Ang Babae sa Septic Tank – Berlinale Forum 2012


Ang Babae sa Septic Tank | The Woman in the Septic Tank
Director: Marlon N. Rivera
Cast: Eugene Domingo (Mila/Herself), JM de Guzman (Bingbong), Kean Cipriano (Rainier), Cai Cortez (Jocelyn), Jonathan Tadioan (Arthur Poongbato), Carlos Dala (Mila’s Son), K.C. Marcelo (Mila’s Daughter), Cherry Pie Picache (Mila/Herself), Mercedes Cabral (Mila/Herself ), Lani Tapia (Documentary Mila), Sonny Bautista (Security Guard), Aaron Ching, Buddy Saramat, Carlon Matobato, Cheeno Macaraig.
Philippines, 2011

Fri Feb 17
Cubix 9 (European Premiere)

“With this film, we go to the festival in Berlin!”

Written by Chris Martinez and directed by Marlon Rivera, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank) is the most successful independent film in the history of Philippine cinema, winning best actress, best screenplay, best director and best film at Cinemalaya. Very rare for a home-grown indie, it was picked up for a commercial run by one of the country’s biggest film companies and became the highest grossing independent Filipino film, the Philippines’ entry for the 2011 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, and was short-listed for the Oscar.

The title may be a sly reference to Mario O’Hara’s Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of Breakwater), one of a legacy of fine movies dealing with poverty in the Philippines, which rightfully garnered festival screenings and critical praise in the first decade of the 21st century, but also inspired lesser efforts dubbed as “poverty porn” and “cinema of misery”. Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, which takes deft aim at these preconceptions of Filipino film and society, was my favorite of the 2012 Berlinale.

Ang Babae sa Septic Tank begins with a film-within-the-film Walang-Wala (“Have Nothing”), a stereotyped portrait of Mila, the destitute mother of seven children (or maybe nine) who dolls up her pre-teen daughter (or maybe son) to pimp her/him out to Mr. Smithberger, an elderly Western sex tourist (or maybe Asian, or Filipino).

We learn that three young film-school graduates – director Rainier de la Cuesta (Kean Cipriano), producer Bingbong (JM de Guzman) and production assistant Jocelyn (Cao Cortez) – are planning their first film, engineered as the ultimate in poverty porn, as their route to fame and fortune on the international festival circuit, and ultimately to the foreign-film Oscar.

In the course of one day, they brainstorm possible treatments of their project as a gritty no frills neo-realist film, a glossy musical, an over-the-top melodrama, and a docu-drama. On a scouting expedition, they visit the Payatas dumpsite, whose denizens expertly deconstruct their car.

Wanting a big name for the lead in their movie, the team imagines Mercedes Cabral (Serbis) and Cherry Pie Picache (Foster Child) in the role of Mila before setting their sights on the grand diva Eugene Domingo.

First-time director Marlon Rivera’s crack comedic timing showcases spot-on performances by Kean Cipriano, JM de Guzman, and Cao Cortez and notable cameos by Mercedes Cabral and Cherry Pie Picache. But the film’s backbone is Eugene Domingo’s generous, affecting, and wildly funny performance, including a manic master class in the three acting styles of a Filipina diva. Vincent de Jesus’s accordion-inflected score is perfectly at one with this brilliant farce.

Berlinale Section: Forum

Film website:
Film trailer:

Update: Ang Babae sa Septic Tank will be screened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 23-28 May 2012.

friends after 3.11 – Berlinale Forum 2012


friends after 3.11
Director: Iwai Shunji
Featuring: Miyuki Matsuda, Kokoro Fujinami, Masashi Gotô, Tetsunari Iida, Yasumi Iwakami, Hitomi Kamanaka, Eriko Kitagawa, Takeshi Kobayashi, Hiroaki Koide, Takeda Kunihiko, Yasuyuki Shimizu, Yû Tanaka, Takashi Uesugi, Tarô Yamamoto
Japan, 2011

Thu Feb 16, Delphi Filmpalast (European Premiere)

We should take this work at face value, as not so much a film as an introduction to a group of newly discovered friends, to promote collaborations that extend beyond education and entertainment, to survival.

After the 3/11/11 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster, film maker and Sendai native Iwai Shunji (Swallowtail Butterfly, New York I Love You) traveled Japan with actress Miyuki Matsuda, junior idol Kokoro Fujinami, and actor Tarô Yamamoto to witness the unprecedented devastation of Fukushima and interview a diverse group of anti-nuclear activists in wide-ranging conversations around science, politics, economics, and personal responsibility for both the local tragedy and our global future.

Masashi Gotô, a former nuclear plant architect, details how government-corporate nuclear policy focused narrowly on probable occurrences, leaving exceptional events such as powerful earthquakes and tsunamis out of plant design and contingency plans.

