Sometimes the third world film-maker finds himself before an illiterate public, swamped by American, Egyptian or Indian serials, and karate films, and he has to go through all this, it is this material that he has to work on, to extract from it the elements of a people who are still missing (Lino Brocka).
(Gilles Deleuze, Das Zeit-Bild, Frankfurt am Main 1991, p. 279)
“Doña Pina (Mona Lisa), a rich hacienda owner, is a despotic mother who favors her younger son Ellis (Christopher de Leon) over her other son Lorenzo (Phillip Salvador), thus promoting sibling rivalry between the two brothers. While Ellis studies in Manila, Lorenzo is only allowed to work at the farm… And Doña Pina cares much about Ellis’ bastard son had with their maid, while she is stern with Lorenzo’s children. Ellis’ desire is to inherit the farm and the wealth, and he comes home from Manila with his fiancée, sexy Cita (Carmi Martin). Asked by the mother to leave way to Ellis, resentful Lorenzo leaves the farm with his family and stays with friends. But Lorenzo’s indignant wife, Becky (Baby Delgado), confronts her mother in law about the unfairness towards Lorenzo, and the violent ensuing struggle leads to her miscarriage and death… Upon that, Cita is caught by Lorenzo’s drinking gang friends, and dies after being raped. Urged by friends, the conflict between the two enemy brothers runs into a violent armed conflict, with very little hope to be solved peacefully. Freely inspired by the biblical story about enemy brothers Cain and Abel, Lino Brocka’s film is a strong social and moral melodrama set in Marcos era’s Philippines, and probably underrated abroad, because it was not shown in festivals, unlike some other famous films. Along stars Christopher de Leon and Phillip Salvador is Mona Lisa, as the mother, a legendary actress who started in the 1930s as an actress and a singer. The film was censored at the time of release, mostly the scene of Cita’s rape. The source used for the restoration was the extant 35mm print from the ABS-CBN Film Archives (minus a few minutes of Cita’s rape and death, cut in the negative for censorship reasons). Cain and Abel is the first restoration project of ABS-CBN partnered with CDL to be scanned in 4K and restored in 2K.” (Max Tessier)
Neither individuals nor society as such can be found in a Brocka film, but members of specific social groups. There is no such thing as “society” to which the abstract subject of ideology relates, but a series of models of social organization that almost all characters play pathologically: large and core families, slums and residential areas, village communities and urban agglomerations, anarchic rag-tag proletarians and stern trade unionists, landowners, comrades, crooks.
You stand opposite Brocka’s protagonists. Although they are also mostly clearly located in the social nexus, they despair their assignment. Brocka’s relativity to figures is not (or not entirely) that of classic Hollywood cinema, his figures are not individuals equipped with the power to act individually.
But Brocka’s characters should not be confused with those windowless monads that the West European author cinema produced in large numbers (e.g. Bertolucci’s partner or Antonioni’s La notte), not even those bourgeois sons and daughters in whose midst he had to go again and again in order to get his films financed: “A producer […] contacts me and demands that in the future I will not say this or that, complain no more, no longer criticize, no more films in the slums. I turn and say: wonderful! So I didn’t make films in the slums for a year, I rose to the bourgeoisie” (Brocka in conversation with Olivier Assayas and Charles Tesson).
Why doesn’t Brocka contest this limitation? While the neurotic worldview of the characters penetrates the image space in Bertolucci and his associates and seals against any other perception, Brocka insists on a position of knowledge outside of “bourgeois entropy” (Pasolini). In a classically knitted melodrama like Ina, kapatid, anak, he therefore provided the middle class on the first floor with the lower class on the ground floor. Although their position remains marginal, it opens the world of the bourgeoisie to the continent of Brocka, from which the slums are not so easily driven away. Individuals at Brocka are never individuals, at most isolated individuals, whose relationship to the whole of society does not fall out of focus even where it appears to be completely cut off. In many of Brocka’s films, prominently in Bayan ko: Kapit sa patalim, the Philippine trade union movement figures as an alternative to the general lack of solidarity. Instead of indulging in this alternative world of life, the films only touch them marginally, since Brocka is interested in those who are marginalized; which are “good” in an intuitive, creative sense, but cannot decide to organize themselves. That is why there are countless variations of the following scene scattered across Brocka’s oeuvre: A crowd of people pushes through the squad while the protagonist watches, walks alongside or through them without ever finding any connection.
