CINEMALAYA 2012: KAMERA OBSKURA (Raymond Red, 2012)
The dangers of over-analysis applies to films like Raymond Red's newest baby- KAMERA OBSKURA, a throwback to the silent cinema era and a wake up call for the Philippines NOT having a proper facility and most importantly, thrust for film archiving. But on the surface, KAMERA OBSKURA is visually enchanting, intriguing, and yes, subversive. Political overtones are all over.
At its core is a man cleverly named Juan (Pen Medina), imprisoned for two decades in a dark cell, and only sees the outside world through a small hole where light is reflected on the wall (as is the principle for the camera obscura). One day he breaks free of his imprisonment and wanders off into the city. He enters a shop and finds a magical camera that vanquishes corrupt/undesirable people. The shop owner tells him he has to fulfill his destiny, and eventually Juan finds his own hand literally stuck into the camera. So there he goes wandering off again with a camera stuck in his hand.
He goes inside a tall structure, only referred to as "gusali" (building) unwittingly blending in with other reporters. Inside, a couple who once ruled the "gusali" are being interrogated. The camera acts on its own, sucking in the couple and both of them vanishes into thin air. Light consumes darkness. Juan is hailed as an instant hero.
Various politicians scamper to get hold of Juan and his power, much to his curiosity and dismay. The camera shows us the truth: that even men with noble intentions can be corrupted by power.
The film says a lot, but mostly about Philippine cinema, the politics of it, and film preservation.
First, there is a discussion among film archivists at the beginning and end of the film (the characters play themselves, FYI) about the subject film, also entitled KAMERA OBSKURA which was found in a warehouse. Important questions are raised. What does it mean? Why is it open-ended? Is it supposed to be? Did the filmmaker intentionally hide the film so it can be viewed by an audience at a later time?
Second, to jump off from the premise that the filmmaker may have actually hid the film intentionally is to poke finger at the politics of cinema- where a film can be decried rubbish just because it cannot be understood, or is ahead of its time.
Third, the final frame of the movie is poignantly powerful- and is a clear indication of how we as a people treats our cinematic heritage.
The film also makes a comment on Philippine politics- I know (or I think I know) the current president was subliminally mentioned, as well as an athlete turned politician tuned chicken.
Raymond Red has expressed that his film follows a formalist approach, and it is quite evident with the remarkable cinematography, musical score, and editing. The film utilizes the harmony of the cinematic form to maximum effect.
The characters' costume and the setting of the environment may suggest the story takes place during the American era, yet the presence of flying bicycles may in fact indicate the universality of the situations- that what happens then can also happen now, or is happening now, or that the events are actually a metaphor for what happens now.
Juan as the common, innocent man pitted in an eventual doom he cannot control, as if a Coen brothers hero (or antihero) realizes the inevitable corruption of the social system, and thus he walks away-disillusioned. To this, Red takes a pessimistic perspective for his subject matter.
As what a friend had already commented about the movie, Red could have omitted the end reel of KAMERA OBSKURA (the film within a film) and could have left us with something more to think about. But I think the end reel is a vital element of the film's thesis, hence the dilemma. Nevertheless, Red has managed to entertain and enthrall with his silent film for a full 80 minutes. Pen Medina is truly a character actor we are proud to have.