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28 July 2013

Joseph Israel Laban’s “Nuwebe” (Review): "A Question for the Lens"

Joseph Israel Laban’s “Nuwebe” has received a number of mixed reviews from critics and movie bloggers.  The film dared to tackle the very controversial issue of child rape. The subject matter became more daunting because the violation resulted in pregnancy and the film was inspired by true events.  Rendering this kind of sensitive story into a film narrative definitely requires a director with more than fortitude; perhaps, it may also involve a hint of madness in daring to risk one’s reputation in this merciless film industry. 

The movie tells the story of Krista, a precocious nine-year old girl whom her father sexually abused.  The movie retells Krista’s journey from her mother’s discovery of her father’s crime to Krista’s refuge in a government center.

Films like “Nuwebe” are suspect.  Undeniably, many critics will accuse Laban of pandering to “exploitation porn,” the twin sibling of “poverty porn” films. With all the sincerity wrapped around the film, sadly, most critics commented that the film did not deliver its message to the audience the way the filmmakers might have intended it to be.  When I watched the movie, many members of the audience laughed at some scenes, including during Krista’s monologue. Krista’s speech was in Filipino but she sometimes used English words. To some audience members, her speech sounded unreal and unintentionally comical.  Krista’s monologue is actually based on a real interview and so Laban was simply trying to be authentic.  Nevertheless, “Nuwebe” fails to elicit the right reaction from viewers.  This does make you wonder. Who is at fault here, the moviegoers or the filmmakers?

Just as in comedy, what makes us laugh says so much about us as a people.  Interestingly, a handful of people walked out of the cinema, including a friend who was himself been sexually abused as a child.

“Nuwebe” does open up the issue of film and television being sexual predators themselves.  When does film function as a tool to expose the horror of rape? When can we say that a film simply takes the role of a “passive rapist?” The filmmaker simply reenacts the horrific crime by filming a narrative without conscience and  in the case of television documentaries, using abuse as a catchy subject matter to give credibility to their creators and hosts.

The camera is indifferent. It is cold and lifeless like the metal that houses its lens.  The camera records without remorse. The artistic editing rests on the artist.  The artist must always find the right angle, in some cases, a new angle to make viewers see the horrors that have become familiar. Bertolt Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt or “making strange effect” is one useful technique, “to make the familiar strange, to give everyday events the status of something grand or epic. “

 It is the artist’s responsibility to ascertain that his intended effect must be the primary focus.  If it requires removing parts of a story that may betray his message, the artist must do so. 

Many television networks have aired countless documentaries about child abuse, rape, extreme poverty and the likes, sometimes, complete with a crying television host. In some cases, these types of shows are a rating bonanza, and if marketed correctly, they may even reel in international accolades like the Peabody. 

I believe my friend sums it all. He said, “I am not a subject matter. I am not a work of fiction. What happened to me is not a sad spectacle. I was a victim once, but I survived and I have moved on.  Every time people want to tell my story, they do not know that they are asking me to relive the horror. Why am I the focus? What about my abuser? Aim your lens at him or her.  Do not violate me again for your own benefit.”

Kudos for Laban for trying, but for the sake of victims of sexual crimes, we should all try harder and with extreme prudence. 

Nadine Samonte and Jake Cuenca are miscast as poor parents living in a nipa hut. The two actors are probably the fairest and most Eurasian-looking country dwellers I have ever seen in recent years. Samonte’s hair is even dyed brown.  If a mother can afford to have her hair dyed brown, she can certainly afford more important necessities for her children, namely breakfast. Little things like that can ruin characterization. 

Jake Cuenca as a drunk, sexual addict and abusive pastor require a massive suspension of disbelief. This is unfortunate because Cuenca has been trying out risky roles beyond the handsome leading man types.  What Cuenca needs is the right vehicle for his talent. Alternatively, if he wants to do a Daniel Day Lewis, he should go all the way.  He should have been darker and he should have not recycled the same look he used as a bus driver in “Tuhog.”

Barbara Miguel should be praised for bravely tackling a difficult role at such a young age. Despite an uneven script, Miguel gave a satisfactory performance although she did the usual "child acting" in some scenes. 

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