Slow-paced but urgent, John Gianvito’s incendiary nine-hour diptych For Example, The Philippines is a stunning feat of political filmmaking. Emotionally gripping, historically revelatory, and at times vividly beautiful, this indictment of American imperialism and militarism, and the toxic environmental footprint it has left in many parts of the globe, intertwines a previously submerged history of the Philippine-American war with searing contemporary footage of impoverished families confronted with appalling health problems and birth defects due to working on, or living near, US military facilities. Vapor Trail (Clark) (264 mins, 2010) centres on an air base and Wake (Subic) (277 mins, 2015) a naval base, both now abandoned parts of what was, until the Gulf war, America’s largest overseas military presence.
The two documentaries deploy forgotten or suppressed archive footage of American atrocities against the Filipinos, of defeated nationalist and revolutionary movements, and contemporary interviews with the hitherto invisible victims of a silent environmental disaster. They also show local activists working to organise and educate local communities, and to demand that the sites be cleaned up. Meanwhile, the US refuses to acknowledge or contribute anything to mitigate this exemplary instance of what eco-theorist Rob Nixon has termed “slow violence”, which is “of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven image-technologies of our world”.1 Thus the diptych is not only a powerful counter to selective amnesia engendered in both the US and the Philippines, but also a plea for social justice. (Those worst affected are often too poor to do anything about it: Vapor Trail shows families who know their drinking water is taken from a polluted river, but are too poor to afford bottled water.)
Anat Pick argues that For Example, the Philippines is “more than the sum of its analytical frameworks” in that it exceeds the political critiques such as Marxism and anti-imperialism on which it draws and to which it contributes. This expansion is partly achieved through explorations of time and of the natural environment: “Time stretches and contracts in dialogue with the laws of history, of politics, of biology, of physics, and of cinema. John has said that his films ask us to spend time with the people that we meet. The films aren’t slow so much as patient. But they also harbour temporal frameworks that stretch far beyond the timespan of humanity [for instance, pollutants that will live for thousands of years].”2 Relatedly, Guy Westwell notes that the two films are hybrids in that they combine interrogations of militarism, social class, nationalism, and environmental destruction: “These things are all properly and fully overdetermined, all folding into each other in a complex way.”3
Anna de Guia-Eriksson: How did you become involved in the Philippines and these films?
John Gianvito: I’m afraid, a bit like the films, it’s rather a long story. Back in 1999, I read in my local paper a front-page exposé on the situation of toxic contamination around both former and operating US military bases around the world. The problems were rampant and wide-spread, with the article putting a particular spot-light on the Philippines as a way of illustrating the gravity of the concerns. I remember being very shocked and moved by what I read and telling myself that someday I should investigate this further. Fast forward to 2006, I am in pre-production on a fiction-documentary project called Link. Inspired by the IndyMedia movement, it was a project looking at a group of young media journalists engaged in their own independent reporting and in putting their pieces up online. Among stories I’d envisioned them exploring was the bases issue, and having received an initial travel research grant I flew for the first time to the Philippines in June 2006. In the months prior, I had developed a relationship with a regional NGO in the Philippines, the People’s Task Force for Bases’ Clean-Up. Through their kind assistance I was initially introduced to the victims and families living in and around the former Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, the two largest military bases maintained by the US overseas up until the 1991 war in Iraq. From the onset, the experience was pretty overwhelming. Within days I met so many people in such desperate circumstances that I rapidly began to question how, in good conscience, I could take their story and just fold it in as one of many in the fabric of the film I’d been developing. I decided then and there to jettison the Link project altogether and attempt to explore this subject more directly.
Additionally, as I began looking at the history of the US’s involvement in the Philippines, I starting researching in depth as much material as I could find on the history of the Philippine-American War, officially 1899-1902, through which our entanglement with the Philippines gets underway. In fact, it was in reading Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, a book that inspired another of my films [Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007)], that I first even heard of the Philippine-American War, a war never once mentioned in my academic upbringing. It was soon obvious that this omission was no accident of my specific schooling but rather a broad, conscious, deliberate endeavor to suppress awareness of one of the more shameful episodes in American history – though it would be hard to rank them! In order to understand the contemporary tragedy unfolding around the bases I felt it was critical to understand how these bases ever came into being and the lessons that emerge with such knowledge.
Thomas Austin: I was struck by how you treat your interviewees with such respect, by letting the interviews run on, you don’t cut them up. Is this something you always knew you would do?
JG: Like so many other aspects of the work, these decisions grew organically. People I barely knew had welcomed me into their homes and shared with me some of the most painful experiences of their lives. In the editing room, I found that I couldn’t reduce these encounters to sound bites, turning one’s impression of them into nothing more than statistics in motion. It didn’t seem to me asking too much of the viewer to spend 15-20 minutes with someone in such circumstances, to allow each individual the time to properly share a measure of what they’ve been through. In fact there are edits, though I suppose not always so evident.
Guy Westwell: One could say that your decision not to distil the experiences of the many victims down to two or three soundbites, and so conform to the model of the 90-minute documentary, is a radically democratic decision. Can you talk more about that?
