An Attempt at Exhausting a Place on the Islands

How to Disappear Completely (2013), dir. Raya Martin

Kimsooja, A Needlewoman (2012)

I still feel bad about only having seen two of Raya Martin’s movies, the second being How to Disappear Completely (2013), his most recent work which was screened just last night at Green Papaya Art Projects. Anyone who’s been to Green Papaya probably might already know that screening in a room no more than 50 square meters in size sets an unstable binary upon which to base any definition of “alternative cinema.” If the alternative to this country’s studio system is the equivalent of a family affair, then what kinds of prospects are we left with in the development of Philippine cinema?

Yet, it’s too easy to talk about how much catching up we have to do in the development of a medium, case in point: there isn’t a single screening of Porno (2013), at this year’s Cinemalaya film festival, that isn’t completely sold out. There’s development and then there’s expansion, but there’s also development without expansion, and vice versa. In this case, there are options besides My Lady Boss and that thing about Kim Chiu not being hot (but we know she’s hot, because what else could possibly happen), but expansion…is…money…Anyway, I wanted to watch Porno. But nope.

I guess I should be happy that independent cinema, or what qualifies as the alternative, is being received so well; but this could just as easily shed light on questions of accessibility, in the most mundane sense of the word. Despite the impossibility of there not being enough of the film to go around (because HOW is that even possible in a country that blocks off full theaters for…Man of Steel), and even with perfectly evident demand, the product simply isn’t available. The economics of Philippine cinema, independent or otherwise, are completely illogical, but I was also told to “be patient. We’re trying to do this slowly,” by a prominent media person whose name may or may not rhyme with Bopez.

It may be assuming too much to claim these seemingly petty inconveniences have anything to do with How to Disappear Completely, and I could begin talking about it with a play by play account of what happens, with no spoilers. But nothing really happens in How to Disappear Completely: a viewing experience that is about as fun–and just as necessary–as having a tooth extracted. And I’m kind of a masochist, so there.

“What happens when nothing happens?” was a question posed by Georges Perec in An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris – the result of an “experiment in the everyday”, which Perec carried out by spending three days in Paris’s place Saint Sulpice doing (what else) nothing. A similar trajectory is explored by Martin with this seemingly incoherent, yet oddly captivating, account of the casual loss of subjectivity, illustrating the unlikely similarities between first world boredom and the stagnancy that comes with literally being surrounded by water.

Aside from the title and the requisite setting of the stage, aka “The Islands. About a year ago.”, no other text is edited in to further clarify or tie the loose ends of How to Disappear Completely together. The rest of the film plays out as rural folklore, prayers, overheard conversations, and dreams, seen through the eyes of a surprisingly small child. We don’t even realize how small she is until we see her standing next to other children. At the beginning, we watch as she plays out her own death in a small, choreographed funeral–then somehow convinces us, for the next hour and a half, that she’s still alive.

It is through this resistance to narrative that Raya Martin is able to speak of the incomprehensibility of being everywhere and nowhere, dislocating his characters both spatially and temporally without losing the particularities of isolation. There is something both cruel and unsettling about having to see this through the perspective of a child, until it becomes apparent that everyone in this movie is a child.

If this sounds bleak–like another brittle thread to plait into the narrative of hopelessness and resignation that characterizes Philippine independent cinema–it’s because it is. Like in Shireen Seno’s Big Boy, we know that we’re just watching people slowly easing into death, but there is an exuberance and a playfulness to Martin’s storytelling, showing how having nothing can also mean having nothing to lose.

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