This is not a review. This is a rumination.
A Kwentista (Bituin Escalante) narrates a harrowing story of Martial Law: a scoundrel militia, led by grotesque, literally two-faced, Chairman Narciso (Noel Sto. Domingo), female sex addict Tenyente (Hazel Orencio) and butcher, Ahas (Joel Saracho), occupies the remote village of Ginto. They create confusion and conditions the villagers through fear, superstition, and myth-making; all in the name of ushering peace and order and legitimizing their rule.
The villagers become victims, accomplices, voices, represented by Kwago/Aling Sinta (Pinky Amador), Paham (Bart Guingona), and Aling Maria (Junji Delfino). Lorena (Shaina Magdayao) volunteers her medical services in Ginto against the pleadings of her poet-husband, Hugo (Piolo Pascual). Could she have mistaken recklessness for responsibility? Nunc Tenebrae venit.
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Like Lav Diaz’s previous works, Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (2016), Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (2013), the film demands—and rewards—patience. The unfamiliar viewer to slow cinema is advised that a measure of viewing stamina, endurance, and focus is needed to avoid succumbing to Somnus. And no, chips won’t help you (So go on, munch and crunch you uncultured jerk. Just kidding).
The politically aware will readily see the parallelisms between the Marcos and Duterte regimes in the prominence of the armed forces, the human rights abuses and cardboard justice, to the cult of personality built around them as messiahs of the Philippines.
The acts of Chairman Narciso’s team are reminiscent of Ferdinand Marcos’ fake justifications for Martial Law: the fabrications of rebel takeovers by Communists and Muslim secessionists, which culminated in the scripted ambush of Juan Ponce Enrile (which the old, seemingly immortal senator admitted).
Marcos exaggerated and lied as he saw fit to suit his purposes leading to Martial Law. He tried to create an ideology, made himself a legendary wartime hero; all to perpetuate a myth of himself and his family. As Lav Diaz states in a previous interview, “Dictators are like that, you know? They rationalize their evil deeds with so many things…”
Lav Diaz’s opus is both timely and timeless; more so in these perilous times when democratic ideals and institutions are scorned and challenged by fanatics and demagogues.
Everything about the film is haunting: long takes with its conspiracy of chiaroscuro, lingering silences punctuated with shrill a cappellas of lyric verses, ambient sounds that mask the terrors of night and day, the illusion of time, and the absurdity of evil, the banality of evil as I recall Hannah Arendt.
There is a scene that especially haunts me: the story of Aling Maria.
The Kwentista sings a dirge of sorrow and madness. Every day Aling Maria waits by the window; a widow waiting for a son that will never arrive. Virtually affected, Hugo rises up from his own seated stupor and reaches out. But the outstretched hand never makes it past the window frame and is abruptly taken back as if ashamed for even trying.
In the absurdity of the sorrow that he believes they both experience, Hugo attempts to console Aling Maria and but is faced, or so I think, with the inaccessibility of the Other’s pain; the inaccessibility of Aling Maria’s loss. How should one call a mother who loses a child? How should a childless man like Hugo approach a totally alien experience? And so he retreats.
Empathy is such a strange word, more so an experience. To understand, to truly understand, share, and identify with the Other’s feelings, especially pain and sorrow, is a bit presumptuous, if not, arrogant, don’t you think?
No pain, despite its universality, is similar in gravity and impact. No one hurts and grieves the same way. At best, we can aim for familiarity; to be familiar with the Other’s pain. And in that sense of familiarity, try to gain a vision of the Other-in-Pain, and that alone should be enough for us to sit among the ashes in respectful silence. But the limits of language must be respected.
Martial Law never died. It merely took a vacation. The years from EDSA ’86 is its summer vacation.
Till from that summer’s day we wake, to find/ despair before us, vanity behind (George Santayana, Sonnet XXV)
Martial Law never disappeared. Its illusions of order and prosperity laid dormant within the masses and bureaucrats, bidding its time until the Cory Magic was undone. It’s just 32 years after the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986 but the tides of historical revisionism are already threatening to engulf us all.
The recent March 23-28, 2018 Pulse Asia survey shows Imee Marcos as a prospective 9th placer for senator. Bongbong Marcos nearly won the Vice Presidential race, a few hundred thousand votes short of Leni Robredo. In the time of Duterte, dictator Ferdinand Marcos has been laid in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, and the PCGG abolished. Most Millennials and the iPhone generation believe that the Martial Law period is a “golden age” when “one dollar equals to a peso” and “Hershey’s can be bought in the sari-sari store”.
With EDSA ’86, the Devil that was Martial Law and the Marcoses should not even be subject to debate today. But here we are fighting against trollyalists, keyboard armies, with Marcos-allies now in power.
EDSA ’86 should have been a moment of rupture, a revolution which spilled the blood of the enemies of the people, the butchers who tortured and killed the likes of Archimedes Trajano (killed for questioning the credentials of Imee Marcos), Liliosa Hilao (a student and activist), Boyet Mijares (the young son of Primitivo Mijares), Dr. Johnny Escandor, poet Eman Lacaba, and priest, Fr. Tulio Favali.
The EDSA Revolution presented a dividing line, a fresh start to severe our history from the 20-year “Season of the Devil” under Ferdinand Marcos. But instead, the revolution became a prayer picnic.
Mercy to the killer is treason to the victim.
In countries that have liberated themselves from dictatorship, leaders, their families, and officials were justly executed, their names chiseled-off from public spaces, their monuments destroyed, their names and deeds turned to objects of historical horror and hate so no one would dare again trample rights and liberty.
But no, we were easily serenaded by sweet words and catchy melodies. We were proud of “mapayapang paraan pagbabago”. And so the Marcoses were allowed to run off to the States with bars of gold, then return and participate in the politics of our democracy which they had previously trampled. We absolved the institutions of the armed forces and police forces despite being the organs of torture and execution. We forgave and accommodated for the sake of politics. Listen to Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore:
“Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics…”
The post-EDSA years prior to Duterte should have been the years of cleansing when Philippine History teachers should have effectively inculcated “Never Again to Martial Law” and “Uphold Human Rights”. Nobody would have held it against teachers of Araling Panlipunan to be hardline critics of the Marcoses. By all means proper and academic, in the context of Martial Law, we should have shamed the Marcos name, made it a byword of hate and horror among the Filipinos; made any form of sympathy to their cause objectionable.
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For the generation born and bred after EDSA ’86, we expect that the mention of “Martial Law” should inspire feelings of resistance and indignation; any attack on Human Rights should arouse righteous anger. But these are not happening today.
This is a failure of the post-EDSA ’86 system. We betrayed our martyrs, our heroes, our revolution by being lenient and lax. We succeeded in producing historical sympathy but we failed in creating a deep sense of historical empathy. Because if we truly empathized and understood our history, the devil of Martial Law and the Marcoses would not be haunting us today in the form of Duterte and his regime.
In these days of lights and shadows, while the soldiers’ sing their sick melody of, “Tao’y ‘di natututo … lalala”, we must rage and shout, “Gumising ka, o, Anak ng Bayan!”
Dom writes for pay by day and writes for passion by night. He is a Japan major at the University of the Philippines. He’s fond of ramen and anime but not of nice people.