Kracauerian Cinematic Realism in Lino Brocka Films

by Jose Gutierrez III

This essay describes the realist film theory of Siegfried Kracauer and employs two notions of cinematic realism – the refuse and the transient – in discussing Lino Brocka’s Weighed but Found Wanting (1974), Three Two One (1974), Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), Insiang (1976), Bona (1980), Clutching a Knife (1985), and I Carry the World (1987).

Note: This is an excerpt from my PhD dissertation, ‘Investigating Kracauerian Cinematic Realism through Film Practice and Criticism: Life-world Series (2017) and Selected Films of Lino Brocka’ (2018), which is available for download via this link.

Kracauerian Cinematic Realism

Siegfried Kracauer (1889–1966) was a German-Jewish film theorist, philosopher, sociologist, architect, and film critic (Richter 1997: 233). The author of the seminal book on cinematic realism, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960), Kracauer is one of the four ‘major realist film theorists’ (Aitken 2016: 37) – the others being André Bazin, John Grierson, and Georg Lukács – whose notions on cinematic realism belong to ‘phenomenalist-realist film theory’ (34). Kracauerian cinematic realism (KCR) includes a broad array of ‘functions, “inherent affinities,” and objects’ (Hansen 1997: ix), such as ‘urban crowds, the “street,” things normally unseen, the small and the big, the quotidian and the marginal, the fortuitous and the ephemeral’ (ix). For Kracauer, the basic property of film is its ‘capacity for “recording” and “revealing” physical reality’ (Aitken 2001: 175) and its basic affinity is for ‘representing aspects of reality such as “the unstaged,” the “fortuitous,” “endlessness,” “the indeterminate” and “flow of life”’ (175). Kracauer endorsed a type of cinema that is ‘indeterminate in character, and which possesses “affinities” with such aspects of the Lebenswelt as “unstaged reality,” “chance,” “the fortuitous,” “the indeterminate,” the “flow of life” and “endlessness”’ (Aitken 2006: 166).

Kracauer defined the ‘cinematic film’ (1960: 72) as being ‘devoted to camera-reality’ (61) and having the proclivity to ‘penetrate the external world’ (191); this ‘cinematic approach’ (Gilloch 2015: 175), however, is not a ‘dogmatic insistence upon “realism” in film’ (175) – i.e, naïve realism – for it draws on larger philosophical dimensions, particularly that of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological notion of the Lebenswelt (life-world). The cinematic engagement with the life-world – ‘the surrounding ever-changing world of our everyday experience and perception’ (Aitken 2016: 15) – ‘is of primary importance in KCR because it is ‘a key to understanding Kracauer’s assertion that “physical reality” can be redeemed through cinema’ (Wils 2016: 76). The Husserlian notion of the lifeworld creates a strong bond between KCR and phenomenology; indeed, the former is ‘a form of phenomenological realism’ (Aitken 2001: 178) since cinematic images drawn from physical reality present themselves to the experiencing spectator who has a conscious relationship with objects that belong to the ‘world’, that is, ‘the totality of individual objects that could possibly be experienced’ (Russell 2006: 22) which Husserl called ‘reality’ (22). In line with this, KCR, ‘like the Kantian aesthetics and Husserlian phenomenology from which it is derived, seeks a basis of knowledge and representation through close observation of the material world’ (Aitken 2001: 178).

Kracauer avowed that cinema is a medium ‘particularly equipped to promote the redemption of physical reality’ (1960: 300) because its ‘imagery permits us, for the first time, to take away with us the objects and occurrences that comprise the flow of material life’ (300). This redemptive potential of film through its contemplation of physical reality is set against the backdrop of the modern condition – dominated by ‘systems of technical and conceptual rationality’ (Aitken 2006: 154) – wherein the ‘immediate experience of the physical environment as a possible object of contemplation for the modern subject has become sharply abridged, and therefore more “abstract” (Kracauer 1960: 291-7)’ (Aitken 2006: 154). Kracauer defined abstraction as ‘an attitude toward reality conditioned by how sciences deal with ordinary experience by abstracting from them certain elements then process them in various ways’ (1960: 292). The prevailing abstraction within the modern condition results in the modern subject to understand objects ‘in terms of particular abstractions as products or tools with their essence tantamount to their function’ (Kracauer 1960: 292) as their physical nature is persistently enveloped by ideologies (299); thus, compromising the experiencing human being’s ability to contemplate physical reality by, as Husserl would put it, going ‘back to the things themselves’ (Russell 2006: 18).

