A Filipino Director Dares Viewers Not to Look Away

Brillante Mendoza's film Kinatay(Slaughtered) is so grim and gruesome that it didn't even divide audiences and critics when it screened at Cannes last month; it united them in hatred and disgust. Shot on film and video, the Philippine director's latest offering is about a young police cadet who finds himself participating in the grisly murder of a prostitute. Stark and unrelenting, it presents torture, rape and mutilation in a manner reminiscent of snuff movies. Viewers booed it and reviewers described it as "horrible"; the American critic Roger Ebert pronounced it the worst film ever to screen at the festival.

The furor only grew after Mendoza won the festival's best-director award. Jury member Nuri Bilge Ceylan called it "one of the most powerful, original films in the competition." For all its nastiness, Kinatay is a fiercely moral condemnation of corruption, brutality and indifference. Filipinos felt deeply conflicted; on the one hand, the prize represented an honor for their country. Yet it was for a film that showed the Philippines in the worst possible light. Indeed, some of the most violent reactions came from Mendoza's own compatriots, who criticized him as an unworthy successor to Lino Brocka, the late director whose powerful melodramas about the oppressed but noble poor won Philippine cinema notice in the 1970s and '80s.

Mendoza shrugged off the outcry. "My intention with Kinatay was to slowly bring the audience into the van and take them along to witness a monstrous crime—which happens, you can't deny," he says. "I think I managed to manipulate the audience without their being aware of it. They get trapped in the film. That's why it angered many viewers. They say, 'You trapped us. You didn't give us a choice'."

The 48-year-old filmmaker has never shied away from difficult subjects. He made his first film, Masahista (The Masseur), about the local sex trade, when he was 45. Since then, he has quickly compensated for his late start, directing seven more films. Serbis (Service), about a family-owned pornographic movie theater, was widely condemned when it showed at Cannes last year. "Admittedly, my subjects are controversial," says Mendoza, who also works as a production designer for TV commercials. "I'm saying, 'Look at this. If you can't take it, don't look. But it's not going away'."

Mendoza is part of a new class of Philippine filmmakers creating downbeat depictions of the impoverished Philippine underclass. They are often criticized for producing "poverty porn" for Western audiences; their detractors call their -oeuvre the "cinema of squalor"—a label Philippine critic Lito Zulueta decries as unfair. "Philippine social reality is so glaring that only the most dense Filipino filmmaker could ignore it," he says. "If Mendoza's cinema is very trenchant, it's because things have gotten worse."

Ironically, mainstream Philippine audiences may never get to see the film. The country's Movie and Television Review and Classification Board forbids excessive onscreen sex and violence, meaning Kinatay will likely be rated X and banned from commercial exhibition. Mendoza says he won't allow a "sanitized" version of his film, and plans to take it straight to university campuses. Even if Kinatay were to screen at local theaters, it's not clear anyone would watch it; none of Mendoza's films has performed well at the local box office.

Still, his recognition at Cannes is a victory for Philippine cinema. "It is not the duty of filmmakers to be the country's publicist for tourism," says filmmaker Mark Meily, an officer of the Directors' Guild of the Philippines. "Brillante's award will urge filmmakers and cinephiles all over the world to view the Philippines as a country with an interesting and lively cinema." Even if its mean streets should be avoided at all costs.