Directed by three women, starring four women and entitled Ganap na Babae - with the english title, "Garden of Eve" - the opening film of Cinemalaya 2010 has all the emblemage of a feminist film, a breed of film that straight males usually avoid because it's almost guaranteed to reduce us by about three inches in shrinkage and cause massive loss of testosterone. A little patience with the technical foibles of it's screening at the premiere reveals that it may be a film for women about women but it doesn't punish men for watching. It is in fact quite rewarding.
This is not an anthology of three stories - usually and mistakenly referred to as a trilogy. The three stories are separate and unrelated but told concurrently by interrupting each other at specific points as opposed to one after the other with a genuine effort made to make each flow visually into the next. The transition is so smooth and effective that I found myself waiting for the clue where it reveals that one character is the older or younger version of another or that they're sisters or is that mysterious unseen person being talked about in another of the stories. This entire film is that smooth.
Ganap na Babae is a delicately woven tapestry of tales that was so well planned that it took on an air of conspiracy. One of the crew who was present at the camera for the filming of all three stories admitted he had no idea how these three pieces would come together to form a whole until he saw the film itself. Of course, he is a man after all.
The Hooker with a Heart she sold
The prostitute's tale is entitled "Minsan May Isang Puta" and the role of woman as mother is diminished as the prostitute only refers to her children and doesn't call them by name. They are her children by pronoun only. There is one scene where she suddenly acts like a caring mother and this is the only scene where she refers to her children by name. The character becomes so completely different in that scene that it felt like an attempt to validate herself and try to give herself some sort of redeeming quality or that perhaps it was a scene just tacked on.
Mercedes Cabral's portrayal of the prostitute doesn't change at all when talking about her miserable life and when talking about her children so it feels as if the prostitute was insincere. Other than that, the prostitute tells her tales of just how much she enjoyed it all and that she simply couldn't resist. We look at her after saying all that and think she is lying her pants off about being a caring mom. The director showed how dreadful her existence was that she seems to lie even to herself rather than admit the truth. The woman is a survivor alright, but all she shows us are her scars.
The truth is that there are many women in that plight, prostituting themselves on the street or in some pollutician's boudoir or a rich bastard's harem. They too have children and they too say the same thing. We men would never understand this or believe it. I bet many women don't, either. That is one of the truths the prostitute's tale imparts and not the only tragic one, we find out later on.
The role of mother is much better portrayed by the other two tales which oddly enough aren't about them being mothers. In the older widow's tale, she is an empty shell of a human being since her husband died. She enjoys such a close relationship with her daughter that they telebabad with each other as her daughter is now abroad - nice work making it look like the daughter's abroad using simple techniques without resorting to some unbelievable window shot. Boots Anson-Roa is lovable and endears herself to the audience so much that every time her story unraveled, the crowed cheered her along like high school kids watching Marian Rivera.
The one credited male actor here in Rome Mallari manages a small feat because he happens to be deaf. In this movie, he doesn't play a token character or acts as a shield against criticism. He simply plays a character and no attention is drawn to him being a deaf man at all, merely a man. All that was required of him was to be an actor and all that was required of his character was to be the himbo in this tale. He does play a flawed human being but the flaw is something else entirely.
Their story was played very seriously but because of how beloved Boots Anson-Roa's portrayal was, it became the de facto comedic foil to the seriousness of the other two tales. It provided balance and outright enjoyment. If the Prostitute's Tale was woman as prostitute as mother, this story is woman as mother as lover. As a bit of trivia, Boots Anson-Roa's character here is named Eos, that's a brand of camera by Canon who happen to be sponsors of this year's Cinemalaya.
