Violence Grows: Kinatay and the Abduction of Melissa Roxas

June 8, 2009 at 6:27 pm 15 comments

Kinatay, still from movie, 2009, Brillante Mendoza

Kinatay, still from movie, 2009, Brillante Mendoza

When I first read the description of Pilipino director Brillante Mendoza’s new film Kinatay (Butchered) I thought, “That sounds kind of wack.” Shot on HD video with a budget of $100,000, it’s a down-and-dirty, graphic representation of the rape, murder and dismemberment of a prostitute in the Philippines through the eyes of an idealistic, greenhorn cop. The controversial film just won the Best Director award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where the announcement of the award was greeted by boos and gasps of shock. Roger Ebert calls it “the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival,” and extensively details his disdain for the picture in his blog.

But after I read a few interviews with Mendoza about the film, I started to change my opinion of it (though still sight-unseen; the film will probably receive pretty limited distribution in the U.S., if at all). Mendoza claims that the movie is based on a true-life event and that it reflects the rampant police corruption and unchecked military violence in the Philippines.  “This is not just entertainment, these kinds of stories are real,” Mendoza said after winning his award at Cannes.

Surface Melissa Roxas, online poster, 2009

Surface Melissa Roxas, online poster, 2009

This was borne out by an email blast I received on the same day that Kinatay won at Cannes. On May 19 Pilipino American Melissa Roxas, a poet and human rights activist from BAYAN-USA, a non-government organization (NGO), was kidnapped along with two co-workers while doing volunteer health work in the Tarlac Province in the Philippines. The email I received stated that BAYAN-USA was mounting a campaign to demand the Pilipino government aid in searching for and surfacing her. Thankfully, Roxas surfaced after a week of captivity, although her compatriots are still missing. What’s interesting in light of the accolades that Kinatay received is that Roxas and BAYAN-USA have claimed that she was abducted and tortured by the Pilipino police and military and that this event is the latest in a series of abuses against political activists by government agencies in the Philippines. The New York Times notes:

“According to the human rights group Karapatan, more than 200 Filipino activists have been kidnapped and never heard from since 2001, the year President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power. Others have turned up dead or showing signs of torture.”

If the claims by Roxas, Karapatan, and BAYAN-USA are true, then Mendoza’s film takes on an added significance. Most of the film’s detractors criticized it for its graphic, unvarnished depiction of violence and brutality, with Ebert in particular scorning its rough-hewn soundtrack and cinematography. What Ebert might not understand is that Mendoza is making a conscious decision not to sanitize the film’s violent events. Movie violence is nothing new, but it’s usually presented with a patina of glamour and unreality, an aestheticization that distances the viewer and sanctions the viewing of the violence, making it an acceptable form of entertainment.

By denying his film the glossy sheen of conventional filmic violence, Mendoza forces viewers out of their complacent moviewatching habits, taking them out of their comfort zone and making them realize that, as in the case of Melissa Roxas and many others around the globe, violence is not a form of entertainment but a dire part of everyday life. In this case, Mendoza is working toward the same goal as Roxas—to expose and eradicate the corruption and human-rights abuses of the power structure in the Philippines.

UPDATE: Here’s the transcript of Melissa Roxas’ June 28 press conference in which she describes her ordeal.

Entry filed under: activism, movies, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. OW  |  June 10, 2009 at 12:18 am

    Valerie: I’ve been following some of this controversy online. I hear what you’re saying but personally, I find it curious that the most ardent detractors of the film are people who have seen it and the ones defending it…have not. That creates an odd and uneven critical discussion, little different, in my opinion, from right-wing critics who choose to debase or attack art based on what they heard but who never bothered to actually see it for themselves.

    After all, it wasn’t just Ebert who had such a negative reaction to the film – the movie seemed to bother many viewers (though obviously, some folks liked it enough to award Mendoza with the directorial prize) and from what I’ve read, enough of them “got the point” that Mendoza was “making a conscious decision not to sanitize the film’s violent events.” Yet they still found the film irredeemable.

