Many cinephiles will remember the recent guerrilla films She's Gotta Have It, El Mariachi and Pi. Besides being thoroughly entertaining films, and springboards to commercial success by their respective directors, they are also inspirational testaments to the courage, resourcefulness and passion of emerging artists burning to tell these stories. For Cavite at least the latter is true. And while time will tell if the film launches the careers of its creators, the film is also an unforgettably stark look at the Phillipines.
Written, directed, acted and produced by Neill dela Llana and Ian Gamazon, the action of the thriller Cavite centers on Adam, a US citizen visiting his home country for his father's funeral. While waiting for his family at the Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Adam soon finds himself blackmailed by the kidnapping of his mother and sister, and entwined in a terrorist plot at the hands of the Abu Sayyaf.
The film's story twists and turns through the crowded streets, markets and neighborhoods of Cavite, the province that borders Manila to the south, and the Phillipine capital itself. The film captivates – or dizzies – the viewer with its digital handheld camera vérité style, capturing the intense squalor and poverty that exists in the Phillipines with the look and feel of a home video or on-the-spot news report.
The result is an unflinching glimpse of what is a brutal reality for many Phillipinos, 40% of whom, or around 30 million, survive in abject poverty. Particularly disturbing are the scenes of adults foraging through the detritus of a garbage dump and half-naked children playing perilously near fetid water sources and haphazard powerlines.
Adam, apparently as shocked we are, is rebuked by one terrorist when told that conditions are worse in his home state of Mindanao, an island in the nation's south that is the historical home to the Phillipines sizable Muslim population and the decades-old Phillipine insurgency. If poverty is indeed the cradle of terrorism, than Cavite makes it easier to understand why.
Understanding, besides entertain, is one of the filmmakers explicit goals. A frequent criticism of the film by Phillipinos themselves is that the film has misrepresented the Phillipines by concentrating on urban poverty, and not the prettier side of daily life in the island nation such as the white sand beaches of its famed resort areas, like Boracay.
Gamazon responds in the special features section of the DVD by saying, “If you don't like the film, if you don't like the story we are trying to tell, at least appreciate what we are showing. If anything, we want people to come out of the film after watching this to be more educated about what's going on in the Phillipines, the kind of poverty that it has.”
Ironically, but not accidentally, the province of Cavite is also the recognized birthplace of the Phillipine independence movement. The intent is to associate the dawn of Phillipine nationhood with the contemporary movement that aims to create an autonomous Islamic state independent of the current one. One scene occurs in Aguinaldo Park in Kawit, a plaza dedicated to one of the Phillipines' founding fathers, General Emilio Aguinaldo.
The current political tensions created by the religious conflict within the country are also exposed during the build up to the movie's climax. (SPOILER ALERT). Faced with the terrifying threat of having his mother and sister raped, tortured and murdered by their kidnappers, or follow their orders, Adam is instructed to place bomb inside the middle of Quiapo Church in Manila.
Built by Spanish colonizers in 1582, Quiapo Church is home to the Black Nazarene, a wildly popular statue of Jesus Christ believed by Christian Phillipines to possess miraculous attributes. During the statue's feast day in January 2008, an estimated 2.6 millions believers visited the Black Nazarene in search of healing and cures.
The majority of the film's action occurs in the street itself. The traffic and bustle typical of the streets of developing nations like the Phillipines – not too mention Manila's notiorious traffic jams — is shown here in its many forms. The movement and energy of the film's drama is emphasized visually by Adam's constant traveling, on foot, by jeepney and mototaxi.
All in all, the independent spirit of Cavite is both its strength and its weakness. While not as polished as it could be with big-budget backing, it is doubtful whether or not the film could ever be made with the backing of a major film studio. Bureaucratic wranglings would make it extremely difficult to make a film in the same way, and show the Phillipines, with the same effect.
Alvaro Eduardo Rojas