Decrying the lack of courage to release information that will cause embarrassment, journalist Takashi Uesugi relates how the news media do not challenge claims of government and industry that Japan is safely free from radiation, even though the Fukushima disaster released more radiation than the Chernobyl meltdown, which itself released more radiation than the Hiroshima attack.

Reached by Skype, film maker Tan Chui Mui tells of Malaysia’s full-court press to develop nuclear power on the island nation and open a huge rare-earth refinery near the village of Gebeng, Pahang, claiming that both are safe while forbidding media access to the construction sites.

Professor Hiroaki Koide, of Kyoto University’s Research Reactor Institute, offers a heart-felt apology to the Japanese people for his role in the lead-up to the disaster, while earnestly seeking a generation of new nuclear researchers, not to develop the industry further, but because “we will need people to clean up the trash.” Professor Koide expresses perhaps the most representative statement of this important conversation: “I’d choose to live again to do that work.”

They call them bodhisattvas.

Berlinale Section: Forum

Escuela normal | Normal School – Berlinale Forum 2012


Escuela normal | Normal School
Director: Celina Murga
Argentina, 2012

Wed Feb 15, Delphi Filmpalast (European Premiere)

Opening with urban students’ pre-dawn journey to a 19th century school building, first-time documentarian Celina Murga sets the stage for a very Fred Wiseman institutional portrait, capturing an historic Argentine high school in transition with an “observational camera subtly attuned to the traces of the political in the everyday.”

We follow an indefatigable principal as she tracks down absentee teachers, teaches a new custodian how to fill the soap dispensers, and locks down a classroom to quarantine a biting dog.

We observe – surprise – that Argentinian kids are good looking. Morning assembly is like a room full of soon-to-be-discovered supermodels. But as classes begin, we learn that these students are also motivated and engaged. A civics class is enlivened by the objections of an atheist girl who objects to the term “God” in the Argentine constitution and organizes a “Fifth-year party” to oppose the incumbent “Centennial party” in the upcoming student council elections, with the goals of salvaging the school library and improving school lunches.

Murga takes us to a reunion party of the class of 1928, a room of beautiful, spirited women who provide essential historical context. The Normal School of Parana was founded to train teachers who would be sent out to the provinces to “normalize” the mix of immigrants coming to Argentina from around the world to create an officially sanctioned Argentine society. Built for 800 students, the school is now responsible for more than twice that number, and the change from dictatorship to democracy has created enormous changes in education policy.

“It used to be a sanctuary for learning and now it’s a lot more than that…and a lot less.”

I don’t know, but from what I can see, these kids are all right. With luck, their voices will inform the next stage of American education.

Murga is shooting her third feature film, La tercera orilla (The Third Side of the River), with Martin Scorsese as executive producer.

Berlinale Section: Forum

Anak-Anak Srikandi | Children of Srikandi – Berlinale 2012


Anak-Anak Srikandi | Children of Srikandi
Directors: Children of Srikandi Collective
Germany, Indonesia, 2012
European Premier

Billed as the first film about queer women in Indonesia – “the country with the world´s largest Muslim population” – Anak-Anak Srikandi is an original and important collaborative anthology on contemporary gender politics interweaving eight women’s stories with a shadow-theater rendition of the story of Srikandi, a hero of the Mahābhārata who, born a girl, grows into a mighty warrior with an undying, passionate love for a noblewoman.

“This story reminds us that same-sex love and gender variety were not imported from the west but in fact form a deep and ancient aspect of Indonesian society.”

The film makers (Laura Coppens, Hera Danish, Yulia Dwi Andriyanti, Dian Eggie, Oji Ijo, Angelika Levi, Stea Lim, Afank Mariani, Imelda Taurinamandala, Winnie Wibowo) transform a scholarly concept into a marvelously watchable, even transcendent, movie with great heart and no sentimentality – breaking borders of documentary, fiction, performance and experimental film as deftly as those of gender and culture.

Berlinale Section: Panorama Dokumente

Film website:

The Virgin, The Copts And Me – Berlinale 2012


Watch This Film

La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi | The Virgin, The Copts and Me
Director: Namir Abdel Messeeh
France, Qatar, Egypt, 2012 (European Premier)

Copts, Muslims, Jews – sharing civilization’s most ancient landscape cheek-by-jowl with a fragile tolerance that shatters with increasing frequency.

I won’t begin to describe this movie, except that it’s an exploration of the art of cinema and the surprisingly common ground between belief and disbelief through the lens of a son of Egypt, his mother and their ancestral village. It just has to be seen. We need more explorations like this.

Berlinale Section: Panorama Dokumente

Habiter / Construire – Berlinale Forum 2012


Habiter/Construire (Living/Building)
Director: Clémence Ancelin
France, 2012

14 February, Delphi Filmpalast (European Premier)

A French company is building an asphalt road in the “desert” of Chad.

