El Barro de la Revolución- The earth of the Revolution

2019

Video HD- 120’8”

What social conditions give rise to political change?

This question propelled my immersion in the revolutionary movement in the Philippines, the oldest and most consolidated struggle for democratic sociopolitical transformation in the world. The work, coexistence, and filmic inquiry I undertook in a guerrilla front were the culmination of three years of research and reflection as I engaged in the political struggles of this country.

For the last five decades, the initiatives directed by communist communities in the Philippines have been neglected, censored, and often violently repressed due to their willfulness to implement alternate sociopolitical and cultural modes of existence and their struggle to protect their ancestral lands. These communities are well established in the poorer and more remote parts of the country, where they actively strive for emancipation, the common good, and democratic transformation. The bonds I forged within these communities and my subsequent commitment and solidarity with their struggle facilitated my later integration in a guerrilla unit.

My lack of on-the-ground combat abilities, my ceaseless interrogations and probing, and my desire to understand did not prove to be an obstacle to my integration in the dynamic of military discipline. I was taken in as if I were any other combatant arriving at a clandestine camp. However, my gaze was that of a European, educated in a society where emancipatory armed struggles are snubbed as a thing of the past, and my questions were not prompted by the revolutionary horizons that inspire Red fighters but arose from a context of devastation and withering away of the “left” in the Western world.

My experience in the eye of the hurricane of the Philippine conflict gave rise to a series of concerns that transcend communist paradigms and class struggle, inquiring into the struggles that create a meaningful communal life.

This project, which now materializes both as a film and in the present publication, treads a path—a journey by way of that previous journey—towards the understanding of what might truly be a revolutionary feat in our times.

When the analytical is not decisive

The correlation between the production of scientific knowledge and imperialist and colonialist expansion has marked my explorations for years. What power relations of subjugation and exploitation have sown the ground in which knowledge and scholarly disciplines have bloomed? Numerous researchers have studied how these forms of knowledge, which laid the foundation of our worldviews and continue to uphold them, have given shape to today’s sociopolitical fabric, unveiling the forms of violence that underlie the production of Western knowledge. The proliferation and assertion of such a self-critical consciousness, though essential, has also led to an excessive refolding of the gaze, generating certain deadlocks and, in some extreme cases, swaying us to empty the bathtub with the baby inside it.

My interests progressively shifted when I struggled to approach other forms of knowledge production, as I sensed that this “bad conscience” was curbing our ability to confront contemporary times more proactively, more vitally and creatively. Thus, I began to take more interest in present-day conflicts. I was particularly driven to understand how these are contested and the battlegrounds where humanely progressive knowledge may spring.

The relationship between art and politics is another question that redefined the focus of my work, encouraging me to explore alternative forms of collaboration and different political scenarios. From my point of view, the so-called “political art”—if such a conjunction is possible—ought to be related to political practice. But art in the contemporary West has preponderated primordially as a solitary activity. If politics must necessarily be done in common, how can it be reconciled with art in contemporary times? Like many artists of my generation, I have not been significantly involved in political movements in Europe, among other reasons because the majority of these movements—often cynical and not infrequently defeatist—seem to have shrugged off political horizons committed to a fundamental transformation of life and society. My aspirations were thus oriented to seeking other kinds of interactions with the political, which necessarily required moving into a different political space, one that was more vigorous, battle-hardened, and demanding of the future.

When I first approached the Philippines, I intended to investigate the instruments deployed in that context to dominate and legitimize land grabbing, but my principal interest laid in the organizations combatting this exploitation. In the framework of imperialist domination, the establishment of Special Economic Zones has emerged as a predominant strategy for expropriation in Third World countries like the Philippines, generating a slew of conflicts. My initial project brought together a multidisciplinary array of thinkers and activists around a case study in order to propose sustainable solutions heeding more human forms of sociopolitical organization that could put these conflicts to rights. However, the fieldwork and the discussion groups only went as far as providing a rigorous and detailed analysis of the destructive nature of capitalism. Eventually, I concluded that analysis alone does not seem to suffice if we are to be proactive about our future. That said carrying out the proposed research for this case study required a prolonged immersion in zones of unrest. Being actively on the ground helped me understand the principles of the revolutionary movement, and working collectively with people in struggle stirred up promising ideas and challenges. Bonds and affinities were forged, strengthening my militancy and my political education as I gradually left behind academic endeavors. In other words, the Philippine Revolution made me think more clearly. It was at that stage that I found the motivation to enter this domain also as an artist. After a long time, I could finally articulate an artistic gesture that was politically meaningful for my comrades.

Unknown time of departure, unknown place of arrival

An exceptional—almost miraculous—opportunity allowed me to film in a guerrilla front for several weeks. Going underground means observing strict security protocols, as the persecution and surveillance of government intelligence agencies is everywhere. Only when the departure is imminent, one will receive scant information about a location and a schedule, and that is subject to change any minute. If the slightest risk is identified the trip will be immediately aborted, so stays are frequently brought to an abrupt end or canceled. Thus, one weighty condition hovered before any filming script or plan could be devised: film each day as if it were the last.

Upon arrival, it felt bizarre to be at the camp where I had been assigned. But this feeling did not result from entering a new social constellation. I didn’t feel like I had been introduced to an unknown universe of relations and that was precisely what felt uncanny: that the unknown could become so familiar, so homely. In revolutionary daily life, relationships take on a much more humane dimension. Social bonds and codes are positively densified as a certain ontological complicity brings comrades together. Their characters flourish with intensity.

My mission was clear from the start: I was to convey this social experience in all its plenitude as I deciphered what worldviews and thought of politics make it possible.

