Going mad for Manila
For better or for worse, writers and filmmakers paint Manila as the perfect setting for tragedy and noir.
For someone who has never set foot on Philippine soil, Dan Brown has a lot of nerve calling Manila “the gates of hell.”
In his book Inferno, the main character Dr. Sienna Brooks is horrified by the traffic jams and the suffocating pollution of Manila’s streets: “All around her, she could see humanity overrun by its primal instinct for survival. When they face desperation… human beings become animals,” Brown writes.
Forget that this was literally one paragraph in a 480-page fiction novel. Many Filipinos were furious. MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino even wrote Brown an open letter describing Manila as “an entry to heaven.”
Meanwhile, others disagreed with Tolentino, arguing that Brown’s take on Manila wasn’t far from the reality. Take it from former President and current Manila City Mayor Joseph Estrada: “Manila is really going to hell. This is true.”
Still, this is hardly the first time Manila has been depicted negatively. It has long influenced the work of filmmakers, writers and journalists, both here and abroad. We have our own litany of complaints too, from the debilitating heat to the perennial floods that plague us year in and year out.
From the occasional Hollywood action thriller to the local nightly news, Manila is often demonized in media. Although these portrayals may sensationalize reality, they affect how locals view the city all the same.
In the South Korean entertainment industry, the beauty of their culture is incorporated into K-pop and K-dramas. This is a far cry from the norm in Philippine independent films, which make a spectacle of the country’s most undesirable characteristics.
Lino Brocka’s Maynila Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), one of the most internationally acclaimed Filipino films, depicts Manila as a decaying landscape of slums and criminals. It soon consumes the innocence of Julio Madiaga, a young man from the province in search of his girlfriend.
Directors like Brillante Mendoza and Pepe Diokno have since followed in Brocka’s footsteps. Critics soon began using the term “poverty porn” to describe filmmakers who exploit the marginalized to garner critical acclaim.
These directors, however, have staunchly denied the accusation. “I don’t show [poverty] for the sake of showing poverty. It so happens that the characters are within that community,” Mendoza said in an interview with ANC’s Karen Davila.
On the other hand, Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (2011) gamely satirized this technique. The story revolves around a group of young filmmakers who dream of winning awards for Walang Wala, their production that capitalizes on the lives of the Philippine poor.
Meanwhile, English Department instructor Miguel Lizada notes that the fragmentary nature of cities is a popular theme in literature about Manila and its urban history. In Conchitina Cruz’s poem “Geography Lessons,” for instance, a rich woman’s despair over her husband’s adultery is juxtaposed with the death of many in an avalanche of trash.
Lizada adds that while there is a tendency to romanticize the adventure of living in Manila, one can die here at anytime. Nothing exemplifies this more than the thriller Graceland (2012), which follows a Filipino politician’s driver as he tries to rescue his daughter from a kidnapping gone wrong.
Many of the issues tackled in the film, such as child trafficking, seem to be ripped right from the headlines. “Yes, [Philippine media outfits] do highlight the bad news,” admits Rappler Multimedia Reporter Paterno Esmaquel II (AB Comm ‘08), “But [being attracted to bad news is] human nature too. Bad news easily catches our attention.”
For better or worse, Manila is perfect for tragedy and noir. Scenes of extreme poverty and senseless crime undoubtedly contribute to the shock factor of a film, enhancing its popcorn value and international viewership.
“If I were a filmmaker and I wanted to tell a story of a country in poverty, the Philippines would tell that story strongly,” explains Joycee Mejia, Loyola Film Circle president. “As much as I don’t want to say that that’s our specialty, it’s what we have right now and it’s hard to deny that.”
Writing about a place as uncertain as Manila is an attempt to make the mystery intelligible. While Paris is synonymous to the Eiffel Tower, nothing definite comes to mind when we hear “Manila.”
“That’s the one way to describe Manila: There’s no one way to describe it,” Lizada says.
Depictions of Manila are also heavily reliant on a person’s memories of the city. Lizada notes several of the writers who contributed to Manila Noir, the latest anthology of short stories in the New York-based Akashic Books Noir Series, have been abroad for many years. Thus, what their work represents is their personal journey down memory lane.
Likewise, how audiences react to these stories depends on their background as well. Westerners, particularly those who have had little personal experience of Manila, are constantly fascinated by how we have taken their concept of the city and made it our own.
The opposite is true for locals. Because we are accustomed to stories of poverty and crime, they cease to faze us. This plays a role in the popularity of genres such as romance and comedy, which function as a temporary escape from reality.
Point of view
The nationality of the person describing Manila also affects the way locals react. When other Filipinos insult Manila, we commiserate out of a shared sense of familiarity. However, when outsiders express their opinions, it is a completely different story.
Claire Danes is the most notorious example of this. In an interview with Vogue shortly after her Manila filming of Brokedown Palace in 1998, she said that the metropolis “smelled of cockroaches with rats all over… the people do not have anything—no arms, no legs, no eyes.” Unsurprisingly, then-President Joseph Estrada declared her persona non grata.
More than a decade later, Brillante Mendoza was named Best Director at the Cannes International Film Festival for his controversial film, Kinatay (2009). It portrayed Manila more harshly than Danes did, featuring a scene where cops literally chopped a prostitute into pieces. Despite this, his win was considered a great honor for the Filipino people.
A local’s experience of poverty or crime in his daily life also influences the level of desensitization. While Ateneans come from different backgrounds, there is no denying that we live in a bubble. We tend to feel that these stories are sensationalized—at least, until they happen to one of our own.
For instance, supersenior communications technology management major Tim Arafiles was recently mugged near the Katipunan Light Rail Transit station. The robbers punched him repeatedly while stealing his valuables. As surreal as it may be to have this happen so close to campus, it is inevitable for us to be exposed to these realities.
Meanwhile, Lizada finds that the class position of the person describing Manila greatly influences a story’s accuracy. More than the cold hard facts, the storyteller’s perspective is the lens through which readers will know Manila.
In “Aviary,” a story in Manila Noir written by Filipino-American writer Lysley Tenorio, the impoverished Filipino narrator defaces Greenbelt Mall. The narrator’s believability hinges on Tenorio’s understanding of people like the narrator.
On the flipside
Ultimately, we cannot blame foreigners like Dan Brown for insulting Manila when this is the side of it that they are most familiar with. It is especially difficult to deny their comments when we know that many of these ring true.
Still, the underbelly of the city is not all that Manila has to offer. The gritty Manila of Pasay exists alongside the Manila of Forbes Park. Every city has its dark side—Manila’s dark side is simply more visible than others.
In the introduction to Manila Noir, editor Jessica Hagedorn writes, “I like to think of Manila as a woman of mystery, the ultimate femme fatale. Sexy, complicated and tainted by a dark and painful past, she’s not to be trusted. And why should she be?”
The portrayals of Manila in media prepare us to expect the unexpected, but one thing is certain: Dangerous and daring, Manila is a wellspring of stories just waiting to be told.