Revolution in the raw
Revolution in the raw
A Rustling of Leaves (1988)
Following is a film review cum opinion column published in The Philippine Reporter on April 10, 1989. The film was part of DaangDokyu film festival (online) held in the Philippines on Sept. 19-21, 2020. I’m reprinting it now because it’s still very relevant to the intensifying socio-political crisis in the country under the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution,” is a film that shouldn’t be missed by Filipino expatriates and immigrants who have been away from home too long. Also, it is a film for the average North American who is cloistered in the comforts of his/her affluent society that has developed a mindset on Third World revolutions.
For the Filipinos abroad, the film will serve to show them their homeland is undergoing a painful process of change that goes deeper than the return of the American-type elite democracy via the EDSA Uprising.
For the average North American, it is a chance to see at close range a Third World movement for change, how it unfolds on a day-to-day basis, down at the grassroots level. It is not fiction, it is not a structured lecture, it is life in the guerilla zones where a new form of society is taking shape. It is a chronicle of how the legal Left strived to pursue change within legal bounds offered by the new government of Cory Aquino. It is a chilling expose of the mind-boggling lunacy and the fanatic terror unleashed by vigilante death squads on a city once a stronghold of leftist guerillas. It is the revolution in the raw, with the pain, the dilemmas and the triumphs.
In an interview with Nettie Wild, the film maker, I asked her why she produced such a film.
And she goes on to relate that when she was invited to work with theater groups in the Philippines in 1985, she went on exposure trips of the urban and rural areas and absorbed everything she could. Her adventurous spirit led her to a camp of guerillas in Mindanao where she was asked to help in a theater training workshop. (Previously in Canada, she worked with political theater groups as performer, writer and producer.) In the middle of the seminar, the camp was raided by the military and about 350 people, including Nettie, had to flee for their lives. They fled for four days, “when family after family hid us, fed us, and took care of us, all 350 of us!” Nettie says still in amazement. What I learned was we all survived because the people supported the NPA. And when I came out alive, I knew there was a movie in there.”
Besides, she had already stayed in the country for a month. “I met a lot of people who touched me with a personal story. And it was through those personal stories that I started to understand deeper politically what was happening. So I thought, if I could make a film, I’ll do the same thing. Not lecture on imperialism but present people like Frank Navarro, Commander Dante, Fr. Ed de la Torre and Jun Pala.”
Cocky Jun Pala
Navarro is the priest turned guerilla leader; Dante, the former head of the NPA, is followed in his electoral campaign when he ran for senator; Fr. Ed, twice detained by the Marcos regime, is the voice of the legal Left; Pala is the radio broadcaster in Davao City, very right wing, who announces names of suspected subversives and threatens them in his program, Anti-Communist Crusade.
“Pala certainly touched me and he scared the wits out of me but it was a very emotional connection. He was very arrogant and cocky enough, I knew he would be good on film,” says Nettie.
Besides telling a story, Nettie had a “most important objective, to articulate what I had learned in the lives of people, that there was a pattern in their interrelated stories – in any country where people are trying to bring about real substantial change and where people are not in control of their lives.”
“Like in El Salvador, it’s the same set of characters: the civilian elected government, the military that holds the reign, the disenfranchised people, a legal Left that tries to bring about change, who are harassed and killed by the military, and the underground revolutionaries. It’s important that people understand that pattern, especially in the West where we are so fat and comfortable. People will tell you, those guerillas should come out and run their candidates in elections and stop whining. Those people just don’t understand.”
Filming amid war
The difficulty of filming the movie was not so much that it was made in the midst of a real and raging guerilla war where the film maker’s and crew’s lives were always at risk. The problem, according to Wild, was how to weave a coherent story out of what could be pieced together in a location shooting that’s always on the run. And not to mention, the characters were not played by actors but by real people acting out their roles in real life. The scenes were real and could not the least be altered and rehearsed, nor re-shot.
“There was no way you could orchestrate things in the hills,” says Wild. But by relying on her research and intuition, she was able to handle the problem well. And the result was a touching drama, a moving story that reveals the true circumstances behind the screaming political stories about the Philippines.
One particularly disturbing segment of the film was that of Batman, the teenage guerilla who defected, turned against his comrades and his village and after he was captured by the rebels was tried by a people’s court and sentenced to die. He was executed after an agonizing trial and his body was returned to his father. There was a scene when the father was weeping on the shoulder of the NPA guerilla leader who was part of the people’s court. This is one of the most controversial parts of the film that some critics believed was inappropriate, to say the least.
“It was perplexing,” says Wild. “But I wanted to show that even in the midst of guerilla war, the revolutionaries could still hold a trial and agonize over the life of one person.” The leadership of the rebels in the area had made a strong case for the expulsion of the accused from the village but the larger part of the court, made up of village and mass organization leaders, opted for the death sentence.
But could the film now be labeled leftist propaganda? Wild said she showed the film to the NDF (National Democratic Front) headquarters in Holland and it was received as the best film ever made on the Philippine revolution. Although, “they preferred some parts to have been shown another way. And how they wished like hell Dante should not have said that armed struggle was secondary and that I should not have included it.” But Joma Sison (founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, now seeking political asylum in the Netherlands) said, “it is your film and we cannot control you.”
Not NBC nor NDF
Wild is proud to say she was not under the editorial control of anybody, not by the networks, nor by the guerillas. “It is not a production of the NBC, it is not a production of the NDF,” she says.
We could only say, see the movie and judge for yourself. Don’t miss it. This could be your only chance to see a film on this subject matter produced with so much passion.