Homeless people go unseen everyday, with passersby ignoring their existence, and in turn, the harsh realities of social exclusion. In the Philippine capital of Manila, urban poverty is rising almost as rapidly as the luxury condominiums that litter the city’s skyline. A direct result of the city’s expeditious urban expansion, the government has come under scrutiny for the practice of removing its homeless population during major international events. In 2012 the government even erected a temporary wall on the main road linking the city and its airport to hide its slums.
These attempts to remove the lives of the poor from the global image of Manila is at the heart of Eduardo Roy, Jr’s Pamilya Ordinaryo, a heartrendingly immersive tale of life in the subaltern spaces of this sprawling metropolis. Roy’s film opens with CCTV footage of a random street whose busy sidewalks houses an abundance of destitute families. There’s no sound, and it takes a while to acclimatise to the chaos of the image, with cars speeding up and down the highway while people jostling to get where they’re going. The silence is eerie, while the artlessness of this static shot is unsettling, forcing the viewer to anticipate what is about to happen, and in turn, acknowledge the reality of Manila’s sprawling homeless populace.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a child is struck by a car. The physical distance imposed by the surveillance camera leaves the audience feeling helpless, but when Roy cuts to a shaky hand-held camera positioned at the scene of the accident the roar of the traffic and ensuing screams for help are paralysingly disorientating. This intelligent use of surveillance cameras reappears at various crucial moments in the film, each time alluding to the ineffectual governmental institutions that turn a blind eye to the city’s poor. From here the film follows the story of two street kids, sixteen year-old Jane (Hasmine Killip) and her seventeen year-old ‘husband’ Aries (Ronwaldo Martin). They have a one month old baby called Arjan (an amalgamation of their two names) and the three of them live on the side of one of Manila’s busiest highways; sleeping on folded out cardboard boxes and surviving on the money Aries makes pick-pocketing.
Their relationship with this space is a complex one. The city’s riches draw them in, but at the same time they’re refused access to its benefits. Roy’s use of sound design conveys the splintered psychology of their existence by amplifying the cacophony of life on the streets, with the constant clamour of traffic imbuing the film with an oppressive atmosphere. One day, things take turn for the worse when Arjen is stolen by a transgender con-artist and the film transforms into a obsessive and fruitless journey through the bustling streets of Manila in search of Jane and Aries’ missing baby. In a city that feeds on naivety, there’s a disconcerting sense that the pair will do anything to get their baby back, and for every Samaritan they meet, there’s a vulture waiting to exploit their vulnerability.
Roy’s immersive depiction of homelessness consciously attempts to avoid condescension, submerging the viewer into the lives of Jane and Aries and interacting with their surroundings in an attempt to present a truer representation of life on the margins of society. There’s an urgency to the way the camera glides over their faces, searching out every flicker of unease and tortured hope, with Roy’s suffocating reliance on mid-close up shots also blocking out the surrounding cityscape and the benefits of urban expansion Jane and Aries are denied. This isn’t to say Pamilya Ordinaryo doesn’t fall prey to the cliches of arthouse dramatisations of impoverished lives, relying as it does on tragedy to emphasis its point.
Unlike the inherently tragic characters at the centre of these representations of homelessness, Roy is neither blinded by love for his character, nor abusive toward them, refusing to canonise or fetishise their vagabond lives by showing them cursing, stealing, sniffing glue, as well as highlighting the tenderness and camaraderie they encounter. The result is a distinctive and uncompromisingly agonising study of the complexities of Manila’s displaced and marginalised, and although Pamilya Ordinaryo might not be perfect, it manages what many films about urban poverty often fail to do: giving a voice to the disinherited by making the invisible visible.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty