya Martin has been justly praised and recently was named as one of the 50 best filmmakers under 50 years of age by Cinema Scope magazine. In the case of “How to Disappear Completely,” however, his reach has exceeded his grasp. Filmed in a small seaside town in Batangas, the film revolves around an uptight, dysfunctional family. The mother is religious, the father drinks and the teenaged daughter, acutely aware of her sexuality, is blatantly unhappy, her unhappiness exacerbated by the town’s claustrophobic way of life.

With the parents emotionally estranged from each other and with its hints of incest, the daughter seeks refuge in a darkly imaginative world that evokes horror and a murderous impulse. The electronic music, the cinema verité approach and the often eerie settings are meant to evoke an interior world of repressed desire and terror. Certainly moody and atmospheric, “How to Disappear Completely” unfortunately seems more an exercise than a genuine plumbing of teenaged angst. At times, the film seems a pastiche—“The Shining meets” “The Blair Witch Project” meets “Repulsion.” Certain elements point to a B movie—zombie women, teenaged boys on skateboards assaulting schoolgirls in a cemetery—and perhaps “How to Disappear” would have worked better as one.

In the half-hour documentary “Delano Manongs,” Marissa Aroy pays tribute to the Filipino farmworkers in California (the manongs of the title). In the mid 1960s, the Filipino Agricultural Workers Committee, headed by the charismatic, cigar-chomping Larry Itliong and the soft-spoken Philip Vera Cruz, went on strike for better wages and working conditions against their employers, powerful grape growers. The strike eventually led to the coalescing of the Filipinos and the Mexicans, and the formation of the United Farm Workers, headed by the Chicano Cesar Chavez.

With its interviews of Chicana labor activist Dolores Huerta (who, along with Chavez, headed the National Farm Workers Association) and the sons of both Itliong and Chavez, the documentary sets the record straight and makes it clear that without the walkout by the Filipinos, then the UFW may never have come into being. The feature film released earlier this year and that looks at Chavez’s life, “Cesar Chavez,” does include the role of the manongs, but essentially shunts them off, rendered as bit players. They practically disappear completely, a vanishing act that vitiates an otherwise moving film. Wisely, Aroy makes no reference to this biopic, and lets the historical facts speak for themselves.

Copyright L.H. Francia 2014  

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TAGS: “Delano Manongs, “How to Disappear Completely, “The Cotabato Sessions, “Transit, ” “Repulsion, ” “The Shining meets” “The Blair Witch Project, ” Hannah Espia, ” Joel Quizon, ” Marissa Aroy, 37th annual Asian American International Film Festival, Cesar Chavez, Danongan Kalanduyan, Dolores Huerta, Filipino Agricultural Workers Committee, film festivals, independent Filipino filmmakers, indy Filipino films, Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, Raya Martin, United Farm Workers
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