    Also, I’m skeptical as to whether an explanation of “these stories are real” says anything about the import, quality or impact of the actual storytelling. How many torture porn movies have come out that claim, “based on real events!” in the last few years? I’m not suggesting “Kinatay” is supposed to be like “Hostel” (though on paper, one has to admit there are some basic overlaps in content, though I’m guessing…not in execution) but its social realism can only be one dynamic amongst many to evaluate the film.

    I dunno – I guess for me, if you want to make a film about the exploitation of women – make a kick ass documentary that pulls no punches. I’m not as certain if that purpose is served through a dramatized, verite-style rape/snuff film though, in all fairness, I haven’t seen the film either. However, what I’ve read with “Kinatay” is that the controversy around the film simultaneously raises awareness of the issues while also detracting from them. In other words, the focus becomes about the movie and not the plight.

    Reply
    • 2. valeriesoe  |  June 10, 2009 at 5:12 am

      Hey OW,

      Great comments! Let me try to address them.

      you wrote:

      I’ve been following some of this controversy online. I hear what you’re saying but personally, I find it curious that the most ardent detractors of the film are people who have seen it and the ones defending it…have not.

      That creates an odd and uneven critical discussion, little different, in my opinion, from right-wing critics who choose to debase or attack art based on what they heard but who never bothered to actually see it for themselves.

      Perhaps, but for an interesting exception, which is the Cannes jury. I figure they had to watch the movie & they did choose to award it, over some other “violent” movies like Johnnie To’s Vengeance and Lars Van Trier’s Anti-Christ. So not all of Kinatay‘s supporters are doing so sight unseen.

      After all, it wasn’t just Ebert who had such a negative reaction to the film – the movie seemed to bother many viewers (though obviously, some folks liked it enough to award Mendoza with the directorial prize) and from what I’ve read, enough of them “got the point” that Mendoza was “making a conscious decision not to sanitize the film’s violent events.” Yet they still found the film irredeemable.

      I guess I’m wondering what their expectations were when they went in and why Kinatay‘s violence was so much more disturbing to them than, say, the To or Van Trier films. Of course, since I haven’t seen any of them I can’t come to any real conclusions but I have seen a lot of Johnnie To movies and I know that he can do beautiful, abstracted violence with the best of them.

      Also, I’m skeptical as to whether an explanation of “these stories are real” says anything about the import, quality or impact of the actual storytelling. How many torture porn movies have come out that claim, “based on real events!” in the last few years? I’m not suggesting “Kinatay” is supposed to be like “Hostel” (though on paper, one has to admit there are some basic overlaps in content, though I’m guessing…not in execution) but its social realism can only be one dynamic amongst many to evaluate the film.

      I took Mendoza’s comments at face value, and he’s also stated in the past that he’s interested in dealing with issues of poverty and the disenfranchised in his films. If he’s sincere or not is a whole ‘nother post, but I think it’s interesting that the issues he wants the audience to think about are being discussed, so in that way the films are effective. Whether or not he’s actually just exploiting the poor and downtrodden for the voyeuristic pleasure of the ruling class is, again, another discussion altogether.

      I dunno – I guess for me, if you want to make a film about the exploitation of women – make a kick ass documentary that pulls no punches. I’m not as certain if that purpose is served through a dramatized, verite-style rape/snuff film though, in all fairness, I haven’t seen the film either.

      Point taken, but how many documentaries get high-profile screenings at places like Cannes? Narratives are always privileged in the mainstream film world and Mendoza is perhaps subverting that to his ends.

      However, what I’ve read with “Kinatay” is that the controversy around the film simultaneously raises awareness of the issues while also detracting from them. In other words, the focus becomes about the movie and not the plight.

      Also true, but maybe he’s pushing the envelope to shake people up and to get them to really think about what they’re watching, instead of confirming their comfortable liberal values. I think he’s trying to implicate the viewer in condoning violence as entertainment, and by extension, violence as an acceptable means to an end.

      Or maybe he’s just pulling the wool over my eyes. Of the three Mendoza films I’ve seen (Serbis, Tirador, & Foster Child) I think that only Foster Child truly succeeds, but the other two were fascinating failures that showed real cinematic possibilities. I’m still trying to figure out if Mendoza is truly brilliant or just a brilliant charlatan after all.

