Monday, October 11, 2010

John Gianvito and Vapor Trail (Clark)

John Gianvito shooting at the site of Marcos Village. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

I greatly admired John Gianvito's previous documentary, Profit motive and the whispering wind - a document of massacre markers and tombstones of strikers and labour leaders past, inspired by the work of Howard Zinn. The film has almost no music or spoken language - just the ambient sounds and the various gravesites Gianvito visits, and the texts on the markers and stones; it invites the viewer to meditate in great quietude on sacrifices made for the benefit of all future workers that have been, for political reasons, effaced, minimized, and, for many of us, largely forgotten. Gianvito's new film, Vapor Trail (Clark), is less formally adventurous - save, as I mention in my Straight note on it, in that it is 4 1/2 hours long - but it is very much in keeping with the politics of the earlier documentary (and has a brief spoken introduction by Zinn). It's essential viewing for anyone interested in politically engaged cinema, in issues of imperialism, water quality in the Third World, or the impact of US military bases worldwide. It depicts, largely through interviews, the toxicity left behind in 1991 when the US shut down Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and the resulting impact on Filipinos - some of whom actually lived on the Clark base when it was used as a refugee camp when Mt. Pinatubo erupted, drinking water pumped from below. It's not entirely clear just what has caused the groundwater to be polluted - buried munitions? - but it is abundantly clear that people in the area of Clark base are suffering to this day, and that the US have no intention of cleaning up the mess they've left behind. Gianvito's film in particular focuses on two activists, Myrla Boldanado and Teofilo "Boojie" Juatco, who have founded the People's Task Force for Bases Clean-Up. The "history lesson" segments of the film, meanwhile, show us the early history of US imperial ambitions in the Philippines, which few Filipinos that Gianvito interviews seem to know much about.

What follows is from a phone conversation I had with John Gianvito a few weeks ago; Vapor Trail (Clark) plays twice this week at the VIFF. Note - the following omits the material covered in my Straight note, so read that first.

Allan: Sorry to start with a lowbrow question, but if we could talk about the film’s length, the decision to present it in a 4 ½ hour format obviously runs the risk of alienating some potential viewers.

John: It’s the gorilla in the room, or whatever... I mean, I may be naïve about many things, but I’m not so naïve to not be mindful that decision to allow the film to allow the film to reach that length was going to critically limit the audience - that many people, regardless of the content, may refuse to sit through something of that duration. The decision was arrived at on a number of fronts, but most principally with the dialogue I myself was having with the material. For me at least, it’s a refusal to come down. I was certainly looking for opportunities to sculpt it into a shorter form, but, given the complexity of the issues, I felt it necessary to understand, to really have any kind of perspective beyond just an emotional kneejerk reaction to the material. It warranted a certain amount of space, to be able to lay that out - both the historical perspective and the perspective of the on-the-ground work being done by the NGO that had led me to these communities.
Elena Neverida explains about health problems resulting from drinking contaminated water. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

John (continued): ...And people take their time when they speak there, and don’t necessarily speak in sound bites. I also thought, given the magnitude of what I was bearing witness to, it didn’t sit easy with me to limit the number of people that you would encounter. In a way, there’s a kind of corollary within the film, to the insistence that’s made at one point by these larger NGO’s who wanted to restrict the visit of Prince Andrea to meeting just three or four families, and that would suffice, and there was no reason that they could see that he would need to be exposed to the full community, even though it was going to be for the same duration.

So you meet maybe twelve people at length, out of hundreds who are dealing with these issues. There is repetition, but for me, that repetition was vital to indicate that one story wasn’t just an aberration, but was occurring again and again as I met people - individuals who said they’d had bloodwork done and never been shown the results, or people who were describing the quality of their water in identical ways... to also expand the film so it wasn’t wholly focused on the fallout of the evacuation of the CABCOM area after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, but also extend it to earlier periods that give indication of the consequences of the US presence there on the indigenous community and the impact of the test bombing they would do - the aerial bombing raids that they would do, et cetera. It’s a big, complicated picture that requires time.

