The first Filipino film I ever saw, which I saw only 2 months before my arrival in the country, was a 2006 thriller titled Cavite. Cavite is the name of a province just south of Manila which Wikipedia describes as an "historic, picturesque and scenic province providing a place conducive to both business and leisure."
I found Cavite among the 208 Tagalog-language films in Netflix's database. That's 208 out of over 100,000 titles, or 0.2%.
The premise is simple: Adam, a 'flip' (American Filipino) is traveling to his country of birth to attend his father's funeral. Adam's family is part of the 7% Muslim minority in a country that is 90% Christian (and 80% Roman Catholic). As he boards the plane for Manila, we watch him smoking like a chimney and swimming in a soup of angst over his dead-end night watchman job, his girlfriend who wants an abortion, and some gray existential crisis.
Part of me -- the part wed to academic detachment & unsentimental analysis -- wanted to resist the temptation to read myself into that film. To embrace the mindless dreamlike identificatory cathexis of the spectatorial subject I'd studied and dissected and rejected during a feminist film theory seminar at Harvard.
But I did it anyway. And did it despite the fact that Adam and I were going to the Philippines for completely different reasons, that we were bringing completely different cultural backgrounds, and that Adam knew a heckuva lot more Tagalog than I. Also: I didn't smoke and had no pregnant girlfriends.
And yet, Adam is 32; I was 30. Adam is traveling to an unfamiliar homeland; I would arrive in the same country in 2 short months. Neither of us knew what to expect. And both of us were nervous.
Adam arrives at Aquino International Airport. His mother, who was supposed to pick him up, is not there. He pulls out a cigarette. Calls mom. No answer. He wanders up and down the airport lobby. He smokes like a chimney.
I imagined myself standing in Aquino International beneath the "Mabuhay" sign (which I'd recently learned is the traditional greeting to foreigners). I'd read in a Peace Corps volunteer's blog that someone from the organization will meet you at the airport, but I supposed that even if that someone was there on time, I'd be feeling the kind of displacement I saw on Adam's face.
Still no sign of mom. Suddenly, Adam's backpack starts ringing. Odd. He opens it. A cell phone. Not his. He answers.
The voice on the other end of the phone is calm, collected, authoritative. Adam's mother and sister have been taken. Adam will do everything he is instructed to do if he wants ever again to see them alive. In the background, Adam hears familiar voices. They are crying and they are screaming and they are desperate.
Steady yourself, the voice tells him. Calm down. Get in a Jeepney. Head for Cavite City. Do what I say and your mother and sister will be fine, Adam.
After a few more moments of badly-acted freak out, Adam pulls himself together and gets in a Jeepney. And the tour begins.
With improbable panopticon surveillance, the voice directs Adam through the jungle of streets that is Metro Manila. Kumusta ho? He says to the Jeepney driver. Hello? Excuse me? The driver doesn't answer. The voice in the phone scolds Adam. You don't talk to anybody. Bad things will happen if you do. Understand?
Adam is sweating a river, people look at him strangely, children tag along behind him. He has stopped smoking altogether. The director wants us to see that Adam has dropped his petty woes of life in America like a bad habit.
I imagine myself in the streets of Manila. I am sweating. My "Kumusta ho?" is met with silence. I get even stranger stares. Even more children tag along behind me. I too have forgotten about the things that used to seem so important before.
Adam tramps on as the voice--we learn it belongs to a terrorist in Abu Sayaf, a group advocating Muslim independence in the Philippines--leads him deep into what is anything but historic, picturesque and scenic. Adam wanders through squatter camps, holding his nose. A sign on a chain-link fence reads "It is illegal to take a shit on the sidewalk, by order of the town mayor." Adam is directed down shoulder-width alleyways bordered by aluminum siding and rabid dogs. You're sweating Adam. You're getting dirty. Clean yourself at this pump. Adam operates a hand pump at the side of the street, pouring water on his face.
Take off your clothes, Adam. Go ahead, this is the Philippines. You can take a bath in the streets.
Half-naked children stand in the streets, gawking at Adam. The panopticon voice, flatly: Half these kids, they will sell their dicks, pussies, and asses. Too bad.
Of course, the film is about a terrorist holding a guy's mother and sister hostage, and soon enough we will find out why, and how Adam's father really died, and where Adam is being led. But for me that all-knowing voice was the strangest kind of tour guide to a country I was only starting to learn about. I watched Adam eat balut -- fertilized egg. Suck the juice out. Suck it out. Have a taste of your country. I watched Adam buy a soda, the street vendor pouring the bottle's contents into a plastic bag and handing that to Adam. Do you know why they do that? For the recycling money. They must survive, Adam. I watched a street urchin steal Adam's backpack, I watched Adam watch a cockfight, I watched Adam never stop sweating.
Later that night after I'd finished the film I would go online and read a few blogs of recent Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines. I would learn that I could expect to eat rice for almost every meal, that you can buy pig face at the market, that no one uses toilet paper, and that in 2007, volunteer Julia Campbell was murdered in Ifugao Province
Guilty pleasure film-identification aside, I knew my experience wouldn't be Adam's, that the movie was plucking the extremes out of a place just as any self-respecting cinema verite noir film would. That if Wikipedia called Cavite "picturesque" it couldn't be that bad, right? That while there are Islamic extremists in the Philippines, and slums, and rabid dogs and everything else, that isn't really the Philippines, not really.
And yet, in part, it is.