If the emotional is too on-top of the speaking voice, surrendering to a guiding thought – an idea, a proposition, a question – can pass as urgent.
In watching the premiere of Gutierrez “Teng” Mangansakan’s Forbidden Memory last 2017, I had to quell a kind of rage gearing to erupt in the wake of a reopened rupture – its closure is a delusion – that has rapped the country’s memory for decades.
When we speak of Martial Law, we speak of the human rights violations; we speak of the infrastructural progress that birthed international debtswe are still paying today; we speak of Imelda’s lavishness, we speak of the Marcoses’ theft; we speak against the temptation to just forget or move on.
The general picture is rarely ravishing: Martial Law is not golden; it is the olden ways by which a few people seek to control the majority, exert their power over them, execute their self-interests. The olden ways are bloody, thousands of enforced disappearances; the olden ways are brutal, tens of thousands of extra-judicial killings; the olden ways are not beautiful, hundreds of thousands of torture and extortion.
In Forbidden Memory, we have the same gritty teeth grinding against a gruesome dictatorship. But these are no longer the different sectors that gathered in the main streets of Manila. These are no longer the fed-up shouts from the national Capital. These teeth are those of the Moros in Mindanao, groups of Filipinos who have long been banished from the narrowing constructions of the nation.
Teng’s Forbidden Memory documents perhaps one of the most inhumane acts—state-perpetrated at that—committed against the Moros of Mindanao. In 1974, Marcos was behind the Malisbong Massacre that killed at least 1500 Moros. In 1974, Marcos was being Hitler. That historical event has long waited for a kind of resuscitation – a more widespread and institutional telling should follow soon, but Teng’s documentary provides a brazen beginning. His work presents the survivors of the massacre in the flesh, telling their troves of stories, laying them open for retrieval, perhaps enunciating them as a form of retribution, doing what Said said: “speaking truth to power” as Said said.
Speaking in the First Person
Does the documentary film ask to be read in a way that attention to formal matters (i.e. the exhibition of technique) must be paramount?
The documenter instead asks, although even this may need to be qualified, and then the survivors from the community speak. It would not be too far-out to think that the filmmaker asks them to do only one thing: to tell their stories. Here are the cameras, here are the films: go, speak.
The emergence of voice is less a matter of “giving-voice” than for providing the conditions for the voices to voice themselves. Here, we do not have the artist directly speaking for his subjects; we have the artist enabling the subjects to speak. And this setup is precisely the source of the film’s power: its power is in its propositions, the propositions of the interviewees. The survivors tell the brutalities that they were made to experience, how the men were killed batch after batch, how the women saw their father and brothers being killed, how their friends and neighbours and loved ones were killed, how they were killed.
But caution: In The Return of the Real, Hal Foster warned of “over-identification,” following which it is as if “the wretched can do little wrong” (1996, 203). In this process, the creator/documenter, in its supposed goal of painting the other as worthy of emulation, tends to fetishize the ‘subject.’ Unwittingly or not, injustice is done to said subjects, for their complexities are obscured, their faces presented as monolithic, frozen. Can we speak of the same fetishization in Forbidden Memory?
At this point, two things must be interrogated: First, how we regard the interviewees, presented as subjects of trauma, victims/survivors of a horrendous state-perpetrated crime, and their statements, their truth-telling that the documentary enabled? Second, how else did the documentary or its maker Teng intervene aside from the very fundamental act of enabling the subjects to voice out themselves? These questions must be entertained lest we fall into the trap of a kind of over-identification with the aggrieved parties, uncritically listening to them and documenting their stories and forgoing engagement in the process.
When the Subjects of Trauma Speak
Readers of critical theory are very familiar with Spivak’s title/essay-as-a-gambit. In “Can the Subaltern Speak,” “she addresses the possibility of the subaltern finding a voice ‘inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education” (Habib 138). In general, we can speak of the essay as looking at the conditions that brought about the silence and silencing of the subaltern. She points to the Eurocentric formation of historical knowledge and the more concrete process of Western colonial expansion. Historically, the rise of social movements after the 60s that in retrospect appears as informed by the current ideas of identity politics is ample proof of the subaltern speaking – from the Black Americans, the women, the LGBT community among others.
Now that the subaltern have found and created venues to ‘speak’ and tell their counter-narratives – Teng’s documentary is also an example – what should be the focus of our new questions? This is not to say that the process of decolonization has ended, or has waned even; this is only to say that new social conditions have brought up novel concerns.
I think we can now begin engaging at these counter narratives at a new level. We have already gotten past the stage of non-recognition and ignorance; the aggrieved, the marginalized have variously registered their stories, prompting the others to pay attention not just to their discarded existences but hopefully to the systemic factors that bring about such existences. Is it enough to just hear them out with sympathy now that they have already spoken/are already speaking out? How can we be critical and sympathetic at the same time?
Hal Foster added that ““For many in contemporary culture, truth resides in the traumatic or abject subject, in the diseased or damaged body. … If there’s a subject of history for the cult of abjection, it’s not the Worker, the Woman or the Person of Color but the Corpse. This is not only a politics of difference pushed to indifference, it is a politics of alterity pushed to nihility” (1996, 116). I choose to make this assertion work in the light of the tide of subalterns asserting their right to speak, narrating their social exclusion, speaking of their traumatized experiences.
