Innocence Regained

Balangiga: Howling Wilderness
Directed [“not a film”] by Khavn
Written by Jerry Gracio, Achinette Villamor, & Khavn

A small town (now a municipality) on the eastern part of Samar island in the Philippines, Balangiga [balan-HI-ga] was the site of the bloodiest conflict during the Philippine war of resistance against American colonization. In 1901, after the capture of “first President” Emilio F. Aguinaldo allowed Americans to hope that the war was nearing its end, Philippine revolutionaries succeeded in overpowering the 9th Infantry’s Company C soldiers stationed in the town, as a retaliation for the harsh measures it imposed to hasten the process of attrition. Less than 50 Americans were killed, but at that point it was considered the US’s worst overseas defeat, and evoked memories of the then-25-year-old Battle of the Little Big Horn (more popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand), where over 270 American soldiers died.

Little Big Horn had massive and far-reaching consequences for Native American opposition to Manifest Destiny, which by then had transmuted into “Indian removal.” The US’s overseas expansion was also premised on this mystical self-serving belief, with several veterans of the wars against Native Americans participating in the subjugation of the first formal European territory in the Orient, then known as Las Islas Filipinas (translated by the next colonizers as Philippine Islands). General Jacob H. Smith claimed to be one such veteran, but had actually only seen action in the Civil War. Deploying racist and apocalyptic language, he ordered his subordinates to “kill and burn … [all persons] capable of bearing arms” on the entire island of Samar (the third biggest in the Philippines, after Luzon and Mindanao). Smith earned for himself the nickname “Howling” by announcing his intention to turn the island into a “howling wilderness.”

The US Army’s retaliation made American newspapers’ term for the account of the Philippine revolutionaries’ attack, the Balangiga massacre, ironic in contrast. A number of Filipino authors have called the retaliation the burning of Samar (with a 1974 Joey Gosiengfiao movie, scripted by novelist Wilfrido Nolledo, titled Sunugin ang Samar). The entire occurrence makes it the precursor of subsequent American atrocities in Viet Nam and the Middle East, but is lesser known than the later media-covered incidents or even the historical recounting of the “pacification” offensives directed at Native Americans. A recent release, titled Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, is premised on the retaliatory campaign, and made its own mark on local film history by winning best-film prizes in both the original academy as well as the original critics’ competitions. (Both groups have selected only five similar best-picture winners earlier, in over four decades of their rivalrous coexistence.[1] The version of Balangiga that they awarded, and which I also viewed, was a work-in-progress prior to being further trimmed to significantly less than its two-hour running time.) The film is scheduled for theatrical release mid-August in the Philippines and will be screened at a few major (non-Euro) festivals, with US screenings still in the planning stage.

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Balangiga details the flight of an old man and his eight-year-old grandson, from whose perspective and consciousness the entire narrative unfolds.[2] The boy’s name, Kulas, links him with another contemporaneous though older character from an earlier film, Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were] (1976); both share the (pre-automotive) road-trip structure encompassing their lead characters’ coming-of-age. But whereas the earlier Kulas was also a dispossessed peasant traversing the turn-of-the-century Philippine countryside, good fortune smiles on him at several points in his journey and adequately prepares him for participating in the anticolonial resistance movement suggested by a benevolent and committed Chinese Filipino that he meets along the way. Balangiga’s Kulas, despite his and his grandfather’s flight from conflict, cuts an even more radical figure. The fact that the movie resolutely refuses to share the feel-good humanism of Ganito Kami Noon and strews the otherwise ravishing landscape with dead mammals (mostly human corpses) is only the starting point in articulating this difference.

What makes Kulas transgressive is the authenticity of his participation in the nightmare of war, whenever the opportunity presents or imposes itself. He saves a toddler, the only survivor in a village massacre, and successfully attacks an American soldier-straggler, by way of avenging the murder of Melchora, his beloved water buffalo. Yet in defiance of the war’s horrific reality, he persists in having playful, though understandably surreal, dreams, and plays childhood games by himself and with Bola, the kid he saved and calls his brother. Balangiga is, in a sense, simply a commemoration of Kulas’s rites of passage – confronting death, rescuing Melchora and Bola from harm, contending with older men’s cruelty, learning to pacify a traumatized infant and cook food properly, ministering to the sick, and burying the dead, among other skills that Filipino children have since then been forced to learn on their own.

