By Stefano Ortiz
Perhaps the most helpful thing most people can do right now under the pandemic situation is to stay at home, follow the community quarantine, and flatten the covid curve. For many folks, this gives plenty of free time to binge-watch new shows and movies online (imagine that! Binging is already a form of helping out your community!). Here at FDCP, as lovers and promoters of Philippine cinema, we’ve decided to start our series: Binging on Quarantine, to revisit and explore the many great films of Philippine cinema that we can include in our quarantine watch-list. We hope that this series brings forward a further appreciation of Philippine movies and allow us to see all its excellence and diversity.
For the first edition, we’ve chosen Mikhail Red’s 2016 film Birdshot. With Birdshot, Red established himself as a director. This award-winning film screened at the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino and Cinemalaya Film Festival and was the Philippine submission to the 2016 Academy Awards. It is also currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Directed by Mikhail Red
Available on Netflix
Two narratives drive Birdshot: an adolescent farm girl’s coming of age following her killing a Philippine eagle, and a young policeman’s attempt at uncovering the mysteries of a missing bus containing farmers. The two narratives intertwine following the policeman’s re-assignment to the case of the missing eagle, while the thematic underpinnings of political corruption and class oppression run throughout.
Red places this narrative with the backdrop of lush provincial surroundings in an unnamed rural setting. For much of the film, the characters move in these vast spaces and silences. Maya and her father Diego live a simple, self-sufficient existence as the caretakers of a vast land near an eagle sanctuary. The film begins as he teaches Maya how to hunt and subsist within the land until one day, due to her eagerness and curiosity, Maya shoots and kills an endangered Haribon, bringing it home for them to eat.
Meanwhile, rookie policeman Domingo and his senior partner Mendoza are assigned to investigate the disappearance of a group of farmers en route to Manila. Domingo finds certain pieces along the way that point to uncovering the mystery, yet he is stopped when their lead officers reassign them to the killing of the eagle. Disgruntled, Domingo continues his investigation outside of the missing eagle’s case and unravels the oppression of poor farmers by wealthy hacienderos—but in his attempts to shed further light on the disappearances of the farmers, he is stopped by his superiors, each pointing to a system beyond Domingo’s control.
Photo from Birdshot Facebook Page
Soon the mystery becomes clear: the farmers, on their way to Manila to establish their rights to their land, have been killed. Poor and powerless, their murders have been covered up, and the police of which Domingo is part has a role in the cover-up. Domingo is told several times to shut up and quit investigating, till he comes home to a fire burning and a phone, warning him of danger if he continues his attempts to shed light on the truth.
With such themes at play, it becomes easy to turn the narrative into a black and white morality played by good and bad figures—Birdshot avoids this path. Instead of the conflict between hacienderos and farmers, between powerful and powerless, the film plays with ambiguities that come out through the actions of particular individuals. A would-be hero, Domingo faces the grim reality of a figure looking to pursue justice within a broken system. But when his wife and child face danger from this pursuit, Domingo responds as a real individual and abandons his pursuit. We consequently see the difficulty such a system places on an otherwise virtuous person.
Likewise, facing the risk of losing his daughter, Diego takes a gun and chooses to fight. In the end, the poor caretaker and the working-class policeman rather than the oppressed farmer and the wealthy haciendero that clash. The corrupt system swallows and destroys both figures, just one of the many persons placed against each other by structures that go beyond their grasp.
Here, Mendoza’s warning to Domingo rings valid when he tells him: “Domingo, ang lahat ng ito, mas malaki pa kesa sayo. Paano kung meron kang malaman na hindi mo kailangan malaman? Pag nalaman mo, anong gagawin mo?” In their different moral dilemmas, we witness the psychological development from the different characters.
In all this, Maya appears almost passive, mostly asking questions and silently witnessing the different events. But Maya also decides the plot’s final significant action and discovers the film’s bleak closing revelation. Following the revelation, at Birdshot’s conclusion, we are left pondering the film’s turn of events, looking outwards to the calm and beautiful rural landscape, the flying Haribons—and Philippine society itself.
Cover photo from Birdshot Facebook Page