      Reply
  • 3. OW  |  June 10, 2009 at 12:26 am

    And just so I’m clear – I’m not suggesting that you are avoiding seeing the film…I know it hasn’t come out here yet. I simply meant that it’s difficult to weigh the merits of a debate where not all the players have actually seen the artistic work in question.

    Reply
    • 4. valeriesoe  |  June 10, 2009 at 5:25 am

      Very true–I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to stomach it if and when it does show up here Stateside. But I’m thinking of the film in the way it impacts and reflects broader issues so, weirdly enough, I may not have to actually view the movie to perceive its impact. Is that crazy? For me it’s not so much about the movie as a discrete entity but as a cultural event that interacts with elements outside of the film itself.

      Reply
  • 5. B. Vergara  |  June 10, 2009 at 7:46 am

    Hey Val,

    I kind of “lost” a little back-and-forth debate on Facebook a couple of weeks ago about this. Ebert’s detractors — as in “In your face, Roger!” — could more or less be characterized into two camps: the ridiculous “How dare you criticize Filipinos!” camp, and the “Ebert is such a middlebrow critic anyway” camp. (The third variety, on Ebert’s own website, was that Ebert let his moral revulsion obscure his critical faculties, but that Facebook thread just didn’t go there.)

    One thing almost all the detractors had in common, though (as Oliver points out above): none of them had seen “Kinatay”, and some had never even seen a single Mendoza film at all.

    I haven’t seen “Kinatay”, of course. But my argument — that maybe Ebert has a point — was based instead on Mendoza’s previous works, which seemed to traffic in various degrees of gratuitousness and near-exploitation. (Please note that I’m not aligning myself with a far more insidious crew of naysayers, who claim that Mendoza shouldn’t be airing “our dirty laundry”. But sometimes I do wonder whether my own visceral disgust is compounded by the fact that these are “my peeps” on screen.)

    And so the skepticism that I share with Oliver above emerges from my experience of Mendoza’s oeuvre. I’ll end with something totally unfair and put words in Mendoza’s mouth. I can almost imagine him answering, if asked whether it was necessary to show, in close-up, pus from a boil squirting into a bottle, or whether it was necessary to show someone rooting through shit to look for their dentures, or whether it was necessary to show someone knee-deep in floating turds: “that which we don’t want to see might be what we should see,” as he does in that article you link to.

    Reply
    • 6. valeriesoe  |  June 13, 2009 at 10:39 pm

      Hi Sunny,

      you wrote:

      I’ll end with something totally unfair and put words in Mendoza’s mouth. I can almost imagine him answering, if asked whether it was necessary to show, in close-up, pus from a boil squirting into a bottle, or whether it was necessary to show someone rooting through shit to look for their dentures, or whether it was necessary to show someone knee-deep in floating turds: “that which we don’t want to see might be what we should see,” as he does in that article you link to.

      This is where I’m not sure if Mendoza is pushing the envelope to get the attention of jaded audiences, or if he’s using exploitation for his own self-aggrandizement. Do we need to see the squirting pus and the dismemberment because it’s the only thing that makes us recoil nowadays, because we’ve become inured to more and more extreme screen violence? Or is Mendoza just doing it to get attention, accolades and financing? Hard to say, but I do know that he can make an exceptional movie (Foster Child) without shock tactics so I wonder if we’re enabling his extremism by paying attention to it? In which case I suppose we should stop commenting right now so we don’t embolden him to do more. ;-)

      Reply
  • 7. OW  |  June 10, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    I really have to echo Sunny’s concerns here – I find that there’s a certain amount of kneejerk ethnic nationalism involved in some of the defenses I’ve seen of the film, setting up a faxu racial debate between The White Western Critic (Ebert) and The Brown 3rd World Director (Mendoza). It plays well from a post-colonial p.o.v. but again, the debate has manifested around not the film itself but the *response* to the film. That’s fine – I think it’s totally valid to debate how art is responded to – but it also makes little sense to me how one can defend a piece of art they haven’t seen (and again, I’m not calling out Valerie specifically here but rather, the general thinking that gives Mendoza the benefit of the doubt but not, say, an American film critic.

