from Heimat is a Space in Time (2019)
The year 2019 was not much of a good year for me. It was a year of struggle over debt, precarity, and lack of job security. Albeit almost completing my long overdue MA Thesis Proposal, which has to be defended and completed this coming year 2020, the economic realities I faced have been overly harsh. It came to a point that I cannot afford to watch films in theaters or participate in film festivals as actively as before, much more so, to spend some days eating only twice a day (yes!). This is the reason why I have not watched most of the Filipino film releases this year, nor do I have the energy to catch all of them given the financial situation I have been.
Yet I am thankful that after all these, I’m still here, functioning well albeit struggling to come to terms with the future. I will thread on and will not be cowered by the past. Next year would be a different year, a chance to come to terms with my mistakes and march on towards the revolutionary future. Indeed, we make mistakes, yet there is always time to rectify them, to begin again, and to start anew.
I mainly blame the speculative aspect of money, its symbolic and heretical function, for making my year a living hell. Our economy has deluded itself to promises of instant gratification and instant wealth.
We all learn the hard way in life. We are compelled to sell our labor power to sustain our daily needs. Yet, even at this level of depravity, some people still managed to take advantage of other people by manipulating the speculative aspect of money, to make it look something bigger, only to find out that it has already transformed into a debt pit.
Neoliberalism works this way, by false assurances, by insisting on the supposed value of money more than its real value. In neoliberalism, all is seduced by the speculative and fetishistic character of financial capital, without looking into what constitutes as real. This was what happened during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and what happened to me this year 2019.
from Reason (2018)
Some Highlights of My Year
My 2019 was my first year to fully integrate with the streaming platform. I purchased a digital television (Sony Bravia) back in 2018, but since I could not afford an Android TV, I bought an Android Box as an alternative. I then subscribed to Netflix, Fox Plus, Mubi.com, iFlix, Spotify, and other digital platforms to immerse myself in the new world order of film distribution.
It was not actually that satisfying. The limited choice of films has made the experience lacking. The curation both in Netflix and FoxPlus is less diverse. Mubi.com may have better curatorial choices, but due to the limited number of days of exhibition per film in the digital portal, I couldn’t catch up with some of the films.
Aside from my foray into the digital platforms of viewing, I have also been lucky this year to attend one major film conference in Singapore, the 2019 Asian Cinema Studies Society Conference (ACSSC) held at LaSalle College of the Arts, Singapore. I presented a paper titled ‘Dialectics of Decentering: The Logic of Decentering Spacetime Environments in the Cinema of Lav Diaz‘ in a panel on Rural Cinemas in the Philippines co-presented with fellow Filipino film scholars Rolando Tolentino, Tito Quiling Jr., and Katrina Ross Tan.
As 2019 comes to close, we are reminded always that cinema is not at all only about the films per se, but also, and more importantly, about the industry and the people behind it. One of the notable highlights of my year is the launching of our website STRIKE II (http://strk2.com/), a research and education platform dedicated to the critical and political-economic study of the Philippine Film Industry. Jointly created with VCinema writer-colleague Epoy Deyto and other young Filipino scholars, STRIKE II strives to provide a critical platform for Filipino film workers, students, and other interested parties where they can learn more about their present condition as film laborers. With this platform, we hope to shed some light on the current issues and problems that Filipino film workers continue to face every day: from lack of job security to unpaid labor practices.
Best of 2019 in Cinema
MIDSOMMAR (Ari Aster / USA / 2019)
In the folk horror genre, magic is the transgressive substance that disturbs a supposed reality. It is that substance in which enchantment overcomes the disenchanted. Midsommar opens a window to this archaic world of the occult, of communities unwritten, unstudied, and unsung, of a world displaced by today’s technocracies. What we see is a contradiction rooted in the irreconcilability of the mundane and the sacred, with a narrative built on the notion of permeability of cultural borders and the evolution of arcane into the familiar through participative and collaborative practice. Aster depicts the horrific in the idea of cultural contiguity in occult ideologies. Albeit being a less horrific film than Aster’s previous film Hereditary (2018), in Midsommar, Aster shows mastery of the mise-en-scene.
