Squatterpunk Review (Variety)

Mexico City Film Festival
Iskwaterpangk (Documentary — Philippines)

Rambunctious and relentless, Khavn’s aptly titled “Squatterpunk” applies pure adrenaline rush to a day in the life of a Manila shanty town. A bit less harried than many of this wildly active filmmaker-musician’s other features and shorts, docu marries a constantly roving camera (often mounted with ultra-wide-angle lens) with a nonstop punk-rock soundtrack that fuels the action with bursts of aural energy. Terrific fest fare will widen Khavn’s growing fan base (especially among young Asian hipsters), and looks to be a solid specialist vid item.

Center of the pic is young Hapon, leader of a gaggle of youngsters in the desperately poor seaside slum of Isla Puting Bato (with Manila visible in the distance). Kids will be kids: Running, scampering, diving into filthy ocean water, the tykes manage to turn their direly poor surroundings into the world’s most unlikely playground.

Pic turns several conventional notions on their heads, not least of which is standard liberal ideology, expressed in countless docs, that expresses hand-wringing pity toward the poor. Khavn (nickname for Khavn de la Cruz) appears to reject this, kids in these circumstances as they actually are, with endless energy and nerve. This may offend some viewers demanding a more PC line, just as others may not appreciate the driving punk sounds of the Brockas (named in honor of late Filipino film master Lino Brocka).

Latter reference is telling, since the community here is exactly the sort of setting in which Brocka frequently located his complex melodramas. Khavn tips his cap to his mentor while adopting a freewheeling approach that does away with storyline, dialogue and almost any natural sound. Precendent here is actually in the earliest pre-20th-century experimental silent pics that linked motion-filled images with music, and the tradition of the “city symphony” film.

Pacing (via editing by Lawrence Ang, Caloy Carlos and Sunshine Matutina) is breathless, but with enough pauses and quiet passages to vary mood and texture. Albert Banzon’s intensely physical camerawork suggests the lens is like a small kid, dashing close to the ground and taking everything in.

Remarkably, lensing was done in a single day. As usual, to ironically stress his championing of latest in digital vid cinema, opening credits announce “This is Not a Film by Khavn.”

Camera (B&W, mini-DV), Albert Banzon; editors, Lawrence Ang, Caloy Carlos, Sunshine Matutina; music, the Brockas, Bobby Balingit, Tengal, Buccino P. De Ocampo; sound, Arvie Bartolome, Darryl Shy; assistant director, Rayg Generoso. Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, March 22, 2008. (In Mexico City Film Festival — Guest Country: Philippines. Also in Rotterdam, Singapore filmfestivals.) Running time: 80 MIN.


The Philippines’ Unfree Zones

By Philippe Revelli
Le Monde Diplomatique, June, 06 2008
The government, armed forces and vested interests in the Philippines have used the excuse of counter-terrorism to murder, kidnap and pressure trade unionists and farmers’ organisations. They want a nation of docile labour and emptied land that can be sold on the world markets.

Joey Javier was the president of a farmers’ organisation Kagimungan. On 11 November 2006 he was on his way to Baggao, in the province of Cagayan in the north of the island of Luzon, for a meeting. “It had rained heavily the previous night,” remembers his widow. “Just after the bridge, the tricycle got bogged down in the mud. Just as my husband got off to push, two men appeared and shot him point blank. The army base was less than 100 metres away, but there was no attempt to catch the killers.”

Anthony Licyayo took over as head of the organisation, only to be assassinated two weeks later. A month after that, his successor Pedro Frances barely escaped a murder attempt.

On 21 January 2007 two more Kagimungan activists were shot dead. On 7 August the home of Ambot Asucena, the leader of its youth wing, was riddled with bullets. Before he died, he identified his attackers as soldiers from the 21st infantry battalion. On 9 September soldiers from the 17th infantry battalion abducted two farmers belonging to Kagimungan; when their bodies were found, they showed signs of torture.