We open and close on a night campfire, meeting a good-looking people, skilled, well adapted to their land.

“I don’t give a damn about the road. It can help the country perhaps, but it means nothing to me… I know every tree by heart. I follow the trails… The boy who keeps our herd is five years old. No one worries about him.”

Faster is not better. If we were wise, we would learn from these Chadean nomads and put an end to our destruction. Can we not?

Berlinale Section: Forum

Revision – Berlinale Forum 2012


Director: Philip Scheffner
Germany, 2012 (European Premiere)

Between 1988 and 2009, nearly 15,000 people died attempting to cross European borders.

The circumstances that led to the deaths of Grigore Velcu and Eudache Calderar on the German-Polish border in 1992 have not been explained even today. According to official reports, they were victims of a hunting accident. A trial failed to pursue the most decisive questions and eventually ended in an acquittal. Their families never even got to know that a trial had been held.

Twenty years later, Philip Scheffner (Day of the Sparrow) carries out the investigation that never took place back then, seeking out the dead men’s families in Romania and recording the statements they were unable to give until now.

Revision is a crime story with multiple beginnings.

Scheffner interviews the German pastor of the church where Neo-Nazis desecrated the grave of Grigore Velcu’s grandmother. Velcu was shot after getting papers to retrieve her body. A photographer tells us of his shock when he witnessed German police allowing a Neo-Nazi mob to petrol bomb and destroy a Roma sanctuary.

We hear from the first responders to the shootings, who were never examined by the police or the court. We learn it took police five hours to investigate. By then, the field was in flames. The next day, the field was ploughed, destroying all evidence. There was never a crime scene investigation.

We hear from witnesses, the men in the field with Grigore Velcu and Eudache Calderar when the shooting started. “We stood up and screamed… Police came with gun and a scope… More shots fired… His head was cut like a melon… How terrible to see how the blood spurt from him… The police car disappeared… Cars came to pick us up.”

And we hear from the families of Grigore Velcu and Eudache Calderar, by all accounts upstanding men. Today they would be citizens of the EU, free to enter Germany or any other European country. But in 1992 they were just two illegal immigrants, hunted and killed in a cornfield like wild boar.

Insurance claims – which would have been payable under the landowner’s policy – were never filed, because their families were never informed of their eligibility.

Berlinale Section: Forum

Film website:

Read coverage in Taz, Die Tagezeitung (in German): Ein Morgen, der nicht zu Ende ist; Der ungeklärte Tod im Grenzgebiet

Espoir voyage – Berlinale Forum 2012


Espoir voyage
Director: Michel K. Zongo
France, Burkina, 2011 (European Premiere)

Michel Zongo sets out on a reconnaissance mission to the Ivory Coast where his brother Joanny was headed long ago, never to return.

A mother’s message: “If you don’t have any affection for me, I have affection for you… When life is a dead end, one must turn around.”

Zongo boards a bus packed with goods without even a photo of his brother. Just his fate. He learns that Joanny was a good looking man, very elegant, who walked like a Hindi. Brave, strong. Very clean and fond of women. A man who worked hard and died alone at his place after a sudden illness.

Families don’t understand. Parents don’t receive letters. Life is hard.

“We’re not like Europeans, who remember a hundred years. Here people die and we move on.”

Berlinale Section: Forum

Bestiaire – Berlinale Forum 2012


Director: Denis Côté
Canada, France, 2012

Cubix 9, 13 February 2012

Denis Côté’s latest provocation takes its title and inspiration from medieval books pairing fanciful images of beasts with moral lessons. A masterfully composed film essay in the guise of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, Bestiaire questions what we see when we look at animals.

The film opens with eyes intently observing an object offscreen, which we gradually discern to be a stuffed deer, the assigned subject of a class of art students. From this glassy-eyed product of taxidermy, we are transported to a Montreal safari park in the winter off-season, where we view exotic animals in snowbound enclosures and restrictive holding pens as they return our gaze with watchful eyes.

Eventually we meet very strange and noisy animals, the humans who keep watch over the beasts, feed them, and clean up their shit. A symphony of images and sound ensues, building to a climax of noise worthy of San Quentin (1937).

Faded pinup girls and animal heads segue to an interlude in a taxidermy workshop, where we witness a grisly transformative craft by which a duck carcass is crushed, deboned, skinned, stuffed and posed into a simulacrum of the living animal.

The safari park in summer is a Babel of wordless voices and clumsy interactions of tourist families with animals, in which the beasts display a dignity somehow lacking in their human observers. A baby elephant takes a stroll alone, and credits roll over the sound of sketching.

While good to see in Forum, Bestiaire must have been a blast to see at Le Festival International du Film pour Enfants de Montréal. A film to see with the eyes of a child, or an animal.

Berlinale Section: Forum

Update: US Distributor – Kimstim Films (2012)