'A Divergent War' review: Filipino artists perform the political pathologies of our viral times

Oscar Tantoco Serquiña, Jr.

Posted at Jan 23 2021 02:34 PM

How are Filipinos chronicling the social histories of their nation at a time of a global pandemic? Considering their country’s compromised government and its delicate physical and socio-political environment, which both render a contagion even more difficult to manage, it is tempting for Filipinos to just stay still and mindlessly watch things pass them by.

In navigating these tumultuous times, however, Filipino artists have exemplified persistence, wisdom, and imagination as they forge new grounds for their creative expression and resistive practice. Wherever they find themselves in lockdown across the world, Filipino artists have conscientiously resorted to the internet, a capacious space of copious possibilities, to make sense of a highly volatile national climate and, even more importantly, communicate their dissent. Meme culture parodying government leaders, for instance, flourishes on Twitter. Rallies against all forms of repression now stream via Facebook Live. Focused group discussions and virtual conferences about the burning issues of the day happen through Zoom. And protest performances assume the form of a TikTok video.

Artists utilize digital platforms not only to pursue their established and emergent artistic collaborations but also sustain their local and international solidarities. Various individuals and institutions maximize the internet as an accessible, manageable, and affordable depository for their manifold archival resources. Though the revolution cannot be televised or digitized, as a well cited assertion among revolutionaries insists, our beleaguered and quarantined existence in the 21st century is increasingly revealing to all of us that it can nevertheless be brainstormed and rehearsed online.

The artistic team behind “A Divergent War: Songs for the Pandemic” takes proper advantage of the internet’s affordances. Their poetry and music compose a political work that performs the embodied experiences of Filipino workers wrestling with the Philippine government’s enhanced community quarantine (ECQ). This governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the makers of "A Divergent War," is a draconian measure that “disproportionately affects the poor while giving the military more power to suppress all forms of dissent.”

Five original songs in Filipino, with English subtitles, comprise this musical outing. With Filipino poet Joi Barrios as lyricist and songwriter Fabian Obispo as music composer, these songs include “Awit ng Maralita” (Song of Poverty), “Awit ng Paglilinis at Pagdidistansya” (Song of Cleansing and Distancing), “Awit ng Pagtanaw sa Bukas” (Song of Tomorrow), “Awit ng Pag-ibig” (Song of Longing), and “Awit ng Hinagpis at Galit” (Song of Resistance). Joshua Cabiladas, Chat Aban and Pendong Jr., Rafa Siguion-Reyna, Arman Ferrer, and Monique Wilson interpreted these tracks, respectively. Several visual artists, animators, video editors, music directors, and sound masters likewise lent their talents, albeit remotely, to accord persuasive force to these productions, which are readily available for free digital consumption via the website of the New York-based Ma-Yi Studios.

"A Divergent War" brings to light how intertwined pathological and political wars impact penurious families, daily-wage earners, and frontliners of all sorts on a daily basis. Held hostage by one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, the Filipino people agonize over their job insecurity, financial instability, physical vulnerability, and the other social disorders that threaten their everyday lives.

The musical production also shows images of the detained protesters, slain activists, and so-called “enemies of the state” under the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte’s government brazenly bares its intolerance to growing calls for transparency and accountability. It also remains contemptuous and cruel to all of its critics. “Awit ng Pag-ibig” foregrounds the fact that under a pandemic that continues to rage on without abatement, the harrowing consequences of political arrest and imprisonment for dissenting figures and their families have become more excruciating.
A tyrannical response to the pandemic always rests on an ideology of inequality. Duterte’s punitive policies disadvantage all the more those who have less or nothing in life. Stripped of their regular sources of livelihood and income, the needy tend to sidestep the law for survival. Without a consistent stream of assistance from the government, they are pressed to fend for themselves against all odds. As “Awit ng Maralita” pressingly asks: “Saan ako maghahanap ng pagkain sa tag-salat?” “Saan ako maghahanap ng pag-asa sa tag-hirap?”

