Monday, August 3, 2009

Engkwentro (2009, Pepe Diokno)

Pepe Diokno, youngest filmmaker ever granted Cinemalaya funds for a full-length feature, is a grandchild of the late human rights advocate and esteemed Senator Jose Diokno. Armed with lots of moolah, genes of a fighter, and hand-held cameras, Pepe Diokno makes a grand political statement with Engkwentro. He deals head-on with the issue of extra-judicial killings in the country, which is one of the worst crimes of the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

I'd enjoyed watching the film. It bristled with the passion of an avid moviegoer, explosive energy of a sprinter, and the fiery courage of an activist. I loved the references to the films, Imburnal, Tirador, and Tribu. Diokno took some of the best parts from each film and incorporated them into his film. Just like Imburnal, Engkwentro features juvenile delinquents treated as unwanted animals and pests. The 'cockroaches' of Imburnal and the 'rats' of Engkwentro were easily extinguished by vigilantes.

Tirador is a fast-paced story about snatchers in Quiapo. There is a scene in Engkwentro showing members of Batang Dilim prowling in the dark alleys. They chanced upon a member of a rival gang and proceeded to manhandle him. One of the gang members brought up his slingshot (tirador) and took a shot at the crotch of the rival gang member. Then, they're off like snatchers sprinting to safety.

With Tribu, Diokno cribbed the story of two gangs facing off in the middle of the night. Some fight scenes were underlit. Whether those were intended or not, the dark and dizzying scenes showed gang members in their preferred environment. These low-lifers are creatures of the night, as suggested by their gang names, Batang Dilim and Bagong Buwan. The varmints loiter in the dark alleys. They scamper like rats in the dizzying mazes.

Diokno failed to borrow the spontaneity of the dialogues in Tribu. In the set-up prior to the slingshot scene, there's an awkward silence among the gang members. Maybe a frontal camera shot of the gang could have removed the awkwardness. I also disliked Tomas’ brandishing of his gun. The gang leader must have been stoned because he failed to use the gun during the melee. However, the shootings at the end were spectacularly shot and very powerful.

The key asset of the movie is the ominous voiceover by a mayor named Danilo Dularte Suarez. The name of the mayor refers to two things, the Davao Death Squad (DDS) and Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City. Yes, Diokno zooms in specifically on the killings in Davao City. Engkwentro further ups the ante by mimicking portions of real speeches made by Mayor Duterte. There is a part where the voiceover even refers to the 2004 killing of human rights defender Rashid Manahan in Davao City. The voiceover is a nice device to show the omnipresence of the mayor and his goons. It adds to the paranoia felt by a gang leader, Richard (Felix Roco), who is determined to leave the place.

During the UP Cine Adarna screening of the film, a female student was wondering about the identity of the man behind the voice. 'Si Bayani ba iyan?,' she blurted out loud. It is disappointing to learn that a college student fails to identify the man given the facts broadcasted at the start of the film. That type of ignorance can be fixed with a simple research or a daily reading of news.
What cannot be fixed immediately is the fact that a lot of Davao City residents seem to accept the need for vigilante killings. Yes, Davao City seems to be peaceful and safe, but at what price? Lives of children and young people? Good grief! They are not insects and varmints that should be exterminated or vanquished.

Films like Engkwentro and Imburnal are important because they unveil the truth about the killings in Davao City. Some may argue with the artistic excesses. Some may disagree with the approaches to storytelling. But, nobody can deny the power and relevance of the films’ political statement: Stop extra-judicial killings in Davao City!

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