ANG BABAE SA SEPTIC TANK (2011)
A cream of 2011’s indie crop, Marlon Rivera’s “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” turns the current Philippine indie scene to its head. Successful at the box office (probably because of its strong Star Cinema promotion), the film is both a critique and an exploitation of the “formulas” building up in the vaults of internationally-lauded Filipino films: films about poverty. It is an ultimate testament to the industry’s (if there ever was such an “independent film industry”) boredom of tackling poverty issues that the filmmakers fictionalized here can’t decide on how they’re going to sell the story – a gritty docudrama, a glossy musical or a movie-star vehicle?
It all revolves around an “ordinary Thursday” of a distracted mother named Mila who eats only a pack of instant noodles for lunch with her seven kids, one of which ends up being sold to a Caucasian pedophile much to the disgrace but money-hunger of the mother. Two rich filmmakers (Kean Cipriano and JM de Guzman) argue all over everything from script to poster, probably because they know the material is shit (its working title is “Walang Wala” for a reason). Soon enough, they are triggered by their envy of a fellow but lesser and grammar-Nazied filmmaker who just came home from the Venice Film Festival, and inspired by their dream of Oscar wins and, most of all, by the star who loved their script: Eugene Domingo.
As Bienvenido Lumbera observed, the real driving force behind film productions of today lies in the image of the bankable star. The film underlines that with Eugene’s satirical portrayal of herself. All the confusions and arguments of the filmmakers were immediately dropped when the deal of Eugene’s involvement was settled. Hence the film? It was envisioned as her own, with product placements and all emphasis on the star’s image. It is a performance Domingo will undoubtedly be known for, subtly balancing the wit of a comedienne superstar and the realistic drama of a struggling mother (did I mention that the latter was framed in three contrasting versions?). The supporting cast is nothing but back-up dancers to her show. Cipriano and de Guzman are mere channels of Rivera and Chris Martinez (the film’s writer) but probably the most notable element in that background is the one with no dialogue at all: Jocelyn (played by Cai Cortez). It was not a remarkable presence but the Jocelyn character is a rare addition to this portrait of show business - she is the audience eavesdropping to the ideas blurted out by the producer, director and star. She’s passive and subversive to the film dudes but with her, we imagine these ideas in our own movie fantasies and react to them. Jocelyn is a reminder of the filmmakers’ consideration of the consumers, which is (and should be) a relevant point. But to the star, the audience is barely as important. “Nandyan ka pala!” said Eugene upon spotting this silent observer sitting on her million-dollar couch.
When I saw the film for the first time in a recent Cinematheque screening, I was joined by a small group of obviously rich business men who laughed hysterically at the struggles of the elitist filmmakers. Maybe it’s unbeknownst to them that they were laughing at themselves. This is a movie about the elitist’s shit, how he intends to capitalize on stories he thinks are important and sells it using guaranteed money-making formulas. He exploits the lives of these poor people and in the end, he wouldn’t do anything about it. Nothing big really happens but profit and inclusions to official festival selections. It is a satire directly hinted at the same people who’ll never learn.
The commercial and critical success of “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” is timely. The indie film satire signifies the continuing rise of the Philippine independent cinema. It reminds me of film history, when one independent filmmaker slapped the norms of the industry with a provocative film entitled “Pagdating sa Dulo”. Though, in time it will most likely be forgotten for its politics since by then, the indie film would’ve moved on to fresher themes, new-found success and worse conflicts. And also by then, the target of darting satire in the film would’ve been sitting pretty in the mainstream. I wonder if Brillante Mendoza has seen it. - Gio Potes, December 2011
1. Lumbera, B. (2011). Re-viewing Filipino cinema. Mandaluyong City:
Anvil Publishing Inc.
2. IMDb - The woman in the septic tank (2011). (n.d). Retrieved