Filipino director Raya Martin was only twenty-four years old when he made Independencia (2009), the second film in his ongoing trilogy about the colonial past of his home country. It is a work steeped in history – national, cultural and cinematic – that explores the themes that have been recurrent in the output of the young filmmaker in his career so far. Akin to the previous part in the sequence, A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (2005), Martin once again appropriates the trappings of classic Hollywood concurrent to one of the time periods that his narrative spans. Released on DVD this week by Second Run, it makes for fascinating and ambitious viewing that falls just short of masterpiece status.
Captured in cinematographer Jeanne Laporie’s wondrous, shimmering 35mm monochrome, the story centres on a mother (Tetchie Agbayani) and her son (Sid Lucero) who flee their village to escape the rule of encroaching American forces at the turn of the 19th century. They forge into the forest to reconnect with their indigenous roots in the same way that the director seeks to engage with both the legacy of native Filipinos and with the syntax and form of their cinematic heritage. By taking on the visual language of the occupying forces, he engages with their propaganda machine and deconstructs the typical representation of exotic foreigners expounded by American cinema. Mother and son make their new home in the seclusion of what is clearly a soundstage made to represent their forest abode.
The pair take back a hut abandoned by the previous occupants (the previously conquering Spanish) and make a life for themselves governed not by foreign interlopers but by ageless folk tales of woodland gods and magical amulets. “These evil snakes cannot reign over my property,” claims the son, supposedly quoting his grandfather in one such story. His dreams of war (brilliantly realised in bubbles above the characters’ sleeping heads) suggest a longing to claim a more forceful independence. One day, the son finds a woman (Alessandra de Rossi) beaten and raped by American soldiers and brings her to live in their home. The rest of Independencia takes place years later, with the mother deceased and the couple raising a boy (Mika Aguilos) – presumably fathered by the soldier.
Martin expertly recreates the cinema of decades ago emulating the sets, costumes, visuals and performances of the time. The leap in time is even disguised by the interruption of the action for a fake newsreel reporting the shooting of a young boy by an American soldier. It is bewitching from the very first moment and proffers all manner of allegorical assertions about his country and its plight. Despite never quite delivering on some of the myriad interesting questions that it raises, it packs a fantastic emotional and cinematic punch, especially in the tragedy of its climactic thunderstorm finale and a final leap for the eponymous Independencia.