IN the 1930s, George Orwell attempted to understand the working classes both in his native England and abroad. Raised and educated in an upper-class milieu, Orwell was conditioned to treat the poor with condescension and suspicion. The notes and observations he amassed of his time with laborers and proletarian families reveal the loathing he sometimes felt for them—he was repulsed by their smell and dirt and despised their intellectual limitations, yet he strived to educate and rid himself of these prejudices.
We can feel something of that effort in journalist Howie Severino’s I-Witness TV documentary “Busal,” which recently received the Gold Camera Award at the US international film and video festival. Aired on GMA last October, when the number of extra-judicial killings (EJKs) under President Duterte’s vicious war on drugs had reached almost 6,000, “Busal,” or “Muzzled,” sets out to dispel ideas about the poor being inarticulate, impassive, and lacking in critical thinking.
The first thing to notice about the film is the multitudes of poor, both living and dead, populating each scene. In the opening shots, almost 200 bodies wrapped in black bags, but with their limbs exposed, stiff with rigor mortis and in varying states of decomposition, are shown being piled into an open garbage truck. Victims of President Duterte’s drug war, the bodies had been left unclaimed from a funeral parlor that closed down. The mass grave into which they are hauled is a deep pit that has been gouged out of a mountain of trash and mud. Ragged crowds of people, mostly young men, watch the loading of the truck and stand around the pit. They stare quietly, arms folded. We see feet clad in flip-flops squelching through the filthy muck. The stench is sickening, the narrator tells us.
In another scene, the camera crew stumbles upon a murder. A woman carrying a child in her arms screeches and stamps her feet in anger and despair. Relatives try to encircle her but she keeps breaking away. Onlookers cluster around and watch with a mixture of horror and curiosity. A policeman on a motorbike implausibly claims to not know what is going on, even as he stares at his colleagues who carry a body out of a ramshackle home and throw it into a waiting van.
The people of “Busal” are crushingly poor. They live under bridges, or inside tricycle cabs, or shelter in the sepulchers of cemeteries, or in dark shacks made from bits of plywood found in narrow, stinking alleyways. Under these abject conditions, some semblance of normal life occurs: children get back from school and take off their uniforms, clothes are washed, and meals prepared. Their existence is precarious, vulnerable, and utterly grim.
But that’s not the worst of it.
For Lilia Tiglao, one of the interviewees in the film, the worst of it is the loss of human rights. As she recounts, the police have a bad habit of entering their homes without search and arrest warrants, and terrorizing or killing the occupants. For Christian Dayo, a thoughtful young man who lives with his family under a bridge, in a home that is strikingly “clean and orderly,” notes the narrator, the worst of it is the way people look down on him and his father. Being belittled and thought of as dirty, Christian says, is especially hurtful. For Waldo, whose home is his tricycle, the worst of it is being treated as mere trash.
It transpires that Lilia, Christian, and Waldo are part of a community theatrical group who perform their life-stories with the help of a drama coach. Every now and again each appear holding a large mirror that reflects the world in which they inhabit. They question what we see.
The ability to bring to the fore his subjects’ thoughts, coupled with a particular brand of unswerving optimism, are what distinguishes Severino’s approach in thinking about the extremely poor and marginalized. Lilia, wizened, toothless, semi-destitute, is able to speak with sense and conviction about police brutality and killing, and of being silenced by society. Christian is clear-eyed, sensitive and mindful of his circumstances and his place in his community. Waldo wants us to feel the humiliation he feels every night when he is harassed and moved by police as he tries to find a safe spot in the street where he and his wife can sleep.
Severino’s “Busal” is neither a crude polemic nor a piece of jargon-strewn propaganda. Certainly, it is highly critical of Duterte’s drug war and its victimization of the poor. It is also unflinching in its scrutiny of squalor. No amount of community theater can compensate for the hardships and misery of extreme poverty that has no end in sight.
The important point Severino is making is that his subjects want to be heard and can speak eloquently for themselves. He enjoins us to listen to them, as he does, with life-loving empathy and respect.