Seeing RedBy Radel Paredes
Cebu Daily News
I saw Red and he was in blue. Of course, if I were Raymund Red, I’d also avoid wearing red shirts as much as possible, especially if I were to appear in public for a serious event. I’d reserve the redundancy for Valentine’s Day parties.
The Filipino independent director, who was one of the few who first brought home the bacon (read: the Cannes trophy), recently came to our theater at the University of San Carlos College of Architecture and Fine Arts to attend the special screening of “Kamera Obskura”, his entry to this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.
Red, who has been making films since he was 17 years old, “came full circle” with this recent work, a silent feature shot almost entirely in black and white (“Kamera Obskura” was followed by a screening of Red’s first film “Magpakailanman”, also a silent black and white film shot with the Super 8 amateur camera.). This is one of the first paradoxes of the movie that Red returns to the film scene steeped in high-tech gadgetry with cinema that mimics its most primitive state: the black and white silent film.
And yet, it has to be shot and edited in state-of-the-art digital equipment that allows Red to imitate the scratchy texture, irregular hand-cranked motion, and slight constant flicker of ancient silent cinema. It is enough to convince (or fool) most of us whose only recollection of silent films were black and white Charlie Chaplin flicks we saw since childhood.
In fact, deliberate imitation seems to be the style of this film which tells the story of the discovery of a lost Filipino silent film that itself delves on how a prisoner in a “camera obscura”, the actual “dark room” where image from outside world is projected through a pinhole onto a wall, is led by this light to freedom. While straying into a photography studio, he finds himself possessed by the spirit of a magic camera, which gives him supernatural powers to fight evil (read: corrupt politicians).
The film opens with a color sequence with a group of film critics and journalists announcing in a press conference the discovery of the lost film apparently on TV, as it is shot in jerky handheld motion and has the coarse look of an amateur video.
This works like a prologue to the silent film, which also ends with a color epilogue showing, in an obvious quotation of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane”, the same group of journalists and critics discussing the missing end of the silent movie, their faces blackened by shadows from strong window backlighting.
Film buffs would have a lot of other déjà vu moments watching this “film-within-a-film”. The use of canted shots, distorted props, and “retro-futuristic setting” recall silent expressionist classics like Robert Weine’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”; crude laser beams making villains disappear bring to mind B-movies; and even those gangster in white clothes and black suspenders somewhat hint of the bad boys in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”.
The allusions are deliberate, according to Red, as the whole film is his own tribute to the great auteurs and the art of cinema in general. “The last sequence is obviously a homage to Orson Welles,” he said. “It’s not imitation if it’s a homage.”
We saw the same approach of cinema parodying itself in such films as “Moulin Rouge”, which uses a series of quotations from earlier musicals. Red makes the same self-conscious allusions to the classics but without compromising the narrative for those who are not familiar with them.
Known for his historical features “Bayani” and “Sakay’, Red makes yet another film about Philippine history, a film commentary about how cinema, a potentially powerful medium for social change, has been used for political demagoguery.
It is thus an inquiry into the role of the filmmaker in a country where cinema is used, as in Plato’s allegory of the cave (in this case, the prison that is the camera obscura), to deceive people. And ironically, Red exploits this medium most effective for make-believe to make people aware of its dangers.
Thus, as in Plato’s story of the person who eventually emerged out of the cave to see the blinding reality that is his true origin, Red goes back to the impossible frontier of our lost cinema. There is nothing left of this glorious moment when our forebears were first thrilled by the magic of the moving pictures even if they were mostly in black and white and without sound.
Red could only make conjectures of them. And indeed, true to the Platonic notion of the artist, a filmmaker is only good at making illusions for the people. Still as Picasso would say, “art is a lie that makes you see the truth.”