Reel Life: tracking guerrillas in the Philipines | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Reel Life: tracking guerrillas in the Philipines 

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In 1986 filmmaker Nettie Wild happened to be in the Philippines during the "peaceful revolution" that brought Cory Aquino to power. Wild had gone there to make a political documentary; she had a crew, financing, and plenty of film, but she decided not to shoot a foot of it. Instead, in what she describes as "quite a controversial decision," she left, intending to return after the thousand foreign press people had departed and the Aquino honeymoon had ended.

It proved to be an inspired decision. Eight months later she returned to create a remarkable film that not only highlights neglected aspects of the politics of the Philippines, but does so in unique and evocative ways. A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution is essentially an interrelated group of stories of individuals caught up in the turbulence of a society rent by poverty, inequities, an oppressive military, and the inescapable presence of the United States. There's the woman named Dadim, a former engineering student who joined the guerrillas in the mountains. And there's the young man, still a teenager, who enlisted with the rebels--taking "Batman" as his nom de guerre--but who then went over to the government and became an informer. Batman is recaptured by his former comrades and tried in a "people's court." We see him lying wounded on a stretcher, absently patting his hair, as he receives the news of his sentence--death. Later we watch as his father weeps on the shoulder of the guerrilla leader who brings back the body of his son.

Jun Pala is an anticommunist disc jockey who unabashedly performs for the camera, professing his admiration for Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels along with "God-centered ideology," and, between records, broadcasting the names of suspected leftists. When Wild discovers that one of those he's named has been hacked to death by a local death squad, she confronts him with that fact. He turns really ugly, promising, while still posing for the camera, that when his side gains more power, "I will kill them all, including the media."

On the other side there's Ed de la Torre, a leftist priest who chooses not to go underground. He laughs as he says that he was invited to join the New People's Army in the mountains but refused because he didn't want to give up "ice-cold Coca-Cola." Father Ed, who emerges as one of the film's main characters, believes that some leftists have to stay in full view, despite repression and danger, "to talk and explain and engage in what I call unfinished conversations."

It's the strength of characters such as these--and there are several others, including Kummander Dante, a former leader of the guerrillas who tries the electoral path--that draws the viewer in, and that drew the filmmaker in. "That's the only reason that I made this film," says Wild. "I became absolutely engrossed in these people and their stories."

Indeed, Nettie Wild didn't start out to make this film, nor even, it seems, to be a filmmaker at all. She was in effect ambushed by events and people she felt she couldn't ignore. Back in the early 80s, when Wild was part of a political-theater company in Vancouver, she acted in a play about a Canadian armaments manufacturer's move to the Philippines. Filipinos who came to see it told her of a vibrant political-theater movement that was part of the resistance against Ferdinand Marcos. She began corresponding with people in the Philippines, visited in 1985, participated in the resistance theater, and got invited to join a theater company organized by the guerrillas--"I thought about that for about a quarter of a second and went," she says. Then she found herself on the run through the mountains after the government bombarded the surrounding area in the middle of a performance.

The experience touched Wild deeply. Partly it was the sense that in the Philippines political art was taken seriously--very seriously. ("In Canada if you're involved in a political-theater company, you just get bad reviews. There, they shot at you.") Partly it was an identification with some of the young guerrillas, who not long before had been student activists, just as she had. "Here I was, sitting talking with my counterpart, except for he was carrying an M16. I became really intrigued as to what path led him there." Altogether, she felt she'd been given an entree into an extraordinary world filled with stories she had to tell.

She proposed making a film about the rebels, but stipulated two conditions: that she retain editorial control and that the piece address some of the complexities of guerrilla life--the harsh realities of armed struggle, ambushes, and traitors, as well as the more benign aspects, such as revolutionary schools and land reform. The underground fighters agreed. "They said essentially that as long as I was able to raise the money, get the crew back--and if they were still alive--they would get me up into the mountains."

Still, the collaboration wasn't always smooth or easy, and at times completion of the project seemed problematic. "There were people who were really behind the film and wanted to assure that it was made," Wild recalls. "But there were people in the underground at some points who said, "Wait a minute--we're in the middle of fighting a guerrilla war. This woman's waving her camera around in extremely delicate circumstances.' I was at one point approached by the leadership and told that they wanted editorial control. And when I refused, they refused my access to the mountains for two very expensive, torturous months."

Not that this was the only problem Wild had to face. As an eight-week filming schedule grew to eight months, many in her crew had to leave, and Wild had to learn to operate camera and sound equipment herself--and this was a woman who had hardly even directed before, whose previous film experience consisted of making a small video on the housing crisis in Vancouver. Each night when they were in the mountains they'd bury the film and equipment--$100,000 worth, on loan from the Canadian National Film Board and several months overdue--so it wouldn't fall into government hands if an attack came.

But all the difficulties were turned to good advantage. The delays in particular led Wild to interview subjects such as Jun Pala and Ed de la Torre, whose presence adds greatly to the film. The stretched-out shooting time allowed her to follow the stories through a real-time duration--another strength of the finished product. And whatever amateurism there might have been in the filming, it doesn't show in what one sees--which is accomplished and beautiful.

The film is filled with haunting images; two in particular stand out in my mind. One involves an official celebration of the first anniversary of Aquino's accession to the presidency. A helicopter gunship flies slowly over the crowd as an army officer in it sings "Happy Birthday" in English--succinctly conveying the marriage of Aquino and the military, along with American influence, in one gothic image. And then there's the chilling, beautifully (even poetically) shot sequence on Smoky Mountain, Manila's perpetually burning and stinking municipal garbage dump (Wild says the stench was so bad the cameraman was throwing up while shooting), where thousands live and scavenge, selling what they can find. "The price of garbage hasn't gone up since [Aquino's] revolution," Wild notes in voice-over.

A Rustling of Leaves will show at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont, Wednesday through Friday, June 13 through 15, at 7 and 9:30, and Saturday, June 16, at 4:30, 7, and 9:30. Nettie Wild will be present to answer questions after each show. Admission is $5, $15 on Wednesday, which is a benefit for the Alliance for Filipino Concerns and Insight Features. For further information call 281-8788.

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