REASON (Anand Patwardhan / India / 2018)
Anand Patwardhan’s film is about India’s contemporary political crisis rooted in the divide between right-wing fundamentalists (Hindus) and religious minorities (Muslims, Christians, Communists, Rationalists). Strewn in a dialectical fashion, Patwardhan tries to make sense of the partisan logic between the two sides, often highlighting the motives and arguments. Patwardhan is careful not to overthrow the balance, but what inescapably appears on-screen is an immense class inequality between the ruling class fundamentalists and the political minorities censored for speaking against those who hold power. What plays is a stark depiction of class struggle in a subcontinent troubled by centuries of colonial rule and plagued by a religion-based caste system that continues to justify killings today on the basis of religious differences.
KRABI, 2562 (Ben Rivers & Anocha Suwichakornpong / Thailand / 2019)
Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornporn’s film is a collaborative experiment on psychogeography, with no other postmodern gimmicks other than the play between myth and documentary reality vis-a-vis time and space. While Anocha’s previous film By the Time it Gets Dark (2016) has used extensively postmodern devices to circle around the historical trauma of Thailand, in Krabi, 2562, she has tamed her postmodern flare, first, through her collaboration with Ben Rivers, and second, by going for a simpler route on the narrative. Krabi, 2562 is about places in thought, of foreignness of the land and its people, and myths that bind everything together in a circularity of time.
THE CORDILLERA OF DREAMS (Patricio Guzman / Chile / 2019)
Patricio Guzman’s The Cordillera of Dreams completes his latest trilogy, a trilogy which he started with Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and followed by The Pearl Button (2015). In The Cordillera of Dreams, Guzman explores the historical trauma etched in Chile’s dominant geological feature – the world’s longest cordillera – the Andes Mountains, which stands in its precipice as definitive of Chile’s resilience amidst its troubled history. In the film, Guzman depicts the earth as an active participant in shaping human history, in the same way how he depicts water in The Pearl Button and light in Nostalgia for the Light. Instead of achieving closure, The Cordillera of Dreams opens towards the future as Guzman highlights allies in his craft. He more or less shows the necessity of succession in documenting the violent history of his country, like the cordillera that continues to grow roots.
JOKER (Todd Phillips / USA / 2019)
Joker (2019) is one big hefty salute to the 1970s Scorsese and went even beyond the representational politics of the director. The film’s narrative follows the logic of ‘falling into place’. There is a grand narrative playing in the background: the well-established narrative of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. And pieces from the film’s narrative picks on some of these narrative clues to tie together its own tight narration of how Arthur Fleck became Joker. The style of narration is not so straightforward. It lingers on the act, on every obsession, delusion, illness, and bodily pain that Phoenix greatly effectuate. His performance paints mental disability beyond recognition but in a very precise way, shifting within a whole spectrum of disembodiment that systematically fractures as time passes. Phoenix’s performance is almost like a staged performance art piece: it is indeterminable, yet it falls into place somehow, somewhere, but not quite, under the rigor of character motivations.
Joker has shown class antagonism in populist rigor, both in its societal and individualist form, making the film utterly political. However, it somewhat tries to evade being tagged as a political film itself, for an obvious reason: it has to sell itself as a popular film. But it carries bits and pieces of contemporary critique on the State’s lack of support for social services and its passive erasure of class minorities i.e. the deviant, the marginalized, among others.
The film can be seen as a fractured dystopian mirror of our contemporary discontent with the ruling class, reminiscent of contemporary mass protests happening across the world, most predominantly, in Hong Kong, several anti-Trump protests, the Yellow Jacket movement in Europe, among others.
THE IRISHMAN (Martin Scorsese / USA / 2019)
Scorsese’s The Irishman has a crooked moral surface: a mobster hires a family man to become a ‘house painter’ or a hitman. The family man, unable to reconcile family and mob life, is rejected by his daughter. In a sense, The Irishman is about the contradiction behind social compartmentalization. Frank Sheeran lives a double life as a breadwinner to a family and a hitman to a mob royalty, only to face his ultimate fate as an aged and abandoned father lost in time, unable to regain the love of his daughter. At the start, it felt that Frank’s odd job as a hitman is only routine, only part of a deal, which he can compartmentalize and keep secret from the family. Frank eventually becomes entangled in the murky world of the mafia, earning notoriety of being a fixer, able to fix anything for the people in power. Frank is compelled to fulfill his job as a hitman even it takes for him to kill his friend – Jimmy Hoffa. In essence, The Irishman portrays the demise of patriarchal ego, an ego that does not guarantee true happiness and a life well-lived.
