Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

02 Sept 2011

(Movie - 2011) Ang Babae sa Septic Tank, directed by: Marlon Rivera

(Reaction) A Digression of Poverty by: Antonio Conejos

Ang babae sa septic tank really isn't about a woman in a septic tank per se. In fact, the money shot of having a famous actress torso deep in excrement doesn't come until the very end of the movie. The film does comment though on how inexorably trapped Philippine cinema is on the topic of poverty and hardship.

The erstwhile director and producer of Babae sa Septic Tank conceptualize various genres and actresses in order to frame the story of Mila. Their first try is a dramatic version, redolent with long, slow shots, general anguish and characterized by the silence of the characters. They then propose a documentary style shoot, guerrilla shaky cam, interviewing real people and following a real mother and her son. The third vision for the film is a musical, complete with dance numbers and Disney-like songs extolling hunger and longing in a catchy show tune. (This bit of Babae sa Septic Tank had me flashing back, not in a bad way, to the introductory town scene in Beauty and the Beast). Lastly there is the version of the actress herself which is an ungainly amalgamation of pandering and high drama. In this last version the attention is always on the star whose lines are full of platitudes and who saves her son in the end.

There are at least four major visions of the film, wildly varying in terms of style, tone and aesthetics. What doesn't change though is the core story of a mother who is forced to sell her child for money. Thus, no matter what genre or trope we use, we can't escape from the theme of our poverty. No matter what lens the camera uses, all it sees is hardship. In a way, even in art, Philippine film is trapped by poverty.

Amidst this fixation on poverty is the ironic hope that it is through poverty that everyone's dreams will come through. The producer sees the movie as something that will sell and reap awards. For the director it's a chance to tell a real story, to make art. The actress, rich as she already is in the trappings of the world, grabs it as something for the soul. This film which is unerringly about poverty is also seen as a means (without exaggeration) for the characters to reach a promised land.

Blasted from left and right with options and opinions on how to shoot the film, the original creators are forced to contort their vision to fit various interests. The relative impotence of the film makers themselves to create the film they want is reflected in the character of the mute production assistant. Most of the variants of the movie are seen because she envisions them being acted out. While she can visualize the potential isotopes which derive from the element of the movie , she is unable to express her vision of the movie. As such, the audience sees the film courtesy of her imagination; yet she herself has no voice, no input into how the film is to be made.

Despite these divergent expectations of the film, everyone gets what they want in the movie's final scene. When Eugene Domingo accidentally falls into the titular septic tank, the director gets his art, the producer gets a crowd pleaser and the actress gets the humble pie which is manna to her career. And most importantly, the poor, who after all the film is inescapably about, get their comeuppance in these crazy rich folk making complete fools of themselves. While Philippine cinema is obsessed with poverty, Babae sa Septic Tank argues that such poverty may by some alchemy be transformed into gold which pleases all.


Disjointed and stuttering, the film doesn't mesh all the genres it wants to play with well. The epitome of this mishmash is the final scene which literally comes out of nowhere. The scene featuring Eugene Domingo in a septic tank is never discussed as one of the pivotal scenes in the movie. Yet suddenly we are rushed to this farce masquerading as climax.

Personally I thought the more interesting scene of Babae sa Septic Tank was when the producer loses most of his car to looters while they are being distracted/toured around the slum by oh so helpful barangay tanods. Here the consequence of trivializing poverty as entertainment or art is explored on an intimately personal level, the loss of something the character holds dear. Yet this apparently is merely a hiccup on the way to film success as, after a brief montage of wailing and gnashing of teeth, we cut to the midst of shooting and everyone's favorite septic tank.

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