08 September, 2009

Review in passion

So here's the thing.

I read an article the other night, one of the most impressive pieces of writing I've encountered in a while. It's called "The Letter I Would Love To Read To You In Person", and I strongly recommend you follow that link and read it. It's an article, apparently written last year, by a young Filipino film critic I'd previously never heard of named Alexis Tioseco, and it really is an extraordinary piece of writing. It's framed as a love letter, but like no other love letter I've encountered. He's not just writing about his love for a girl, a Slovenian film critic by the name of Nika Bohinc, he's also pondering his life growing up and moving as a teenager to the Philippines, he's writing a personal reflection on his connection with and passion for Filipino films, and he's writing a manifesto about what needs to change in that country's film industry. And if it seems strange that all these should be mixed in a love letter, well, as Tioseco comments, "The first impulse of any good film critic, and to this I think you would agree, must be of love. To be moved enough to want to share their affection for a particular work or to relate their experience so that others may be curious." There's a passion that pours out of the letter that's infectious - I've never heard of the films of Antoinette Jadaone, or the animations of Roxlee, but suddenly I feel like I need to learn about them, that I'm losing out by not seeing their work. Alexis's passion for Filipino cinema is so complete that it seems he feels you can't fully understand him without understanding how and why he feels about his country's film output. It's a beautiful piece of writing, and in my view an essential read.

But I'm not the only person to have been reading this piece this week. I visit a few film-related blogs, and in the past few days everyone has been writing about Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, many of them pointing to this article. And in a number of cases, the writers freely acknowledge that they've never heard of these two until this past week, but now are moved to write about them.

In the article, Tioseco mentions discussions the two have had about where they will live, commenting that Bohinc had come to terms with the idea of moving to the Philippines, and it seems that she did. Because a few days ago, Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc died when they were shot by burglars in their home in Manila. It's a strange thing to read that letter, filled with youth and vitality and passion, and to imagine that voice having been silenced. Any death in such circumstances is a tragedy, but sadly when you hear about such events, it usually almost seems distant, an abstraction, sad in concept but almost irrelevant. But in this case we can read his words and understand what a passionate, eloquent, and thoughtful person has been lost, and as I read various posts about the couple from people that knew them, it becomes clear that Nika Bohinc was no less a forceful advocate for cinema. It all drives home just how awful this event was. Rest in peace, Alexis and Nika.

But reading the letter, I found myself contemplating another issue, something that's been bothering me for the past few days. In reading Alexis Tioseco's passionate defence of the Filipino film industry, my initial thought (if I'm honest) was, "there's a Filipino film industry?" Now, of course there is, pretty much everywhere has a film industry, but I was still surprised. I like to fool myself that I'm a cultured filmgoer whose cinematic taste go beyond the ordinary multiplex, but in truth I'm not that much better than the average viewer of Transformers 2. I might go to a larger number of foreign films than most people, especially during the film festival, but even then my foreign film experience is pretty much limited to French, German, Chinese, or Hong Kong films. I stay in my cinematic box just like most other people, even if my box is marginally larger than the average. (Not that much, though - I don't think watching Jackie Chan's films with subtitles count as broadening your cinematic horizons.) Taking away film society screenings (which occasionally offer more challenging foreign films from unexpected countries that I would otherwise have never sought to see), my film viewing is still extremely limited, and largely American-centric. Even when I do see a foreign film, it's more likely to have been appointed as "worthwhile" by the American film industry, say, through an Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film. It's easy to argue this as a consequence of availability - not even the typical arthouse cinema shows that many Filipino films, let alone an average multiplex - but that's just an excuse. Even in the film festival, which really is an opportunity to view films from everywhere, I stayed very much within my comfort zone. I mean, I enjoyed Adventureland, but did I really need to see the new film from the director of Superbad at the film festival? Couldn't I have taken the spot in my festival schedule that was occupied by that film and used it instead to sample something a bit different, something I might never have a chance to see, something outside my limits, something from the Philippines or Kazakhstan or Belarus or some country I've never heard of but that could offer me a different perspective on cinema. I could have, I didn't, and I was wrong not to do so.

Now I know that, come next year's festival, I'll be back to normal, watching the same comfortable films, limiting my foreign film consumption to films that have either received the approval of the American film industry or that come from the standard filmmaking countries. I'm not going to be adventurous, I'm not going to try anything new. I'll forget I ever wrote this post. When I come to look through the festival programme and see a film from the Philippines, I'll probably even think "Wow, I didn't know they made films in the Philippines". But right now, right at this moment, I regret my limited horizons. I just wish I would seek to break out of them.

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