Lino Brocka

Filipino film director, Catalino ‘Lino’ Ortiz Brocka (1939-1991) made ‘over 70 feature-films’ (Tioseco 2007: 298) from 1970 to 1991. He started his film career by making melodrama films for the mainstream outfit, LEA Productions; in the beginning, he had already exhibited a tendency towards renovating existing genres as his approach to film-making (Sotto 2010: 56). Through one of his first films, Tubog sa Ginto/Dipped in Gold (1970), he gained the attention of young intellectuals for his nuanced approach in dealing with a controversial subject matter, that is, a husband and a father who was a closeted gay man (Hernando 1993a: 14). Two ‘strong points’ (Dormiendo 1983: 206) served as the springboard for Brocka’s prolific career: ‘first, his cinematic grasp of Filipino experience; and second, his ready audience of college students and that elitist group of cineastes who have boycotted local films because of their poor quality’ (206). Brocka recognised that the economic factor accounted for his staying in the commercial mainstream but he had always articulated his agenda in advancing the state of Philippine cinema; he disclosed in an interview: ‘When you do these factory films, as I call them, these mainstream films, you try to improve in terms of logic, in terms of production, editing, acting, scriptwriting, in terms of all the aspects of filmmaking’ (Manlogon 1988: 20). When he made commercial films, what he strove for was ‘a sense of balance’ movies that are not escapist, that is, films that deal with reality; in Brocka’s words:

Hindi naman altogether, e, you capitulate and say, o siya, puro ganun na lang. Hindi mo naman maaalis sa mga director na tulad ko na gumawa ng mga pelikula na while aiming to be commercial also tries to say something naman. Ang ibig kong sabihin, movies that are not fantasy. Movies that tackle a particular reality – yung may kaunting katotohanan.

[You don’t just capitulate altogether and say, fine that’s how it works. You can’t take away from directors like myself to make films that aim to be commercial, but try to say something. I mean, movies that are not fantasy, movies that tackle a particular reality – those that have a degree of truth in them.]

(Manlogon 1988: 20)

Brocka collaborated closely with his scriptwriters in developing the concepts and stories for his films; through this setup, he imbued his ideas in this early phase of the film-making process, ‘but as was invariably his practice, he claimed no story credits’ (Dalisay 1993: 82). Brocka’s style as regards his choice of subject matter and theme were palpable to his scriptwriters and crew members. The former group knew that Brocka was inclined towards stories about the poor; thus, leading to scripts with a ‘strong social message’ (Francisco 1993: 51); while the latter would hear the director say, ‘I’m just a poor boy from San Jose (an obscure town in the province of Nueva Ecija). Can you blame me if I like doing stories about the poor?’ (51). Brocka renovated commercial films to enhance their social relevance, ultimately to ‘inculcate a deeper understanding of the human condition’ (Sotto 1983: 24); it is noteworthy, however, that ‘the plots that are not above the grasp of the common tao [person]’ (24). The ‘Brocka film’ is also known for characters who ‘are always fighting back’ (Sotto 1993a: 227). In terms of production values, he appreciated Russian directors; Brocka declared, ‘They use simple stories and simple techniques, no zoom-in, zoom-out. Very simple’ (Lo 1993: 212). Brocka ‘weathered the ups and downs of the business’ (Hernando 1993b: 43), and believed that directors should ‘fight and prove that they can be commercially successful, at the same time, artistically palatable’ (Garcia 1993: 215).

