Raya Martin’s Independencia
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.