The past isn’t always how you’d remember it to be. Sometimes, you single out the bad things, sometimes only the good. Sometimes, you heighten it in such a way you feel times were easier then, even though nothing much has changed since. Nostalgia is like looking at poorly photocopied images – and such is the style of Glenn Barit’s Cleaners.
Cleaners features a gimmick: each frame is painstakingly photocopied and colored with Stabilo highlighters manually. While this first ebbs like a passing novelty, the aesthetic choice compliments the message of the film. It then flows as a natural mode of story-telling.
But what exactly does Cleaners want to say? As a coming-of-age film, it explores the usual angst teenagers harbor growing up. But unlike Auraeus Solito’s (Kanakan Balintagos) Pisay set in Manila amid the backdrop of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law, Cleaners is set in the province of Tuguegarao, without any encompassing massive historical movement. And unlike Jerrold Tarog’s Senior Year, it does not present a time when everyone has grown up and the angst has been replaced by a surer disposition.
However, Cleaners poses that adolescence is but a part of a much bigger picture. As we lie down after a tiring work day, longing for those simple innocent days, Cleaners shows how the world is as messed up today as it was back then.
Our problems have always been there, but we were just too blissfully ignorant to notice then.
Cleaners is a lot more personal compared to other coming-of-age films. Its usage of non-actors puts a blank slate on the identities of the characters, making them more relatable to the audience. The film first depicts circumstances we all have experienced at some point in our youth, then it branches out to stories specific to others. Still, sympathy is there underneath the nagging feeling that you could have been in their shoes had circumstances turned out differently for you.
As chapters increased in weight and burden, one could surmise that life will only get worse as the credits rolled and the characters’ lives continue offscreen. Life will get more anxious, loved ones will die, parenthood will be hard and corruption will never go away.
But we’ll carry on. Somehow.
The end shows the titular cleaners on the final day of the school year. Instead of cleaning the classroom, they break everything in it: a fitting finish after all the hardships they have experienced. The colors they embody, which are the only colors in the frame, leave themselves in this fit of catharsis. Does this symbolize the youth’s disenchantment as they step out of adolescence? Do the succeeding shots of this classroom, now well-arranged, mean that they have gone on, only for the next batch of students to take their place?
This is a bittersweet take on our blissful memories of with a hint of nihilism. After adolescence, we start the search for a collective peace of mind. Or, we could see the film as a battlecry as we charge head on towards the bleakness of everyday life.
Barit depicts the Cleaners youth as their own person. They are not dumb, careless nor dependent on others but are products of the environment they live in. He is delicate in portraying their problems being as valid as the adults’, debunking the misconceived triviality of adolescence.
Cleaners achieves more because of its simplicity. It shows the futility of looking back to ‘photocopied images’ or memories of seemingly innocent times – times that have never been innocent all along – pushing us to just face the battles ahead, steadfast and doing our best.
But more importantly, it asks us to listen to the youth, as they are the ones expected to clean up the ever-existing mess of the world that lies in their path.