Isabelo Adviento, Kagimungan’s current head, said: “In July 2006 the army occupied Baggao, where the hard core of our movement is located. The same month the premises of Radio Cagayan, which we had just launched, were set on fire and over the next few months there were more and more extra-judicial executions.

Soldiers rounded up people from their homes and took them to propaganda meetings that attacked us as accomplices of the guerrillas. The farmers were told to give up – give up what? They were forced to act as scouts for the army or to join the Cafgu (1) paramilitaries.”

Kagimungan is a legal organisation established by the province’s small farmers. Over the past few years it has campaigned against the sharecropping system: growers have refused to hand over half their yields to the landlords. It has also managed to force merchants to buy crops on terms less unfavourable to small producers (2).

Recently Kagimungan expressed anxieties about the expropriation of land for the introduction of genetically modified crops as part of the North Luzon Super Region economic plan. This vast project involves the construction of an ultra-modern port in the north of the island, the creation of free zones and the development of crops for export. It depends upon massive amounts of foreign capital and, according to the authorities, the Kagimungan leaders are now the final obstacle in its way. Adviento claimed this was just pointing out targets to the killers; for his own safety, he has left his village and never stays in any one place for long.

‘Excuse to conduct a dirty war’

Renato Reyes is the secretary general of Bayan, a leftwing coalition of grassroots organisations. He said that the situation in Baggao was emblematic of what is going on elsewhere in the country. “President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is using the struggle against terrorism as an excuse to conduct a dirty war against anyone who opposes her ultra-liberal policies.” Since her election in 2001, she has pledged to make the Philippines a first world country by liberalising trade and investment, reforming the tax system and privatising state property.

According to Reyes: “The regime boasts about how fast the country is growing, but it’s just a balloon inflated by borrowing and massive injections of foreign capital. To attract investors, the government is undermining labour rights, handing over vast swathes of the country to mining multinationals, opening up protected areas to oil prospectors and signing commercial agreements that drive out our farmers and replace them with monocultures for export or biofuel production.”

At present, 80% of the population live on less than $1.50 per day; the number of children under 15 who do not attend school rose from 1.8 million in 2001 to 3.1 million in 2006; 26% of those who benefited from agrarian reform (3) were forced to resell their land; and this agricultural nation is now one of the world’s leading importers of rice.

Reyes said: “Despite everything, there are a number of active workers’ organisations in the Philippines, many of which emerged from the struggle against the dictatorship or the campaign against US military bases. They oppose the government’s economic policies. To keep them quiet, the government is using a policy of terror, what it calls a counter-insurrection strategy.”

Successive Philippines governments have had to deal with movements committed to armed struggle. The New People’s Army (NPA), founded in 1969, is a Marxist guerrilla organisation (the military wing of the CPP, the Communist Party of the Philippines), which is thought to have some 8,000 combatants fighting on 62 fronts across the country. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Abu Sayyaf group are Muslim separatist groups on the southern islands of Mindanao, Sulu and Jolo (4).

Despite negotiations with the factions (apart from Abu Sayyaf), President Arroyo has favoured force. Peace talks with the NPA broke down in 2004, and in 2007 Arroyo used rumours of a possible coup as an excuse to introduce a state of emergency and declare total war on the armed groups. “There is no provision for a state of emergency in the Philippines constitution,” Reyes said. “The declaration has a theatrical effect, but it also gives the army carte blanche to continue and intensify its dirty war.”

Counter-insurgency strategies

The armed forces copied their counter-insurgency strategies – Oplan Bantay Laya I in 2001 and Oplan Bantay Laya II in 2007 – from the Phoenix Programme that the United States used during the Vietnam war. They target suspected civilian support for rebel groups. Norberto Gonzales, Arroyo’s adviser for special concerns, justified this: “We are no longer dealing with a traditional guerrilla campaign; these guerrillas have infiltrated our democratic process.”

The tactics of General Jobito Palparan, who has led the armed forces in central Luzon since August 2005, are a good example. Ignoring areas of intense guerrilla activity, he has deployed his troops around centres of economic development, notably the Global Gateway project (5), an ambitious scheme to build a road network that has provoked strong opposition from farmers driven off their land or threatened with expulsion, and from road hauliers for whom the introduction of tolls means additional expenses.

