PHILIPPINES: A retrospective of Kiri Dalena’s works at Oberhausen 2019

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 3, 2019

Enraged protesters on the road, signs in hand, yet with no writing or slogans on them. What may have been written seems unsayable, inaccessible, and risky as the unsaid message and the forced silence only gets sensibly more painful.

This scene, from Kiri Dalena’s documentary Erased Slogans (Philippines, 2008), represents the necessity of alternative forms of protest. Here, the historic demonstration was a protest against former president Ferdinand Marcos, who declared martial law in 1972 and held power for over two decades. Kiri Dalena erased the slogans through digitally modified scanned photographs. Against all attempts to erase history and censorship, Dalena returned two more times with blanked-out words on signs in public protests with Recent Slogans (2014) and In Our Image (2015).

In 2010 she dealt with the Maguindaneo massacre and the subsequent funeral ceremonies by presenting the events in anti-chronological order, pointing out the desire to resist, to escape from the threats of death, and to return to an unbowed state of vitality (Requiem for M).

What may have been written seems unsayable, inaccessible, and risky

In Farmer (Mag-uuma) (2014), a young woman sings about social injustice and the extremely harsh living conditions in the Mindanao area. Again, the minimalism of the form creates a huge emotional impact.

In 2018, Dalena visited farmers rebelling against injustice and corruption in their homes and hiding places, masking their faces. Again she created an impressive work of solidarity and is evidently trusted by people who take great risks (Life Masks – Peasant Leader).

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Erased Slohans, a film by Kiri Dalena

Human suffering, of course, transcends political realities. In Lullaby for a Storm (Tungkung Langit) (2013), Dalena presents a portrait of two children who have lost their parents and survived a disastrous typhoon, which wiped out houses and families. Here as well, her empathic view does not create a depressing work; on the contrary, she presents the lively children discovering their surroundings with curiosity and hope, incarnating the will to live in the most beautiful way.

In one of her latest works, From the Dark Depths (Gikan sa Ngitngit nga) (2017), she masterfully connects documentary footage of communist resistance fighters somewhere in the forest with street demonstrations, curfew threats, a ritual of mourning, and overwhelming symbolic images of resistance and vitality, showing a frail woman powerfully waving a red flag underwater on the ocean floor. Aesthetic beauty and political resoluteness are here celebrating a rarely seen unity.

Human suffering, of course, transcends political realities.

In addition to her experimental documentary film corpus, Kiri Dalena has realized sculptures and installations, which have been presented in key exhibitions – mostly in Asia – over the last few years. Living in Manila, she is also engaged in human rights organisations such as Southern Tagalog Exposure (2001-2008) and currently RESBAK (Respond and Break the Silence Against the Killings).

With the recently presented «Profile» program, Germany’s «Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen» offered an enjoyable return to cinematographic political statements, which had been so important for the image of the festival in its first decades.

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Lullaby for a Storm, a film by Kiri Dalena

Kiri Dalena’s work is situated in a country where, during the Mindanao Civil War (1970 – 2002), counted 120,000 victims, most of them civilians. Targets of government harassment include environmental activists, journalists, defenders of human rights, unionists, small farmers and members of indigenous communities, and supposedly leftist NGO’s. In Mindanao alone, around 500,000 people were delocalised during military conflicts between 2008 and 2009. Executions and disappearances were a daily reality even after the Marcos dictatorship, during the term of president Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010). The human rights organisation Karapatan counted 1,206 political killings and 206 missing during her administration. During the Maguindanao massacre (2009), Human Rights Watch numbered 58 civilians killed by paramilitaries, among them 30 journalists. 33 more journalists were killed in the following years. Since 2003, Reporters Without Borders has placed the Philippines among the five most dangerous countries in the world. Current president, Rodrigo Duterte, successfully presents drug trafficking as the main problem of the country and the reason for its poverty, leading a war against drug addicts and dealers, mostly executed by death squads. He denies any human rights to drug victims through a policy of propagandistic demonization. Lawyers, police officers, and members of the military have also been accused as co-perpetrators. The freedom of the press is under greater and greater pressure. Estimates speak of 20,000 already killed in this ideological war. 5,000 have been officially confirmed as being killed «in self-defense».

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