3/28 Lecture, José B. Capino: "‘My Brother is Not a Pig’"
Guest Writer Diana Jaher and Respondent Augusto Espiritu

Monday, April 4, 2011

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[On Monday, March 28, 2011, the Unit for Criticism hosted "'My Brother is Not a Pig': Philippine Cinema against Empire," a lecture by José B. Capino, professor of English, Asian American Studies, Cinema Studies, and Gender & Women's Studies at the University of Illinois. The below contributions are from the event's guest writer, Diana Jaher, and faculty respondent, Augusto Espiritu]

José B. Capino's "'My Brother is Not a Pig': Philippine Cinema against Empire"

Written by Diana Jaher (Theatre, Cinema Studies, Gender and Women's Studies)

In a talk derived from his book, Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema (U of Minnesota P, 2010), José B. Capino analyzed Philippine cinematic representations of the country’s relationship with the United States from 1947 to the present. He argued that the cinema (a thriving industry that produces 280 films a year) often depicts the Philippines’ complex postcolonial attachment to its former “benevolent big brother,” a relationship characterized by “deep resentment and lingering affection.”

The U.S. colonized the Philippines from 1898 to 1946, granting independence to this important ally after World War II. Throughout its occupation, the United States asserted that its role was not to conquer but to protect – what President McKinley referred to as “benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.” In his postcolonial readings of two films, Once a Moth (Lupita Aquino-Kashiwahara, Philippines, 1976) and PX (Lino Brocka, Philippines, 1982), Capino argued that the films' depictions of Philippine/U.S. relations subvert the image of U.S. paternalism and, instead, reveal a systematic pattern of neglect and abuse by the most imperialist of all American institutions: the U.S. military.

Both movies use the American air base (through which the U.S. maintained a military presence in the Philippines for decades after independence) to symbolize the violence inherent in imperial domination. Much of their cruelty stems from the United States’ insistence on maintaining sovereignty while occupying foreign territory. American G.I.s, for example, were not subject to Philippine law and were given immunity from crimes committed in the line of duty against non-Americans in or around military camps. Between 1952-64, G.I.s were suspected of killing thirty-one Filipinos; none was convicted. Showing several graphic clips depicting natives victimized by American aggression while on or near a base, Capino argued that the two films implicitly called for the closing of the camps, challenging the myth of the United States as a benevolent empire.

Once a Moth features Filipino superstar Nora Aunor as Corazon de la Cruz, a nurse whose young brother, Carlito, is mistaken for a boar while flying a kite near Clark Air Force Base and killed by American G.I.s. When an army official attempts to hand Cora a check for $787 and explains, half-apologetically, the shooter’s mistake, the young woman (uttering the most famous line in Philippine cinematic history) cries out, “My brother is not a pig.”

Capino noted that Carlito’s death illustrates Frantz Fanon’s theory that the native victim of imperialism is reduced to an animal (to heighten this connection, the film shows us an image of a dead pig with the boy’s murdered body), and that death at the hands of the colonizers is his or her usual fate. But Cora’s words demand that we acknowledge her brother’s humanity (he is not a pig, either literally or figuratively) in the face of global military domination.

Yet, as Capino argued throughout the lecture, Filipinos are deeply ambivalent about their former “protectors.” For example, during the funeral, Carlito’s grandfather (Paquito Salcedo) remembers a moment of United States/Philippine solidarity when he recalls the Bataan Death March. Images of the March – forced on U.S. and Filipino POWS by the Japanese (another foreign invader) – are intercut with frames of the murdered boy’s burial. Capino held that these memories of commonality deny Grandpa “the freedom to despise the United States and mourn his nation.”

Moth ends with a striking vision of reversal. Injured in a motorcycle accident, Carlito’s shooter depends upon Cora’s nursing skills to survive. The native woman redeems the ex-colonizer for his lack of “benevolence” by tending to her brother’s murderer. And, more importantly, she gains control over life and death – a power hitherto solely in the hands of the Americans.

In his analysis of the second film, PX, Capino referenced the Foucauldian notion of bio-politics for a second time: the base, once again, is a site of life and death. As in Moth, we see the youngest and most helpless characters die in acts of senseless violence. PX similarly revolves around a character with conflicted feelings for the United States: in this case, Lydia (Hilda Koronel), an Amerasian haunted by her paternity who dreams of marrying an American soldier like her father and immigrating to his country. Half colonizer and half colonized, Lydia possesses what Capino called a “divided heart:” a victim who demonstrates affection for her victimizer, she represents the Philippine colonial attachment to the fantasy of U.S. benevolence.