Brocka’s films pioneered Philippine cinema in the international movie scene (Sotto 1983: 24) (David 1990: 188). Initially, his works were dismissed as ‘lacking in cerebral virtuosity, in visual statements, and in the ennui of existence’ and not likely candidates for international screenings (Sotto 1993b: 101). However, Brocka’s Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag/Manila in the Claws of Light (1975) illustrated that ‘getting a foothold in the foreign market might be better done, not by imitating international commercial trends, but by doing films that explore social realities as a subject that is distinctly Filipino’ (Lumbera 1997: 115). Brocka was known as the ‘most forceful and dynamic of [the] generation of younger filmmakers’ (Armes 1987: 153) to emerge at the ‘point at which Philippine cinema was generating international awareness and when Marcos was achieving international notoriety’ (Tolentino 1996: 374). He would be recognized both nationally and internationally for the ‘humanization of subaltern people’s experiences in the backdrop of state-sanctioned poverty and human rights abuses’ (Tolentino 2010: 99). The auteur, however, claimed that he never had foreign audiences in mind when he directed his widely acclaimed films; indeed, ‘from the very start of his career, he had set his eyes on the common folk – not the sophisticate who mouthed jargon but had little gumption; but the lowborn who lacked schooling but had guts’ (Sotto 1993b: 101).

According to one of the director’s most active scriptwriters, Ricky Lee, Brocka had basically three types of projects: (1) the ‘komiks’ (illustrated comics, particularly in the melodrama genre); (2) the extreme poles of the big commercial studio project and the ‘serious political project’; and within the continuum, (3) a ‘commercial project with social content’ (Dalisay 1993: 76). The third type occurred towards the end of Brocka’s career when he had rediscovered – after an ‘intervening stage of production geared toward foreign release via the festival circuit’ (p. 76) – the ‘fulfilment’ provided by the mainstream film that has a wide release (p. 76). Throughout this range of films, Brocka ‘projected his vision of a society in turmoil and the effects of social and political environment on the individual’ (Hernando 1993b: 43). Even in his commercial projects, Brocka ‘could not escape his need as an artist to possess integrity, project his vision clearly, and make his work more interesting’ (41) as an ‘artist for the people’ (David 2012: 36). Brocka was aware of the compromises that had to be made in this industry, which came in the form of ‘trading-off’ (Tioseco 2007: 298) several commercial features ‘in order to be given permission by a studio to make his socially relevant or “art film”’ (298) – in Brocka’s words, ‘I have to do five commercial projects in order to interest a producer in a quality film . . . I cannot be a one-movie-a-year director. I also have to live’ (Dormiendo 1993: 210). Jose Dalisay, another of Brocka’s crucial scriptwriters elaborated that Brocka dealt with commercial projects by exploring ways to come up with ‘the infusion of any possible measure of sense and social criticism into the story’ (Dalisay 1993: 76); in Brocka’s words:

Okey iyon, sige lang. Pero ‘kako ngayon, babawasan namin ang iyakan, iiklian ang dialogue, walang masyadong dasalan.
[That’s okey, but I’d say, let’s minimize the crying, cut some dialogue… and not too much praying.]
Little things like that. We’ll do it slowly until we reach the point wherein the director can make the movie that he likes.

(Garcia 1993: 215)

Aside from being an active film-maker during the Era of Martial Law – the main period of Martial Law was termed by the dictatorship as Bagong Lipunan [‘New Society’] (1972-81) and the extension period, ‘New Republic’ (1981-86) (Rafael 1990: 282) – Brocka was also an outspoken human rights activist. He led the Free the Artist Movement in organising a series of protest rallies against President Marcos’s imminent Executive Order that would entail that artistic performers, including scriptwriters and directors, would have to be licensed in order to work – other directors, actors, opera singers, painters, and sculptors joined the movement; the protest movement initiated by Brocka won a partial victory since that plan was shelved (Stein 1983: 55). Brocka was also involved in a widening protest movement, which included students, workers, priests, and nuns, against a Presidential Commitment Order (PCO), which would endow the military with the ‘power to arrest and incarcerate those suspected of being subversive, without any legal machinery for the determination of evidence for the arrest’ (55). As a consequence, Brocka, together with another Filipino auteur, Mike de Leon, declined to attend the 1983 Pesaro Film Festival where they were invited to present their films; instead, they sent out an open letter to the foreign organisers; following is an excerpt: ‘The decrees have intensified the climate of apprehension that stifles freedom of expression – freedom which in the case of filmmakers is already limited by a restrictive and capriciously interpreted film censorship law’ (55).

