Political Film Society - Newsletter #115 - October 15, 2001

October 15, 2001


Many recent films from Iran focus on the oppression of women in post-revolutionary Iran, but none so deeply as feminist Tahmineh Milani’s The Hidden Half (Nimeh-Ye Penhan). Indeed, she was arrested, charged by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court of supporting "those waging war against God" and of supporting counterrevolutionaries through film when The Hidden Half was released; she is now out on bail, and her arrest has even be criticized by President Mohammad Khatami. The story, however, is much milder than one might think. Fereshteh (played by Niki Karimi) tells the story of her life in a manuscript secretly presented to her husband Khosro (played by Mohammad Nikbin), a high-ranking judge who is sent in the film to Shiraz to interview a woman accused of a crime who has filed an appeal. After a flight to Shiraz, the husband checks into a hotel, opens the dossier, and discovers his wife’s autobiographical manuscript, which she hopes will open her husband's eyes and soften his heart to listen carefully to the woman’s case. She begins her story when she is eighteen, attending the University of Tehran. The revolution that swept the Shah from power piques her interest in radical ideas, she joins a Communist sect, and she distributes leaflets critical of the new regime. Her activities bring her in touch with a pro-Mossadeq-era intellectual (played by Atila Pesyani), who is intrigued by her naïve dedication to a noble cause. While government authorities crack down on the university campus and arrest agitators, the intellectual offers her the possibility of escape to England, but does not tell her that he hopes to live with her there. The intellectual’s wife, however, tells her that he is married so as to kill the relationship, and she stops seeing him. She then marries but does not tell her husband about her past and plays the subordinate role of a woman while secretly frustrated that she has been denied her own identity over more than two decades. The film ends as her husband interviews the accused woman, who begin to relate a similar tale of suffering, so filmviewers are in doubt what the husband will do next. Iran’s authorities clearly objected to the sympathetic treatment of counterrevolutionaries in the film, but the Political Film Society has nominated The Hidden Half for best film exposé and best film on human rights of 2001. MH

The plight of Filipinos in Los Angeles is featured in The Debut. The Mercado family is about to celebrate the 18th birthday of their daughter Rose (played by Bernadette Balagtas), so a fiesta is organized. There is an elaborate preparation of coiffure and food (including lechón), dance performances are rehearsed (including singkil), and friends and family (including her grandfather) are invited; an emcee organizes the events, which begin traditionally and end with everyone participating in the latest dance crazes. The venue is the auditorium of a Catholic high school because the family cannot afford a debutante ball at a ritzy hotel. The real focus of the film, however, is on Ben Mercado (played by Dante Basco), Rose’s eighteen-year-old brother. Despite a scholarship offered by UCLA, Ben has cashed in some $6,000 in savings (including valuable comic books) to pay tuition at the California School for the Arts. Ben, however, is a disappointment to his family.

His father Roland (played by Tirso Cruz III) wants him to become a physician, Rose is chagrined that he will not help in preparations for her party, and his Filipino relatives think that he is snubbing them because he hangs around with Caucasian students, including a girlfriend. Meanwhile, we see why he is disenchanted with life among Filipinos: Everyone tries to boss everyone else, using angry scenes, guilt, humiliation, and even the threat of violence as control techniques, without respecting or understanding one another. When the party begins, Ben quickly becomes fed up as his parents try to tell everyone that he will be going to UCLA, so he excuses himself from the table to await the arrival of his two Caucasian friends, Doug (played by Jayson Schall) and Rick (played by Brandon Martin), who drive him to a party where he can meet his girlfriend. But when they arrive, she is drunk and insults Ben by suggesting that he eats dog; the party turns out to involve too much booze and loud music, so the trio return to the birthday party. Ben then gradually falls in love with his sister’s best friend, Annabelle (played by Joy Bisco). Aside from the upbeat part of the story, the interactions among the generations, however, are designed to provide some humor as well as serious consideration of many issues plaguing Filipino Americans that have made the Mercado family so dysfunctional. One set of issues deals with how the ambitions of the various generations are unfulfilled; grandfather Carlos Mercado (played by Eddie Garcia), who flies in from the Philippines, is disappointed that his son is only a letter carrier, whereas Ben’s father cannot understand how Ben’s future career in art will bring credit to the family. The older generation is particularly miffed that some younger Filipinos are giving up their culture. Augusto (played by Darion Basco), a macho teenager, tries to corner Annabelle, showing that those who have little intelligence can gravitate to gangs and violence. Some themes focus on relations between Caucasians and Filipinos, such as the remark about eating dog meat. One Filipina friend of the family has married a Caucasian, who keeps injecting silly remarks, such as "Filipinos are not Asians; they are a Malay people." A more politically savvy young Filipino reminds his peers about how the Americans fought a war to stop the Philippines from achieving independence from 1899 to 1902 and how American residents of Philippine ancestry who fought in the U.S. Army during World War II have never been given full G.I. Bill or pension benefits (though he makes no mention of the Hanapepe Massacre of 1924). Although the increasing importance of Filipinos in American society, constituting as they do nearly half the nursing staff at many hospitals, is duly recognized, surprisingly there is no mention of Ben Cayetano, two-term governor of Hawai`i. Augusto accuses Ben Mercado of being a "sellout" for associating with Caucasians, not Filipinos, and ultimately fists fly. Doug and Rick, nevertheless, are enchanted by Filipino dance and music as well as the beauty and charm of the Filipinas. The purpose of The Debut, thus, is for director Gene Cajayon to tell Filipino Americans that they should be proud of their culture and content to be themselves rather than trying to please everyone (a common Filipino ambition) while counting their material blessings amid the strange, often hostile culture of Los Angeles. MH

The annual general meeting of Political Film Society members will take place on Saturday, November 17, at 7 p.m. The venue will be 1215½ Seal Way, Seal Beach, California. The principal agenda is to elect members of the Board of Directors for 2001/02. Those wishing to attend can RSVP to polfilms@aol.com for directions.