Hence, in contrast to Foster, I do not equate the “traumatic or abject subject” to the Corpse; or perhaps more aptly, I do not limit it to the Corpse. In referring to the traumatic or abject subject, I am pertaining to the socially marginalized at large. This includes then the Moros in the southern part of the Philippines and in particular, the Moros who lived to witness the Malibsung Massacre whose stories they will tell decades later.
Foster added that “Trauma discourse magically resolves two contradictory imperatives in culture today” (1996, 168). The first one is by “continu[ing] the post-structural critique of the subject, for in a psychoanalytic register, there is no subject of trauma, the position is evacuated” (1996, 168). What this leads us to is the discreet maneuver against the positing of nihility; the position of traumatized subject is not evacuated. The traumatic subject is still here with us in the flesh. It is traumatized but it is not inutile, it is not eternally mute and voiceless. Again, decades later after Spivak’s provocative question, we can certainly affirm and perhaps not without a little comforting or uplifting virtual tap on Spivak’s back: the subaltern can speak, shout, alter its conditions.
But we are not done. The second way by which trauma discourse conjures a magical resolution is by treating the trauma “as event that guarantees the subject, and in this psychologistic register, the subject, however disturbed, rushes back as witness, testifier, survivor. The traumatic subject, has absolute authority, for one can’t challenge the trauma of another: one can only believe it, even identify with it (1996, 168).
This leads us back to our original problem: how to critically engage the traumatized subject; how not to thoughtlessly patronize it? As wary and tentative I am in postulating this, I would hazard that Forbidden Memory’s engagement with the traumatized subjects is wanting. The way the documentary regards its interviewees, its subjects is rather simplistic: they have stories worthy to be shared captured, worthy to be recognized and listened to. These stories deserve an audience; they deserve to be circulated not just because of the way they shaped personal lives but more vitally, how they are embedded in a complex, national history. The documentary may have ended there.Hence the question remains—where do we go from there? Still, the openings made by the film deserve credit.
Looking at the relationships that are created around the subjects, not the least of which is with the filmmaker can likewise be instructive. What the genre can remind us is crucial. Being a documentary, Forbidden Memory does not have the baggage of feature films still expected by some to aspire to a certain realism. But this is not alternatively stating the hackneyed and hacked idea that ‘objective’ reality can be shown in films, and that Forbidden Memory, being of a genre that downplays formal ‘intrusions’ achieves this. I feel like it is almost viable to say that Teng ‘merely’ and literally ‘only’ documents his subjects. His biases are shown less, again in matters of formal showcasing of the actual film, than in matters that can be said to pre-exist the execution (the post-production omissions and considerations are givens): the very decision to make a documentary about the Massacre, the selection of interviewees, the phrasing of the prompts for the conversation and so on.
This however does not mean that all of Teng’s purposefulness is effaced in the entirety of the film. Towards the film’s climax, one of the interviewees confessed that had he been interviewed by a different person, he would not have given his consent. A seemingly harmless, yet also suggestive confession. It implicitly points out something outside the film that nevertheless impinges on it: how processes of truth-formation, cultural production among others are shaped by these minute details and not done impartially and on the fly. With this, we can posit with Edel Garcellano that “to acknowledge the text is to conjure the invisible power that produces the text” (36). These acknowledgements are manifold, applicable to many things: us viewers acknowledging the text that is Forbidden Memory; the documentary acknowledging the survivors’ statements and vice versa; or both the survivors’ texts and the documentary themselves acknowledging themselves as such. Ultimately, history-making is biased and grounded; truth-making is always motivated, not exactly surgical and perfectible. The subjects (the filmmakers as well, but mostly the subjects) were not pursuing truth. They were negotiating and reconstructing it. In laying bare their personal truths, they participate in the comprehensive, if not ceaseless creation of a collective, national truth.
Cued here is the dialectical relationship between the personal and the collective, the individual and the national. To belabor this, I can take off from both the Foreword and Introduction to Histories in Memories: Remembering the July 16, 1990 Earthquake, a work similar to Teng’s documentary in that it also tackles a traumatic event, albeit a natural disaster. In his Foreword, Rolando Tolentino spoke of the “core duty of unfolding the event in the reteller’s rewitnessing of the event, and how the event is larger than the personal retelling, implicating a collective, if not the nation’s own irreverent experiences in the trauma or experiences in related traumas” (vii). Torres said something in her Introduction which compliments Tolentino’s subtle privileging of the event: “cultural history is popularized through creative nonfiction” (xvi). In the same way that history offers itself as the venue, or site of individual experiences, individuals can express—in written, or oral forms—the history they experience. The retelling, the expressing are thus acts which allow individuals to shape the histories that shape them.