There are paramilitary groups operating alongside the army. During 2006, 83 leaders and activists from leftwing, farmers’ and human rights organisations were killed in central Luzon. Unsurprisingly, General Palparan denies having ordered these murders. He told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that these executions were “helping” the army in its battle against those inciting the people to fight the government, and were “small sacrifices” that must be made in the name of the counter-insurgent struggle (6). Targets are identified on the armed forces’ internet site: “The CPP/NPA finds good allies and propagandists in Roman Polintan, Fabian Hallig and Aurora Broquil” (7). Palparan told an Australian television journalist, Karen Percy: “I might have encouraged or inspired people to take the law into their hands” (8).

In August 2006 the government set up the Melo Commission to investigate some of the executions, but the inadequacy of its conclusions confirmed the regime’s reluctance to put an end to these excesses. It is still too early to assess the effectiveness of the Writ of Amparo (9); but the human rights organisation Karapatan claimed that on the same day the law was promulgated, the president sent a directive to the defence department instructing it to prevent either the divulgence of military secrets or any hostile interference in operations relating to national security.

‘Prosecuting civil society leaders’

These measures did not impress UN special rapporteur Philip Alston, who said on 26 November 2007: “In some parts of the country, the armed forces have followed a deliberate strategy of systematically hunting down the leaders of leftist organisations – eliminated civil society leaders, including human rights defenders, trade unionists and land reform advocates, intimidated a vast number of civil society actors, and narrowed the country’s political discourse.”

He described the military’s claim that many of the executions were the result of a purge within the guerrilla movement as “a cynical attempt to displace responsibility” and concluded that “the priorities of the criminal justice system had been distorted,” and had _”focused on prosecuting civil society leaders rather than their killers”.

Jose Cawiding, the coordinator in Baguio province of the leftwing party Bayan Muna (People First), was detained last October, accused of links with the NPA. According to Santos Mero, the provincial leader of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA): “The real objection to him is his commitment to the indigenous population and its struggle.”

Cordillera, where Baguio is located, is in central Luzon and has major deposits of gold and copper, which attracted US companies during the 19th century. The concessions granted to mining multinationals now cover 1.2m of the region’s 1.8m hectares, and the government wants to prioritise new investment.

Mero said that people living there had immediately opposed the expansion of companies that destroyed the land, polluted rivers, caused deforestation and displaced people. “The CPA is now mobilising against this destructive industry and against the construction of new dams to provide it with energy. We demand that the communities affected are compensated and the abandoned sites rehabilitated.”

The CPA has paid dearly for its defiance. In July 2006 Markus Bangit, a member of its administrative council, was shot dead at a bus stop and there was a machine-gun attack on another leader, Constancio Clanet, as he as his wife were taking their daughter to school. His wife was killed; Clanet and his daughter were both wounded and fled to Canada.

The University of the Philippines has also suffered for its long-standing opposition to the regime. In June 2006 two League of Filipino Students activists, Karen Empeño and Sherlwin Cadapan, were kidnapped by soldiers during a visit to their parents in Bulacan province. They haven’t been seen since. There have been 185 disappearances since 2001. Jonas Burgos, an activist with a farmers’ organisation and the son of a leading opponent of the dictatorship, was seized at a shopping mall in April 2007 and bundled into a vehicle identified as belonging to the army.

Sunshine Matutina, a television director, said: “I wasn’t involved in politics, but Jonas’s kidnapping shook me badly and when friends from the Independent Filmmakers’ Cooperative asked me to make a short film about it I agreed at once.” Fifteen filmmakers contributed to Rights, which was to have been shown in a major cinema in Manila in September 2007. But the day before, the censorship commission banned the screening on the grounds that the film was biased.

