Ang Babae sa Septic Tank: More than a “film within a film”

July 27, 2011

To be honest, the only thing that lured me to watch “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” was Eugene Domingo. I won’t lie about that. I had this great urge to watch her in a noncommercial film since I didn’t get to see her in Philippine Science or 100 or any indie film that she is a part of these past few years. It intrigued if there’s a difference between her acting on mainstream cinema and on indie films.

Being the actress that she is, I guess there’s no difference. But the material, the situation and the script are aspects that define a movie and how the actors in it portray the characters in it.

I’ve never read anything about the film. I didn’t watch any trailers. I first heard about this when Eugene was reported to be injured during the shooting of the movie and it was her septic tank scene. She slipped and fell into the septic tank and had to stop filming for a while. That caught my attention and when I heard Cinemalaya, I knew for sure that I was going to see the film, given that there’s the annual showcase of Cinemalaya films in my university.

Alright. Chalk up the opening sentences into fangirling. I like her a lot. But after watching Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, I thank the gods that Eugene is in it and I’ve appreciated the film to the point of wanting to see the film again.

The Event inside the Event

After the initial introduction of the cast and writers of Septic Tank (in which of course, Eugene got the loudest applause from the audience in Cine Adarna in UP Diliman), the whole Film Center got eerily quiet as the opening scenes started rolling. My first reaction when the narrator started talking in the movie- as regards to the overall feel of the audience- was: this is the time of judgment from a very different audience.

Different audience because in the gala night of Cinemalaya, everyone is involved in films and film making- whether they maybe the directors, producers, artists/actors and/or member of the production. In Cine Adarna tonight, the audience is a mix of professors (may or may not be from the Film Institute) and students, all of which I want to think are intellectuals. They’d be scrutinized by the people they want to show their work to. They’re showing their work with the people who are their own (I think the writer Chris Martinez is a UP alumnus like Eugene).

The whole film is about filmmaking itself. Or rather, the situation of filmmaking in the country. Like Chris Martinez mentioned during the open forum after the showing, it’s a parody of the present day film industry, both mainstream and independent filmmaking. The narrator, the director of the film in the film (more on this point later) Rainier,  in the opening scene turns out to be a diegetic element- he is actually incorporated in the film as one of the main characters and his narrator-role is shared with Bingbong, the producer of the indie film, and was interspersed as they vocally share to the viewers the film they want to produce, and these are presented visually as the movie goes on.

A Movie in the Movie: An Analysis of Sorts

The point “film within a film” in my perspective, is the syuzhet- the plot- of the movie. This immediately came to mind when Rainier started his voice over as scenes of the film was shown and Mila, their main character in their film, began doing the things Rainier was narrating. Since he is the director, the scenes in his head was portrayed as the actual content of the film.

I wasn’t surprised with the approach they used in the beginning parts of the movie, it had the same concept as John Fowles’ 1981 film “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” wherein the main characters were actors having an affair as they were filming a movie- a movie which centered into the protagonists having an affair too. A story within a story, a movie within a movie. (I wanted to ask the main inspiration for the story during the forum but unfortunately, I wasn’t called because I was so far from the stage)

The main difference was Ang Babae sa Septic Tank was the movie but the characters who were about to film the movie inside the movie are having their own personal conflicts. Whereas The French Lieutenant’s Woman was more of mirror- imaging the reality and the fiction and showing their parallels to their audiences.

The movie mainly tackles the struggles a modern film maker (independent or mainstream film makers) in the country, most especially the indie film makers. As they clashed their ideas on how they could present their movie as raw and as near-to-reality as possible Rainier and Bingbong had their heated discussions as regards to their film. There’s the jealousy and anger with a fellow indie film maker, production limitations, and the character actor demands- the part of Eugene where she plays as herself, but not entirely real-life contextual.

The film also brilliantly presented the different genres of movies, from the docu- drama, musicale, and the immediate recognition of the audience of the commercialized/mainstream narrative treatment. Sadly, the last genre is what we see mostly in the films of today, the exact path the independent film industry are avoiding.

A look into two characters: Mila and Jocelyn

Before the “real” Eugene Domingo encounter happened in the movie, Eugene’s character Mila was portrayed in so many facets through the shuffling of genres (and shuffling of actresses playing the role) that we lose the focus somewhere in the storyline. This focus however is revived as the repetition of the scenes named as “sequences 34-40” continue. To be able to portray the character Mila in all the genres with the same depth can be draining. But even the musical- Mila still had this character struggle, one that is present in all the genres but is amplified mainly in the opening sequences of the movie. The focus may have been lost sometime during the movie but when the crucial sequence arc is shown, the struggle is still there.

Jocelyn, the production assistant of Rainier and Bingbong, had no dialogue all throughout the movie, except for the wailing sound she made after a climactic anti-climax happened to their trio before the film ends. She became the instrument of visualization for the viewers as Rainier and Bingbong rambled about how the movie should happen. This is seen through dream sequences and the occasional flashbacks. Cai Cortez explained during the forum how Chris Martinez told her that Jocelyn’s role as the visionary for the viewers is an important factor in creating the setting of their film. Cai (and Chris Martinez) also noted that her character represents a type of director in our fillm industry, as well as Rainier and Bingbong.

And She fell into Shi– Dirt.

To say that the whole film is hilarious maybe an understatement (or maybe that’s just me giving a huge bias to Eugene Domingo’s awesome talent), for it’s not just the hilarity of the showcase that flashes through the film. Marlon Rivera and Chris Martinez were able to establish the hardships of film makers as well as the hardships of the urban poor in the film within a film. To be able to tell two different stories in two worlds, and be cohesive about it is a feat in itself.

One would be persuaded to watch it for the laugh-out-louds and the hit-the-thigh kind of comedy but if one looks into the stories weaved within each other, it’s more of a showcase of reality- as what indie films are really made out of. But its boldness to tackle and discuss the present time of the cinema and of real life, is refreshing even for an independent film like what this is.

I’ll leave it at that. For someone who really didn’t know anything about the whole movie except the actress and the title, it’s nice to get surprised once in a while.

*Ang Babae sa Septic Tank won Best Film in the Cinemalaya 2011 while Ms. Eugene Domingo won Best Actress. Marlon Rivera won as Best Director while Chris Martinez bagged the Best Screenplay award. (source: gmanewstv)

Ang Babae sa Septic Tank will have a re-run on August 5 in the Cine Adarna of UP Diliman for the Best Film in the New Breed Category and will have commercial screenings starting on August 3.