The Hollywood model of the individually powerful protagonist (which, first of all, doesn’t have to be incompatible with a concept of collective power of action) is constitutive for Brocka’s cinema. But only as a vanishing point, not as topicality. This becomes clear in the scenes you describe: It is not a question of the individual not being able to “merge” in one movement because he thinks too much from an individualistic perspective. On the contrary, the films repeatedly result in acts of individualization, in gestures in which the protagonists defend themselves against the determination of their fate through milieu and tradition and themselves as subjects. In this sense, the self-confident position of the Hollywood hero is, from Brocka’s perspective, a basic prerequisite for the social revolt, which can only take place after an act of self-uprooting (and therefore also only after the end of Brocka’s films). This will certainly also be related to the fact that the censorship has made it impossible to expressly depict social revolts. Rather, it surprised me that in a film like Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag, which was created for the wedding of martial law, left-wing protest marches are even allowed in the image space. It is actually striking that many of the most impressive Brocka figures are characterized by a narrow-minded passivity. This applies to Jaguar and the protagonist from Bayan ko: Kapit sa patalim, almost even more so for the two mothers in Ina, kapatid, anak and Stardoom, both films that do not belong to the canon of “relevant Brocka”. With a petrified expression and averted gaze, these mothers sit in their rooms and insist on what they consider to be their right, because tradition and the corresponding moral sense dictate it so. Again and again there are scenes in which other characters talk to these petrified mothers and try to activate them, to open their perception to the social and economic realities of a country that tradition can afford less and less. In these scenes, Brocka’s films also figure out their own speaker position, which is not that of classic social revolutionary agitation, as is known from Latin American films of the sixties and seventies, but which, so to speak, goes a few levels lower and tries to take the collective image arsenal by a few crucial positions to expand.
The reason for Brocka’s protagonists being marginalized, for their tragic isolation, is also to be found in the work of censorship, and that the liberation strikes at the end of his (sub) proletarian films point to a political awareness, the Brocka out of consideration for the censor could only hint as something that happens “after the film”. For different reasons and in a completely different way than the Agitprop cinematographies mentioned in Latin America, Brocka’s films ultimately come to a comparable result. Argentinian filmmakers Fernando E. Solanas and Octavio Getino keep the texture of their La hora de los hornos radically open by continually encouraging the audience to discuss what they see. In the end, there is an invitation to finally leave the passivity of the cinema behind and immerse yourself in active life. Brocka thinks the relationship between cinema and life differently, more continuously. What counts less is what the viewer will do immediately after the film, but rather the space of opportunity that the screen figure has opened. And who transcends the canvas towards life precisely because it can no longer be designed on it.
Brocka moves confidently through a variety of genres and milieus. Films as diverse as Insiang, Ina, kapatid, anak or Jaguar enter into a reciprocal relationship across generic and social demarcations, which can best be described as participation in one and the same world. Despite the disparity between melodrama and gangster film, between upper-middle-class mansion and overpopulated slums, the designated poles are always mediated with each other. This sometimes tightly woven, sometimes flimsy tape is made up of geographical, motivic, personal or even just gestural characteristics that appear in many of the films and are in part so similar to one another that they can be seen (and not only in the unreliable memory) it is difficult to tell them apart. The desperate outbreaks of violence at the end of Jaguar , Bona, and Insiang, for example, feed on the same anger and tragic, because unachievable, will to emancipate. Even those ubiquitous drunken men who line up, contrast, or even hinder the bustle of Brocka’s figures on the side of the road take their ancestral place again and again, without noticeably changing from one time to another. Actors such as Phillip Salvador ( Jaguar , Bona , Bayan ko: Kapit sa patalim ) and Lolita Rodriguez ( Ina, kapatid, anak , Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang ), who often appear in similar roles in several films and thereby establish a kind of micro star system, join in Incidentally, to convey the impression of a coherent world. This enables marginal characters and minor strands of the plot to develop a virtual life of their own that references other films and feeds on them. Brocka films are constantly building small bridges to the outside of the current sphere of action, which decentrally decentralize the actual plot, however generic and concise it may be.
