Imagine yourself being contacted by a filmmaker from abroad. He tells you he’s interested in the Filipino middle-class lifestyle and wants to film you and your social circle (family and friends) as you go through your day-to-day routine. After you agree, he goes to your place and starts filming. After getting sufficient footage, he thanks you, goes back to his country, and starts editing the footage for submission to a film festival.
Unbeknownst to you, the filmmaker is not really interested in authenticity. In subtitling the film, he does not hire someone to translate the Filipino words spoken in the film. Instead, he invents his own story about Filipinos’ obsession with Hollywood and the American Dream. He playfully inserts this story in the subtitling of dialogues spoken in Filipino. So, for instance, there’s a scene in the film with the following dialogue:
You: Dude, napanood niyo na Final Destination 5? Tang-ina pare, wala na ba silang maisip na bagong concept? Mag-iisip ka lang ng creative ways to die, may movie ka na.
Subtitle: Dude, have you seen Final Destination 5? It’s the SHIT, man! The concept is so cool. I wish our own horror movies can be as creative!
When the film gets shown at the festival, word eventually reaches you that your conversations have been manipulated to suit the filmmaker’s story, so you get upset and file a complaint or sue the filmmaker. Now, substitute the filmmaker for John Torres, the director of Mapang-akit, and your social circle for a small group of people living in the hinterlands of a Visayan province. Fortunately for John Torres, he won’t get any such complaints, because his subjects are not from the middle-class and may not be thoroughly familiar with ethical issues and rights in documentation.
Torres filmed his subjects in Antique, a province which, because of its isolated geography, has been stereotyped in pop culture as the land of aswangs. The language that the people speak is Kinaray-a, and Torres superimposes his story of “love and death in the land of aswang” over the more mundane conversations of his subjects.
Torres was asked after the UP film viewing if he considered what he did as exploitation and he could not properly respond. He can always hide behind the Cloak of Artistic License and say he just used his imagination to tell his story in a unique way. My problem basically has to do with the misrepresentation and the lack of informed consent on the part of the film’s subjects. Torres said he did not have enough time to ask for the film subjects’ permission to change their conversations to suit his own story, but that he plans to show the film to them (in Kinaray-a subtitles perhaps?) because “it would be interesting to hear what they have to say”. The anthropologist in me was so offended by this statement. We have been trained in our discipline to be very careful about representation when documenting any culture that it’s unthinkable to play around any aspect of their life even for “artistic purposes”.
Even when Torres will say the story that he is telling is not that far-off from what anyone in the place would tell, that’s not the point. If he wanted to tell that story, he can always hire actors, not use real conversations and change them in the subtitling to tell the story. That, for me, is a copout, and is very unethical to boot.
Torres is a very promising filmmaker. Despite my beef with the approach, Mapang-akit has some transcendent moments in it, especially the last scene with the accompanying music. But I hope this is the last movie that he will use this subtitling gimmick in without prior permission from his film subjects, especially if he has all the opportunities to ask for it.