The narrative also allows Kulas to be haunted by his memory of the massacre of his hometown, with the still-controversial church bells (confiscated by the US Army but being reclaimed by the Philippine government) worked in seamlessly via some of Kulas’s nightmares. The notion of haunting resonates with several turning points in Philippine history, most eloquently (and just as poignantly) with the still-contemporary reputation of Samar as a rebel-supportive territory during the period of growth of the New People’s Army.[3] The reconfiguration of hauntology to mark the end of Communism as a historical option and its subsequent spectral transformation that reminds resisters of neoliberalism and globalization that the past once held a reason to hope in the future: this may be, in a parallel sense, the lesson of Balangiga as well. The US Army retaliation convinced several anti-colonial fighters that resisting the advance of the Americans was futile, when in fact the Balangiga attack can be seen as one of the most forward-looking acts in the history of guerrilla warfare: the freedom fighters cross-dressed in women’s mourning attire and organized a procession of children’s coffins that actually contained the weapons that would be used in the attack.

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The film’s director, Khavn (whose credit is preceded by “This is not a film by”), has made over fifty feature films and over a hundred film shorts (in a list he titles “This Is Not a Filmography”) since the 1990s. Aside from already being the most prolific Filipino filmmaker at such a relatively youthful age, he also has the distinction of presenting the temporally longest Filipino film, the 13-hour Simulacrum Tremendum, classifiable as a poetic, creative, or hybrid documentary screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2016, with the director accompanying the presentation, on the piano. Self-identifying as punk, Khavn collaborated on Balangiga with his partner, Achinette Villamor, as writer and producer, and the gifted queer author Jerry B. Gracio as co-scriptwriter. Villamor and Gracio are articulate, humorous, and (not surprisingly) unruly social-media influencers, while Khavn prefers a more low-key presence. In one of his rare past interviews, he had extolled the system of independent production for how it had allowed him to be extraordinarily productive; some of his more recent work, Pusong Wazak: Isa Na Namang Kwento ng Pag-ibig sa Pagitan ng Kriminal at Puta [Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory between a Criminal and a Whore] (2014) and Ang Napakaigsing Buhay ng Alipato [Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember] (2016), possibly even more impressive a work than Balangiga, already evince a longing to speak to the Philippine mass audience.

Yet it is Balangiga that manages the feat, with little better than a shoestring budget enhanced by percipient performers and audacious cameos by other Pinoy punk celebrities. Khavn deploys cinematic tricks (stop-motion animation, disorienting lenses, startling drone footage, ghostly superimpositions, etc.) as well as basic special effects that serve to emblematize the childhood world of Kulas. His persistent (though inevitably sordid) humor, tenderhearted embrace of Otherness, and contempt for everything represented by modern existence and its enforcement via wholesale genocidal-if-necessary violence – these make of Balangiga all that Filipinos can claim so far as their retribution for the incredible injustice visited on the country’s distant central island over a century ago. Its triumph as a work of art keeps the memory alive, marks the emergence of the first people’s artist from the high-art Valhalla of European film festivals, and calls for further progressive people’s initiatives that the still-ravaged nation will have to find ways of summoning.

Notes

[1] These five were: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak [When the Crow Turns White and the Heron Black] (1976); Lino Brocka’s Jaguar (1979); Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal [You Were the Only One I Loved] (1992); Gil Portes’s Mga Munting Tinig [Small Voices] (2002); and Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Magnifico (2003).

[2] “Howling Jake” Smith had originally defined people “capable of bearing arms” as those who were ten years old and above. In the frenzy of carrying out his command, however, US soldiers could no longer allow themselves the luxury of determining the precise age of preteen individuals, or trust the natives’ claims about the ages of their children. Hence a child such as Kulas was in as much danger as any other young teenager, and had to flee the site of carnage that had been his hometown (Facebook Messenger note from Khavn de la Cruz, July 21, 2018).

[3] More than a year prior to the attack by Filipino revolutionaries on the US unit in Balangiga, a guerrilla group laid siege to the town of Catubig, in what is now Northern Samar; the US Army’s efforts to regain control of the island accounted for the harsh measures that built up to the so-called Balangiga massacre. From another period, in “The Fate of the People’s War,” an interview with Denis Rogatyuk in Jacobin Mag, José Mariá Sison said of the New People’s Army “that there is always a region which shines during a certain period. It shines in terms of being effective during offensives…. The most conspicuous development was Samar in 1976, with the NPA repeatedly taking over the police stations and construction companies in a few years’ time” (July 28, 2018). The most popular global impression of Samareños derives from the song “Waray-Waray” (recorded by Eartha Kitt and available in her 1965 live album, In Person at the Plaza), which uses the popular term for the people and their language, and reinforces their typology as a hot-headed and always battle-ready ethnic group.

[First published on July 16, 2018, as “Amid the Nightmare of War, a Coming-of-Age” in The FilAm]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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