Brocka began to speak more at rallies after 21 August 1983, when senator Ninoy Aquino, one of the most articulate opponents of President Marcos, was assassinated. The activist film-maker would ‘sandwich in meetings with his activist groups between shooting films’ (Aufderheide 1987: 75). In the same year, with the Free the Artist Movement as a basis, Brocka formed the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP) (Sotto 1993b: 112) which he chaired for two years. Brocka’s premise for the CAP was that ‘artists are first and foremost citizens, and must address the issues confronting the country’ (Hernando 1993a: 17). Brocka and the CAP were supported by jeepney [local public transportation] drivers in an anti-censorship rally; in return, they supported the strike of the Jeepney Drivers’ Association a month later; consequentially, Brocka was arrested and jailed for 16 days (18). As soon as he was released, he resumed making movies. In an interview, the auteur related that he used to think of cinema as a mirror that reflects reality; however, the experience of incarceration changed his view of cinema’s social role (Del Carmen 1983: 29). Brocka started to characterise cinema as a ‘mirror that confronts the people with the reality of their human condition’ (29); further, the activist-filmmaker determines, ‘this reality is my responsibility as director to show on screen’ (29). This reinforces Brocka’s ideal of ‘the artist as a citizen of his country’ (Dalisay 1993: 84); Brocka declares that the film-maker is ‘a citizen of the slums, of the streets, of the battlefields if need be (Brocka 1993: 205). The director emphasized the importance of the ‘socially-conscious film’, stressing that ‘in an under-developed nation, film should be used as a vehicle for communication, for education, to make people aware of the social realities’ (Dormiendo 1993: 209-10). He believed that the film-maker, especially in the Third World, has the ‘duty of developing the public’ (Sotto 1993a: 229) and create of ‘the Great Filipino Audience’ (Hernando 1993a: 19), however gradually it may take; Brocka expounded:

Kung hindi naman handa ang audience, paano? Kung wala ang audience, wala din ang director. I told myself, I have to win the audience. Sila ang pag-asa ko. If I can win them over, then I will have a chance. I was able to win them a little bit, but you see, hindi biglaan.
[If the audience is not ready, then what? Without the audience, there would be now director. I told myself, ‘I have to win the audience – they are my only hope.’ If I can win them over, then I will have a chance. I was able to win them a bit, but you see, not immediately.]

(Garcia 1993: 215)

Brocka drew on his experience as an activist-filmmaker who travelled to the provinces to challenge the belief of many Manila-based Filipino producers and directors at that time, that the ‘majority of moviegoers could not possibly appreciate subtle, meaningful subject matter, or fine, underplayed acting’ (Hernando 1993a: 15) and its implication that ‘more violence, more sex, more stars, and more fantasy layered onto much-used plots were necessary’ (16). Early in his career, along with other stockholders, Brocka started his own independent film company, Cine Manila ‘to produce relevant, artistic films’ (16) and made Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang/Weighed but Found Wanting (1974). The film was a ‘box-office hit and challenged the prevailing belief that commerce and art do not mix’ (Sotto 2010: 56) and paved the way for other directors ‘to treat their materials as social commentaries’ (Dormiendo 1993: 208). Brocka’s realist approach in his body of work fostered a cinema that is able ‘to foreground the conditions of the possible, including subversion and dissent and the eminence of political action’ (Tolentino 2012: 132). His death in a car accident in 1991 left a void in Philippine cinema ‘in what was once a clarity of vision, representation, and narrative and realist film styles so recognizable in national and international film festivals’ (Tolentino 2014: 8).