THE DEAD DON’T DIE (Jim Jarmusch / USA / 2019)
What makes The Dead Don’t Die as a one of a kind experience is its slapstick breaking-the-fourth-wall comedy that spins the zombie subgenre around, reminiscent of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. Jarmusch plays with elements of suburbia, pop culture, cult, and other popular tropes to create a rich hodgepodge that parodies the zombification of people under the spell of communication capitalism. The film is truly an enjoyable idiosyncratic take on Zombie apocalypse.
WHITE NOISE (Antoine D’Agata / France / 2019)
In the film White Noise, Antoine D’Agata explores the state of humanity in its most horrid state. D’Agata asks ‘what is human?’ in the underbelly of the body economy in which the erasure of the body via drug addiction, poverty, prostitution, violence is operative. White Noise offers a scathing critique on the abandonment of the state of the human body and on capitalism’s expropriation of undead labor through bodily spectacle. White Noise looks into the darkest desires of the Human to exploit its own body to its very end, leading a pathway towards dark enlightenment and inhumanism.
PARASITE (Bong Joon Ho / South Korea / 2019)
Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) expresses the class contradiction of South Korean society in ways truly menacing and comedic at the same time. It is a film that perfectly balances social critique and tragicomedy with technical precision, especially in executing its mise-en-scene design as an allegory to the nation-state’s occluded rottenness behind its bourgeois facade.
MARRIAGE STORY (Noah Baumbach / USA / 2019)
Marriage Story is perhaps the most problematic film in this list because of its narrow band of class consciousness and an issue – divorce – mostly attuned with the middle class. In the film, we are drawn to a couple in the process of ending their eight-year marriage. Baumbach approaches his subject without sentiment and with atypical frankness. In the filmic reality of the Marriage Story, no inhibitions from the character can be felt. Each word uttered is a direct statement, a self-conscious action that articulates one’s desire. It is as if each of the film characters possesses enough authenticity that makes them capable of verbalizing their own points, their own right to live, and their artistic and individual freedom. Their class position grants them the privilege to explore and exercise their individual liberties and powers, even if such freedom necessarily means dissolving their marriage. At the end of the film, Marriage Story appeals to the perceived middle-class fantasy of non-oppositional conflict: that peace and love can overcome and repair a shattered partnership. In reality, most of the time, such things do not happen.
HEIMAT IS A SPACE IN TIME (Thomas Heise / Germany / 2019)
Heimat is a Space in Time is a work of genealogy. German director Thomas Heise traces the history of violence that disrupted his family over the ages, often juxtaposed to images of desolation (e.g. Nazi concentration camps) and family heirloom (e.g. photographs, ornaments, lists of names) hovering over time and space. The degree of the exhibition is staggering as Heise unravels generational trauma from the monstrosity of wars from World War I to World War II to the division of Germany into East and West Banks and the onset of neoliberalism. What we witness is a contemplative work on historical guilt and despair, piecing together a broken image of Germany.
SYNONYMS (Nadav Lapid / France-Israel / 2019)
There is no one word or a synonym of such that can describe Nadav Lapid’s idiosyncratic tale of a lost migrant in Paris. Here is a character named Yoav who wants to renounce his citizenship as an Israeli and dreams of becoming a full-fledged citizen of France. In his act of self-exile, he becomes the fetishized subject of the bourgeois estate in Paris. When Yoav arrived in Paris, he was almost naked with no material possessions, shivering in the cold weather. At his barest state, he encountered Emile and Caroline who are wealthy enough to lend him money and clothes, enough to make him live again. It seems as though Lapid is dramatizing the allegory on naturalization and migration to other countries as a means of escape. The process does not hide the fact that Yoav, who served in his home country as a soldier killing Palestinians, cannot hide generations of historical atrocities his country has perpetuated. His complicity to Israel’s repressive agenda has made the process of naturalization unnatural. Yoav is a testament to the contradictions at the border.