‘Break the unions’

Last year, on the island of Mindanao, the trade union Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, May First Labour Movement) resisted redundancies announced by the food multinational Dole, which responded by calling workers into meetings where, watched over by the army, they were shown a violently anti-union film in which KMU activists were accused of complicity with the NPA. Although prominent Filipino actors appeared in the film, there were no credits and no director’s name was attached. Daisy Arago, executive director of the Centre for Trade Union and Human Rights said: “The companies and the authorities have a coordinated strategy designed to break the unions, dismantle workers’ rights and guarantee investors a docile work force.”

After almost 900 extra-judicial executions since 2001, the Arroyo regime can boast of having outdone Ferdinand Marcos,” said Jigs Clamor, secretary general of Karapatan (10). “Forty-seven journalists were murdered over the past six years, making the Philippines the second most dangerous country in the world for the profession [after Iraq].”

Philip Alston called upon Arroyo, as commander in chief of the armed forces, to stop counter-insurrectional operations targeting or causing the murders of people working for organisations within civil society. The US Senate threatened to suspend aid to the Philippines.

Arroyo’s popularity has been undermined by accusations of electoral fraud, particularly during the 2004 election, and by corruption scandals implicating her and members of her family and entourage. At her public appearances she is always accompanied by General Hermogenes Esperon, the head of the armed forces; she relies upon the army, and many active or retired soldiers have been appointed to the public services and the administration.

But life inside the military is not all roses. “Underpaid young officers are sent off to Luzon to handle dangerous and demoralising counter-offensives. They are disgusted by the wealth and privileges of their sedentary superiors in Manila, as well as by the erratic policies of a dubious civilian authority” (11). This has led to several failed attempted military takeovers.

During the most recent, in November 2007, 30 soldiers led by a former officer, Senator Antonio Trillanes, already on trial for a previous attempted coup in 2003, barricaded themselves into a luxury hotel in Manila and called for the overthrow of the government.

The authorities reacted quickly. An armoured personnel carrier rammed the doors of the hotel and the mutineers surrendered without a fight; 30 journalists were also arrested and their material confiscated. Karapatan described “the disproportionate brutality of this repression” as “typical of the regime”.

But most significant sign of the regime’s loss of credibility, even within the ruling class, was the presence alongside the rebels of a bishop, Julio Labayen, and the former vice-president of the Philippines, Teofisto Guingona.

Philippe Revelli is a journalist

(1) Citizens’ Auxiliary Forces Geographical Unit. A 1991 decree allows the military to arm and train groups of civilians.
(2) The major landowners and merchants have taken advantage of the campaign against Kagimungan and attempted to undermine these achievements.
(3) The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was introduced in 1988 to redistribute agricultural land among 8.5 million landless peasants. Although controversial, it was revived in 1998.
(4) See Carmen A Abubakar, “Mindanao : a miniature history”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, September 2003.
(5) Roads will link the port of Subic Bay (a former US naval base), Clark airport and the free zones of Clark and Hacienda Luisita. Monocultural exports will be developed in tandem.
(6) Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2 June and 28 October 2005.
(7) http://www.afp.mil.ph/0/news/propagandists.php Those named are the leaders of Bayan, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, and Kilusan para sa Pambansang Demokrasya (National Movement for Democracy).
(8) Foreign correspondent, ABC, 5 May 2007. Transcript at http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2007…
(9) This law, promulgated in September 2007, is based upon a principle similar to habeas corpus; it can be invoked in cases of arbitrary detention or by anyone feeling under threat.
(10) 2006 was a black year, with 209 murders. Karapatan attributes the fact that this fell to 68 between January and October 2007 to publicity and international pressure.
(11) David Camroux, “The unique Philippines”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, July 2006.

Translated by Donald Hounam


ERRATA: I am not a television director but an editor. Also, the IFC did not ask me to make a short film. We invited independent filmmakers to contribute to the campaign and then eventually asked the help of IFC to provide the venue for the RIGHTS launch. Mr. Revelli must have misheard me since we did the interview at a noisy carinderia along Katipunan. Or it could also be because of the language barrier. :)

REEL Lady on the Spot

JNL Media talks to Phillipine Activist and Filmmaker, Isabelle Matutina.


