Slum Voyeurism in the Time of #Du30
Assistant Professor, Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Since the writing and revision of “The Cinematographic Unconscious of Slum Voyeurism” in 2014-2015, the Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza returned to the Main Competition at the Cannes International Film Festival with Ma’ Rosa (2016). The film conveys the experience of a drug dealer in an informal settlement in Metropolitan Manila whose arrest implicates her family. As she is extorted by the police while in custody, agency is transferred to her children, who together assume responsibility for gathering her bail money. Depicting the entrenched criminality and corruption of the illegal narcotics trade, Ma’ Rosa creates a bleak social milieu akin to Amo (2017), a miniseries he directed for local television network TV5 about the web of individuals embroiled in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ruthless war on drugs.
In my essay, I argue that filmmakers from the Global South tend to receive greater attention and acclaim from international film programmers and critics when their works feature representations of ‘Third World’ poverty that correspond to the discourses of global news agencies and aid organizations. Kinatay (2009) was Mendoza’s last film to screen in the Main Competition at Cannes. From then on, Mendoza has produced work with topical themes specific to different localities across the Philippine archipelago such as the kidnapping of foreign tourists in Palawan (Captive, 2012), the life of a fishing community in Sulu (Thy Womb, 2012), and the aftermath of a catastrophic typhoon in Leyte (Taklub, 2015). It was only with Ma’ Rosa, his first film since Kinatay to be set in an urban informal settlement, that his work was selected again to compete for the Palme d’Or.
Whereas the slum setting of Mendoza’s earlier work portrays the desperate inescapability of the cycle of poverty, Ma’ Rosa appears to suggest the possibility of an alternate world. His latest projects bear the traces of an emergent optimism, a desire to spotlight the life-affirming diversity of Philippine archipelagic culture. Toward the end of Ma’ Rosa, the protagonist is repeatedly shown glancing at other families with more lawful means of livelihood. Instead of evincing a profound moral realization, however, this nascent awareness of the error of her actions could merely symptomize regret at a consequential mistake.
An advocate for the current Philippine President, Rodrigo Roa ‘Digong’ Duterte, or ‘PRRD’ or ‘#Du30’ to his fervid army of supporters, Brillante Mendoza has recently turned to state propaganda in directing Duterte’s annual State of the Nation Addresses. Some Filipino pundits and bloggers have jokingly observed the resemblance of this work, which uses low-angle shots and extreme close-ups atypical of official public speeches, to Mendoza’s more provocative examples of poverty porn.
According to Mendoza, the extreme close-ups of Duterte’s eyes and pores are meant to highlight his impassioned sincerity about uplifting the nation: "In aesthetics of cinematography, you get close to the person because you want to see his soul… And he’s saying, ‘I’m watching over you. I know if you are committing this or that’." In explaining his cinematographic aesthetic of authentic realism, Mendoza’s comments reveal how it aims to facilitate the immersive voyeuristic discovery of an uncompromising urban milieu, which foreign audiences would supposedly recognize but struggle to fully comprehend.
It is not difficult to see the affinity between Mendoza and Duterte as the two betray a harsh cynicism about the failure and impossibility of political and social transformation within existing legal and governmental infrastructures. On the one hand, Mendoza’s films set amid his characteristically unsettling urban milieu emphasize the pervasiveness of illegality, squalor, and amorality in Filipino society. On the other, reports of Extra Judicial Killings or ‘EJK’s’ in the local and international press, which have accompanied Duterte’s terms as President of the Philippines and Mayor of Davao, disclose a violent rejection of the institutional gridlock and criminal impunity that have frustrated any significant improvement in economic and living conditions for the majority.
I examine in my essay how filmmakers from marginalized localities must often draw on global tropes about their locality for their work to be legible to foreign audiences. Even if the international news media’s coverage may carry a sense of moral outrage against brazen human rights violations, their fascination with Duterte could be understood in a similar way. A sustained economic boom in the Philippines has brought it increased attention, making it a more visible target for capital investment. However, Duterte’s belligerent stance against liberal democracies and transnational organizations has resulted in his mythicization as an anti-American, Third World despot, who forms a millennial rogues gallery with Kim Jong-un and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Although the change in Mendoza’s purview of Filipino society might signal an emergent optimism, it could also conceal a vision for the nation whose ruthless realization would come at the expense of other, discrepant realities. Since my submission of the final version of the essay, several equivalent books have been published whose expansive focus on the production, circulation, reception of images of urban poverty would have fit in well with my discussion.
Igor Krstić’s Slums on Screen: World Cinema and the Planet of Slums (Edinburgh University Press, 2016) offers an exhaustive taxonomy of the various genres of audiovisual representation of urban informal settlements. Krstić traces the historical evolution and global dissemination of slum voyeurism across intersecting media platforms and overlapping aesthetic practices. Concerned with the encyclopedic classification of generic conventions, Krstić places less emphasis in analyzing the discursive workings of slum iconographies within larger profit-oriented media infrastructures. While the exponential spread of such imaginaries could enhance awareness about conditions of poverty, they could also replicate normative perceptions about the Global South, which would delimit the parameters for agency of the bodies and localities they visualize.
Jonathan Ong’s The Poverty of Television: The Mediation of Poverty in Class-Divided Philippines (Anthem Press, 2015) looks at the exhibition and consumption of iconographies of poverty and suffering in Philippine television. Ong is critical of normative frameworks that extol the resilience of the poor, which, while espousing the agency of the marginalized, end up reinforcing established economic and social hierarchies. Assuming the failure of the state amid the recurrence of disaster, Ong describes how media conglomerates are mechanisms of not only symbolic domination but also material salvation, which instil dependence and indebtedness in their viewers by providing them with legal and financial aid.
While its scope may be limited to the domain of a single nation, Ong’s book successfully uncovers the affective logic of transnational iconographies of poverty and suffering, which oscillates between repetition and provocation. Seeing media spectatorship as a site of moral encounter and reflection, Ong argues that the over-representation and spectacularization of poverty, which are used to attract viewers, forces them to recurrently make moral judgments about such conditions. Inundated by their jarring images, elite viewers tend to “switch off” by rejecting them as “low-class.”
Together, these works constitute a crucial field of inquiry on cultural articulations of poverty. Another such work, Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography (Zone Books, 2008), suggests that the image of oppression in a publicly circulated photograph can create conditions of possibility among its marginalized viewers for a virtual, horizontal citizenship founded on their shared spectatorship. In my analysis of the returned gaze that occasionally appears in examples of poverty porn or slum voyeurism, I dwell less on overarching political projects whose desire for lasting coherence threatens to ossify into an inflexible, exclusive form. Instead, the striking, fragmentary intervention it poses refuses the normative terms of representation but without the sweeping, destructive violence associated with the institution of a new society.