When I was coming close to finishing the film, I flew the lead activist, Myrla Boldanado, to Boston to look at the film, and she revealed to me afterwards that she was rather nervous, specifically about the issue of length. She certainly trusted me on many levels, but didn’t imagine that the film would be on that scale, and I think had been hoping that it would be an hour long piece - as others that have been made; this isn’t the first film that’s ever touched on this subject - that she could use as an organizing tool within her community. But her first comment was, okay, maybe one hundred people are going to see this, rather than a thousand people, but those hundred people are going to have such a deeper and fuller appreciation of what’s going on here that perhaps they’ll be more moved to actually do something about it. Rather than those films that move you, but then you move on and they kind of evaporate.

I don’t know if you saw, but there was a nice statement that I can’t quote verbatim, but - the critic Chris Fujiwara, wrote on Vapor Trail in the online journal, Senses of Cinema; in the current issue, he’s writing on the Jeon Ju film festival in South Korea. And he quite elegantly states a defense for the length of the film, and he talks about how it avoids two traps of well-intentioned advocacy films, that either produce cheap emotion quickly or get you angry, but in a way that’s kind of useless. But he says it much better than I’m saying it now.

John Gianvito shooting gravesites at Marcos Village; still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

Allan: Having seen tombstones figuring prominently in two of your films now, it seems like this is emerging as a motif in your work; but is that an accident?

John: In essence it is, although as it unfolded I wasn’t aware that it was resonating with the previous film. I had gone to this first cemetery strictly to look for the gravesite of Crizel Valencia, after having met her mother and conducting the interview that you see in that film, and we weren’t quite sure where it was in the cemetery. We were wandering around looking for it, and as I was exploring, I couldn’t help but notice how many markers there were for young children. Someone who wanted to criticize the science of my film - because I’m making this as an individual; I don’t have the resources, and few would have them, to do an absolutely unshakeable scientific analysis of the health problems in this region - could say, “Well, how do you know that that child didn’t die in a car accident or of malaria or something else? You’re just looking at these dates...” And it’s absolutely true; I don’t know that, but the just the preponderance of them - and then I went to other cemeteries in the same area - seemed far beyond the norm.

Sort of the structure of the film is to gradually build up through a variety of vectors enough evidence to say, “what’s wrong with this picture?” Clearly even a lay observer is going to say, “Clearly something is amiss here.” So I thought that would be a way to evoke some of the magnitude of what this community is facing, or has faced - I’m coming into the situation many years after its reached its apex, when people were still on the Clark base.

And so, just as there I’m shooting and going back and thinking about how to make this work as a film and not just as a piece of advocacy work, it started to feel like it could be a powerful motif, so I continued with it.

Allan: Yes. Just to confirm - I’m skeptical when I watch films, and I had exactly that thought when at first we see these tombstones: how does he know that these are all connected to the toxicity at Clark. And exactly what you said - the preponderance of tombstones of infants was overwhelming and it made it irrelevant: like, “okay, maybe a few of them did die in car accidents, but who cares, there’s a huge number...”

John: Even if they just died of malnutrition or other illnesses that are part of extreme poverty, poverty itself is part of the problem. I mean, its existence is a crime that we all shoulder some responsibility for, and it’s as tied as anything else to an analysis of what the impact of the US coming into this part of the hemisphere was.

Allan: What did you do, yourself, for drinking water when you were in the Philippines?

John: You buy bottled water. Most people will offer that to you wherever you go. There was one point - I don't remember where it was, but I was at someone's house and I suddenly realized I was not drinking bottled water. It wasn't intellectual - I could tell there was something off about what I was just drinking. And of course within the communities I went to, the people who providing me this, or that I could buy it for, couldn't buy it regularly for themselves, and you hear that expressed very clearly in a couple of the scenes.

Allan: You leave out some of the history - the history lesson only proceeds so far. Before talking about this history. Is that going to be taken up in the next film, Wake (Subic), do you plan to continue the history lesson?

John: I do. Part one ends with basically the declaration in 1902 that the Philippine-American war, at that point called the Philippine Insurrection, was over, and my text very briefly acknowledges that it persisted for many years after “mission accomplished” was declared. So in part two, one of the things that happens that it will follow that history in the years right after the war was declared over, and look at various stories of insurgent resistance, but I don’t know that I will bring that all the way up into the present. It’s a lot to do it justice, when you’re dealing with the Hoek revolution during World War Two and all the intervening issues with Marcos and Estrada and Arroyo and so forth. I’ll have to figure out how far to take it, but there is an appearance of George W. Bush visiting the Philippines that does come in near the end of part two.

Allan: How far are you from completion?

