FILIPINO indie filmmakers continue to join the bandwagon that Lino Brocka’s socially conscious films have benchmarked, depicting the miserable plight of menial workers and the downtrodden. They create a bricolage of poverty films that might as well put dirt on Imelda Marcos’ immaculately clean shoes. But there is a fine line between a film trying to uplift the society through its social awareness and those that use poverty only as an affectation.

Come to think of it, most of these indie directors, who most probably have never dipped their lilywhite feet in the waters of poverty (maybe except for college excursion to remote places), claim to know all about the life below the poverty line. And their “idealistic” selves will try to make socially relevant films with poverty as its theme as they style themselves as the savant people of films. They force their movies upon the rich and the poor, as if the poor don’t already know how poor they are.

One should also take note that majority of the Philippine population is composed of the middle and lower classed of society, to whom such movies are addressed. But if there is anyone who should be watching these kinds of films, they are the filmmakers whose designer jackets sparkle in the strobe lights of the camera.

Well, screwball comedy master Preston Sturges’s “Sullivan’s Travels (1941)” should be a hard slap on their faces. Sturges, best known for “The Palm Beach,” has wittingly stitched up a satire in “Sullivan’s Travels,” which starred Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake, about an elite escapist director who wants to create socially relevant films. Although his previous films have been very lucrative, he finds them shallow. He tries to get in the mind of the poor by disguising himself as a homeless person and sets out to interview the downcast as he eventually becomes one of them. As he goes along with this scheme, he finds himself locked in prison. In his stay, he and the other prisoners are treated into a movie, Walt Disney’s “Playful Pluto.” He observes the looks on the faces of the downtrodden prisoners and sees laughter bursting out of them. Only then is he confronted with the fact that movies should serve as a medium to take people out of their problems. In retrospect, this movie quite reminds me of the 2011 Cinemalaya Best Picture. Talk about originality.

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I guess with filmmakers trying to create a seminal work, they end up choosing poverty as their motif, if not the theme which the movie revolves around. For Filipino directors, they see it as the most accessible and ubiquitous object that they can play around with and which they believe can uplift society.

As Sturges’ film says, “rich people and theorists—who are usually rich people—think of poverty in the negative, as the lack of riches—as disease might be called the lack of health. Poverty is not the lack of anything, but a positive plague, virulent in itself, contagious as cholera, with filth, criminality, vice and despair as only a few of its symptoms.” It goes on to say that poverty should be avoided at all cost even for the purpose of study as it is not something one should patronize.

On a different note, I’ve met an indie filmmaker, known for his satirical columns in a daily, who had the gall to criticize a mainstream film for being a carbon copy of a foreign film. Unbeknownst to him that what he did was an obvious rip-off of “City of God”; the only difference is that his movie is set in idyllic Davao.

Clearly, people don’t know the meaning of independent films, thinking that these are supposed to be socially conscious, issues-laden, and politically satirical with subliminal messages to boot. But in the broadest sense, independent films are those whose productions are not supported financially by studios, have understandably limited budgets, and depart from the tried and tested genre formulas. Because they try to avoid the oft-beaten path of studio genre movies, indie directors have found the light in films about poverty, thinking that movies of such spirit would break the artistic stalemate facing Philippine cinema.

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I have never enjoyed watching films about poverty. Is it not harrowing enough to see poverty every day on the streets, now I have to watch it on the big screen, too?

Quoting Sturges’ film: “The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.”

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