JNL: How did you get involved in film?
IM: I’ve always been heavily involved in the arts since I was a kid especially in theater. I graduated in college with a degree in Broadcast Communicatons not because I was interested in TV work but because it was the closest to the kind of work I wanted to do. Theater was a no since it doesn’t offer a very lucrative career after college (at least according to my parents) and my parents couldn’t afford to put me up through film school. My course however, more or less influenced me into wanting to become a director.
My first job was in a film post-production company working as a Traffic Coordinator. After four months, I transferred to the mother company (which was the TV network) and learned how to edit. During this time, I was accepted in a free scriptwriting workshop. This is where I first learned about independent filmmaking and began considering making my own film.
I stuck it out in the TV network for two years, saving up for a film education and then eventually resigned. I took a crash course in Digital Filmmaking for two months in the Mowelfund Film Institute which was the cheapest film school in the country and produced my first digital short film right away. This in turn opened a lot of doors for me in terms of networking and got heavily involved in independent filmmaking.

JNL: What was your first film project? What role did you play (writer, director, producer, editor, etc…)
IM: My first film project was PANAGINIPAN (The Dreaming) which I wrote, produced, directed, edited. I also handled the production design since I had no one else to do the job for me. It was really multi-tasking since it was a purely independent project where I got most of my friends to help without pay even though they’ve had no experience in filmmaking whatsoever.

JNL: How did the project come to you?
IM: It’s basically how we are taught to think here. If one wants to make a film, produce your own and stop waiting around for funding or a big break. It’s really the best way to learn. “Panaginipan” was actually based on a play I wrote, directed, and acted in back in college and I thought it would work better on film then on stage.

JNL: What were the challenges for you?
IM: First, there was the problem of getting a crew. My boyfriend at that time was an experienced cinematographer already and I thought that’s really all I needed. I could do everthing else. I only had one location, 11 sequences, and two major actors anyway. The night before the shoot he (my boyfriend) demanded that I get people to fill in the role of an assistant director and production assistants at least or else I would have to cancel the shoot. He was partly funding the film so I had no choice. I quickly called up some old friends from college who had no film background as well. I told them I had everything under control and all they had to do was stand around and tell me what I had written on the paper for them. It was crazy, but we pulled it off.

Another challenge was working with non-actors. Since I had experience in theater, I thought it would be easy enough. But it was so different since my actors had to grow accustomed to the camera and the crew. I had to do a lot of takes and I was really under time pressure since I couldn’t afford to have a second shooting day. We wrapped everything up at midnight, thank god.

JNL: What would you do differently now?
IM: I do feel sometimes that I started so late in filmmaking. I shot my first film back in 2004 (I was already 26 by then), and a lot of my colleagues now in the independent scene started as early as 17. I feel so much pressure sometimes trying to keep up with them. A lot of them are already full time filmmakers, while I’m still trying to make ends meet and working my ass off doing tv work just so I could produce my own films and still wanting to learn so much more about filmmaking. I think I wasted a lot of time in college trying to be practical and pleasing my parents instead of just following my dreams. But I’m happy with the struggle I went through (and still trying to overcome now) because I wouldn’t be the kind of filmmaker I am now if not for that.

As with the way I do films, I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I made a lot of mistakes, but making those mistakes was the best education I could ever have. And I always make it a point to challenge myself with every film project and do things a little differently everytime.

JNL: You wear many hats, as do a lot of women in film. Writer, Director, Producer, Editor, etc…Which is your favorite?
IM: I love directing. I’m known by my colleagues as a control freak and I feel like I’m more in control when I’m directing. Although I write my own films, I’ve always had a hard time putting my ideas into words. I see things in pictures and the emotional tug of each scene. That’s the only way I can tell my stories. Directing for me is like giving birth and experiencing every painful and high moment in creating something out of nothing.

JNL: Do you produce just your own films, or have you produced others as well?
IM: As a way of repaying my friends who have helped me make my films, I sometimes partially produce their projects whenever I have money to spare especially when I really believe in the project. I produced the first narrative short of my loyal friend and production designer and the PSA of another colleague last year to name a few.

