Text by Annabella Garcia
Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.
This generation remains fixated on aesthetics and picture perfect instagram posts. Yet art in its purest form goes beyond entertaining its audiences; it challenges one to keep thinking, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense at first sight. As one processes it, the piece of art must bring a sense of balance; If you are disturbed, you will be comforted, and if you are comfortable, you will be disturbed, much like yin and yang.
Khavn dela Cruz’s Balangiga does an exceptional job in disturbing the comfortable with several scenes often considered unsettling and taboo: Dead, naked bodies scattered in the middle of the nowhere? Check. A religious figure jacking off? Check. Graphic killings of animals? Check.
But despite such scenes, the film’s universal themes of identity and freedom, deems it largely relatable. It still resonates to audiences of today even though it was set almost a century ago.
Balangiga depicts characters living in 1901, right after the Balangiga massacre. About 48 American soldiers were killed by Filipino soldiers in the said village located in Eastern Samar. In response, General Jacob Smith ordered a killing spree against Filipinos over 10 years of age. Because of this, the 8-year-old protagonist, Kulas (Justine Samson), along with his grandfather (Pio del Rio) and their carabao Melchora, had to flee the village and head for Quinapondan.
There is a definite, clear narrative. But the film also contains transitional scenes that have no consequential effects to the already existing narrative. The film begins with a flying carabao. At one point, we see the young boy in a boat with an older woman that could be his mother. Later on, we see the boy seemingly going out of his body. A man (Lourd de Vera) was furiously playing his one-string guitar as a body laid right before him.
If you were expecting a sequence referencing the three famous stolen Balangiga bells, the film did not disappoint. During one of the film’s transitional sequences, we see three bells running towards each other. Later on, a close-up on one of the bells was shown, only to reveal a naked family of five underneath looking frightened. A quite powerful sequence, indeed.
One could then consider Balangiga a tale of an adventure, although of course, it refers to a much bigger picture. Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (dir. Romero, 1976) is also a journey of one man, but it is set during the twilight years of the Spanish colonialism. Both films are set under the country’s oppression. The parallelisms don’t stop there; both of the films’ protagonist is named Kulas. Coincidence?
Ganito Kami Noon’s Kulas (Christopher de Leon) tries to explore facets of the Filipino identity, especially during that period. The presence of oppressors pushes the film to constantly ask the audience and the characters “Who are the Filipinos?” Kulas tries to give a definite answer by the end of the movie.
Balangiga, on the other hand, is more of a quest and struggle for freedom, caused by the presence of oppressors. The audience can feel intense gaps of time with extreme long shots of characters walking, interacting, or simply surviving another day. Throughout the movie, we tend to empathize with the characters, especially Kulas as he both gains and loses people who are important to him along the way.
One’s freedom and identity can be greatly altered by the presence of an oppressor. For example, during the Martial Law era, freedom became so limited that people found difficulty in expressing their identity. Freedom and identity, which are both underlying themes in Balangiga and Ganito Kami Noon, flawlessly work hand in hand.
Duterte’s rule, including the ruthless War on Drugs, has pushed majority of Filipinos, especially those experiencing poverty, to live their day to day lives aiming for mere survival. Just like in Balangiga, no one is spared in this war. Even children are being dragged into this bloody mess. War does not excuse innocence.
Yes, Balangiga has sparked much controversy. Yes, it may be disturbing. Yes, it stirred up some noise – but don’t be distracted by the film’s surface. Its unconventional storytelling and well-composed scenes gained much recognition. It bagged the 2017 QCinema Best Film, 2 2018 Gawad Urian Awards including Best Film, and 4 2018 Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards. Needless to say, there is more to it than meets the eye.
Balangiga could be considered commentary on our society, our freedom, and who we are as Filipinos – but it is our role as audiences to dig deeper in order to see the bigger picture.