This fall, as critics are traipsing all over themselves to wedge Paul Thomas Anderson into the canon of American filmmakers, there is a lesson to be found in the iconoclastic relentlessness of Filipino film artist Raya Martin. Whereas Anderson has seemingly sprung to the tippity-top of the game—first he was “the next Tarantino”, then “the next Altman”, and finally “the next Kubrick”—Martin has demolished and rebuilt himself with each go, forgoing easy referential/reverential technique-shifts in a body of work that spans eight features over six years. A self-described “frustrated experimental filmmaker”, Martin clearly wants to break free of path dependencies in how cultures tell their own stories: his 2005 feature A Short Film About The Indio Nacional (or, The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos) is actually filmed as if in 1898, when Spain granted independence to the Philippines while simultaneously selling them to the United States. A Short Film is a series of fragments worked out by the director and the Barasoain Kalinangan Theater Group, silent sequences bookended by explanatory title cards and overlaid with tinny music.
A group of “native” children craning their necks to the sky to watch an eclipse, two kids dueling in real time on a moist marsh with palm trees, a Catholic friar disciplining a young bell ringer: these are images as narratives, playing out in near-real time. They look like they were shot by Gustave le Gray or the Lumière Brothers, but at the world’s opposite end from the cutting edge of 19th-century photography. The performers are unmoored in the way that only non-actors can be when they’ve all but forgotten the camera; Martin creates his own Filipino film history by shooting scenes that should have been shot (let alone preserved) a long time ago, effectively ethnographizing his own culture. (It’s a hobby that he has continued in his shorts “Ars Colonia” and “Boxing In The Philippine Islands,” for which he built a digital pinhole camera.) There has been no standalone feature that has cemented his reputation here, but the film that stands the best chance is Independencia (2009), which screens tonight to kick off MoMI’s Raya Martin series.
Martin wanted to twin his evolution to that of a theoretical period filmmaker, so the product is both more indignant and more evolved. Rather than loose scenes conceptualized and shot around the end of Spanish rule, the 77-minute feature plays out in the vocabulary of an early Hollywood picture, with intricately detailed stage-bound sets, matte paintings and penetrating sound design. The actors are formal and the frames are boxy, resembling long-forgotten curios under dusty glass. The story is simple, epochal even: a mother and son hide out in the forest to avoid the looming American occupation. The son grows old, and the mother grows older; eventually they find a young woman who has been raped by Americans, and take her in. The mother’s jealousy ensues; Martin carefully affords characters dreams, fears and memories, and hers is the last time she ever had sex, a single image of an upscale bedroom with foggy, irised edges. These shots don’t just thrive on negative space onscreen, but also in the viewer’s mind: Independencia puts the new colonizers almost entirely off-screen, the only break in the action coming in the form of a newsreel in which a young village boy is shot by a U.S. soldier for stealing an egg at a market.
It’s a ghoulishly insinuating break in the action, played totally straight within the world created by Martin and his crew. The first time American characters are encountered within the narrative, they are but a rustling of plants, one of them saying off screen: “Heh heh! Wait til they hear what you did to that girl!” Martin’s aesthetics don’t betray a whiff of the condescension towards the past that filmmakers usually can’t help but evince when going “retro.” In this way, Indepencia‘s subject is not some theoretical lapse in Filipino media memory, nor is it the early days of the American occupation initiated by President William McKinley. For all intents and purposes, the subject of Independencia is a sweaty face glistening under direct sunlight, cicadas chirping at night, or a bare foot stepping on a reed. There is a driven heartbreak to these films in their insistence that that object most prized by filmmakers, anthropologists, and even resistance fighters—an unspoiled authenticity—scarcely existed in the first place.
Raya Martin is 28. His second-most recent film, Buenas Noches, España, screened as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look series in January. A psychedelic travelogue in 16mm, it charts the course of a young couple driving through the Spanish countryside under heavy color filters, scored to hacked-up bits of audio from Looney Tunes cartoons. The camera only settles down once they arrive at the Bilbao and come face to face with Spain’s colonial history, and then too the lens sobers up as if by magic—“boring” reality brought down on the viewer with a panoramic thud, the power of cinema too great to dismiss, even if viewers were inclined to dismiss everything that had come before. Onstage afterwards, wild-eyed and talking with a rat-tat-tat that’s common to chain-smokers and standup comedians, Martin explained a recent shyness toward his voracious work habit following the death of a loved one. It is his curse, and our blessing, that he is less interested in recreating the past—or the present—than in reimagining it. “But, fuck it”, he said. “I’m back in.”