Aside from the medium—one’s a documentary, the other’s a book—the manner of expression afforded to the experiencers of trauma is another thing that sets the works apart. Whereas the book asked the subjects to write, the documentary asked them to speak. This oral character deserves closer attention. I write elsewhere how “the oral leads to the recognition of multiple and diverse sources, and thus reinforces the kind of historical construction that is not monopolized by institutional voices that often also correspond to voices of power” (430). Following this, the documentary’s selection of the subject matter (the massacre) and its opted way of engaging this topic (by interviewing the survivors) can earn some commendation. Even in a little way, the documentary paved the way for the participation of rarely-heard voices in negotiating and constructing truths that have national imports. This again, aside from the kernel of its propositions, is the source of the film’s power: not exactly in its giving voice to the voiceless, but more appropriately and fairly, in its framing of the conditions that allow the voiceless to voice themselves, allowing the forbidden to speak.
But where does that scenario leave the creator, the artist, the director? We cannot just leave it there: commending the film and the conditions it provided for the subjects to speak. We need to interrogate the position of the artist in the process he initiated. We need to assess the extent of reflexivity in this work. Where is the documenter in his documentary, where is the artist in his art, where is he located and what does it say about his artistic practice?
The Call for Reflexivity
This final section aims to proffer suggestions on the ethnographic component of cultural work in general and making documentaries in particular. Explicitly bringing up the possibility of privileging the ethnographic in the process of cultural production can expand our understanding of this process. Highlighting the ethnographic can help in pushing into the notion of an inherent artistic genius, so barrenly Romantic and so obsolete. The creations of art are not engendered by some internal genius; it is a result of complex social interactions and procedures. Foster stated that this notional expansion “is consistent with the ethnographic turn in art and criticism: one selects a site, enters its culture and learns its language, conceives a present project… move to next site, same cycle” (1996, 199). But noticeable in the simplified way he puts it is the latent assumption that everything goes so smoothly once the artist “enters” a site and initiates something there. Ethnography in general is not as easy as that.
Paula Saukko’s description of critical or action research is illustrative of a more ideal practice. Saukko hails this type of research as an alternative to the diagnostic or pseudo-objectivist tendencies prevailing in cultural practices. Saukko described critical or action research in this way: “the scholar and the, usually subordinated, people being studied engage in a critical dialogue, in which they both aim to question their preconceptions about one another and the situation, in order to fetch a course of action for empowerment” (2003, 77). Here, the artist or the documenter, in the same league as the scholar, utilizes a dynamic approach and fosters a more egalitarian relationship with the subjects, neither seeing them as some kind of experts because insiders of culture or first-hand experiencers of events nor as subordinates by virtue of not possessing the credentials – mainly academic – the artist/documenter usually has.
These are the potentials missing in Teng’s Forbidden Memory, something that I am mentioning not to devalue the work but merely to posit possibilities that can be entertained for similar practices in the future.
Is that an unreasonable demand for cultural practitioners who are already swamped with considerations spanning the aspects of creating, revising, disseminating, sometimes marketing their works? Maybe a tall task but not an unreasonable one. Lately I have been fancying declaring the need for a “reflexive turn” for our overall cultural practice to undergo. I fancy belaboring a kind of hyper-awareness when it comes to the way we live our lives every day, the way we respond to tortures and haphazard, out-and-out killings and forgotten and retold massacres; the way we consume and think about films in general and the festivals organized for them in particular; the way we write our poems or perform our dances or react to or compose our social media posts. I guess it must be done, for we have been repeatedly told that we are living in a post-fact world and the Internet remains mostly celebrated as a virtual equalizer and successfully obfuscating our tangible sweats and unequal odors and disparate lives outside it.
This resonates with the telling, writing and reconstructing of history because these acts should have been already freed from the illusions of objectivity or impartiality by now. The grounds which energize and from where these acts take place cannot be left undisclosed and unexamined. If I may quote again from my abovementioned essay: utilizing oral sources in reconstructing history “betokens the participation of the common people in unfolding and making history. This is also tied to the site of history: correlated to the act of giving-voices to the common people is the act of locating history in (their) daily affairs and loci” (430). Hence, it is not just the More interviewees’ voices but also their grounded experiences which helped the documentary present that largely unknown violence during the Marcos years. In the same way that the interviewees were made to recall and reflect on their past experiences, the interviewers, the filmmakers must be expected to reflect on their present motivations.
I guess something akin to a reflexive turn must be ushered in, if only for us to get to know ourselves more and our position in the larger social field which we navigate and which sometimes we want to change, saying Enough is enough. An old lesson from somewhere, perhaps psychology is that memory is always selective and does not encompass all. Some memories are just erased, being inconsequential, while some are merely denied, grappled with, forbidden, for arguably the opposite reasons. There are so many individual events being told and personal confessions being made we do not see how they connect with one another. I recall Teng’s Forbidden Memory and I want to say I share the “Putang Ina mo, mamatay ka na” or something like that shouted by one interviewee to Marcos towards the end. Clearly, I want to identify with them, share their grief and their anger. But also I want to talk to them and ask them what they think we should do; do they see a commonality in our plights?
I should prepare for a response if they ask me back, how can you speak of “commonality of plights” when you’re somewhere in Manila typing a “paper” partly about us and we are here, we are here, in the Mindanao of your maps.
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