Bells then, Trumps now: Dissonances

Nov. 17, 2017

Named after the city that got its name from the so-called Father of Philippine National Language, QCinema helped in the production of films with anti-colonial undertones and with characters speaking in languages of the regions. Preceding the historical setting of all the other films, Balangiga: Howling Wilderness happens in Samar during the early 1900s and tells the journey to Quinapundan that starts with a boy named Kulas, his Lolo (grandfather), their carabao Melchora and their pullet Salvi.

Kindly skip the next three to five paragraphs if you wish to avoid spoilers. Our cast of characters avoids the Americans executing the kill-and-burn and kill-everyone-above-ten order after the successful offensive of the peasants against imperial soldiers on September 28, 1901, dismissively called “Balangiga Massacre,” as if the assault was an indiscriminate murder of harmless civilians and not of armed colonial troops. For a more elaborate context and analysis, read the essay “The Bells of Balangiga: Resonances of the Anti-Imperialist Resistance.”

(Advisory: After this sentence’s period lies the ultimate spoiler.)

Before reaching Quinapundan (which never happened within the film’s timeframe) and avoiding American-infested Borongan, everyone dear to Kulas ended up dead: Lolo, Melchora, Salvi and even Bola, a toddler (who cannot speak) they found crying amid a burning village. Salvi went grilled through the firewood and into the digestive systems of grandson and grandfather. Lolo suffered a sickness, and, before passing onto the next world, decided to give his grandson the anting-anting (talisman) heirloom, which somewhat effectively protected the boy and the toddler from the mad American soldier who held them at gunpoint and forced Kulas to cook food: rice and, later, the meat of slaughtered Melchora. Catching the soldier off-guard, Kulas whacks him from behind using a bolo (blade), points a gun at him, figures out how to pull the trigger and sent him running away, with a wounded arm; later, the townsfolk chased and hacked him to death.

The two found a couple who told them that the “Biringan” they were looking for doesn’t exist: a land-of-no-return inhabited by engkantos (approximately “spirits”), contrary to Lolo’s description that it was a land with plenty of light, food, and water, where his mother awaits their arrival. Bola was enchanted by an eagle-like English-speaking idol mouthing the civilizing and educating agenda of the United States. Scratches on his back worsened, aggravated by starvation until he, too, ended up dead. Prior Bola’s eternal demise, Kulas tried to ease his foster brother’s pain by giving him the anting-anting, which was stolen by the couple the day after.

Post-World War II scenes of Japanese brother-and-younger-sister Seita and Setsuko from Grave of the Fireflies (1988) resonate with Kulas and Bola, though their story is situated prior the World Wars. Both brothers burned the bodies of their younger siblings. After suffering from malnutrition, Seita died too. He and Setsuko watch over Kobe City, with the fireflies that witnessed the lives they suffered. Less romantic was the burial of Bola, as the camera closed in on his face with loitering houseflies. The war atrocities of America have been devastating the lives of children throughout the history of Asia.

(Advisory: Those who have not yet seen Balangiga may proceed. There are lesser details of the film from hereon.)

Yet, Kulas was determined to find Quinapundan or Biringan. Mystical places of destination, as if in a pilgrimage, are often heavens where the faithful reaps the rewards or utopias where each citizen enjoys the stability of the constructed society maintained by elders, leaders, or statesmen. Of course, plot twists turn utopias to dystopias and vice versa. In Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (spoilers ahead), entrance to the gates of Valhalla is the heaven for the War Boys, fanatic paramilitary soldiers of the Citadel of Immortan Joe, the antagonist of the film. Meanwhile, the femme fatale protagonist, Imperator Furiosa, led the escape from the Citadel through the Wasteland (with the War Boys aggressively tailing them), only to find out that the Green Place is not the assumed promised land of fertility and prosperity anymore, but a swamp of death; hence the need to return and seize the Citadel from Immortan Joe (suggested read: “Mad Max Masyado”). What does this have to do with Kulas and his destination?

Biringan can be a Valhalla, or a metaphysical Green Place believed to be a sanctuary to bodies that became (or evaporated into) spirits. Or, it can be Borongan, reclaimed from US war troops. One says that only the dead or the spirits dwell in Biringan, while another says it is a place where one neither starves nor thirsts. Both can be true, as those aspiring for the latter Biringan have to wager and, at times, pay dearly with their lives.

With wounded egos and weakened forces, the retaliation of the reactionary forces of the US empire against anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements has been violent and merciless from then until now. Implying that the assault on September 28, 1901, was treacherous and uncivilized, it has been labelled as an “affair,” an “incident,” worse, a “massacre,” instead of a “raid,” or a surprise attack, which is acceptable between antagonistic blocks during wartime. Compare: labelling revolutionaries as “bandits,” as if they are mere trigger-happy violent troublemakers, extorting money from hardworking transnational mining and logging corporations who plunder “developing” countries for developmental purposes to make the world a better place.

How about anti-Trump activists? As expected, in the mainstream media and the social media comment threads dominated by trolls, they are portrayed as jobless good-for-nothings, killjoys who would rather flock the streets than enjoy the vacation made possible by the grace of the efficient Philippine government. If the bells of Balangiga signalled the attack against US troops, the song of the so-called Trump of the East gestured subservience to the biggest bully of the world, who occupied a privileged position beside the host of the ASEAN Summit.

When were we informed that ASEAN now meant America and the Southeast Asian Nations? The self-proclaimed first “socialist” President of the Philippines, who requested the US Congress to allow the, what, “Duterte of the West,” to return the Balangiga bells, implies with his recent actions as if serenading Trump that his anti-imperialist posturing was merely an empty action-star jetski-riding rhetoric.

Instead of the tolls of the Balangiga bells, #BanTrumpPH rallyists heard last November 13 a disrupting noise that has been traced to an alleged LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device) sound cannon. Such device has been initially used publicly in 2009 by Pittsburgh officials during “a protest over a two-day G20 meeting,” according to an article in Time. With frontlines everywhere and every supposedly harmless thing weaponized (cannon-ized?), from water to sound, how do we brace ourselves?

A motherhood suggestion: like Furiosa and Kulas (like mother and child?), we look at the respective Citadels and Borongans, though they are infested with War Boys and American troops. With actions based on painstaking analyses, we reclaim and construct anew the Green Paradises and Biringans of our own. In the process, we correct quasi-official narratives that tell of “massacres” by “bandits” and compose songs of struggle that shall shame the war-economy-driven dollar-operated jukebox performance of Trump’s pet, who seemingly suffers from hearing loss (caused perhaps by the LRAD?), with his auditory senses so damaged that he cannot hear the haunting sonority of the Balangiga bells, he once wanted repatriated. To preserve his image of bravado, he should have refrained from singing the love song “Ikaw” (You), and opted instead for Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” or Rammstein’s “Amerika.”

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