You know there’s an interesting parallel within the film itself that an audience member pointed out to me. Towards the conclusion of Vapor Trail (Clark) there is the sequence in the church where one of the organisers of the People’s Task Force, Myrla Baldonado, reveals to the community that at the last moment she’s rejected a visit by the visiting Prince of Monaco, a visit for which they’ve all shown up. Myrla explains that due to pressure and manipulation from competing NGOs in Manila, she’s been told that the Prince would only meet 2 or 3 families within the affected community and not face the 200 or so individuals in Clark who had shown up to pay their respects, nor would he go on to Subic as scheduled where another 300 people had also gathered. Myrla explains that first, from a practical side, it wouldn’t have been possible to get word out to the community on such short notice but also, had she agreed to this arrangement, she would have contributed to sowing resentment and division both within the community itself and in their relationship with the People’s Task Force. The struggle before them is a collective one. Putting too much of an individual face on the problem risks diminishing the magnitude and range of the issues involved. Clearly this was what the other NGOs feared. They worried about being “overshadowed” by the intensity and scale of all that’s befallen those living around Subic and Clark.
In attempting to represent this on film, I aspire for a democracy of images whereby no one shot, sequence, or individual has more importance, is more privileged, than another. This is why, for example, I insist in my documentary production classes that students avoid using the expression “B-roll”. It intrinsically implies a subservient relationship of one image to another. If it is deserved of inclusion in the film than it is all “A-roll”. Beyond this, it gradually became evident to me that lacking the inordinate resources needed to undertake thorough air, water, soil, and medical testing, I would have to make my case through a preponderance of the evidence available. As the film evolved, that “case” also included evidence of the historical record of the US’s involvement with the Philippines.
TA: In Wake there’s this brutal passage where you talk about the ‘battle of the clouds’ [aka the Moro Massacre or the First Battle of Bud Dajo, 1906], and there’s a photographer with this photographic plate and a US general [General Leonard Wood] who tries to destroy the evidence by breaking the plate. So you’ve got this idea about the inclusions and exclusions of the archive. In telling this story and revealing the secret photo you’re in a simple but brilliant way reworking, reframing and contesting that official archive by recirculating those [suppressed] stories, so it’s a microcosm of one of the things your film is doing. You’re challenging the archive and putting it to use in a different way, in a way that someone like [John] Akomfrah might do in the UK. How did you come across that photo and when did you decide to make that a key sequence?
JG: I’m not sure if I recall when I first became aware of that image. Relatively speaking, it is a more known image than some of the other disturbing photos shown, a lot of which I gathered from private collectors over the many years of working on the project. Interestingly, even that monster Duterte publicly held up the image of the Moro Massacre recently in speaking out about the US’s unacknowledged misdeeds of the past. As mentioned, I tried to read as many books and articles on that time period as I could. Often one source would lead me to other references and so on. Early on, Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo kindly provided me a good reading list. With specific regard to the Moro Massacre I came upon two very deeply researched books by a historian named Robert Fulton who I then contacted and who was most helpful in providing me with some additional rare photographs. As for its placement, as you know, part of the thrust of Wake (Subic) is to reveal the extent to which the war between the U.S. and those fighting for an independent Philippines continued long after Teddy Roosevelt declared the war over in July 1902. What unfolded on the island of Jolo in 1906 powerfully illustrates the extent to which the US’s campaign of “pacification” continued and the degree to which elites at home worked to minimise the impact of the negative press once news got out, including the photograph. The fact that there exists to this day a US Army facility named Fort Leonard Wood speaks volumes.
GW: One of the threads that has run through the discussion of these films has been the question of the agency of film, the effectiveness of film as method for engaging with and trying to change reality, trying to make it fairer or just or somehow more progressive. How do you feel about it? Can you tell us something about what you’re planning to do next as a signal that…
JG: … I haven’t thrown in the towel? These are things I wrestle with on a regular basis. It would be irresponsible if I didn’t have some deep ambivalence about the utilitarian effect of this work, particularly given other ways one could be spending one’s time and energy if interested in redressing the pain of others. That said, cinema’s capacity toward fostering social change is a subject with a long if insufficiently heralded history. Anyone who doubts this, doubts the power of films to make meaningful difference in the world, simply hasn’t studied the record. There are all sorts of films that have contributed directly to positive change, have freed individuals in prison, have provoked changes in law, have inspired the launch of organisations and movements, to say nothing of the more intimate changes that can occur within the heart and conscience of a viewer. Additionally, as Nicole Brenez has very usefully pointed out, “The fact that one can think with certain films and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value.” And while I make work with related aspirations, I remain mindful of the difficulty of gauging impact. Films can work on us over time, can work in subterranean ways, can serve as invisible catalysts in a network of experiences that lead to change. Like George Bailey, most of us journey through life not always able to perceive what role our actions have played in the lives of others. Occasionally, hopefully, there comes an affirmation that what one is doing matters.
Recently for a couple of years I was really saying that I might not make films any more due to such concerns. As I now have two projects in the works, I guess I still do it because I cannot not do it. At least at present.
Up next is an old project, Her Socialist Smile, exploring the period in the life of Helen Keller when she was publicly a very militant advocate for a whole host of progressive issues. Unfortunately, once she became the face for fundraising for the deaf and the blind these views were largely kept under wraps. Given the current political climate, I think Helen has things to offer us.
Most of this material is edited and revised from the event “John Gianvito in Conversation” hosted by the Centre for Film and Ethics at Queen Mary, University of London, 6 November, for which the panel comprised: John Gianvito, Anna de Guia-Eriksson, Anat Pick, and Marianna Dudley, chaired by Guy Westwell.
Thanks to John Gianvito, and to Anat Pick and Guy Westwell of Queen Mary, University of London.
Vapor Trail (Clark) is available on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whgMegQX9Pk