John: Honestly, I would say it’s probably still a year away. It’s looking like the second part is as robust as the first part, and it’s also just a consequence of the amount of time that I have, given that I have a full time job and am working in another language - so I have to hire a translator in the editing room and the subtitling and the working of that out is extremely time-consuming.

Allan: Do you see an unbroken history of US imperialism in the Philippines?

John: I think, up until the present, the power elite in the Philippines have had an almost unshakable relationship with the US... In part two, there’s even someone - a man on the street who’s being interviewed - who points out, he says, “just look at the Philippine peso, and the American flag is intertwined with the Philippine flag. I forget on which bill, but it’s something I photographed then, and cut to as the person was speaking.

Allan: That’s current?

John: Current, yeah. Without having explicitly said it, I’m hoping that the parallels between our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan come through, and the ways in which we historically have withdrawn from a situation, so it appears we’re granting independence and democracy to some part of the world, when we still retain bases and political and economic leverage in decision making. I see that happening in Iraq right now.

Allan: When was Clark actually founded?

John: I probably should go into this in more detail in part two. I’m not going to be able to give you the exact date right now, but it was very early on during the last part of the Philippine-American war - the official years, which are 1898 to 1902. In that area, because it’s on higher ground, and good grazing ground, the cavalry had set up there, and it first evolved into an area that was called Fort Stotsenberg, but then it got rechristened Clark base. I think by 1903 or so, it’s already being called Clark - so, for pretty much the duration.

Allan: For me, the most interesting sequence of the film is you are being toured through the salvaged scrap from Clark. Two moments stand out - one, when your interpreter explains to the man in charge - I'm unclear on his role - that "you're an American," and he glances at you. I wonder how that felt - if you briefly felt worried how that observation might affect your reception. Secondly, a few minutes later, one of the girls washing scrap makes the observation, "They're not going to show it here anyway - they just want to show what happened to their garbage." It's a heartbreaking comment - her mistrust and cynicism are totally reasonable, given her experience with America, but it's also very misplaced, given what you're actually doing... How did that all feel? ...There’s a fascinating essay by Robert Fisk, where he’s in Afghanistan and a group of refugees started beating him with rocks -

John: But he understood where their rage was, he didn’t hold it against them. As I remember it.

Boojie and a villager at the site of military tests in Crow Valley. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

Allan: Were you exposed to any rage over there, any resentment?

John: I was on the hunt for it! And I was initially quite sorely disappointed when I wasn’t encountering any kind of anger or resentment. In fact, it was the opposite: as an American, I was being bestowed all kinds of good will wherever I went, and it’s part of how I started to realize that this is accomplished through the erosion of ones history, that I think was not an accident of fate but done quite wilfully. Discussing what could improve the lot of the people that I’m presenting in my film, one of the things that could have the most long-standing chance of redirecting their fates is the recovery of their history, which has been taken away from them. I think, for instance, that if people just knew that their great grandparents had been slaughtered in large numbers for the US to have a foothold there, no matter how much they were in need of economic support, my inclination would be that they would probably say, “Thanks but no thanks - we’ll figure something else out.” But that - as you get some indication of in the film, that’s not information that they’re equipped with. There’s only one point I can remember, where I was going up into an indigenous community up in the mountains and there’s some young kids who were yelling out something about, “Hey, Uncle Sam!” to me. And I was glad - I was saying to my friends, “Yeah, they should be mistrustful. They should wonder what I’m doing here.” But I almost never encountered that.

It’s a sort of a separate issue, but I did have a very unsettling encounter with one of the paramilitary groups within the first few days of my first trip there.

Allan: You state in the film that the Philippines is the second most dangerous place for journalists after Iraq.