‘The Refuse’ in I Carry the World (1987), Insiang (1976), Weighed but Found Wanting (1974), and Three Two One (1974)

Kracauer identified ‘the refuse’ (1960: 53) as a type of object that is cinematic because it stubbornly escapes our attention in everyday life (53). Kracauer stated that these objects remain unnoticed ‘simply because it never occurs to us to look their way . . . Most people turn their backs on garbage cans, the dirt underfoot, the waste they leave behind’ (54). The medium specificity of film offers a redemption from this complex, for ‘films have no such inhibitions; on the contrary, what we ordinarily prefer to ignore proves attractive to them precisely because of this common neglect’ (54). By portraying ‘the refuse’, films can reveal new aspects of our everyday environment (55), making it seem ‘unfamiliar and interesting’ (Armstrong 2007: 65). Since the camera is able to represent ‘the refuse’ without distortion (Kracauer 1960: 57), cinema ‘aims at transforming the agitated witness into a conscious observer’ (58). Indeed, for Kracauer, a redemptive possibility for cinema within the modern condition is that it ‘keeps us from shutting our eyes to the “blind drive of things” (Laffay 1948: 13)’ (Kracauer 1960: 58).

In the documentary film entitled Signed: Lino Brocka (1987), the auteur relayed his experience in making his first slum film early in his career in the 1970s: ‘I did my first slum picture and it got in trouble with the censors – they were banning it because it was too realistic. They would say: You know, your movies disturb; we feel uncomfortable. I said: It’s meant to be’ (Blackwood 1987). Brocka shot both Pasan Ko ang Daigdig/I Carry the World (1987) and Insiang (1976) in the Manila slums. The auteur’s unvarnished portrayal of slum life revealed the physical reality of the milieu. Human beings become so habituated with ‘the refuse’ (Kracauer 1960: 53) that surround them – e.g., ‘garbage cans, the dirt underfoot, the waste they leave behind’ (54) – that these elements from material reality ‘stubbornly escape their attention in everyday life’ (53). For Kracauer, the revelatory aspect of ‘the refuse’ endows it with cinematic quality (1960: 53). True to the specificity of the medium, ‘films have no such inhibitions; on the contrary, what we ordinarily prefer to ignore proves attractive to them precisely because of this common neglect’ (54). There is, however, a deeper layer of ‘the refuse’ in Brocka’s slum films such as I Carry the World (1987) and Insiang (1976): the milieu of the slums as cinematically formed is in itself, within the context of the larger social sphere, ‘the refuse’ (Kracauer 1960: 54) that ‘most people turn their backs on’ (54). The cinematic experience of the physical existence of this milieu fosters for the spectator an intuitive understanding of the ‘disintegration of life, the homelessness of the individual in the modem world’ (Elsaesser 1987: 70). This leads to the spectators asking themselves the following questions. Where am I positioned in the Lebenswelt? Am I a part of ‘the refuse’ of modern society? Am I invisible, hidden, or suppressed? Is there a way for me to liberate myself? Am I the only one in this condition? What are the possibilities for action?