Lydia's criminal boyfriend, Isidro (Phillip Salvador), expresses similar “divided” feelings for the U.S. He puts his young brother through school to learn English, exhibiting pride in the boy’s ability to, as Capino noted, “speak the conqueror’s tongue.” But the boy falls victim to Carlito’s fate: he, too, is mistakenly shot by base soldiers. After the child’s death, Lydia and her boyfriend resolve never again to love the American who lives on the base. But his is one of several deaths; the others are prostitutes whose murderer(s) are never found (film image left). Death permeates the camp, attacking the most vulnerable (women, children) for it is the “throwaways” – Fanon’s “wretched of the earth” – who always die in greatest numbers, embodying the failure of imperial benevolence.

Clark Air Base closed in the early 1990s but Capino noted that the two films’ political influence is unclear (although Moth enjoyed economic and critical success – largely because of Aunor’s star power – PX did not). Yet incidents of colonialist violence still occur. The most recent – and notorious – episode happened in 2005 when Daniel Smith, an American G.I. convicted of raping a Philippine woman (“Nicole”), was smuggled out of jail. Pressured by the U.S. government who threatened to withdraw valuable monetary aid, the Philippine officials turned him over to the U.S. Embassy. Like the raped and murdered women in PX, Nicole’s native body is violated by an act of U.S. imperialism, her dignity deemed expendable by the military industrial complex.

In his response to Capino’s framing of Philippine cinema in the shadow of post-U.S. imperialism, Augusto Espiritu referenced some of the incidents detailed above, noting that the long history of Philippine/U.S. relations has been less than “benign.” Today, the U.S. still fails to acknowledge or attend to the neglect of Filipino bodies; they remain “throwaway” people. He also commented on the films’ reliance on feminine iconography (most of the clips featured female characters), arguing that the colonized woman exercises power – often on “behalf of the weakened colonial man” – over the white male colonizer. In the question and answer session, several audience members also mentioned this trope; Capino offered Rey Chow’s theory that the primitive woman often bears the burden of representation.

Espiritu concluded by noting that images of U.S. extra-territorial aggression can be found in many places other than the Philippines – Honduras, Okinawa, Iraq, Afghanistan – anywhere the United States maintains a military presence and violates native female and male bodies with impunity [read further for Espiritu's response].

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A response by Augusto Espiritu (History, Asian American Studies, Latin American and Caribbean Studies)

It was in 1995 at Ambassador Negroponte’s house in Manila that I attended a dinner hosted by the ambassador and his wife. To my surprise half the room was made up of American soldiers in fatigues. They were taking a respite from military exercises with the Philippine government in anticipation of a potential invasion of Taiwan by China. It had only been three years since U.S. control over Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base had been turned over to the Philippine government. I thought to myself then – they were back so soon. Had the Americans really left?

Lahar covering Clark Air BaseI also happened to visit the city of Angeles, Pampanga at that time and to see Clark Air Base for myself – we were there to shop in the huge supermarkets that had hastily sprung up to fill the vacuum of the old PX. I walked through the old base – it was a ghost town. It was covered in lahar, volcanic ashes that had rained down from the sky. All I could see were dark holes, like eyes, where there were once doors and windows. So much nationalist agitation and activism over decades of struggle could not dislodge the U.S. military, but this apocalyptic ash, which darkened the sky and choked one’s breath, achieved what no effort by the colonized or neo-colonized could do – sent the proverbial kanó packing. Or so I thought.

José Capino’s paper deals with the way two Philippine films, Minsa’y isang gamu-gamo (Once a Moth) and PX, argued for the closure of the U.S. bases, exposing their ills and representing their complex social ramifications even as the Marcos dictatorship negotiated with the Americans to maintain them, though for higher “rent.” Lupita Aquino Concio, or Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara, directed the first, while Lino Brocka, perhaps the greatest name in Filipino film-making, directed PX.

