Short Film Review: Palabas (A Country in Moving Pictures) (2018)

Arjanmar Rebeta’s 2018 short film Palabas (A Country in Moving Pictures) runs a little over 15 minutes and was filmed entirely with a smartphone. Having won several accolades across the short film circuit in countries spanning the Philippines, Bangladesh, Germany, France, and Malaysia, Rebeta’s thought-provoking short is certainly well-deserving of praise. In a short window of time, Palabas has captured the stark realities of poverty, the country’s ongoing drug war, politically-driven psychological manipulation, and of course, the grey area that exists between online dating and online sex work. 

A clever exposition of the many things taking place that the majority would rather turn a blind eye to, Palabas is essentially a 15-minute screen recording of an ongoing online conversation taking place between Wilma, a Filipino girl in her late teens and Steve, a European “older man” figure. The resulting opening minutes almost feel wrong to watch—as viewers, we are, after all, interlopers in Wilma and Steve’s private conversation. As Wilma moves around her cramped “room”—if one can even call it that, given that she hardly has a door and only a sheet to separate her sleeping area from the rest of her home—her body is wrapped in a pink towel as she hangs up her lingerie. All the while, her phone is on and she gets ready on camera. 

Like most teenage girls looking at themselves in a mirror or in their front-facing camera, she makes faces and smiles, even posing with a finger heart. Her youth, in part, is what makes the scene even more disconcerting. The set-up, after all, is familiar—any teenage girl will remember the times she’s gotten dressed on camera in front of an eager observer—be it a stranger or otherwise. 

When Steve comes in view, however, there’s an a-ha moment—ah, this is the type of “relationship” this is: show some skin and I’ll show you cash. Or, in Wilma’s case, show some skin and I’ll get you a new laptop. Though transactional on an ontological level, Steve entertains Wilma’s descriptions of the Philippines, the beautiful beaches in Boracay (beautiful, just like her, mind you) and how she could show them all to him when he finally visits. It’s the kind of conversation that injects that sensation of dread in the pit of your stomach because you know how this could possibly end for both parties—Steve, completely scammed out of his savings by some pretty young thing, and Wilma, potentially sexually exploited without her even knowing it for the cash and material goods that she clearly needs. In the Philippines, after all, online sex trafficking is a very real reality for those in poverty, with one in five children in the country susceptible to online sexual exploitation. 

Rebeta’s decision to film Palabas in this way is absolutely perfect—without any elaboration or embellishment or a director’s stance to cloud the viewer’s judgement, all we get is pure reality, no matter how uncomfortable that is. 

As the conversation wears on, Steve becomes a passive onlooker to Wilma’s state of living—from witnessing her mother’s boyfriend, Gilbert, leering at her towel-clad body which morphs into an explosive argument between the two. Later on, he observes further examples of blatant sexual harassment as men hanging around her mother’s sari-sari store (a neighbourhood variety store) engage in catcalling, Wilma walks ahead, grimacing as she does so. She snaps when one man hurls vulgarities in Tagalog at her, claiming that her mother’s boyfriend must be so lucky to be sleeping with both a mother and a daughter. The touching, the words, the looks—the interaction is familiar to most women and as a woman watching that scene, all I could think was, “and tomorrow, it’ll be just like that again”.

Rebeta takes his time to enrich Steve’s view of Wilma’s day-to-day life as he watches her eating a humble breakfast of a large scoop of white rice and one hotdog. The bustle of the everyday continues: Gilbert and her mother have seemingly reconciled. Overhead, sachets of shampoo and miscellaneous objects hang from the ceiling—the tell-tale signs that we are looking at the interior of a sari-sari store, and a customer comes looking to purchase something. 

Wilma watches the news as she eats and here, Rebeta has cleverly included snippets from a real-life news programme announcing that police officers involved in the killing of Kian Delos Santos, a 17-year-old student were now facing charges. The case is well-known across local and international media for bringing the full extent of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war and its casualties to the spotlight, as well as the extent to which local law enforcement played in what has been deemed as an “overreach” in the dispensation of street justice. Steve reacts with horror and disbelief, but Wilma assuages him that there’s nothing to worry about. Tired of the ongoing “overrated” news narrative she reassures him that the president’s current war on drugs is well underway and that the boy deserved to die. 

The contrast between Wilma and Steve’s sensibilities could not be more pronounced in this moment. Steve, symbolic of the external, so-called “liberal”, “western”, and “humanitarian” criticisms of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing war on drugs campaign, while Wilma represents the voice of those who live these realities everyday. While her socioeconomic class is not by any means a predictive metric of her political leanings, she certainly embodies that profile in this film. Despite the war on drugs having been indicative of clear human rights violations which clearly impact the poor, Duterte continues to hold favour among them for various reasons. 

This is no clearer than in the film’s climax where the theme comes full circle. I won’t spoil it for you, but personally, it’s a bit unrealistic to me that Wilma’s spotty 4G data hasn’t caused her call to drop throughout a crucial minute and a half in the film. Let’s just say that Steve probably wishes he ended his call with Wilma sooner rather than later. 

As a collage of moving—sometimes pixellated—images, Palabas paints a stunning picture of reality. From scenes inside a cramped jeepney with a child and a young man begging for money or a tricycle that certainly shouldn’t have been taking that many passengers, to moments of domestic disturbance, sexual harassment, and most of all, political injustice, Palabas offers an image of the Philippines that tourism boards would prefer to conceal and that for many, perhaps is even a source of shame. But it is a rich reality, it is our reality, and it's one that will hit close to home for many, I’m sure. 

As a Filipino woman, it certainly did for me—Palabas was an upsetting film, just as it should be.

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore.

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