Review: Cleaners (2019) @QCinema

The first thing that strikes you about Cleaners is its unique photocopied texture – or, per the term modern Internet slang has appropriated for itself, aesthetic. In this day and age, where filters are applied liberally to all sorts of mobile device-produced audiovisual material, this opening comes across as rather adorably gimmicky at first.

Then, you catch sight of briefly (mis)coloured frames, like a missed white spot here or moments where the colouring doesn’t quite line up over there. Upon sustained scrutiny, you observe that those long, unbroken strokes of what are distinctly highlighter shades of yellow, green, pink etc. certainly do not repeat themselves – in other words, the highlighting effect has not been generated digitally. When, past the title card, this particular visual style refuses to abate, you know that this has been no parlour trick: director Glenn Barit & co. have indeed put together a film stacked entirely out of sequenced photocopied stills.

If one has suspicions about whether each still was really coloured by hand to resemble secondary school notes at the mercy of a six-pack highlighter set, Barit is forthcoming about the entire process in an email interview with SINdie:
“The process we came up with is that we first shot it digitally. After our offline edit piclock, we exported individual images at 8 frames per second. [...] We then printed them in a photocopy texture, individually manually highlighted all the protagonists’ frames, batch-scanned all the papers and finally assembled them all back in post.”

The numbers are also staggering. Barit estimates a total of 34,560 printed stills, which were highlighted by a team comprising six full-time highlighters (what a job title), three highlighters from the main crew, as well as miscellaneous volunteer highlighters who chipped in during weekends and off-times. Together they ran through 300 highlighters over 23 days. Frankly, this sounds like one of those bizarre Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) Mathematics questions to my Singaporean ear.

And yet, there is nothing remotely fictional about this scenario. Cleaners brings to life stories about a handful of teenagers who find themselves embroiled in their personal high school dramas. Loosely inspired by Barit’s own experiences, the four vignettes of eight kooky characters are bookended by scenes from the beginning and ending of the school year respectively. While the film can be easily filed away under the coming-of-age genre, plodding through it, one gradually gets a sense that these are not replicable stories – despite what the photocopied stills may seem to suggest. Why, then, this presentation style?

Most obviously, this copier style evokes the passage of time, or at least that sense of being sent back in time. No doubt the photocopied papers recall to mind one’s school-going years. Barit had intended to capture the sentiment of handmade high school projects, whereas what had been summoned for me was the not-so-affectionate memory of highlighting heaps and heaps of notes. One can name many ways Barit’s team could have made this project less insufferable for themselves, such as weaving in the photocopier effect only at certain milestones, but its enduring presence suggests that all of memory is pliable to wear and tear. Watching Cleaners makes one feel almost as if the film is emerging from an ocean of collective consciousness, slightly corroded by time but remaining very much lucid and tangible.

Cleaners also returns us to Tuguegarao City, Cagayan in 2007. Barit says, “The time and place I chose for the film seem to be rich in cultural specificities and I thought I could derive different [colourful] and maybe relevant stories from there.” Truly, no one will be much delighted to receive a new Blackberry phone these days. Hence this threadbare look the film wears is not just an homage to one’s formative years, it is also a way of signposting that the act of accessing these narrative requires you, the audience, to be funnelled through a time machine. What time machine? Why, the photocopier of course.

Another idea that leapt out – or, perhaps, that was highlighted – is the idea of dismantling one’s tools of oppression. Photocopier machines are by all measures industrial. These appliances exist chiefly to reproduce their sources with uniformity. By co-opting an apparatus instrumental in the duplicating process into a film that is duplicated only in form (and not function), Barit makes a strong case against following conventions blindly.

This idea is likewise what threads all four vignettes together. Cleaners unfolds in a way that is not unlike watching the erection of a human pyramid. Sure, the stories make sense on their own, but one stands to gain the most perspective when these vignettes are assembled together and read with respect to those that come both before and after. This is why, by the end of the film, “II. Nutrition Month” is not just about a girl with an ironic disdain for dirt (as in earth). It is also about how dirt (as in filth and corruption) pervades a country at every level of its existence, and how these young adults – so youthful and unblemished in the beginning – must learn to come to terms with their reality.

Part of this journey involves the eight characters making tiny breakthroughs of their own: one child progresses from demanding the respect she is owed as class president, to understanding that respect is something to be cultivated and earned; another two realise that they can no longer be cowed into social shame if they don’t allow themselves to be victimised by other people’s taunts in the first place. Hence Cleaners simply says that in a world that purports to be clean, fair and just, and yet is anything but, one can either continue to uphold this fundamentally broken system or choose to live subversively and authentically.

“The socio-political climate [in Cleaners] is distinct,” affirms Barit. “We don’t just breeze through high school thinking about ourselves. As early as high school, we realize how backward the structures in place are, how crazy our politicians are, and how historically forgetful we are, among other things. I think our concerns are more rooted and more communal since we are not an economically and politically stable country and we are historically colonized.”

Delivering forth such socio-politically heavy messages may seem like a depressing mission, particularly when teenage characters are used as the vehicle for these ideas. But what Cleaners seems to be getting at here is also the notion that the rousing of one’s socio-political consciousness does not have to be all doom and gloom. These characters, poised for adulthood and possessed of youthful vigour, are the agents of change we need for a revolution. Only these kids would dare to bare their hearts, transform their vulnerability, empower themselves to revolt against a nonsensical and oppressive system. In that sense they are all alike – living copies of each other – and perhaps the only time we need more of something, is when that something is a force for good.

Hope is coming. The kids are all right.

The film won Best Film, Best Screenplay and the Audience Choice Award at the recent QCinema International Film Festival.
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