Raya Martin’s Inde­pen­den­cia

Miguel Marías

Like the other films by Raya Mar­tin that I’ve seen so far, Inde­pen­den­cia (2009) man­ages to nar­rate a long period of the his­tory of his coun­try within a very short period of screen time. While Maicling pelic­ula nañg y sañg indio nacional (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional, 2005) is a sort of digest of the end of the Span­ish coloni­sa­tion of the Philip­pines, Inde­pen­den­cia tells how the arch­i­pel­ago became a colony of the U.S. instead of an inde­pen­dent coun­try. The par­tic­u­lar nar­ra­tive strate­gies applied in both films (as well as, up to a cer­tain point, in Martin’s Auto­hys­to­ria, 2007) are dif­fer­ent from Martin’s other work, yet equiv­a­lent to each other: rather than expen­sively recon­struct­ing a his­tor­i­cal period in order to stage and film an inter­pre­ta­tion of it, he instead recre­ates the very mode of rep­re­sen­ta­tion offered by the cin­ema of the respec­tive eras, under­cut­ting an addi­tional stage of dis­tor­tion or abstraction.

The films are mostly in black and white; the first almost silent, the sec­ond dis­tin­guished by an effec­tive use of care­fully selected sounds and very sparse dia­logue. This tech­nique risks mak­ing both films look archaic, yet in fact they emerge as sim­ple and unmedi­ated, seem­ingly filmed con­tem­porar­ily with (or just after) the events depicted. Mar­tin expertly applies the eco­nom­ics of Poverty Row film­mak­ing, a mode of pro­duc­tion effec­tive both in poor coun­tries and small pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies in the US, one that replaces money with imag­i­na­tion and inge­nu­ity. This method — first fully devel­oped by Jacques Tourneur in his Val Lewton-​produced movies for RKO in the early 1940s, by Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC, and even by Frank Borzage when he shot Moon­rise (1948) — can be sum­marised as fol­lows: if you can­not shoot in an actual rail­way sta­tion, it is pos­si­ble to sug­gest what is lack­ing with close shots, dark­ness, smoke, fog, a whis­tle, the sound of a train. Thus, in Inde­pen­den­cia, stu­dio trees and exu­ber­ant foliage both sug­gest and hide the for­est, and some cheap and “crude” spe­cial effects — light­ning, the sound of wind — stand in for a tem­pest. The nar­ra­tion is often ellip­ti­cal, at times dou­bly so, since events that would ordi­nar­ily take place on-​screen can only be deduced from their con­se­quences (a grave, a fallen tree), or are related after the fact by one char­ac­ter to another. This lack of imme­di­ate expla­na­tion cre­ates an irreg­u­lar rhythm that induces the spec­ta­tor to watch intently every shot, and explore every square inch of the frame. Much like what hap­pens in the films of Bres­son or Straub, the spec­ta­tor is forced to wait in sus­pense, with ten­sion, for what is about to hap­pen is always felt (or even announced, as when the main char­ac­ter appears to address the cam­era in a close shot and whis­pers: ‘I hear the sounds of the Amer­i­cans, they are closer. Listen.’).

Inde­pen­den­cia, in lit­tle more than seventy-​five min­utes, con­denses the life of almost three gen­er­a­tions of Fil­ipinos. Since some peo­ple seem to describe it as a ‘plot­less’ or non-​narrative film, or even pre­tend that in it noth­ing ever hap­pens, against my habits I will try to briefly describe it, despite the high risk of spoil­ers (which should not mat­ter much since it is not a film based on surprise):

Dur­ing the short, unhur­ried pre-​credits sequence we encounter, with­out lengthy intro­duc­tion, a way of life that is quiet, peace­ful, even play­ful, yet soon to become the past: ‘Only a few dances left,’ says an old man to a wor­ried mother, one of sev­eral nat­u­rally ele­gant women gath­ered before a church, as a nos­tal­gic song is sud­denly inter­rupted by the dis­tant sound of a gun. Soon, the mother and her son are forced to hur­riedly pack and flee from the unseen invaders in fear and alarm — a sequence that recalls the begin­ning of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Mono­gatari (1953), when war descends upon the vil­lage of Ohmi. They go walk­ing by night, with con­i­cal hats and a lantern, into the deep for­est — I can­not help think­ing again of Mizoguchi, this time San­sho Dayu (1954) — and find an old hut aban­doned by the Spaniards. After rebuild­ing the hut, they take refuge there alone, grow veg­eta­bles, cook, attempt to hunt boars, fish in the nearby river, and sleep.