    I mean, if people are going to organize the debate on the basis of identity politics, why not ask this additional question? What does it mean when a male director creates a film about the rape, torture, murder and dismemberment of a prostitute?

    To put it another way, if Mendoza were a Western, White director but made exactly the same film, I’m convinced of two things: 1) critics would have hated it still and 2) no one defending the film -sight unseen – would be doing so now. In fact, I’d wager that they film would be getting slammed – sight unseen – for being exploitationist despite its social realism.

    Reply
    • 8. valeriesoe  |  June 13, 2009 at 10:34 pm

      Hey O,

      you wrote:

      I mean, if people are going to organize the debate on the basis of identity politics, why not ask this additional question? What does it mean when a male director creates a film about the rape, torture, murder and dismemberment of a prostitute?

      Yeah, as someone who came of age in the time of Dworkin I thought a lot about this, too, and it’s where I find Mendoza to be most problematic. See my above reply to Sunny

      To put it another way, if Mendoza were a Western, White director but made exactly the same film, I’m convinced of two things: 1) critics would have hated it still and 2) no one defending the film -sight unseen – would be doing so now. In fact, I’d wager that they film would be getting slammed – sight unseen – for being exploitationist despite its social realism.

      But I think that this equivalency doesn’t work because the film wasn’t made by a white western director. I can’t separate out the film from the filmmaker and the social and political context his films come from. Mendoza is Pilipino and the topic is Pilipino so I’m reading it in the context of the situation in the Philippines.

      But it looks like Mendoza’s methods may be defeating his claimed motivations, since we’re all going on about the aesthetics and ignoring the political context he says he wants to expose. Or is it just easier for us to talk about than the politics?

      Anyway, no easy answers here–I’m glad the discussion is taking place, though.

      Reply
  • 9. OW  |  June 10, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    I’d also add – it’s hard to see how Ebert let his moral revulsion > critical faculties if people read the actual review. It’s clear there that much of his response to the film is specifically predicated on discussing its aesthetic qualities. Ebert disliked the film for BOTH its moral revulsion AND aesthetic failures.

    Reply
    • 10. valeriesoe  |  June 14, 2009 at 12:39 am

      You guys are kicking my ass. Let me go back & re-read the Ebert before I try to respond.

      Reply
  • 11. Rusty Ma Arte  |  June 15, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    Val, I like the way you juxtapose the film with the case of Melissa Roxas. My take is, in art and general and fims in particular, the genre, style, and method takes a secondary stand. After all, these are concepts of art and as art, it is a subjective construct. What is art to someone may not be my cup of tea! What takes a more principal role is the content of the art. The content is certainly the objective factor. I appreciate the realism that was injected in Kinatay. It exposes the human rights violations of the Arroyo regime that already surppased the human rights record of Marcos. Hollywood only saw the aestectic artsy and style of the film. But specially Ebert, failed to see the more valued importance of the content and the purpose of the film. If we are only to argue for or against the subjective factor, then it will take us forever to agrree on it. I don’t want to sound like a cliche but let me just echo an idea..”art is not a merely a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which we shape it”.

    Reply
    • 12. valeriesoe  |  June 29, 2009 at 12:29 am

      Thanks for the observations! The quote you end with is particularly apt in this case, I think. I wonder where both of these discussions, about Kinatay and about Roxas, will end up.

      Reply
  • [...] not just thrill-seekers stopping by. Other popular search topics are fairly diverse, including Kinatay, Brillante Mendoza’s controversial new flick, asiansartmuseum’s parody website Lord, It’s The Samurai, the late Pinoy poet Al Robles, and [...]

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  • [...] even though she didn’t get to see the film, my good friend Valerie Soe has a thoughtful blog post, from almost exactly a year ago, about violence and the ugliness of Kinatay which she juxtaposes [...]

    Reply
  • […] run of movies screening at tony international film fests like Toronto, Hong Kong, and Cannes, where Kinatay famously and controversially won the Best Director prize, after which Roger Ebert declared it was “the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film […]

    Reply

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