The slums inhabited by the people in I Carry the World (1987) and Insiang (1976) are located in dumpsites (see Figure 1). Through these films, Brocka pushed the boundaries of cinematic penetration and revelation of physical reality. These phenomena that overwhelm consciousness ‘range all the more among the cinematic subjects’ because ‘only the camera is able to represent them without distortion’ (Kracauer 1960: 57). The unflinching look at the life at the dumpsite in Figure 1 provides more than an evidence of poverty; indeed, it was not a secret among the Filipinos and even outside observers at that time. The Brocka film critically engages the consciousness through a feeling-oriented route. Consider, for example, how the camera gravitates towards children in Figure 1; first, we feel sorry for them, then we start to become more critical about what made this state possible in the first place. During the period when Brocka was making his slum films, Imelda Marcos would try to urge him to reconsider his proclivity for cinematically rendering the physical reality of the milieu of the slums. Brocka recounted Imelda telling him that the ‘children are smiling. They are not poor. They are rich material spirit; they may be poor in material wealth’ (Maglipon 1993: 125). Brocka’s way of dealing with the ideological twisting of reality not by a counter-ideology – which could lead to a downward spiral of taking sides and defending them endlessly – but by using the specificity of the film medium that renders material reality, or in Husserlian terms, the ‘the things themselves’ (Russell 2006: 18), to foster critical insight amongst the Filipino film spectators. This phenomenalist approach contributes to Brocka’s advocacy for developing ‘the Great Filipino Audience’ (Hernando 1993a: 19) (Francisco 1993: 67). I Carry the World (1987) and Insiang (1976) demonstrate that this approach can go hand-in-hand with an aspect that the spectators are more overtly familiar with, that is, their belonging to the popular melodrama genre. As an auteur, Brocka was known for his melodrama films that went above and beyond the immediate pleasures provided by the genre. Kracauer also recognised the progressive potential of the melodrama, owing to its rootedness with material reality; observe, for example, how Lupe, the female protagonist in Figure 1a is intractably tied with the physical reality of the milieu that is mired in poverty. Kracauer avows that the melodrama can ‘reach deep into the physical world’ and therefore ‘lends itself to facilitating the display of cinematic subject matter’ (1960: 272).

Lino Brocka, I Carry the World, 1987; Insiang, 1976
Figure 1: Lino Brocka, I Carry the World, 1987; Insiang, 1976.

In Weighed but Found Wanting (1974), ‘the refuse’ takes the form of a madwoman character in a small town. Her name is Kuala (see Figure 2a). She is not hidden; on the contrary, she is part of the everyday life in the small town but her state of being the social detritus is apparent, for example, as restaurant owners drive her away from the premises, teenage boys make fun of her, and drunk men at a funeral make a degrading spectacle out of her.

Lino Brocka, Weighed but Found Wanting, 1974; Three Two One, 1974
Figure 2: Lino Brocka, Weighed but Found Wanting, 1974; Three Two One, 1974.

The turning point of Weighed but Found Wanting happens when Kuala becomes pregnant; the father is another outcast in the town, the leper, Berto, who had shared his shanty with Kuala on the fringe of the small town. A group of religious women volunteer to lock her up to ‘protect’ her from Berto. This event exposes the prevalent hypocrisy in the small town and, right at the end of the film, the injustice that happened to Kuala. Moments before the madwoman dies, she has a lucid moment and recognises her former lover, now an influential man in town, who forced her to abort their child, thereby leading to her madness; Kuala, ‘the refuse’, reveals the abuse done to her. The small town portrayed here can indeed be read as ‘a microcosm of the nation’s political dynamics’ (Tolentino 2003: 77) but what is really more interesting is the visceral nature of the cinematic experience of the Brocka film that works beyond the confines of the allegorical, which is cerebral in orientation. The visceral quality of the realistic portrayal of the madwoman character calls on the spectator’s senses and results in a perceptually rich experience, which is a key to a strong phenomenalist-realist engagement with the film.

In Tatlo Dalawa Isa/Three Two One (1974), ‘the refuse’ takes the form of a mother in the slums (see Figure 2b). Her name is Lucia. In the slums of Manila, she lives with her daughter, a college student. Her father was an American G.I. soldier who was stationed at a U.S. base in the Philippines; he left Lucia when he had to return to his home country. The inciting incident occurs when he, together with his wife, are on the way to the slums to see the daughter for the first time. Lucia decides to not be present during the event. When the daughter arrives home on the day of the anticipated visit, she finds her mother at home, intoxicated; they agree that Lucia is to stay in the bedroom and keep quiet during the event. During the meeting between daughter, father and his wife, a sound from the room reveals Lucia’s presence. Out in the open, she – like Kuala in the previous film – expresses her deep-seated feelings drawn from her physical experience in raising her daughter. Again, ‘the refuse’ character reveals the inequity done to her. Since the camera is able to represent ‘the refuse’ without distortion (Kracauer 1960: 57), this fosters a potentially transformative experience for the film spectator. Kracauer argued that the film medium, due to its ability to kindle for the film spectator ‘the experience of a large number and multiplicity of sense perceptions’ (Aitken 2006: 166), can initiate ‘some kind of qualitative transformation which occurs within the individual observer as a consequence of undergoing such an experience’ (166) for cinema ‘aims at transforming the agitated witness into a conscious observer’ (Kracauer 1960: 58). For Kracauer, the cinematic film ‘keeps us from shutting our eyes to the “blind drive of things” (Laffay 1948: 13)’ (Kracauer 1960: 58); indeed, the Brocka film sharpens the senses of the critically aware spectator ‘for an antagonistic reality’ (Schlüpmann 1987: 102). Guided by the film medium which Brocka characterised as a ‘mirror that confronts the people with the reality of their human condition’ (Del Carmen 1983: 29), this sort of enlightened spectator contributes to the critical mass of citizens who are critical and open to considering a full range of possibilities for action.

