Thinking about short film (1): Paghihintay sa Bulong

Today I am starting a short series about short films. I am planning to write initially about three short films—the next one is about a film by someone who recently had a feature out in theaters.

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My first entry will be on the short film Paghihintay sa Bulong by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo. It won the Best Screenplay (Short Film) prize at Cinemalaya 2012. I got to see it twice both at CCP and at the UP Film Center earlier this month.

The bleak humor of Paghihintay sa Bulong is what got me at the opening moments, when a nursing student bathes her catatonic grandmother. There is nothing pitiful about the grandmother’s condition—the only audible sounds she makes is that of her body operating on auto-pilot. As the story unfolds, we encounter a family in utter dysfunction. The student’s mother is the third (or was it fourth) mistress of a trigger-happy cop, her brother and her sister are aiming for control of the house where the grandmother lives for their shady activities, and the student’s brother is jobless (as far as we could tell).

There is something to be said for Bernardo’s script, which is filled with zesty wit in the first half before it wanders into darker realms. In sketching her characters, Bernardo lets us see how, in their rawness, they are as human as one could get, even in the remarkable series of coincidences that is their relations. Her ensemble too could be credited for giving life to her characters, and I found their acting to be one of the highlights of the short film program at Cinemalaya this year. (The other great acting feat was in Mario Celada’s Pasahero, which was so realistic I was sure I saw this happen before.)

Bernardo ends the film with a series of whisperings to the deceased by the family—a superstition I was hitherto not familiar with—in the hopes that she could, in the great cloud of witnesses, get a word in with the Almighty. It is indeed ironic here that while she paints the family as waiting for the grandmother, their waiting is marked by the kind of “let’s get this over with” disregard, a recklessness that we are sure will haunt them after the funeral. We are left at the precipice but we know what will come after.

Perhaps it is this quality which gave Bernardo’s film an edge—she refuses to let us see “the end.” And perhaps it is the place where she wants us to stay. Like some good stories of a certain sort, Paghihintay sa Bulong presents a moral world where narrative forces us to reflect on our ethical judgments. It is right that she leaves us thinking about how we view the craziness (for lack of a better word) in our lives, and the ways we relate to those we know and love ostensibly.

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