STOP10: 'Balangiga: Howling Wilderness' by Khavn De La Cruz

A water buffalo floats over a seemingly endless forest scored by a peaceful acoustic tune, lulling the unaware viewer into a feeling of serenity. Suddenly, we hear the splashing of mud across a young boy’s face, waking him (and us) up from this dream. The experience of watching Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, which was screened at this year's Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival is somewhat summed up by this opening sequence. Khavn De La Cruz gently introduces his audience into the surreal world of his film via slow long takes, only to violently interrupt them with images of death, decay, and hopelessness. Ultimately, he brings the past into the present forcing his viewer to reconcile with the notion that violence has a way of outliving history.

Set in 1901, this film takes place in American-occupied Philippines shortly after the Balangiga massacre, in which the townspeople of Balangiga killed 48 American soldiers. In retaliation, the American army burned down forests, and massacred anyone above the age of 10. In this film, 8 year-old Kulas flees from his province, Samar, with his grandfather and their water buffalo named Melchora. Along the way, in the middle of a burned down village, they find a baby boy, who then accompanies them for the rest of their journey. They must take the long-winded, physically and mentally damaging path through the forest in order to avoid the Americans. In the film, this journey has no beginning nor does it have an end. Although set in a specific historical context, Khavn takes away all distinctions between past and present. Inside his forest, violence endures all history.

“Wherever there is a film-maker prepared to film the truth and to oppose the hypocrisy and repression of intellectual censorship, there will be the living spirit of Cinema Novo. Wherever there is a film-maker prepared to stand up against commercialism, exploitation, pornography and the tyranny of technique, there is to be found the living spirit of Cinema Novo. Wherever there is a film-maker, of any age or background, ready to place his cinema and his profession at the service of the great causes of his time, there will be the living spirit of Cinema Novo.” (Glauber Rocha, The Aesthetics of Hunger )

Watching this film brought to mind a canonical Brazilian film, Vidas Secas (1963), by Nelson Pereira dos Santos. This film was crucial to a larger movement called Cinema Novo, founded on an impulse to harness cinema’s revolutionary potential and its means to fight social inequalities. In Vidas Secas, a poor and starving family travels through an arid desert in search for shelter, the barrenness of the exterior mimicking the barrenness of their lives. However, where in Vidas Secas, there is a kind of violence in the stark emptiness, in Balangiga, the violence is of a quieter, sombre kind. In its fullness, the forest becomes a site of both dream and nightmare – dreams of escape, interwoven with nightmares of violent bloodshed.

Although Cinema Novo was conceptualised in Latin America, its revolutionary spirit is visible in Balangiga. Firstly, Khavn makes it a point to place the phrase “this is not a film by Khavn” in the film and in its trailer. This seems contradictory, it claims to strip the film of an auteur and thus represent a larger collective voice, and yet, the film is layered with distinctive stylistic choices. At the same time, “this is not a film by Khavn” is ambiguous. Maybe this is not a film, maybe it is a work of art, maybe it is an ode or a rallying call – maybe it is all of these things.

Moreover, the setting of the forest combined with the surrealistic elements in the film offer a Southeast Asian re-contextualizing of Cinema Novo, demonstrating that cinema has an innate revolutionary capacity that ought to be tapped in numerous geopolitical contexts. Watching this film, it is easy to forget that it is set in 1901, even though the title itself references a specific historic incident. The anachronisms are far too many for this to be accidental, however. The characters wear costumes not likely to be worn by people in 1901. Moreover, the film has an discernibly “video” look, and many shots taken from strange angles reminiscent of the handy-cam home movie. This, coupled with strange and surreal sequences of mystics and folk musicians singing to corpses, erases the historical and places violence in a neutral time zone – it may well be the Philippines of today.

More importantly, the placement of these surreal elements, including the dream from the perspective of a water buffalo, within the forest recalls a kind of animism associated with Southeast Asia and its cinema. For example, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been famous for a similar use of the forest, notably in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Ultimately, however, the simultaneous reference to and erasure of history hangs violence in the air of this film – turning the forest into a space of suffering.

The film begins and ends in the forest. As such, despite the dreams, and despite the fact that this film is based on the events of 1901, so long as we are in the forest, the suffering is endless.

Review by Tanvi Rajvanshi

The film was screened under the Asian Perspective section of the 13th Jogja NETPAC Asian Film Festival held in Yogyakarta. It had its world premiere at Pista Ng Pelikulang Pilipino in Manila earlier in August.

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