It is striking, despite all the disparity, that I have never seen a Brocka film that is not at least family melodrama. The films with the male main character ( Jaguar,Cain at Abel, Bayan ko: Kapit sa patalim) are drawn towards the male genres , but each of these characters has a sister, mother or fiance and even if they only have a few scenes in the film, so it is but in just a few scenes in a nutshell what films like Bona or Insiang formulate. At Brocka, family is consistently female, the decisive absence is almost always that of the father. This becomes clear in the second part of the episode film Tatlo, dalawa, isa, when the father – an American who abandoned mother and child years ago – appears again. The critique of the family institution as a central oppressive body that runs through the entire work is perhaps the clearest sign of the fundamentally political character of Brocka’s films. In a country in which the (large) family is the only social security system that is also strictly Catholic and in which the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda were staged as the father and mother of the Filipino nation, films like Insiang have to be made or Bona seem a lot more radical than one can imagine in Central Europe, where a certain form of criticism of the family has long since become the cliché of bourgeois art cinema.
Although Brocka makes genre films that appeal to a broad audience and chooses an accessible, “relieved” form, his films always produce self-critical episodes (where these do not, as in Bona or Stardoom, make up the bulk of the narrative ). While leaving the aesthetic layout of genre cinema untouched, Brocka’s films thematize their own conditions of origin directly or indirectly, depending on the point of view, as a diegetically anchored image production in the image. Conceivably far from a politics of form, the curtains open everywhere for stick boys and go-go dancers, doll-faced models loll about in the spotlight, extras push the director to finally let her step in front of the camera.
What is interesting about the storylines that deal with the entertainment industry is that the dream of great success, of a breakthrough to Stardom, is never completely discredited by the films. In a society in which this entertainment industry also objectively provides one of the few real opportunities for social advancement for a large part of the population, A Star Is Born is necessarily told in a different way. In Jaguar , Cristy’s rise from the go-go dancer, when she was still a gaze object when she appeared for the first time, runs parallel to the film star – and in many ways in the opposite direction – to the main story and is clearly marked as a success story. In the end, Cristy is independent of men, the subject of her own biography; there are not many Brocka figures who can say that about themselves. In Stardoom, too , Joey’s breakthrough as a pop singer has a real liberating moment (primarily liberation from the mother, secondarily from heteronormativity), while on the other hand his failure at the end of the film remains readable as a mere convention-based genre gesture of punishment for amoral sex life. One could go further, as you already suggest: Brocka’s films are often critical of the cultural industry, of which they are a part, but they are never interested in a critique of the spectacle in the narrower sense, i.e. in unmasking the lies / Ideology / whatever the dominant pop culture. Another example is Cristy from Jaguar , one of the most interesting characters at Brocka: If she throws herself into poses for the photographers who are in blatant contradiction to their real life circumstances, then no illusion is denounced and destroyed, instead it is precisely these scenes that manifest themselves the new subject position that the former nightclub dancer has struggled to achieve. There is no evil appearance next to / before a good being. The pose is neither “wrong” (it arises from a real desire), nor does posing make real empathy beyond the cameras impossible. The subsequent tears of Cristy for Jaguar remain real.
The criticism of the culture industry, which is of course quite articulated in the films, adheres consistently to their material requirements, never to the textual production: film and television studios appear as another trend-corrupted power relationship alongside the family, the world of work, the criminal organizations , Film production literally appears as an act of violence when onlookers and wannabe stars can only be kept from shooting with difficulty.
What made this series even clearer for me is that the division of the work into a handful of politically relevant masterpieces on the one hand and a mass of purely commercial output goods on the other hand has its justification as a starting hypothesis (and in some respects both) Brocka’s own perception as well as the realities of production corresponded), but that when looking at it more complicated. On the one hand because the films on both sides of this line of demarcation are stylistically very heterogeneous, on the other hand because there are numerous thematic continuities that cross them. For example, individual characters and constellations of characters from the “serious” films also appear in the commercial works: the mother from Insiang, for example, in only a little modified form in Stardoom and Ina, kapatid, anak , Hilda Koronel both took important aspects of her title role in Insiang in Stardoom as well as in Tatlo, dalawa, isa beforehand .
