by Winnie Wang
Bedroom sanctuaries, chalk-dusted classrooms, dirt roads weaving through verdant landscapes—these cherished locales are the settings frequented by coming-of-age anxieties, queer desire, and tales of serendipitous encounters. In the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s forthcoming film program When the Apocalypse is Over (Feb 16-21, 2024), these recurring backdrops slowly coax secrets from its enduring protagonists to reveal personal mythologies of transformation, longing and alienation. Characters cautiously yearn for objects, feelings, and companionship with a turn toward the absurd and grotesque: a child fixates upon a ballpen that promises a “beautiful human life”; an unclaimed corpse becomes a cherished dinner guest at a funeral home. In this brief but comprehensive series, curator A.E. Hunt offers a collection of features and shorts exemplary of the bold, adventurous narratives and forms in contemporary independent Philippine cinema.
Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation (2017) follows eight-year-old Yael, who passes time at home alone solving math problems, cooking miniature meals, and indulging in the glow of the television screen. While her father toils abroad in Saudi Arabia, he mails cassette tapes to her mother, a welcome form of communication when written letters might struggle to replicate the intimacy of one’s presence to a lover. Clinging to every expression of affection, even if some phrases are beyond comprehension, Yael repeatedly plays and rewinds the recordings behind closed doors, eventually trying out the words in her own voice as a mantra to guide her through days stretched long by boredom. Set in the late 1980s, in the aftermath of the People Power Revolution—resulting in the end of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship—and the imminent arrival of Typhoon Unsang, historical events loom in the background as Yael’s more urgent priorities of fixing her tape-consuming boombox and saving money to purchase stationery take hold. Playfully cutting between details of interest, the narrative, insofar as there is one, unfolds with great attention to the wonderfully interior world of childhood with mesmerizing close-ups that linger upon fascinations and invented rituals.
Where Nervous Translation appreciates the imaginaries of childhood, the 2019 anthology film Cleaners (2019) understands the high stakes embedded in all things during adolescence. Set between 2007 and 2008, the chapters of Glenn Barit’s debut feature are structured by familiar high school benchmarks: the first week of class, student elections, prom, and so on. Remarkably, the film was rendered by printing eight frames per second of the original footage, hand-coloured with highlighter, then rescanned before digital assembly. As a consequence of the intensive post-production process, the images recall more than nostalgia, but the lasting effects of memory eroded by time. Information disappears, emphasis shifts to suit our purposes, momentous events feel grounded in retrospect, or vice versa. In one story, class president Angeli is taken for granted by too-cool-for-school classmates who refuse to learn a traditional folk dance for a group project—until she’s struck by a car. In another, Alfonso’s ambitions of youth council chairman are supported by his father, a corrupt mayor, whose investment in his family legacy drives him to exert influence on his son’s campaign; first, a detention bail-out, then the mysterious burning of a noodle stand where a basketball court was promised to be built.
An enthusiasm for visual experimentation can be found in the works of Whammy Alcazaren, the fearless visionary behind Fisting: Never Tear Us Apart (2018) and Bold Eagle (2022). Shot on the iPhone in a vertical orientation, Fisting seamlessly shifts between online and offline worlds, interspersed with videos, photos and screenshots to resemble the disorganized logic of a social media feed governed by algorithms. Aided by the withholding aspect ratio, the clips become deeply intimate, mesmerizing, trippy, arousing, and often uncomfortable when strung together as a feature-length film. Somewhere within this endless stream of moving images, a loose story emerges at the intersection of an erotic thriller and a family drama: a supernatural entity called the Shadow claims victims across the city while a man embarks on sexual escapades, his wife slowly descends into madness at home, and his gay son searches for connection via casual hookups. An extension of Alcazaren’s exercise in screen interfaces, the preceding short, Bold Eagle, further pursues internet aesthetics, erotic images, unconventional aspect ratios, and forms of mediation between screen and subject. Here, however, suspense is traded for alienation and dread when a man on a psychedelic trip begins to hallucinate, conjuring fantasies of his talking cat, journeys to tropical destinations, and gay pornography censored with acid-tab smiley faces. Paired together, these works serve as impressive, animating entries in the growing archive of global queer cinemas.
Though tonally disparate, Oda Sa Wala (Ode to Nothing) (2018) and Metamorphosis (2019) share an earnest approach to their characters, who are thrust into a set of distressing circumstances, but ultimately find comfort in unlikely figures. In the former, a mortician named Sonya works with mourning families to process the departed at a funeral parlour all the while experiencing her own gradual decay. Trapped in a routine of boredom and isolation, she desperately craves affection, which she finds when an unidentified body is delivered under suspicious circumstances one day. Grateful for the company, Sonya speaks to the corpse as a friend, mounts it upright in her bedroom, purchases it new clothes for a birthday celebration, and sets out an additional plate at the table for her guest. In the latter, Adam, a boy whose effeminacy renders him a target of bullying at school, discovers he is intersex after experiencing his first period. Feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and awkwardness arise during family discussions and medical appointments as tests are performed to determine next steps. Amidst this tumultuous time, Adam finds comfort in Angel, an older transfer student with unwavering acceptance, and his doctor, who reminds him to address his emotional well-being prior to undergoing surgical intervention. Though the resolutions in both films risk appearing overly neat, there’s a sense that these endings are earned, a hopeful reminder that sincerity goes a long way.
Threads of queerness, loneliness, transition, and cinematic provocation found in the features extend into the shorts program, building upon an argument for New Independent Philippine Cinema as a thrilling site of experimentation with varied perspectives on the past and present, historical and personal. From an action-packed dystopian adventure featuring a talking catfish to an introspective drama about being left behind while the world changes, the series mirrors its larger retrospective, outlining a daring, new movement awaiting the embrace of international audiences.
Winnie Wang is a writer, programmer and arts administrator based in Toronto. Their work can be found in Cinema Scope, Documentary Magazine and Little White Lies.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider tipping the author and/or supporting Ultra Dogme on Patreon, Ko-fi, or Substack, so that we may continue publishing writing about film + music with love +care.