The third tale is of two sisters who eke out an existence farming and eventually scavenging for kamote. Literally nothing happens in their tale until near the end of the film. I suspect this was done to reproduce the monotony of their existence on what can barely be referred to as their farm and it was done effectively without inciting mass somnambulism to the exits. There are pictures of the late husband of one sister in their hut as she is the second widow in the film. Their contact with the outside world with an ancient radio would seem to date this as a period film earlier in the last century - the clothing of a bike messenger however tells us different. They care for the widowed sister's children and oddly have the most satisfactory lives of all the women here despite being the most physically demanding.
They don't actually live happy lives, they merely manage to find time for being happy despite everything. This is the only life one sister has known and she doesn't know anything happier or sadder. This is the entirety of her world and what lies beyond which she hears on her radio is just a fantasy wonderland with such incredible places like a city or luxuries like running water. The other sister shares the current adequate life of her sister but she remembers when she had a husband. That memory is a fond one until a fateful invitation to be 'special' comes along and the memories become something else.
For some reason, this story had an error that made me wince. It was where they depicted the dry season with dry earth and dry plant life but when it cuts to the sisters' farm, everything is lush and there is even mud on the ground. That's about the only error in it and probably because it was so well done, that one error reached out and poked at my eyes. The sisters are played by Sue Prado and Jam Pérez and while it could be said that they look too tall, healthy and pretty to be poor provincial farm girls, they and the director did it well enough that we don't mind. Despite the gumption of the entire film's ending, the ending of their particular tale is the one i enjoyed the most. One sister told the other not to do what she did, she was sorry she did it and from now on she would be there to take care of her and the children and things would get better. That's not a spoiler because wait 'til you see how that sister tells her all that.
Ganap na Babae the film is the result of the Ganap na Babae search for the next great Filipina director and mentorship program. They called for entries from female writers and directors with the winner given a grant to make a short film complementing their vision. While this is a feature length film, the reason the winner was only required to make a short is because two other directors would be making shorts alongside her and the three films would be combined into a whole. It was a novel concept (something we are getting known for) and it worked.
The winner of the search was Sarah Roxas and her two mentors in the program were Rica Arevalo and Ellen Ramos who are the directors of the two other shorts. Strangely, there are no writers credited so it's assumed that the directors also wrote the stories. The closing credits should've revealed this as well as the crew but fault that with the technical glitches that plagued the screening. No mention on their official website, either. This is sad because as the three pieces are themselves excellent, how they are brought together makes the film shine as a whole. it was well planned, well produced and well edited but since the full credits are nowhere to be found, we don't know who did all that.
This is a technically proficient film. Technical excellence and adherence to what can best be described as cinema fundamentals is what immunises Ganap na Babae from harsh criticism. That's a lesson for all filmmakers to follow whether male, female or somewhere in between. A film with sound fundamental filmmaking can never be called a bad film, no matter what. It can only be called a good film and any criticisms are merely it's faults, never it's failures.
Women have the Final Word
A caveat to keep in mind is the blurb of the film itself. It represents the plight of today's women in The Philippines, it doesn't claim to show how they conquer their plight or that the plight is particularly flattering of women. In fact, it seems more flattering of men as the men here are varied. The women while all different share one dimension to them that is more prominent than anything else. Save for one sister on the farm, the other women are defined by the men in their lives.
The women without men have nothing but dead ends ahead of them and only ever move sideways or downwards. Their greatest achievements were with men, their greatest memories are of men and the solutions to as well as the cause of their problems are all men. This is a pitiful situation indeed but there is a very good reason for this interpretation. It comes at the end of the Ganap na Babae Project winner's short film "Minsan May Isang Puta".
The revelation is that the plight of women is the plight of everyone. This isn't just them, this is all of us and 'men' turns into a metaphor for something else. The moment that is revealed is one of those wonderful "ay oo nga pala ano?" moments that is cherished in this film. It doesn't need to make the whole film worthwhile because the film all by itself already is. It adds the exclamation point to it without flipping us all the bird. It's the cherry on top. This was a thoughtful vision by the Ganap na Babae project that was effectively brought to life by these filmmakers and one even us men can get.