There are a lot of great ideas swimming in a pool of confusion in Raymond Red’s "Kamera Obskura."
The film is conceptually sophisticated, more so than the bunch of films like Michel Hazanavicius’ "The Artist" that merely borrowed stereotypical silent film aesthetics for trite nostalgia. Red, in recreating a silent film and dressing that recreated silent film within a storyline of a celebrated discovery of an obscure lost film in an abandoned warehouse, already tackles several very current issues that deserve to be put in the forefront of cultural discourse.
Pen Medina stars in Raymond Red's "Kamera Obskura," an entry to this year's Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival
In the first few minutes of the film, Red has legendary archivists Teddy Co, Cesar Hernando and Ricky Orellana debating on the import of their discovery in front of the media. In their excited discussions, they traverse a gamut of intelligent topics from Philippine film history to the dilemmas of film preservation, preserving in the film what would have been limited in private conversations over beer or coffee.
The film concludes with the same kind of discussion by the same people, although this time, their discussions are shielded from the eyes and ears of media. The three scholars, in a darkened screening room where their discovery just finished screening without the missing final reel, begin debating the merits of what they saw and the repercussions of the missing final reel. Hypotheses, educated guesses and opinions are thrown around.
Despite that, everything deliciously ends in more confusion than when they began, cinephiles lost in cinematographic concerns. The film’s lack of resolution is remarkable. It expresses the very state of discourse in Philippine cinema, how it is honestly just a lot of babble and issues discussed and re-discussed ad infinitum.
The most painful part of this is that Red’s film is utterly brilliant, at least in concept. It is just that the middle and most important part -- the silent film that urged those three wise men of Philippine cinema to debate endlessly -- is wanting.
The film is tainted by Diwa de Leon’s ludicrous and tyrannical score that both limits and betrays the possibilities of emotions of Red’s undeniably dynamic visuals. The very existence of the musical score betrays the nature of the silent film where music is played live during screenings.
The film’s bookends, where the projection of the so-called rediscovered lost film is featured as the framing device for the silent middle part, further negates the need for the scoring. The logical guffaw could just be ignored had De Leon’s score been a mere background, an ornament. However, the score is more damaging than that as it supplants interpretation and emotions with its inherent lack of imagination and subtlety.
Absent the score, the very silent film part itself, shot in digital and made to look like it was shot in film during post, is a mixed bag. The filmmaking process seems to be a brash betrayal of the core concept, but arguments can be raised supporting Red’s choice of filmmaking, especially in this age where film is quickly entering obsolescence.
There are arresting moments, particularly in the opening where Juan (Pen Medina) finds himself trapped in a cell where a single ray of light reveals the world outside, with an imposing building and flying machines all over, upside down, like inside the titular camera obscura.
The very idea of that silent film within the film is astounding. By telling the story of Juan who upon his escape from the cell becomes some sort of political hero when a movie camera assimilates with his arm, Red expresses the power of cinema, how it can be used and abused, in the name of money, advocacy or, as the post-credit sequence reveals, the filmmaker himself. Unfortunately, most of the message gets lost in the spectacle and the noise.
Perhaps Red could have spent several more months or years perfecting the crafting of the film. The final product reveals the many compromises Red had to make in order to reach the wide audience that Cinemalaya has earned for itself. These compromises may very well be the culprit of all the disappointments and frustrations with the film.
These compromises Red had to make expose the deficiencies of the film festival’s rules and mechanics that surround its film’s production, how its obsolete grants and inhumane deadlines create a culture of hurried filmmaking, turning filmmakers like Red and his compatriots into factories for the admittedly lofty goal of reaching to the festival’s captive market that promises the possibility of an audience for their films once freed from the constrictions of a film festival.
A question appears. “Is that lofty goal really worth the compromises?” Well, only the filmmakers can sincerely answer that.
Francis Joseph Cruz is a lawyer and critic. You can follow his blog "Lessons from the School of Inattention."