Liv­ing in fear of dis­cov­ery by the sol­diers, years pass in a state of soli­tude and iso­la­tion for the mother and son. The pas­sage of time, and its per­pet­ual cycle of toil and rest, is implied by Martin’s repet­i­tive set-​ups, sim­i­larly framed in approx­i­mately the same places of the set, and dif­fer­en­ti­ated by the impact of the sea­sons on the leaves of the trees. One day, in the for­est, the son over­hears voices in Eng­lish and dis­cov­ers a Fil­ipino girl raped by the Amer­i­cans. He takes her in his arms and car­ries her to their hut. Although the girl senses and fears the jeal­ousy of the older woman, whose emo­tional frenzy is por­trayed by Mar­tin in a man­ner as direct and dar­ingly sim­ple as Samuel Fuller in Shock Cor­ri­dor (1963) — a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of dreams or men­tal images as short bursts of arti­fice — the son per­suades the young woman to stay, and a new work­ing and sleep­ing rou­tine devel­ops. Later, the mother dies from ill­ness, and the young woman gives birth to a child.

Abruptly, at this point the film seems to break up, like in Bergman’s Per­sona (1966) or Hellman’s Two-​Lane Black­top (1971), and a (most likely fake) news­reel with an Eng­lish voiceover appears and pompously informs of the meth­ods with which Amer­i­can sol­diers have “pre­served” law and order in the Philip­pines — in this case, the ruth­less mur­der of a small child who took an egg from a mar­ket stand, exe­cuted despite protes­ta­tions that his crime was merely a sort of jest.

The child of the young cou­ple grows and begins to learn the daily rou­tines of his father, who tells him, as he once told his mother, of his grandfather’s single-​handed slaugh­ter of a nest of snakes that invaded their farm­ing ground (it is sig­nif­i­cant that the very act of sto­ry­telling is almost always cen­tral to Martin’s films, even in his first doc­u­men­tary fea­ture Ang isla sa dulo ng mundo (The Island at the End of the World, 2004). Later, as a storm rages in the for­est, the father and son lose sight of each other, and the mother returns alone, weary, damp and dejected, to the dam­aged hut. The son even­tu­ally locates his exhausted father, and falls asleep with him under the rain only to wake and find him dead. The child is later cap­tured by three Amer­i­can sol­diers and their Fil­ipino guide, and, under fire from close range, he escapes and runs through the for­est. He finally dis­ap­pears over the edge of a cliff (and from the frame itself) as his cloth­ing is tinted a shade of red, and the sky over the painted back­drop of moun­tains turns yel­low, orange, then red too. Fade to black, and the end cred­its roll.

Martin’s tech­nique of ellip­ti­cally surf­ing across the years con­verts each sequence into a clear-​cut phase of the char­ac­ters’ lives, and every event depicted becomes metonymic; the whole film a metaphor. Entirely set in a stu­dio for­est, much like (yet also, in sev­eral other aspects, quite the oppo­site of) Josef von Sternberg’s final mas­ter­piece The Saga of Anata­han (1953), this is an explic­itly arti­fi­cial film, one which presents not a piece of real­ity or slice of life, demand­ing intense con­cen­tra­tion and con­tem­pla­tion on the part of the audi­ence. Despite being tightly con­trolled in every aspect, it is nei­ther spec­tac­u­lar nor dra­matic in its con­struc­tion, and invites the viewer to study and psy­cho­log­i­cally link each of its sep­a­rate sequences — which are clear in them­selves, but, when taken together, tell a story (or a fable, if you pre­fer) only on that con­di­tion. This is obvi­ously the oppo­site of what most films today demand and offer; an approach that takes courage, per­haps on the part of the spec­ta­tor as much as the film­maker. This courage is avail­able not to the all-​powerful but those who have noth­ing to lose; those who, like Mar­tin, take the care to expend as lit­tle as possible.

A Note on the Images:

Almost 3000 pic­tures from the shoot of Raya Martin’s Inde­pen­den­cia were given to our jour­nal (of the same name) by the film’s French pro­duc­tion com­pany Atopic, Antoine Segovia and Christophe Gougeon. These are pic­tures that were taken on the set, but seem to come from mul­ti­ple places. The sup­pos­edly wide jun­gle of Inde­pen­den­cia was only a nar­row stage, per­pet­u­ally recom­posed in a dozen wet, dark or sunny frames. The pho­tographs don’t reveal any secrets, or dis­rupt any mys­tery. On the con­trary, they sug­gest a renewed effi­ciency: like the film, they show that arti­fi­cial­ity doesn’t for­bid the emer­gence of strong images dur­ing the stream of impro­vised moments of pro­duc­tion. Each day of shoot­ing was both iden­ti­cal and dif­fer­ent: same hour, same place, in which a cabin’s porch would become a river, a moun­tain, a grave or a green screen, allow­ing the crew to per­form their craft.

—Antoine Thirion, Paris, 2011

Two sets of images can be seen at Inde­pen­den­cia: set 1, set 2. Pre­sented above are a fur­ther selection.