JNL: Do you write for other filmmakers?
IM: No, I haven’t tried that, and I don’t think I will be anytime soon. I don’t think I’m that good a writer to be writing for anyone. Most of my films which I wrote worked mainly because I directed them, I think.

JNL: Tell us about the PSA campaign that you have been working on.
IM: Last year was really an eye-opener for me. I had a very close friend whose activist brother (Jonas Burgos) was abducted by military forces last year as part of the current government’s counter-insurgency program. Ironically, he is also the son of the late press freedom fighter (Joe Burgos) who fought and spoke against the Marcos dictatorship back in the 70’s. It was only then that I realized how many killings and abductions of activists and journalists have been taking place in our country even after the dictatorship. As an artist and as a Filipino, I felt that it was my duty to do something about it, to make more people aware about these things and to help in any way I can through my art.

So I got the help of many other independent filmmakers and initiated a human rights campaign where each filmmaker would produce a 30 second to 1 minute ad that tackles the current human rights situation in the country. The response was overwhelming. We were able to compile 17 PSA’s for the first volume and planned a formal launch of the campaign in the only independent commercial cinema (which is an oxymoron, I know) in the country.
The launch was slated for September 21 last year. It was to be the 35th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law, which was a very significant date for Filipinos. Unfortunately, the compilation got censored by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) saying that “scenes in this film undermined the faith of the people in the government and duly constituted authorities, thus, not fit for public viewing.” The censorship came as a shock to all of us. Here we were campaigning about human rights and a government agency had the audacity to trample on our own rights as artists to freely express our rage against the culture of impunity and the numerous human rights violations happening under the current administration. It was also perhaps another wake up call to all of us.

The censorship worked for us in a way. It created a lot of publicity and we had the media and the academe on our side. Everyone started talking and debating about press freedom and the freedom of expression and the government using the MTRCB as a tool for political repression. The compilation was not screened during the planned launch, but the initiative reached a far bigger result. The compilation got invited to a lot of schools and independent venues. Newspapers wrote about it. Forums were put up to talk about censorship and our current human rights situation. Eventually, due to public clamor and media pressure, the MTRCB lifted the ban on the film compilation. From an X-rating, “RIGHTS” got an R13. Right now, we are in the process of compiling more PSA’s for the 2nd volume of RIGHTS.

JNL: What inspires you?
IM: A lot of things. I’m a very emotional person and I’m easily moved by people around me. I try to get inspiration everywhere. From films, songs, books, moments that leave an indelible mark. However, I don’t always make films out of them. I can’t really describe it but I usually know when I absolutely need to make the film. All the films I made were written overnight. And that says a lot since I’m not really a writer. Most of my films are very personal. Some might even say they’re almost auto-biographical, but I guess it’s only because my personality always comes out in the films I make.

JNL: Seeing that you do so much, what is the ultimate goal for your film career?
IM: My goal is of course to be able to make all the films I want to make. It’s hard finding the time and the money. And then of course, having people see these films and the opportunity to move and connect with people. I used to think that finishing a film was the ultimate goal. But I never really believed in art for art’s sake. I soon realized that nothing compares to seeing people actually react to what you’ve created, like an affirmation or validation of your existence and knowing how much you can do to actually change things. I know it kinda sounds dramatic, but I guess my ultimate goal is really to make films that can move, change, provoke people – films that matter and make people see. Which is really kinda tough for me since there is no way of knowing whether the films that I make would matter. I can only hope.

JNL: What projects are you working on currently?
IM: I’m currently working on the musical score for my first ever silent film (short feature) entitled EIGHT SUNDAYS. It’s of the romance genre (also my first) because I had the feeling I was becoming too predictable since I was always doing tragedies. So I tried my hand at something that’s light and really very simple but still moving enough. For me, it’s a very nostalgic film since it made use of Tanaga verses (the Filipino version of the Haiku) and music that sounded like a “Harana” (Serenade).

I’m also in the writing stage of my first feature-length film. I’m really hoping I finish this one.