Once a Moth juxtaposes a despedida, or send-off for a young woman headed to the “States” with the shooting of her younger brother for trespassing in Crow Valley firing range, near Clark Airfield, while he was flying a kite (image left) and mistaken for a “boar.” Through the images of Cora crashing on the tinikling and her brother’s red-white-and blue kite, Concio gives us a picture of “stunted expression,” or better yet, arrested sovereignty, victimized by American naked imperial rights to “extraterritoriality” and at the same time lured by the promises of the discourse of “benevolence” with which it justifies its imperial presence.

PX is much more complex in plot – it involves natives and an American soldier banned from the base and yet, indeed by their very exclusion, made a marginal part of the imperial geography that radiates out from the base, which Capino pictures as exhibiting the characteristics of a concentration camp, a “place that is neither outside nor inside the sovereign sphere,” which combines a politics of life with a politics of death, indeed, “the politics of life as one of death.” Lydia, a prostitute of mixed race, becomes involved in a relationship with Isidro, a Filipino hit man under the employ of both corrupt Filipinos and Americans near the base, who is involved in a drug and prostitution ring. Isidro, nonetheless, puts his brother, Boy, through school, for Boy’s education embodies his hopes of being able to get out of the “throwaway” life that he and his family inhabit.

Lydia, who wavers between a love and hatred for America, “embodies the figure of the ex-colonized ‘as the living haunt of contradictions’” while Isidro embodies the Fanonian “figure of the native afflicted with a ‘homicidal melancholia.’” It also involves how George, a white American soldier, mistakes a young Filipino for an animal, shoots him in the Crow Valley firing range, and then himself becomes a scapegoat and is hunted down. In order to survive, he has to rely on poor natives and on the friendship of Lydia, with whom he becomes involved – a “fantasy of a special relationship.” Lydia becomes conflicted about his budding love for whiteness and the fact that the boy killed in the encounter was the brother of her boyfriend.

But on another level, armed with pointed quotes from Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Giorgio Agamben, Capino’s piece is about the ways these films stage both the strange predicament of the biopower of the colonized woman over the white male colonizer and, simultaneously, thanatopolitics, the abjection of expanding circles of Filipino and Filipina subjects, their excretion from the body politic as prostitutes and as rape victims, the evisceration of their subjectivity, and their naked exposure to the material and discursive technologies of biopower.

In the case of the former, the nurse Cora, who is defeated in the courts, failing to undo the extraterritoriality law by which her brother’s death is left unpunished, treats a GI in desperate medical need after a motorcycle accident. As Capino writes, “Cora redeems the ex-colonizer from his lack of benevolence, for the sake of the future and for the sake of others who may yet require the benevolence of empire.” In the case of the latter, we are shown the fate of the three prostitutes murdered under mysterious circumstances: Tina, the young woman raped by multiple assailants; Luisa, the table dancer who wanted to go to America, took chances with American GI boyfriends, and is found stuffed with a trowel; and Josie, the confidant of Lydia.

José Capino’s work shows us that we cannot forget; we cannot subscribe to the view that the long history of United States and Philippine relations has been an unequivocally benign one, which the recent Bush administration so damagingly promoted. The Philippines of recent history has become once again a peripheral country and people from the ethnocentric viewpoint of the U.S. bases – it is but a useful lesson in counterinsurgency for the prosecution of the war in Iraq, never mind the concentration camps, the illnesses, and the tortures that attended that war and led to so much suffering. Here, Capino is saying to us that the “postcolonial” history of the Philippines and the United States has so far failed to attend to the neglect of Filipino and Filipina bodies, which had become and continues to remain disposable, “throw-away” people – the lives of children of mixed-race, prostitutes, poor people, women especially, and one might add, minorities on the base. And empire continues, in the guise of the extraterritoriality that makes the violation of vulnerable male and female “native” bodies acceptable, unpunishable.

The films he so ably interprets might stand as crying testimonies to unsolved crimes and remaining injustices, and in so doing, recall for us the mouths and bodies of so many women, as of a young girl raped in Okinawa or South Korea, or the cries of the women of Juarez and throughout Mexico, or the countless victims of sexual abuse in Honduras. They recall as well the lives of so many young people, victimized not by honest mistakes, but by “animalization,” and the twisted logic and geographies of these zones of presumed “sovereignty.”

It may be Clark Airfield or the Crow Valley firing zone this time, but it could just as well be the outskirts of U.S. military bases in Seoul or in Okinawa, Vieques, Guantánamo, or the new ones sprouting up in Colombia.

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