THE BLONDE ONE (Marco Berger / Argentina / 2019)
The Blonde One is a love story of unfulfilled love. It explores the love affair between two bisexual men. The gravity of their love is magnified by their secrecy wrapped around the veil of heteronormativity and patriarchy in Argentina. Films like The Blonde One speaks of the radical impetus of homosexual desire in the face of heteronormativity and its power to destroy preconceived notions of love. Yet Berger also takes into account of another force at work, a force capable of complexifying the desire and rationalizing it – the capitalist economy, which compels these two men to abandon their brewing partnership and their contrived positions, all in the name of dead labor to sustain each of their families. It only shows that true queer liberation can only be attained if the economic patriarchy of capitalism is smashed.
THE GOLDEN GLOVE (Fatih Akin / Germany / 2019)
The Golden Glove is perhaps the most polarizing film in this list, but its grotesqueness and ultraviolence are what makes it absolutely exhilarating. The neglect of civil society on lumpenproletariat subjects is the onerous theme of this film. Serial killers depicted on-screen are points of reflection of the Negative of humanism. Their existence in society is a sign of exteriorized societal alienation laid bare in the normalized standards of society, a society that erases and criminalizes deviant behavior. The Golden Glove masterfully executes its mise-en-scene to depict the societal monstrosity rooted in civil societies’ criminal neglect of minorities – the poor, the destitute, the deviant, and the insane.
PAGKATAPOS NG TIGKIWIRI (Danielle Madrid / Philippines / 2018)
Danielle Madrid’s Pagkatapos ng Tigkiwiri (2018) is notable for its frank depiction of Filipino farmers in Negros Island and their struggle for genuine land reform. In a semi-feudal, a semi-colonial country like the Philippines, films like Madrid’s have become necessary in making sense of the ongoing people’s struggle. Philippine cinema needs more films like this. Without such films from the ground, the people’s struggle is in dire risk of being reduced into obscurity by propagandists of the ruling class.
HISTORY OF THE REVOLUTION (Maxime Martinot / France / 2019)
History of the Revolution, a short film by Maxime Martinot, traces the necessity of revolution from the ancient times to the present, ending with Gilet Jaunes, France’s newest iteration of the 1968 worker’s revolt. The film plays with the idea of revolution, from its scientific definition to its political ramifications, quoting passages from revolutionary and scientific texts. The film reminds us again of the necessity of revolution and the overturning of society’s order at the height when the primary contradiction has reached an irreversible point.
TALKING ABOUT TREES (Suhaib Gasmelbari / Sudan / 2019)
Sudanese cinema is non-existent today due to the strict and oppressive censorship of the Sudan government. Film clubs like the Sudanese Film Group, composed of aged film directors from the by-gone age of their film culture, have resisted the fact that they couldn’t show a film to the greater public. In the documentary, we see their struggle to cultivate a vibrant film culture in their locale in their attempt to show Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) for free in their village. The documentary traces the nostalgic root of their longing and struggle, articulating the sense of loss and difficulty of living in a country with a curtailed freedom of expression.
MR. LEATHER (Daniel Nolasco / Brazil / 2019)
Mr. Leather is a documentary about the practice of leather culture in Brazil, paying tribute to artist extraordinaire Tom of Finland, whose lurid homoerotic sketches of men have ignited the leather culture in the 1970s-80s. What made the film more than merely being a sketch of fetishism is the degree of critical awareness of its subjects. Aside from subscribing to a fetishism of a commodified kind, they refuse to be reduced only to such categories. They see the need to abstract this sexual fetishism in ways that recognize a community of like-minded practitioners. It is surprising that in their search for Mr. Leather Brasil 2019, contestants are assessed based on their level of self-consciousness and depth of knowledge one possesses about their own subculture. Their critical awareness as a community is important in their struggle to fight the stigma against LGBTQ, especially in addressing the public’s prejudice on leather culture.
JOSE (Li Cheng / Guatemala / 2018)
Li Cheng’s Jose is a bittersweet love story of two men on the outskirts of Guatemala. In some sense, it is like The Blonde One in its insistence to carve a homosexual subjectivity against the macho-laden Latin American culture of Guatemala, highlighting the disparity between sexual freedom and economic freedom. While the characters are compelled to follow their hearts, what weighs more than this delusion is the economic reality that forces one to regurgitate back to their daily struggle. The film invalidates the notion of intersectionality by insisting that there no greater contradiction than the class struggle itself.