John: Right. Well, I quote Human Rights Watch, or some organization who had made that determination. But it’s something that was common knowledge during the time that I was there - you would read about bodies being recovered in all kinds of places. My experience was that the People’s Task Force were trying to take me into the most toxic part of the former Clark base, and when the US left, you could essentially go anywhere you wanted to, but at that moment, for reasons unknown, it was cordoned off. So they were just saying, “Well, let’s try some other routes,” and there was this dirt road, so - “let’s try it and see what happens, maybe this is going to get us to where we want to go.” And we went down this road and there’s eventually this enormous pile of dirt in the middle of the road so we couldn’t go any further, and as we slowed up, all these men came out from behind this pile of dirt and from this other shack on the right hand side that we hadn’t seen; and one of the four people in the car, a young fellow named Mario whom you see later in the film - he’s giving the explanation on the map in the church of the river systems? - and Mario says to us, these are some of the men involved in the killings, because they’d tried to recruit him a few months earlier, and he’d wanted no part of it. And it wasn’t so easy - it was a one-lane road - to turn around; we were trying to do that, and - this is part of my first political awakenings there about the people I had come involved with - I noticed on the visor on our car that had the word “police” on it. And what it is, it’s a strategy - you pay somebody a couple of hundred dollars, and you get that; and I don’t know how much protection it bought us, but it probably slowed these men’s progression to our car to just sort of find out who we were and what we were up to, so we could just sort of drive away. And I don’t know for sure what would have happened - I had my videocamera on the floor, so I don’t have any footage of this encounter, and maybe that’s also why we didn’t have more difficulty. But I remember as we were leaving - I had known about these extra-judicial killings and people had warned me about this before I first had travelled there - and I’m quite sure I was probably trembling at that point, and so we were all discussing it, and I took note of the fact that my new friends, they were concerned - this definitely wasn’t a cool situation - but they weren’t really undone by it. And that’s when they first started telling me about their lives as activists, and it’s the first time I learned that both Boojie and Myrla had been longterm activists before this “bases” issue, that they had both been involved in the anti-Marcos campaigns, both had been imprisoned for years, both had been tortured. And so they said they never expected that they would actually live to the age they are now. You start looking at issues of life and death through a different lens when you’re able to share other people’s realities.

So that was the only specific incident where I felt any kind of threat to myself, potentially. And I kept a generally low profile. I did have to get permits from the Clark Development Corporation to film, and when I went back a second time, on another year, I could see that (CDC environmental liaison) Mr. Fuentes was much cooler in his demeanour and was very restrictive of the number of days I had this permit.

(My favourite image in the film. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.)

Allan: He comes across as a man in a very conflicted position - he doesn’t come across as a bad man, at least not most of the time, but he’s involved in a very fraught enterprise. What was your feeling about the CDC? Are they inviting further disaster, by developing this land?

John: It is a complicated situation. I mean, both the Subic Freeport Zone and the Clark Economic Zone have a large financial boon to the national economy - my understanding is, significantly larger than even during the US occupation time. Texas Instruments, for instance, has built its largest factory in that area. And as I give some evidence of throughout this film, the speed with which hotels and casinos and industries are being constructed is astounding. Now - I can’t be the conscience of these individuals; are they genuinely oblivious to the fact that health problems persist? I find that unlikely - but I think when you grow up in an environment where life is a struggle on any number of levels, constantly, and mortality rates are high - I think in the Philippines it’s something like 72 percent of the population live below the poverty line - it’s hard to even parse out, to what degree are people dying because of what they’re drinking, or from any number of other factors. To have the capacity to see some seemingly positive improvements in the economic life of the society - I’m sure it gives Mr. Fuentes a sense that he’s contributing in a positive way. In part two, there’s a similar interview with the environmental spokesperson for the Subic base. She’s even more aware of the contradictions and is very sympathetic to the desire of groups like the People’s Task Force for Bases Clean Up to bring some remedy to the toxic issues, and she says, very movingly says at one point, very simply that “beggars can’t be choosers.” It’s a third world nation; there’s this economic gun to their head and legally the US arranged it so they weren’t obligated to do any further cleanup than they undertook. Morally, of course, I would argue, that supercedes whatever legal documents were signed, but of course the bigger issue here is, if we could move the US to accept responsibility for the contamination that persists in Clark and Subic, it sets that first precedent. And this is an issue that you can find at virtually every military facility globally. It’s how I first learned about this, through an expose in the Boston Globe in the late 1990s about the global problems around military bases and pollution. And so I’m sure they’re well aware that the moment they move on one facility, everyone else is going to say, why them and not me?
A local child, Samuel, at a church meeting that Prince Andrea was supposed to attend. Still provided by the filmmaker, not to be reused without permission.

Allan: What should people do to help with the cause?

John: Well, there's a flyer that I pass out at screenings and at the tail end of the film there's a website address... Quite immediately, one can make a small donation to the work of the People's Task Force. Even small amounts of money can make large differences within that community, and can very directly provide assistance and medical help to many of the people one sees in that film. That's something real and tangible that is within reach.

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