‘The Transient’ in Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), Bona (1980), and Clutching a Knife (1985)

Aside from affirming film’s capacity to render the refuse visible, Kracauer pushes further to emphasise film’s power to record and reveal the things normally unseen, particularly ‘the transient’ (1960: 52) where ‘fleeting impressions’ (52) belong. The photographically-based medium is specifically gifted to render and thus preserve ‘all those transient things which are entitled to a place in the “archives of our memory’” (Benjamin 1939: 82) (Kracauer 1960: 21).

Though the narrative pattern of the typical Brocka film is conventionally linear – i.e., with a clear sense of beginning, middle, and end – it is designed to have space for scenes that do not directly contribute to the dramatic through-line, or in Kracauer’s words, ‘allude to contexts unrelated to the events which they are called upon to establish’ (1960: 71) and aim at ‘unfolding life on a scale which exceeds their intrigue proper’ (232). These shots exhibit ‘free-hovering images of material reality’ (71) and ‘appear in their suggestive indeterminacy’ (71); thus, enabling the film to evoke the intuitive, feeling-oriented, phenomenalist route – as demonstrated by the previous example – underneath the drama or ‘the intrigue’ (71).

Lino Brocka, Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975
Figure 3: Lino Brocka, Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975.

In Manila in the Claws of Light (1975), the sort of ‘free-hovering’ (Kracauer 1960: 71) scene happens when the protagonist Julio wanders about Luneta Park in the morning after he was laid off from work as a labourer at a construction site. At the point when the spectators see the shots in Figure 3, they already have prior knowledge of the problem that protagonist is facing. Instead of capitalising the character’s despair through a tear-jerking breakdown scene, this Brocka film offers poignant insight on the character’s situation by cinematically dispersing his psychological state to the physical by rendering images from material reality that appear in their suggestive indeterminacy. In the first frame of Figure 3, we see the protagonist in a wide shot that composes him with the flowing motion of the water in the fountain; next, we see his face as he appears to contemplate the transient physical phenomenon of the flying birds; and lastly, we see the flying birds from Julio’s low-angle point-of-view shot that suggests his yearning for freedom amidst the modern condition. For the spectators, the disinterested contemplation of these ‘fleeting impressions’ (52) promotes insight on the modern condition vis-à-vis the human condition, and the intuitive understanding of the struggle for redemption should be palpable within our shared physical existence. For Kracauer, these cinematic manifestations of ‘the transient’ (52) that draw from physical reality are ‘evanescent’ impressions – ‘like dream elements’ (52) – that can be so powerful that they ‘may haunt the moviegoer long after the story they are called upon to implement has sunk into oblivion’ (52). The scene exhibited in Figure 3, therefore, is powerful although on the surface, it does not contribute to the narrative in terms of information; here, the route taken by the Brocka film is intuitive, not intellectual. The setting of Figure 3, that is, a public park, is one of the ‘various extensions’ (Kracauer 1960: 62) of ‘the street’ (62) which is the ‘center of fleeting impressions’ (62). The configuration of the transient elements – the wandering human being vis-à-vis the fleeting impressions from physical existence – is a cinematic tour-de-force from the viewpoint of Kracauerian cinematic realism: ‘This dimension extends, so to speak, beneath the superstructure of specific story contents; it is made up of elements within everybody’s reach, moments as common as birth and death, or a smile, or ‘the ripple of the leaves stirred by the wind’ (Kracauer 1960: 303).

