Pamilya Ordinaryo: Painting the Picture of Poverty Porn

by Ratziel San Juan

It is the grittiness of the actors seen through voyeuristic lenses, the edginess of characters’ exchanges and the thriftiness of the production design that invites us to stay.

Captive on our seats, we anticipate the film to reach its satisfying conclusion.

Touching one of the most exploited topics in the Filipino indie film scene, “Pamilya Ordinaryo” is a clear stand-out and competitive risk among this year’s roster of Cinemalaya films. With the bar set so high, the film is in great danger of being labeled “poverty porn.”

With its tolerance of the ongoing trend of romanticizing poverty in indie films, “Pamilya Ordinaryo” begs from its audiences the answer to the question of whether or not it offers solutions to the persistence of poverty in Philippine society.

Aries (Ronwaldo Martin) and Jane (Hasmine Kalip) are teenage parents who make a living by snatching cell phones. Only when their baby, Arjan, is stolen does their economic situation finally hit them. Everywhere they turn for help, people are either apathetic or opportunistic; each lead, a probable scam.

The tragedy is that their happy ending will never come, or at least, not from within themselves. This kind of story requires a deus-ex-machina – that benevolent tip which will finally lead the couple to baby Arjan, and give the audience that breath of relief.

Narrative-wise, however, this is cheating.

All they can do is to maintain their resolve to keep searching. Aries’s resolve waivers at one point–disheartened that baby Arjan might have a better future with his new parents, while Jane stands firm.

Still, no change can come from the protagonists to solve their conflict. All the odds are against them – the imbalanced economic ladder that prevents them from climbing out of poverty, the improbability of finding their baby, and even the narrative structure itself.

While Director Eduardo Roy Jr. deserves credit for helping the audience empathize with destitute members of our population, the root causes of poverty were never given much thought in his film.

It is commendable that the film lampshades poverty porn by showing how the poor are exploited by media for ratings. For nothing more than a free dinner, the couple is interviewed for a television episode, which portrays them as irresponsible, unworthy parents.

Simultaneously, the film is, at times, guilty for being an acting and directing showcase instead of focusing on the delivery of its message.

The audience never receives that feeling of enlightenment. All eyes are glued to the screen for its entire duration, yet nothing really happens. The story is one disjointed, succession of events; neither plot nor character-driven.

We root for doomed protagonists who never really change.

In their increasingly desperate situation, Jane and Aries never degrade themselves any more than they’re already accustomed to. They continue stealing, selling themselves, and doing whatever it takes to survive. They are victims of a chronic societal crisis which they never learn to fight against.

All the evidence leads to a poverty porn verdict, which raises a few important questions: What is poverty porn, and why the stigma? What clear distinction exists between pornography, which sells pleasure, and film, which capitalizes on stories?

To not recognize this is to deny the very political economy of the film industry.

Creativity inevitably dies in the pursuit of profit. Genres gradually devolve until they all resemble one: exploitation.
It is depressing that while the digital revolution has paved the way for digital film festivals such as Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals, the stories we are told are seldom life-changing.

Roy’s recurring CCTV visual motif intelligently serves to detach the audience from the characters, mirroring Aries and Jane’s isolation from the people around them. Particularly, they are neglected by government institutions which are supposed to help them. Everyone that conveniently offers a hand asks for something in return first.

Viewers are disturbed yet the film stirs them to act. They do not merely want to be voyeurs to the plight of the masses which was depicted so ruthlessly in the film.

Despite this, “Pamilya Ordinaryo” chooses to make no stand on the issue of poverty or its root causes.

Consequently, without the important dots connected, this causes the audience to react divisively instead of collectively; each member with a different interpretation and resolution.

Roy and other directors must realize the importance of content in their work.

Films will ultimately belong to the audience, a fact which filmmakers are aware of; thus, the political aspect can never be neglected and should be brainstormed and nitpicked as much as all the other elements of a film.

Once the credits roll, the tension melts, and the popcorn is digested, moviegoers leave the theaters without gaining much. The audience is not any more equipped to analyze societal ills, let alone eradicate them. More likely, they will exit the cinema pondering on the film for a minute before dismissing it as poverty porn.

This proves problematic. The audience are conditioned to ask for better without even knowing what they want as they are tasked with the heaviest responsibility of all: to break the cycle.

The time has lapsed for the audience to remain captive in their seats.

(Photo grabbed from IMDB website.)

Author: TNP

The Official Student Publication of the UP College of Mass Communication.