Our Death, In Memoriam
In November 30, 2006, super typhoon Reming (international name: Durian) struck the Philippines killing hundreds of people and burying villages around the Mayon volcano area in the Bicol region. Nine hours of relentless heavy rain and wind caused harrowing deaths and destruction. Volcanic debris, boulders, sand and mudflows covered the once verdant and serene place. The sight of the aftermath was apocalyptic. The typhoon was the strongest to hit the Philippines in living memory.
Two weeks before the typhoon struck, I wrapped the four-month shoot of Heremias Book Two in the very same places that the typhoon destroyed. A good part of Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino was also shot there three years ago. I’ve become so attached to the place. I didn’t realize the magnitude of the devastation till I had gained enough courage to visit the place a week later. The places where we shot scenes were all in ruins; the roads were gone, the houses were either buried or torn to pieces, structures collapsed. It was unbelievable; horrifying. Gloom and sorrow were all over the place. The smell of death was hovering in every corner, even in sleep and in dreams. You could hear hapless wails in the dead of the night, names being screamed and cried out. People were digging, or just walking aimlessly, looking for loved ones; people were burying loved ones; people were going insane; people were numbed by so much pain. And help was late in coming. The system is so neglectful and so corrupt. I got hold of my camera and with the help of two, three friends living in the area, I started shooting I don’t know what yet then. A documentary? Maybe just a recording, a reportage (For whom? For myself? I just felt I had to do something.)? I just started interviewing and shooting. After a week of frenzied and relentless shoot, I watched the footage. And I decided to write a story. I decided to make a film, a memoriam, and share it to the world; share our grief. It’s the only thing I can do and contribute to all the madness. I created three characters and just like in my last shoots (Ebolusyon and Heremias Book Two), I reckoned, the process would be very organic. I will write the story as we shoot; do improv method; we will discover things through the process. And so, for the next five weeks, we were shooting nonstop in the most devastated areas, specifically the village of Padang. Padang is Pompeii. In one sweep, water, sand and boulders rolled down the volcano and the village is gone. I wrote scripts/dialogue/instructions before a scene was shot. I invited three theater actors, a painter and local non-actors to play the parts. Three local friends became the crew and staff. A friend’s house became our production house. The shoot was both harrowing and liberating for us. It was always raining. We wept, embraced whatever sorrow can give us, we can’t help it; actors were breaking down; we had had discourses of what happened but most of the time, individually, we struggled in silence trying to reconcile everything. One actor, a medium, could actually see the suffering spirits. We were shooting over buried houses, over dead bodies. We were purging our own demons. It was a journey into the deepest melancholia of existence.
The film’s discourse is on the death of beauty, death of aesthetics, how things can turn ugly. I borrow Rainer Maria Rilke’s line from his Duino Elegy I: “Beauty is the beginning of terror.” How true and honest.
The great and beautiful Mayon Volcano is a metaphor for the argument. Mayon is the only volcano in the world with the most perfect cone. The resilient locals, called Bicolanos, refer to it as Daragang Magayon (beautiful maiden). On a sunny or clear day, the sight of Mayon is just majestic, perfect and heavenly in all angles. On a cloudy day, you would long and wait for her to peek from within the cumulus covers. But it is also one of the deadliest, if not the deadliest, volcanoes in the planet. In 1814, during the Spanish era in the Philippines, it unleashed its havoc and buried the surrounding towns with rocks and lava. The memory of that event still haunts the locals. They continue to tell stories, myths and legends about the event. Artists continue to be inspired and create works from the memory. They have a beautiful park, called Cagsawa, created from the ruins to remind them always. And in an ironic twist, Mayon just simply destroyed the park that is so faithfully dedicated to her beauty. Beauty rears its ugly head, so to speak, killing those who prepare the `makeup and production design’. Or, the pursuit of aesthetics can be very devastating and horrifying, e.g. Vincent Van Gogh, or think of Kurt Cobain and Mark Chapman, great metaphors on the irony of the pursuit for aesthetics.
The story that grew and evolved during the six-week-shoot revolves on the return of the great Filipino poet, Benjamin Agusan, to his birthplace, Padang, now buried. He was in Russia, in an old town called Kaluga, the past seven years, living there on a grant and a residency, taught and conducted workshops in a university. He kept writing poetry; published two books of sadness and longing in the process. He was shooting video collages, fell in love with a Slavic beauty, buried a son, and almost went mad. He came back to bury his dead—father, mother, sister and a lover. He came back to confront some issues, to face secrets, to heal wounds, or create more wounds. He came back to face Mayon, the raging beauty and muse of his youth. He came home to confront the country that he so loved and hated, the Philippines. He came back to die. In the backdrop are his friends, nemesis and a son. His return is an aesthetic journey.