What you are describing also applies here: The world of Brocka is a continuous one and in a way, therefore, every other film contains every other film. “Five for her, one for me” is of course wrong because Brocka grants the one film that the producers allow him to freely design every few years to keep him happy, not for himself, for the satisfaction of one interest in film art that can stay away from the constraints of the box office. Brocka was not a Gus van Sant nor a Steven Soderbergh. On the contrary, Brocka’s success in boxing his “own” films was all the more important because they are not his own, but are subordinated to a social goal. In Christian Blackwood’s documentary Signed: Lino Brocka, the director reads a short statement about his cinephile éducation sentimentale at the beginning, almost bored or at least primarily in a duty. There is one of them (you can see that in the films, after all), but for Brocka’s “masterpieces” it is almost more peripheral than for commercial work.
Brocka is a well-established public intellectual, one whose artist persona does not end with the self-sufficient authorship of his films, but grows in equal parts from his political commitment and the radiance of his open protest against the Marcos regime. In this he resembles Pasolini, who, like Brocka, died under circumstances that are still not entirely clear. A court blamed Pasolini’s murder on a young prostitute, but theories of a right-wing conspiracy have so far been tied to his death. Brocka’s accidental death in 1991 is still the subject of conspiratorial speculation. Regardless of their truthfulness, the insistence of such conjectures illustrates the political relevance of the Filipino public ascribed to its most renowned hero to this day. At the same time, voices are being heard today that, precisely because Brocka’s person and films are so completely and decisively at the service of their contemporaries, at least want to deny the films their prehistoric significance. Of course, one can argue whether there is anything like meaning beyond history. What young Filipino filmmakers who make such objections mean may well be justified.
Raya Martin, for example, whose Independencia has been commended universally , says: “It is important, but it is completely out of date. He said something about his time, in his time, that was what made him so explosive. I feel his commitment, but for me it is an artifact. I am not a fan of its structure. Too commercial, too narrative.” (Martin in conversation with Lav Diaz, Khavn and Kidlat Tahimik, printed in the catalog of the Viennale, Vienna 2009, p. 246). Lav Diaz and Khavn express themselves in a similar sense, albeit less sharply and framed by admiring epithets. What they are trying to shake off with Brocka’s legacy is primarily a commitment to a particular addressing mode that they no longer consider appropriate. For the proponents of independent Filipino cinema, it can no longer be a matter of extracting and assembling the elements of a missing people from the tradition of genre cinema.
I think that the younger directors have primarily lost the belief that such an addressing mode is still possible. One has to ask the question, of course, why on the one hand the “Option Brocka” no longer seems to exist today and on the other hand the young directors no longer strive for one. Khavn gives a possible answer in the conversation already quoted: He sees Brocka’s cinema together with its sociopolitical self-image, it is closely connected to a social constellation in which the fronts are clarified in a radical manner, if only because the oppression apparatus bears clearly identifiable names and faces, but today, according to Khavn, “it is more ambivalent than a post-brocka Filmmakers appear to be somewhat reactionary to my films. He had a coherent agenda, I don’t have one. ”Indeed, it can also be seen in Latin American cinema that customizable enemy images were constitutive for classic third cinema. Of course, that can only be part of it the explanation and such an argument should actually be subject themselves to ideological criticism. A supplementary hypothesis (which is really nothing more than one) would be that cinema in the Philippines no longer occupies the same position as it did in the 1980s. Unlike his colleagues, Lav Diaz started in popular cinema, in the mainstream film industry and, in this context, made at least one film with Jesus Christ Revolutionary that is looking for a form of political flexion in genre cinema (in this case: action film) which clearly refers to Brocka’s legacy. It is no coincidence that he immediately started shooting his eight, nine, ten hour epics, the addressing mode of which is completely the opposite of Brocka. Lav Diaz no longer believes in the integrative power of cinema. He prefers to talk about the political potential of pirated copies, tells about the farmer who buys a Tarkovski film from the street vendor and thereby changes his relationship to the world.
Of course, Diaz knows that the farmer will most likely continue to listen to the radio soaps that keep appearing in his films instead. But the idea of a pirated art cinema as a subversive agent in the collective imagination illustrates the position to which socially committed contemporary filmmaking may not only be limited to the Philippines: It is important to continue to produce the right images, even if no longer a direct addressee is available. Perhaps one will appear at some point. In the age of digitization, images no longer disappear, they reproduce. Even if they do it very slowly in the case of Lav-Diaz films.