Delikado 1


Renato Redentor Constantino

Posted at May 24 2022 06:22 PM


As anticipated, the new documentary DELIKADO has enthralled casual viewers and film critics who have had the good fortune to see the film in all its haunting, unsettling beauty. 

The film is currently making the rounds of cinemas and film festivals abroad and unfortunately will not be shown in the Philippines until the latter part of 2022. But it’s reputation will grow, as it should.

I’ve seen it, and it’s hard to come to a different conclusion: the film is mighty. There’s no other word to use. And the documentary is colossal largely, I suspect, because of the spectacular restraint exercised throughout the movie by its creators.

The gorgeous yet harrowing documentary was written, directed and produced by the beating heart and humming mind of the journalist Karl Malakunas, once the Manila bureau chief of Agence France Presse and who’d also be the first to insist the film he put together could not have been delivered had it not been for a humongous team effort of artists, editors, technicians, writers, and co-producers. Certainly the film would not have been possible without the central role of figures largely unknown to a nation that had just opted to fully embrace forgetting by restoring the Marcoses back to power – the same family thrown out 36 years ago by a national uprising.

The film’s title – delikado – was an interesting choice. It translates absolutely perfectly in the Filipino context, but English viewers are likely to cleave to the more benign, definitional familiarity of frailty and the precarious ecological balance humans are upsetting everywhere.

Yet Malakunas and team chose the title well, because in the Philippine setting, the word delikado always sways with a twin meaning. It describes a state of being that is fragile, not frail; dangerous, not delicate. And the film is menacing, not meandering, in ways that allow viewers to raise their own questions and draw their own conclusions, using a voice that does not shout, speaking instead in the calm tones of foreboding and imminent harm.

Given its sensitive subject, it must have been challenging to resist the temptation to highlight gaping wounds and the visceral impact of state-sanctioned violence, particularly when a story is framed in the Philippine setting where the immense power of extractive industry capital is on display as it merges with official thuggery. But resist the creators did; Malakunas and team have provided a documentary we must all simply watch. What exactly your nationality is will not matter. The film is focused on developments in a specific location in Palawan – not even the entire province – but its implications leap over physical boundaries and national borders, trespassing into a realm that, fortunately, still binds so many of us today – an environment where everything on which our fate tenuously rests is tied together, teetering and on the brink of collapse.

DELIKADO captures the country's predicament: a paradise of plenty, a place of grace -- Palawan -- dismembered and cannibalized by billionaire hooligans who have weaponized poverty and desperation.

The film is powerful and heartbreaking. It can make your heart sink several times, but it might also give you hope mainly through its unfiltered portrayal of Christ-like figures who'd probably recoil at efforts to extol their heroic virtues, which they’d likely consider normal expressions of citizenship.

DELIKADO captures the naked brutality of Philippine politics without requiring gore, and where violence is involved, only enough is implied for the viewer to make connections - not just simplistically with the armed forces but with the country's politics as well.

DELIKADO tells the story of non-government forest defenders who’ve taken up the role of protecting the country’s last vestiges of paradise – a role government seems to have abdicated in Palawan, whether by neglect (to this day official forest rangers receive such a dismal share of budgetary support) or through cooptation by private interests.

The struggle shown in the film is almost biblical in its framing – David and Goliath, a tiny ragtag group of individuals confiscating chainsaws and attempting to bring to a halt the destruction of one of the country’s last remaining pristine forests under the banner of a perennially under-funded, rickety NGO versus the well-oiled and well-armed machinery of loggers, poachers, and miners. It is a story of murder and betrayal, of unrelenting hope and incredible grit and stubbornness of a handful of Filipinos determined to protect nature and whose lives are deeply and forever altered by their advocacy.

It is hard to create a film where the story of clashing forces hew so closely to the point of cliché. Yet it is the aesthetics of the film that carries through the story, because it did not allow itself to be distracted by the all-too-easy-to-paint picture of villainy and because it focused instead on the deadly calling answered by a handful of common folk. Arzaga, Nieves, Chan, Badalles – and more; remember their names.

There is so much texture in the film of Malakunas the viewer can almost feel the callouses, the mud, the insect bites and the thousands leaf cuts on faces, arms and legs. Throughout DELIKADO the camera is trained constantly on eyes – all sorts of eyes. Bloodshot, anxious, sad, defiant, angry, hopeful, frightened, along with the incessant display – almost like a regular glance, at the unguarded and lighthearted gaze peering at far away things that feel freed of whatever the next day might bring. There’s also the dead eyes of a killer who became the country’s head, the lifeless eyes of businessmen profiting from suffering and destruction, and the cloudy eyes of local minions eager to do the bidding of their masters. The film shows how the raging drug war in the Philippines has been used as a tool for politicians to fill already massive private coffers and to consolidate political power.

Malakunas and team succeeded in avoiding the maudlin, which is impressive considering how tragic the struggle to protect the country’s environment has been, where campaigns often carry the burden of potential catastrophe. In well-timed moments the film provides elusive grace, not through ritual or human gestures but through glimpses of what we are losing - flights of birds, vulnerable canopies, great trees. 

The film’s pacing also made the story feel seamless, which is a feat in itself. It's not often one can get through video beyond five minutes nowadays, but the camera work and the editing made the story personal. Again, likely, because of the film’s focus on eyes. 

If there's one criticism I’d have of the film it's the proliferation of scenes and audio of rallies towards the end, where words like "imperialist tyranny" distract if not subtract from the core strength of the story as it winds down, because the conclusions offered by slogans is just all too easy, and from experience its deployment abbreviates conversation instead of expanding the space for insights.

DELIKADO projects simplicity, and it shows acts of love those fighting with supposedly larger stakes in the global arena – the climate crisis is a good example -- often forget or diminish or avoid, because maybe the pain is too great at ground level, where the pus generated by rapacious greed is close enough to smell. 

Making this film would have required Malakunas and colleagues several times to shut down the very senses that would make most of us tremble with rage. It is hard to imagine how this documentary could have been put together over a few years, given the way it documents the immense losses suffered by the land’s defenders.

In a few months, the film will come to the country’s shores and many will have the chance to view it. It will be bracing for those who get to watch it, and one hopes the viewers will reach the same conclusion DELIKADO’s creators arrived at: the story is far from over, and how it ends will ultimately depend on us and what we’re prepared to do to protect that which sustains us and gives us life and meaning.

Malakunas is currently the Asia-Pacific Deputy Editor in Chief for Agence France Presse based in Hong Kong. He is also a Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program Fellow and a recipient of the SFFILM Vulcan Productions Environmental Fellowship. DELIKADO is his first feature film.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.