Filipino Film Makes Class Division Relevant Again

Filipino Film Makes Class Division Relevant Again
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pamilya Ordinaryo.

What you need to know

'The politics of identity suppose that minorities bear the brunt of social exclusion, which is true in many cases. But there is always an underlying class element.'

I hear of smart shaming, race shaming, gender shaming, body shaming and slut shaming a lot these days, but rarely do I hear anyone bring up poor shaming. Many social issues are seen through a variety of lenses, but I find that discourse on identity politics can sometimes exclude class divisions as a primary consideration for the crises people endure.

“Pamilya Ordinaryo (Ordinary Family)” is a recent Filipino film that reminds the audience of the role class standing plays in many misfortunes. The film bagged the Best Film award in last year’s Cine Malaya (Freedom) — the country’s most popular independent film festival — and it’s now screening in various theaters throughout the Philippines.

Directed by Eduardo Roy Jr., the film tells the story of a teenage couple, Aries and Jane, who live on the streets of Manila with their one-month-old child, Arjan (a combination of the names of their parents, which is common in the Philippines). They do everything to provide for their son, from petty theft to begging on the streets.

The protagonists are loud, crass, uneducated, abandoned minors who occasionally take in drugs. Aries carries typical machismo while Jane would be probably be described in Filipino as a “palengkera (a loud, tactless woman).”

One day, Jane is tricked by a seemingly good Samaritan who makes off with Arjan, presumably to sell him in the black market. The young couple struggles to get their baby back but are exploited and abused at every turn by the people and institutions they turn to for help.

Sixteen-year-old Jane is sexually harassed and violated by the police as she lactates while Aries casually walks into prostitution. None of them speak a word of these adversities to each other.

The director fits every stereotype of the poor into his main characters to illustrate a point. He asks the audience: Would you help them?

To some extent, some of the stereotypes are grounded in reality. I do not mean to condemn people like Aries and Jane for they are merely products of a society that shuns the less fortunate on a regular basis.

Police, mainstream media, relatives of the antagonist, local government officials are all sought out by the pair and their ordeal worsens. Social standing is not only a disadvantage but the reason for their increasing victimization in settings where most people would expect help or compassion.

The film keeps you on the edge of your seat. But somehow through all of this — and maybe this is due to my long-term involvement in social movements — the narrative was not surprising to me.

Local audiences expect to see the worst kind of decadence and degradation the Philippines sees. In fact, many of the best films the country has ever produced don’t deviate from this message. Lino Brocka’s “Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Night)” is an undeniable classic that delves into this by following a country boy and girl’s dissolution as they integrate into urban life. Both Brocka’s work and “Pamilya Ordinaryo” question what the city and its people are becoming.

Where “Pamilya Ordinaryo” succeeds is how it instills a much warranted distaste for institutions that Filipinos are taught to trust. Despite their faults, Aries and Jane are the heroes and you root for them all the way. It also reaffirms the notion that the poor are molded by a chronic and systematic social crisis.

Louis Althusser posed the notion of the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) into Marxist criticism. These were institutions that functioned primarily for ideological hegemony and repressive, sometimes physical means, to a secondary degree. ISAs keep the society in check in direct service of one class.

The tribulation in the film is not so much just one bad day but stems from an institutionalized subjugation. ISAs have a formative role in how people perceive certain events and other people. Even after the central characters are sought out for human interest pieces by the mainstream media, their experience is portrayed as another example of irresponsible citizens. Instead of heeding their pleas, they are vilified even more by the public and harassed through text messages.

In a previous article, I mentioned how social movements led by poor Filipinos tend to get criticized more so than others. From man-made and natural disasters to the untidiness of cities, the destitute are the first to be blamed. This becomes more evident when these people band together and assert a common political or economic demand.

The politics of identity suppose that minorities bear the brunt of social exclusion, which is true in many cases. But there is always an underlying class element.

In Walter Williams' essay “Cleveland’s Crisis Ghetto,” a census of poor communities in the 1960s revealed that the biggest inequalities were among black people — black women especially. Other factors like skin color would come in, but not define your situation as sharply as class division. You would be in a bad position as a poor person, more so if you were black, and the worst would be to be a poor, black, lesbian woman. In all this, class sets the foundation for how badly one is aggravated by social inequalities.

Aries and Jane look the part, not only in tattered clothes but their demeanor and even skin tone, to remind the audience of their class standing — the reason I believe the couple received hostility throughout the film.

The film ends abruptly with the audience never knowing if the pair continued searching for their baby. But there is no doubt the audience could identify with the plot. Urban and rural poverty aren’t leaving the country anytime soon. A year into a new regime, the Duterte administration seems to have merely copied the economic policies that have led to this predicament.

The country has the highest unemployment rate in Southeast Asia and Manila holds the highest number of homeless people in a city.

The Philippines’ poverty threshold is pegged at US$1.2 a day — if you have that amount in your pocket, you’re not poor. Even so, 26 million Filipinos remain poor as of last year, and 12 million of them are starving. I wonder, who will be left to chastise when almost everyone is living below the poverty line?

Maybe in the past, myself and other moviegoers might have reacted with gasps and looks of shock, but these days “Pamilya Ordinaryo” seems to be all too familiar.

Editor: Olivia Yang