Kracauer observed that the motion picture camera ‘seems to be partial to the least permanent components of our environment’ (1960: 52); thus, ‘it may be anticipated that the street in the broadest sense of the word is a place where impressions of this kind are bound to occur’ (52). This accounts for ‘the attractiveness of street crowds’ (19) in cinematic works. Kracauer defined the ‘street’ to cover not only the street, particularly the city street, in the literal sense, but also its various extensions, such as railway stations, dance and assembly halls, bars, hotel lobbies, airports, etc.’ (62). Indeed, Kracauerian cinematic realism is keen on cinematic renditions of the ‘street’ – ‘a center of fleeting impressions’ (62) – because of these transient elements at play. The multitude of independently moving and co-existing elements in the shots of street crowds – see Figure 4 – from ‘unstaged reality’ (19) optimises the cinematic portrayal of the ‘fleeting impressions’ (62) that abound in the streets. In Bona (1980) – see Figure 4a (top cluster) – the street crowd is from an annual religious event, the Feast of the Black Nazarene; at the third frame is the actress who played the title role, Bona, in the film. This opening scene introduces the film, which is about Bona’s devotion – and perhaps, love – to her idol, who is a bit player in the movies. Aside from the practical function of establishing the geography of the milieu and preparing the spectators for the theme of the film, this scene invokes the intuitive understanding that the cinematic experience is part of the continuum of physical existence in which the spectators, as experiencing human beings, inhabit. For the spectators, this cinematic priming results in the palpability of the phenomenalist approach to encountering the ‘empirical attributes of the film image’ (Aitken 2001: 179). The same applies to the street crowd scene in Clutching a Knife (1985) – see Figure 4b: bottom cluster – wherein the actor who played the film protagonist, Turing, is situated in the middle of an ongoing protest march. Aside from its function in the film’s narrative – that is, to present the possibility of joining a collective action as an option for the protagonist to fight for justice – this scene engages the spectator through a ‘multiplicity of sense perceptions’ (Aitken 2006: 166) in the immediate experience of this scene as they see the sweating physicality and hear the real passion in the voices of the people who are participating in the struggle.

Lino Brocka, Bona, 1980; Clutching a Knife, 1985
Figure 4: Lino Brocka, Bona, 1980; Clutching a Knife, 1985.

The potentially transformative experience described above promotes for the spectators an intuitive understanding that the transient is an essential part of life and that change is within reach; indeed, mass action is one of the many valid possibilities achieving this as one navigates through the challenges of the modern condition. At last, the auteur’s vision for ‘the Great Filipino Audience’ (Francisco 1993: 67) and his ‘duty of developing the public’ (Sotto 1993a: 229) aesthetically bring about feelings of connectedness with the larger human struggle and yearning for freedom through the shared experience of the Brocka film.


The Brocka film promoted the empowerment of the Filipino audience through an intuitive awareness of the graspable possibility of change in their shared physical existence which is characterised by oppression; thus, potentially transforming them from being ‘the agitated witness into a conscious observer’ (Kracauer 1960: 58). This conscious observer can think clearly – notwithstanding the prevailing violence, fear, paranoia, and ideological conditioning – and, after letting a full range of possibilities for action come into view, actively pursue freedom in his or her own terms. Since ‘the refuse’ and ‘the transient’ KCR tropes are specifically cinematic ‘objects’ (53) and generally ‘aspects of reality’ (Aitken 2001: 175), they are salient frameworks in navigating through Brocka’s oft-cited concern with the ‘human condition’ (Del Carmen 1983: 29) which is, in the Brocka film, deeply and ineluctably rooted in physical reality.


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