That which disturbs time and images: 'Imburnal' Tito Valiente December 2008 Business Mirror
IN a local weekly magazine, I wrote last November the following notes: "If the mainstream films get written about, it is not because they are good but because there is a system into which these films are still embedded. But if one believes that films are art forms and that as such they should teach us to cross boundaries and discover hidden worlds of ideas, then mainstream films are universes of clichés and are drained of power to teach and to talk to us."
The article had something do about my choices for filmmakers who make important impressions about the state of cinema in this country. In that short comment, I went on to state that we then need filmmakers like Sherad Sanchez, who attempts to create a new language for films. I also issued a warning: "It will take more years before viewers can really enjoy the language/s of this young director's work but we have to remember that all good art began with scorn and indifference and even received with revulsion. In the works of Sanchez, we are taken into art that is really just another way of imaging reality. Slow and diffused, the images in his films are closer to what is happening out there than in all the staged and self-conscious dramatizations of mainstream directors. Sanchez writes for the future generation of viewers and, as such, is the artist to reckon with in the field of film."
The film Imburnal has already taken two major awards: the Lino Brocka Grand Prize Award at the 10th Cinemanila International Film Festival, and the Best Picture Award in the 2008 Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival. To these awards could be added for notoriety, as well as popularity the "X" it got from the MTRCB.
In press releases, the film has been summarized as a coming-of-age tale, of young males at the brink of adulthood in far-off Davao. For those who have seen the film, they must have realized that the usual way of explaining through synopsis a film would not work for Imburnal. The film is anti-narrative and anti-plot, and far from being a weakness, the absence of a story becomes the story of this film.
As film reading is providing a handle for the audience, let us begin with what looks like the story of the film. A long, narrow culvert runs the horizon of the screen. Stasis rather than movement moves ever so silently along the screen. The camera does not only linger, it stays. Our vision is nearly strained, but soon a figure at the edge of the whitened tunnel is seen. The figure seems to move in and slide downward to the edge of the screen. There is no smoothness in this transition that stops being a transition but an obsession with a space.
Soon, we see mangroves and the sea. Voices flit in and out but they are not lyrical accessories to the scene. The voices have presence of their own and they are engaging stories about sex! No movie has ever been made yet in this country, I believe, where the voices are heard almost distinct from those speaking them.
The young girls are talking about pubic hairs and oral sex. They are also wondering about the ways of men/boys. What do the male creatures like in the female beings? Half-clinical, half-hortatory, the conversations among these young girls are so devoid of malice and riddled with fun we wonder if this is ever good. What did we teach them?
The characters are all caught up in their small world. The world is portrayed without angst. And if silence or lack of movement is the temporal equivalent of empty space, the scenes that follow are masterfully executed scenes of emptiness.
The camera is the only guide to this film but the camera is never the eye of anyone. It is the eye of someone at some point. It can be the eye of a young boy or a grandmother. It can be the eye of an unseen narrator who decides on his sweet good time when to come and when to leave. The lack of pattern is disconcerting and yet this is the most realistic aspect of this film that tweaks our notion of what is real. Imburnal does not flinch at its desire to be realistic even if it means having the director simulate the typical passage of time—slow, deliberately placid, no drama, no valleys and no peaks. It is a relentless plain out there.
In Imburnal, the climaxes are far in between and when they come they are not wild surges. If actions rise, they are no more passionate than they are quick responses to something troubling and unexpected. In the masturbation circle of the young boys, the conflict is not who is gratified first but who crosses the line and dirties another boy's shorts. It is hilarious but it also makes even the attempt at being macho silly and boring. The film, at this point, is not for popular consumption. But for those who dare, they could learn lesson about the artificiality of popular cinema when it comes to telling the true story of youth on their way to regrets. In reverse, Imburnal is a reminder that those films we have always embraced to be realistic were all constructed by a device that can slow down as it can speed up.
Sanchez, who also wrote the screenplay, does not so much as direct a film; instead, he documents the passage of the days and nights, preferring to slow down for real. In that slowness is his story. His work reminds me of what Robert Bird, referencing Deleuze, said about mature cinema as having "given up telling stories to our conscious selves and seeks now to communicate directly with the virtual world of memories, fantasies and dreams."
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