The Poor Self-Image

Two white Europeans are taking photos of human scavengers in a Manila garbage dump. It's an image that has come to define the Philippines, indeed many poor nations, in the eyes of the rich. But then, as the visitors move in to take a picture of a very young scavenger, he puts his hand up. He rummages around and finds a Styrofoam food container, which he empties and holds up to reflect the sunlight onto his face. Then he gives the thumbs-up to shoot. This teaser for Cinemalaya, a recent festival of independent Philippine film, captures its spirit: you think you know the Philippines? Well, let me straighten you out.

Tales of long-suffering victims are a staple of mainstream Philippine movies, and of Western movies about poverty in the developing world. But not of this year's Cinemalaya grantees. Instead of stereotypes, these films draw from real life, partly because they need to. Now in its third year, Cinemalaya offers grants equal to about $11,000 to 10 new filmmakers, who must shoot within a five-month period. Sometimes they use nonactors, real people who accept poverty and hardship as facts of life. Their attitude is: yes, we're poor, now get on with it.

A film titled "Tribu" depicts the disconcertingly banal lives of young gang members in Tondo, a Manila slum that harbors more than 100 gangs. Filmmaker Jim Libiran, a broadcast journalist who grew up in Tondo, portrays the typical day of a gangster: bantering with parents, queuing up for water at the neighborhood pump, walking a girlfriend to the bus stop as she heads off for the midnight shift at a call center, and preparing for battle. Critics questioned the calm with which the gangsters headed off to fight, but Libiran drew on real experience. The film stars members of six rival gangs, or "tribes," who showed up at a casting call fully armed. Trust-building exercises were required to bring the cast together; Libiran calls it "cinema as a tool for conflict resolution."

Trouble also tails the youths in Auraeus Solito's semiautobiographical film "Pisay," even though it is set in the elite halls of the Philippine Science High School (known as P-Sci, or Pisay). A government-run school, it seeks out the brightest minds from across the country and the economic spectrum and puts them through a rigorous math and science curriculum. But these kids don't exist in an ivory tower, despite administrators' efforts to protect them from the outside world. Characters include the children of a Filipino migrant worker, a sugar baron and a leftist leader forced to seek asylum. Set in the tumultuous 1980s, one scene shows the kids using the principles of geometry to try to solve the mystery of the 1983 assassination of opposition senator Benigno Aquino Jr. that set off widespread protests leading to the overthrow of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

A different view of urban youth emerges in "Endo," written and directed by Jade Castro. "Endo" is slang for "end of contract," a moment familiar to young Filipinos who can often find only temp jobs and face a life of instability and insecurity. "Their only long-term, nonterminating relationship is with their families," says Castro. The hero, the good-looking but aimless Leo, shuttles from one short-term job and love affair to the next. He's inured to his problems, focused on meeting his responsibilities to his family, but gives little thought to the future until he meets Tanya, a fellow temp who has goals. What follows is a romantic comedy in which love come to grips with harsh economic reality. "I didn't want to get in people's faces about labor practices," Castro says. "Yes, Leo is oppressed, but he's not defeatist. He doesn't do self-pity." And he doesn't want yours, either. Hollywood, are you listening?