“Awit ng Paglilinis at Pagdidistansya” underlines the unfairness of Duterte’s instructions of social distancing, mask-wearing, and frequent hand-washing. These measures, as Ma-Yi Studio’s annotation of the song throws into high relief, are not always “easy to follow, especially in poor, overcrowded communities denied basic commodities like food, water, and shelter.” Unlike the rich who may opt to stay at home and bank on their wealth reserves and other safety nets, the poor have no other recourse but to expose themselves outdoors and contend with a daily war not only against illness but most especially hunger.

Other than being the most constrained and vulnerable sector in Philippine society, the poor are also the most reviled and punished in this period of forced detention, immobility, and paralysis. More than anyone else, they have born — and continue to bear — the heaviest brunt of Duterte’s politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic. The President’s militarist mentalities and mechanisms, in particular, have been most unforgiving toward the underprivileged. “Awit ng Maralita” rightly reports: “Kapag dukha ang lumabag, anong higpit nitong batas. Dakip agad, kulong tiyak. Walang lusot ang mahihirap.”

Despite these grim truths, the creators of "A Divergent War" do not languish in hopelessness and despair. For them, while the pandemic is a prolonged period of violence, abuse, and uncertainty, it is likewise an opportunity for Filipinos to manifest their collective determination and realize their overall aspiration for a better nation. Thus, its message is clear: to reject all forms of anti-democratic policies that the government has put in place during the pandemic. All five songs echo clarion calls against extrajudicial killings, systematic corruption, and widespread militarization, all of which characterize Duterte’s despotic administration. “Awit ng Hinagpis at Galit” accentuates the long-lasting and unfinished struggles of Filipinos against tyrants and traitors. “It is the people’s resistance,” reads this song’s online caption, “that has undone every regime that tyrannized the country. It will do so, again.”

Though COVID-19 has rendered the Filipino people’s personal and shared futures uncertain, "A Divergent War" reminds its listeners of their “power to bring greater clarity for what lies ahead.” The untiring will to labor and live for a freer future is at the core of every song’s persuasion. “Ngayon, kay raming sigwa, kay tindi ng unos. Susuko na ba? Tuluyang malulunod?” asks the third installation of the series. "A Divergent War" proposes answers that rest on unquenchable hope, undying vigilance, and an unbeatable resolve to fight for what is right.

“Awit ng Pagtanaw sa Bukas” envisions emancipation from oppression not as a flight of fantasy but rather as an achievement of humanity’s capacity to take an active role in controlling and shaping its destiny (“Kung nais mong lumagpas sa hapis, mangarap ka kahit labis-labis.”). “Awit ng Pag-ibig” highlights the potency of love in firing up and giving ballast to private and public struggles (“Kung sakaling di palaring minsan pang magkaniig ay baunin at itago lagi sa iyong dibdib ang pagkaibig kong nagnais. Araw man ng pighati ay maghatid ng isang saglit, sanlaksang bahaghari.”). Lastly, “Awit ng Hinagpis at Galit” clarifies the lines of critical action for a whole nation struggling in the here and now: “Mangusap ka, Bayan. Dapat mong ihayag ‘di ka papayag sa gawaing palasak. Sa baba, sa taas, iba-ibang batas. Hindi lang sakit, salot na kaharap. Lumaban ka, Bayan, kahit nagluluksa. Ngayon ay kaharap kakaibang digma.”

"A Divergent War" unflinchingly calls for a suitable and systematic government policy for a generation-defining pandemic. Without such policy in place, the songs suggest, progress for the Philippine nation will remain elusive, if not totally improbable. The aspiration for humane and just governance is likewise at the center of this at once poetic and melodic offering. Instead of imposing severe fines and other punishments, installing barriers and checkpoints, deploying armed men in uniform, muzzling dissenters, and compelling cities across the country to grind to a temporary but devastating halt, the government must genuinely care for the welfare of the Filipino people, not least the poorest of citizens, and responsibly attend to their basic needs.

As long as this is not yet met, artists shall continue to respond to the urgencies of this viral and virulent time. Their poems, songs, artworks, and performances will tirelessly record the suffering and strife of this period. As the team behind "A Divergent War" demonstrates, artists will carry on in providing a nation embroiled in a protracted crisis with some sense of order, courage, and vision even and especially in instances where there seems to be none.

Related video:

Watch more in iWantTFC