Monday, November 23, 2009

Bontoc Eulogy (1995, Marlon Fuentes)

A fellow film buff and I were talking about the local cinema scene during a lull in screenings at Cinemalaya Cinco. The topic drifted to film critics. Ted pointed out a young guy from the crowd and said that he was Alexis Tioseco. I was dumbfounded. I've seen the guy a number of times but I never knew that he was the film critic/programmer with intelligent things to say about cinema. All along I thought Tioseco was a middle aged man. His intense passion and extensive knowledge of Filipino films belie his true age.

Four months later, I'm sitting at the Videotheque room of the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI). It is the first day of the tribute to the late film critic, Alexis Tioseco. Short films slated for showing were championed by Tioseco in his Fully Booked Film Series. That is what I liked most about Tioseco. Not only did he recommend some truly superb films, he made it a point to share those films via public screenings. The UPFI pays tribute by showing two of these films for free. Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind is a Brechtian film about the ongoing struggle of working-class people in the United States. It is a one-of-a-kind film that will resonate with the activist-students of the national university.

The must-see film is Bontoc Eulogy. Almost an hour in length, it transports the audience back to the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Relying heavily on archival photos and footages, director Marlon Fuentes reconstructs the experiences of 69 Igorots on display at the World Fair. During the event, local inhabitants of the Philippines were dubbed as ‘primitive.’ Archival footage shows the frequent slaying of dogs for food, the mock beheading of enemies, and the ape-like foot structure of the Igorots.

From this faux documentary arises the truth behind the ‘human zoo’ exhibit. The display of so-called primitive Filipinos is an attempt to justify the Benevolent Assimilation project of the Americans started in the late 19th century. American officials believed that the local natives of the Philippines were incapable of governing themselves after the fall of Manila. President William McKinley felt it was immoral to give the Philippines back to the Spanish government. Hence, the United States annexed the Philippines and began its mission of educating and christianizing Filipinos.

The Filipinos bravely fought back despite scarcity of arms. The Americans, already aware of the power of films, created some films that depict Filipinos as bandits. These propaganda films show Filipino troublemakers retreating from the Americans. The fighting was pictured as a mild insurrection by local subjects and not as a war between two nations. Several of these films had Afro-Americans portraying Filipinos.

Bontoc Eulogy starts as a detective story (a middle-aged Filipino immigrant searching for his Igorot warrior-grandfather) and ends up as an examination of the Filipino immigrant experience. Foreign settlers experience the hurt of being called brown monkeys and of being treated as second-class citizens. Several of them inevitably look back to the past in order to survive. They crave for heroes, warriors, and freedom fighters. If they cannot find one, then they will invent one. The short film cites Jose Rizal’s saying, ‘he who does not look back from whence he came from will never ever reach his destination.’

A character from the film states that 'Filipinos are expert in the art of forgetting.' But, Filipinos also excel in remembering. The tribute titled In Memoriam: Alexis Tioseco (1981-2009) will be held at UPFI Videotheque on the following dates: November 24 (4:30 PM), November 25 (4:30 PM & 6:30 PM), November 26 (4:30 PM), and December 3 (4:30 PM & 6:30 PM). Admission is free.

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