Friday, February 29, 2008
Riles by Ditsi Carolino is a documentary on the urban poor life of Mang Eddie, a balut peddler, and his wife Pen, who is sick and whose diseased breast was removed. They and their biological and adopted kids live in the slums not far from the rail tracks (hence the documentary’s title) where trains are still actively passing by. The film shows Mang Eddie going to work, but when he gets happy-go-lucky, he engages in a drinking spree instead of peddling his basketful of unhatched duck eggs. The wife often had to threaten her husband that should he fail to sell balut, Mang Eddie will be “patay daw sa kanya” (dead meat to her). The film further shows the goings-on in the neighborhood, from the karaoke singing matches to bathing to eating to other activities usually seen in the urban slums.
Riles as a subject of cultural studies can be seen by the audience as representative of the exotic especially if the audience does not share the low socio-economic class of the people featured in it. Since Ateneo students have the general reputation of being integral parts of the bourgeois and the elite, they can probably view the documentary as something representing an alien reality. Mang Eddie and the persons and things peopling Riles are all “Others” of the Ateneo student audience, ideologically speaking. The former are engaged in things dissociated from an average Ateneo student’s reality: living in the slums, living along the riles, living a hand-to-mouth existence. The latter may probably be living in a posh village, among the old rich, and problematizing how to produce meals for tonight is farthest from their mind. Hence, it is likely for the latter to exoticize Mang Eddie and other subjects like him, for they are different, a break from the regular. To some extent, the representations are accurate, like life in the slums is a constant struggle. However, the present media practice of representing the “Other” as seen in the documentary is problematic, since Riles shows evidences of stereotyping of the exoticized subjects. For one, the atmosphere of desperation in Riles is such that a message is carried that no hope awaits the underprivileged among us. They may be forever trapped in the slums, inextricable in their hand-to-mouth existence. Secondly, the only way through which the exoticized rises from his balut-peddling occasion is through drinking sprees. Drinking being an unproductive activity, the idea being conveyed is that the “Others” are escapists, with no real way to unshackle themselves from the chains of poverty. This is further reinforced by Mang Eddie’s cynicism as manifested in the documentation. Because these are the representations being replicated in the media, the poor become irreparably connected to ideas of desperation, escapism and stereotyping. Hence, they become twice victimized by the society that fails to create real progress for them through the privileged class’ involvement in social development and, finally, that holds a formulaic representation of the poor as the “Other” of the rich. Insights from visual anthropology and cultural studies may be evaluated to check if, in any case, the subjects can still be happy despite their deprived conditions, as money is not necessarily a key factor in making people happy, according to recent research.
When the presentation ended, the main subject—in his vendor outfit seen in the five-year-old documentary—was there to interact with the audience. The director was also there, and they sat on a panel for the question and answer portion. Eddie brought along his balut which, while more expensive at P15 than the normal market price of duck eggs, were still bought by the audience. Here was the man represented of the documentary, seeming to have jumped out of the medium to be with the audience in the flesh. While the real Eddie and the Edie represented in the technically excellent (suitable lighting and sounds and unobstrusive direction) film are one and the same, there is the question of naturalness since Eddie could be showing an exaggerated Eddie character or could be repressing an undesirable Eddie character all because of the present camera in terms of the film and of the present audience in terms of public interaction.
Since the documentary, in consideration of Bilge Yesil’s “Reel Pleasures: Exploring the Historical Roots of Media Voyeurism and Exhibitionism,” is an example of mediated observation, it is a question whether or not Eddie is captured on film in his most natural role, given that he is aware that he was being taped. It is not hidden that Eddie senses himself as a performer to be scrutinized by others that are his spectators. Eddie acts with his audience in mind and may be conscious of the possibility of being checked whether or not his behavior fits social expectations. While Eddie may just be staging a performance, his showing is complemented by the audience’ interaction (the purchase of the balut being one such manifestation), the whole thing attempting to construct impressions of how Eddie feels from within and how the audience sees him from without. The documentary, in essence, makes the media and non-media worlds clash because the film must be, at best, liberated from representation in order to show Eddie’s most real but in the process, the film exploits this manner to the fullest in order to feed the audience with the kind of reality in the saturated images presented as in on stage.
This in-between-ness is actually caused by the impact of media in people’s lives as explained by Ronald Bishop in “Good Afternoon, Good Evening, and Good Night: The Truman Show as Media Criticism.” Since the media displays power while playing a pivotal role in persons’ lives, it is not unlikely that as the audience tries to criticize the documentary for its reality, the real will juxtapose itself (i.e. Eddie appearing after the film showing) to exploit and simultaneously dissolve the audience’ intent to do so. Instead of subverting the media’s power to make representations of the real by examining this mediated reality, this power is affirmed when Eddie appears with his balut eggs to corroborate the documentary’s presentation of his reality.
While the film has the intention of making the audience understand the plight that everyday plagues the less privileged class to which Mang Eddie belongs, it also becomes responsible for the portrayal and the mass fabrication of the “Other” as abominable for their lack of hope and for their escapist behaviors. Because of the failure to venture into a more critical approach towards reporting the life along the riles slums, there is really nothing new presented and that there is no fresh understanding regarding the media-represented subjects.
Bishop, Ronald (2000). “Good Afternoon, Good Evening, and Good Night: The Truman Show as Media Criticism.” In Journal of Communication Inquiry 24:1. Sage Publications.
Fursich, Elfriede. “How Can Global Journalists Represent the ‘Other'?: A Critical Assessment of the Cultural Studies Concept for Media Practice.” Boston College, Chestnut Hill , MA , USA
Yesil, Bilge (2001). “Reel Pleasures: Exploring the Historical Roots of Media Voyeurism and Exhibitionism.” In Counterblast: The e-journal of Culture and Communication, v. n.1. New York.