Mr. Marcos’ deployment of the term “unity” perfectly captures what populism expert Ernesto Laclau described as an “empty signifier”: A deliberately vague yet emotionally resonant term, which can mean different things to different people, thus potentially producing a singular shock to any democratic system.
After a decade of extreme political polarization—at least by the standards of the Philippines’ ideology-shy politics—majority of voters opted to support Mr. Marcos’ calls for “unity,” even if no one, including its chief advocate, really knew what this entailed in policy and practice.
In fairness, the new president has tried to project a unifying leadership by systematically shunning controversial, divisive issues in his major addresses in his first month in office. For instance, Mr. Marcos rarely discussed his predecessor’s deadly drug war and federalism advocacy. Nor did the namesake son of the former Filipino strongman discuss issues such as human rights, democracy, and corruption in either his inauguration speech or first State of the Nation Address.
And this brings us to the two most politically charged Filipino movies in recent history. “Katips” and “Maid in Malacañang” reflect the depth of what philosopher Jacques Rancière described as “dissensus” in our society: Deepening political faultlines, which have made consensus-building based on objective facts and even our shared history close to impossible.
The Imee Marcos-backed “Maid in Malacañang” provides a unique window into a deracinated dynasty’s final days in power. Mixing comedic relief with an impending sense of doom, the movie reflects the torrent of fears, denialism, and paranoia, which gripped a once hegemonic family now on the verge of losing everything they enjoyed after two long decades in power.
With its unabashed flaunting of the untold wealth and unearned privileges of the pseudo-royalè family, and blatant demonization of regime defectors and revolutionary activists, it eerily resembles pro-czarist accounts of the last days of the Romanov dynasty.
The movie provides an interesting account of how the Marcoses rationalized their grip on power, dismissing their critics as nothing but a coterie of envious and resentful elitists (“elitista”). In a bizarre flight of fancy, their downfall is spun as the upshot of a brutal dictator’s supposed benevolence—his unwillingness to unleash violence on protesters.
What is blatantly missing in the movie, however, is not only historical accuracy, which few serious minds expected, but also total contextual omission: There is absolutely no effort whatsoever to explain why top regime insiders, as well as millions of Filipinos, had had enough of the Marcoses by the mid-1980s, though any sound mind knows the evils of dictatorship. So much for promoting “unity”!
As for Vincent Tañada’s “Katips,” it’s one of the most courageous cinematic works in recent Philippine history. Rather than rehashing the standard liberal-centrist narratives on the former Filipino strongman, the movie provides a rare window into the lives of progressive activists bearing the brunt of the brutal regime.
In an era of widespread Red-tagging, “Katips” represents an unprecedented attempt to humanize political activism—if not inspire pathos for righteous rebellion. How I wish, however, that transitions from one subplot to the other were more seamless; think of, for instance, Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, “The Parasite” (2019), which heavily draws on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s comedy-horror-tragedy arc of narration.
Tañada’s movie, running for 142 minutes, could have also benefited from more “origin story” elements, since barely more than one of the characters’ backgrounds, especially the decision to embrace political activism, is fully explored. Nevertheless, “Katips” should be commended for its unprecedented effort to familiarize the mainstream audience with the progressive “lifeworld.”
While “Maid in Malacañang” willfully demonizes and distorts the legacy of the yellow ribbon movement, Tañada’s “Katips” barely mentions it. What’s clearly missing, therefore, is a fresh and compelling narrative, which places the legacy of Ninoy Aquino and his heirs into proper historical perspective.
As in Soviet Russia, the Philippines is a country where even the past is now unpredictable. And thus, “tsismis” (gossip) is challenging proper history, and desecrating the memory of the victims of martial law, like never before.