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Sharp look at the Philippines

PHILIPPINES / Kiri Dalena's documentaries were celebrated during the film festival.


A street filled with angry protesters with posters in their hands. But the posters are without slogans – they are blank sheets, empty. What might have been written on them seems indescribable, out of reach – risky. And just this unspoken, the enforced silence makes it all the more powerful, more painful.

The scene is from filmmaker Kiri Dalena's documentary Erased Slogans (2008), which shows how effective it is with several different forms of resistance. The documentary focuses on a historical demonstration against former President Ferdinand Marcos, who sat in power in the Philippines for over two decades (1965 – 1986), when he introduced military rule in 1972. While working on the film, Dalena digitally processed the images from the demonstration and erased the slogans written on the posters. Opposing censorship and any attempt to change the story, she repeated the process and made a point of deleting words on posters in popular protests, both in Recent slogans (2014) and In Our Image (2015)

The unspoken, the enforced silence makes it all stronger, more painful.

In the movie Requiem for M (2010) she addresses the massacre in Maguindanao (November 23, 2009), and the subsequent funeral ceremonies, by presenting the events in a non-chronological order. The documentary highlights the urge to resist, to escape death and to return the straight back to a viable state.

Human suffering trumps political realities. Lullaby for a Storm (High Heaven) from 2013 portrays two children who have lost their parents and survived a catastrophic typhoon that wiped out houses and entire families. Dalena's empathetic approach does not result in a depressing work, on the contrary she follows the lively children, while they – curious and full of hope – explore their surroundings. The children become like a beautiful symbol of even the will of life.

I Farmer (Farmers) (2014) sings a young woman about social injustice and the extremely tight living conditions on the Philippine island of Mindanao. And once again, Darena's minimalist form makes a strong emotional impression.

In 2018, Dalena visited a group of farmers who masked and rebelled against injustice and corruption at home: Life Masks – Peasant Leader is an impressive, solid piece of work, and it is clear that the filmmaker enjoys great confidence in these people, who fight with life as an effort.

In one of his recent works, From the Dark Depths from 2017, she masterfully combines documentary images of communist freedom fighters out in the jungle with street demonstrations, threats of curfew and a mourning ritual – and overwhelmingly symbolic images of resistance and vitality, such as where a fragile little woman stands on the sea floor while forcefully swinging a red flag from side to side through the water. Aesthetic beauty and political determination here become a beautiful symbiosis.

justice Game

In addition to a host of experimental documentaries, Kiri Dalena has created sculptures and installations that have been shown at several renowned exhibitions in recent years, especially in Asia. She lives in the Philippine capital of Manila and is active in several human rights organizations, such as Southern Tagalog Exposure and Respond and Break the Silence Against Killing (RESBAK).

Dalena lives and works in a country that has lost – and is constantly losing – many residents. The Philippines has a long history of armed and violent conflicts, and the authorities have controlled and persecuted environmental activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, peasant farmers and indigenous groups, and probably left-wing NGOs.

Executions and disappearances continued to ravage society even after Marco's dictatorship ended: According to the human rights organization Karapatan, under President Macapagal-Arroyo's regime (2001–2010), 1206 political killings were carried out, and 206 people disappeared. During the Maguindanao massacre in 2009, 58 civilians were killed by paramilitaries, 30 of whom were journalists, according to Human Rights Watch. Another 33 journalists have been killed in recent years. In 2003, Reporters Without Borders placed the Philippines among the five most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Freedom of the press in the country is constantly being restricted.

Current President Rodrigo Duterte has succeeded in portraying drug trafficking as the Philippines' biggest problem and the root cause of widespread poverty in the country. Duterte has started a war against both those who sell drugs and those who depend on it. This "war" is largely carried out by death squads. The President has effectively robbed victims of the trafficking of basic human rights through demonizing propaganda. A number of lawyers, police and military personnel have been accused of contributing to the abuses. It is said that around 20 have been killed so far. The official figures are around 000, and authorities claim the killings occurred in self-defense.

Also read: War and hope in the Philippines


Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a critic living in Paris.

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