I’d watched this film numerous times, for a couple of undergrad Ethnic Studies courses at UC Berkeley, and at the PFA back in 1996. Perhaps there was one more viewing in there, also in the mid-1990′s, for I recall Fuentes coming and speaking, either for a Filipino American student org, or at the invitation of Oscar Campomanes, who was one of our very few Filipino American professors at UCB at the time.
I recall having a few conversations with various community members about Bontoc Eulogy. There was apparent confusion about this film, which many perceived as a non-fiction documentary, in which the film’s protagonist was believed to be the filmmaker Fuentes himself. Fuentes acted the part of the on screen narrator, the “I,” though surely this is not uncommon, the filmmaker also taking on an acting role in his own films.
The “I” begins with his American born Filipino children, who will never know a home other than this American home. As an immigrant, home for him is a little more complicated. He deploys the Jose Rizal quote: “Ang hindi lumingon sa pinaggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.” And this is the segue into his the exploration of ancestry and homeland.
He then tells us about his two grandfathers. The first is Emiliano, a Philippine soldier who fought in the Spanish American War and the Philippine American War. In other words, he was a freedom fighter against Western invaders. Emiliano presumably dies in battle, and his body is never recovered. The “I” speculates that Emiliano was buried in one of the many mass graves.
The second grandfather is Markod, a Bontoc Igorot tribesman from the highlands. He eventually leaves the mountain with a number of fellow tribe members, to become part of the living display/exhibit, the Philippine Reservation, at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The film is centered upon the World’s Fair, and Markod’s experiences there. We see historical film footage spliced with material Fuentes has filmed. An actor plays the part of Markod, donned in traditional Igorot costume, bahag, headdress, necklace of boars’ teeth.
We see Markod speaking into a recording device which resembles a phonograph, as a fuzzy voice over sounds as though it is the original language of Markod’s testimony which the “I” translates for us into English. This recorded testimony is evidence and artifact. We see the “I” sitting in the place of Markod, hearing the words spoken nearly a century previous. We see Markod now standing in the place of the slowly spinning record. You see, he is as much the artifact as the record which contains his testimony.
The narrator goes on to tell us the story of Markod’s captivity, what human and animal oddities he saw at the fair, knowing he, his tribe, and the many other Philippine tribes exhibited were, to the American viewers who were fair attendees, human oddities. These were the spoils of wars in both exotic and familiar places (the defeated Apache Geronimo was displayed here as well), and of subsequent American empire building. This fair was the introduction of the Filipino, new subjects of American empire, to the American people.
As viewers of the film, do we accept the actuality and authenticity of Markod’s testimony? In other words, do we accept that there is a document which provides the grandson (and us) with the details of his grandfather Markod’s thoughts as he witnessed the foreignness of the other tribes, heard the languages he did not recognize much less understand. He speaks of the Negrito tribesmen’s skill with the bow and arrow, and the contempt he felt for the Philippine Constabulary, whose role it was to police the tribes’ interactions, other Filipinos so different from himself and his people.
To me, the point of the above testimony is the absence of testimony from the individuals who did not survive, and whose bodies did not return to their families. As well, we hear that “Filipinos” existed in a non-unified state, and even that the “Philippine” people are really a Western creation.
The “I” continues narrating the story of Markod to his mysterious end. Like Emiliano, his body is also never recovered. We can understand these unrecovered ancestors’ bodies as our history which we need to recover.
As a discerning viewer, I think there was no way for us to know the actual things a specific tribesman displayed at the fair would have actually thought, unless he has lived to tell his people and his descendants about it. We can also imagine the experience as jarring, disorienting, offensive, invasive, intrusive. I am skeptical that such a recording of Markod’s voice exists. And I am skeptical that a man named Markod actually existed, lived, experienced, witnessed, and provided testimony. Backing up a bit, even the first grandfather Emiliano is a bit fictive. That the filmmaker could literally be the descendant of both a freedom fighter against the Spanish and the Americans, and an Bontoc Igorot tribesman displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and that both bodies were never recovered, is such a unlikelihood. Not an impossibility, but largely unlikely.
This is by no means a negative criticism of the film. Rather, I think of those who’d chosen to understand this film as autobiographical non-fiction, or who’d chosen to view/read the film literally, and came to criticize Fuentes for appropriating ancestries and cultures not his own (i.e., a Manila lowlander appropriating Igorot/mountain tribal cultures), and for lying about his family history.
An educator has told me that when speaking on this film, the moment he discusses its being fiction, students and viewers express their disappointment. But consider that the end credits provide us with the disclaimer that while the narrative is based upon actual events (i.e. the existence of the Philippine Reservation at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair), any similarity to actual persons is coincidental or not intentional. Consider the list of actors in the film’s credits; the children in the film are not Fuentes’s own. Bontoc Eulogy is a very convincing work of art.
As a poet, I think immediately that we are treading in the figurative, however tempting it may be to read this as autobiography (though I still do not know why it is so tempting to do this). I view this film as metaphorical exploration of Rizal’s quote. The composite characters of Emiliano and Markod are our ancestors, and this is who we are as Filipino Americans: descendants of freedom fighters/defenders of the homeland, and bodies and objects on display for Western viewing pleasure. Thinking on the scenes of the “I” walking through museums of natural history, surrounded by skeletons, cross sections of human heads, jarred fetuses, pickled human feet with splayed tree climbing toes, I think the very point of this film is to be jarred out of complacency, to think of these human remains as a living human being’s human ancestors.
I will end with this, from the write-up at the Center for Social Media:
Bontoc Eulogy is an example of mock documentary, or “mockumentary,” constructed by adroitly mixing historical data from the Library of Congress and the National Archives, old photos, 90- year-old archival footage, and seamless recreations. Fuentes borrows the framework of actual historical events and fills it in with fictional details. Thus, he weaves the story of the missing Markod with his own reflections on the fate of his ancestors and his present plagued with memory lapses. As Gary Dauphin said in the Village Voice, “The film’s main gamble is not in the faux-biographical details it offers but in its use of the same newsreel footage that the colonizers once used to create the bogus category of the Anative. The images are heavily aestheticized through the use of repetition and slow motion. Thus, the questioning is directed not only toward the anthropological gaze creating the Other but also toward the filmmaker himself who has to use this same gaze as a starting point.”