Remolding

Building the revolution in the Philippines means, above all, growing in common, individually, and singularly. The revolution advances to the extent that revolutionaries cultivate themselves and flourish, managing to effectively transform a common world. The work of the members of the NPA (New People’s Army), the armed branch of the Communist Party, is founded on three main pillars—arousing, organizing, and mobilizing the people—which eventually lead to people building up their organs of self-governance (“base building”), the implementation of agricultural revolution (to different degrees, depending upon the region), and armed struggle. All of these can only be achieved with a relentless will to learn and the drive to change things. Daily life in the camp is organized around educational and pedagogical projects, which are reinforced by the collective assessments that take place after every activity. Each individual is encouraged to develop her or his innate qualities and learn and improve accordingly. Some learn to read and write while others are instructed, for example, in political theory or military tactics, although there are some basic courses which all must attend. Therefore, each member of the guerrilla is assigned with tasks that are consistent with their abilities and interests. For example, those who have leadership skills will take on greater political responsibilities, as is the case with more women than men. The range of tasks is broad: one might specialize in logistics, intelligence work, medical care, agricultural techniques, political training, military tactics, sociopolitical research, emotional care… But the vertebral part of the educational project is the psychological, emotional, social, and political maturing of each person. This process is called “remolding” and consists of shedding off bourgeois and capitalist forms of socialization and worldly conceptions. Due to this, a significant part of the day is devoted to critical and self-critical collective exchanges, as well as to evaluate what fruits might bear the work done at different scales and arenas. All comrades have the same right and duty to express their ideas and a respect for the character, thoughts, and sentimental orientation of each individual is mandatory.

Another essential matter is the maintenance of a horizontal democracy within a sophisticated hierarchy of relationships and responsibilities. Rights, privileges, and liberties are equal for all, and ordinary tasks (like cooking, cleaning or keeping watch) are rotations which all take part in, without exception and irrespective of rank. Language has been remodeled, making it strictly forbidden to callously order, as well as to insult, ignore or embarrass anyone. In short, resorting to violence in any form of communication or relationship is prohibited. On the other hand, when coupled with military discipline, democratic organization tends to be restrictive. For example, sentimental and family relations are a collective concern and cannot be decided upon individually or by couples. Being part of the struggle means putting many of one’s desires and emotional needs on hold.

While life is always marked by pain and scarcity, it can still be teeming with jubilation. When life is worthy of living, one is less fearful. But, if the morale of the guerrillas may be seized by a degree of voluntarism, they will not get trapped in a utopic longing. The cruelest blow is the suffering caused by the destruction of life, military offensives, the terror of evacuated communities, poverty, disconnection from the exterior world and loved ones, death of companions, errors, conflicts, and the struggle to overcome one’s contradictions and errors. At a different level, the toughness of everyday life can also be stifling: a military discipline that curtails individual freedom, a strained physical duty, extreme living conditions, occasional loss of morale, uncertainty, the lookout…

The enemy

Destruction, exploitation, repression, and inequality mark the history and the nature of the Philippine nation, mainly inhabited by poor peasants and indigenous communities. The ongoing Philippine struggle adheres to the communist tradition and is rooted in the revolutionary liberation movements that have combatted the colonial yoke for centuries. A strenuous revolutionary force emerges from the poorest communities, which are willfully fighting to eradicate the ills that, from the revolution’s perspective, continue to ravage the country: a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society plagued with capitalist bureaucrats and relegated to a deindustrialization that forces the country to consume imported merchandise and to continuously exploit cheap labor, while the plunder of natural resources orchestrated by international corporations in alliance with the government is rampant.

Although this progressive revolutionary movement is the longest and most consolidated one that exists, it remains almost invisible to the world at large as international governments and institutions turn a blind eye to the violations inflicted against the Filipino people. Moreover, the intense militarization and state repression render the Red zones inaccessible, thus making it almost impossible to have direct contact with revolutionary communities and with it the comprehension of their principles. Fifty years of revolutionary struggle at a distance from the state, even as it remains far from overthrowing the government, have nonetheless brought about the optimal conditions to critically reflect and act upon the issue of sociopolitical organization, the main question that any victorious revolution has to confront once it takes over power.

The fighters who voluntarily make up the NPA confront challenges at every level of their existence, although some of these—like the excision between the city and the countryside, the vast extension of the Philippine territory, its insular fragmentation, and the wilderness of its forests—have facilitated the building up of self-governed communities. There are entire regions and provinces administered by the People’s Government. Moreover, the transitional nature that characterizes social structures amid a protracted struggle has safeguarded these communities from the kind of politics conceived by the powers of a state and imposed a priori. The survival and advance of the revolution both require and provoke a transformation in the individuals that join it, as well as in their relationships with their environment and with society. Thus, large swathes of remote rural regions have become a sort laboratory of life. The NPA members that are featured in my film and inquest are not only guerrilla fighters—they are industrious and active builders of a different world, born out of cooperative work. Their task is mainly pedagogical, but they also serve entire communities as doctors, teachers, researchers, artists, mediators, administrators, farmers…

This transformative process, gradually and existentially modeled as it surmounts setbacks and obstacles, is in itself a revolutionary success. Transformation through struggle, and for the advancement of the struggle, has brought forth sociopolitical change. But this only exists and can only be thought if it is always in the making.

Is it possible to film the political?

The themes of my cinematic endeavor are relationships, temperaments, worldviews, urgencies, needs, desires, and contradictions. Being attuned to these mindsets means pondering what it means to try to create a world, what bonds and commitments define relationships, how identities and singularities are formed, what internal battles afflict every individual, what sorrows and contradictions harbor the longing for a better world, what is revolutionary and what it means to be revolutionary in a given context…

My filmic approach seemed coherent to my NPA comrades. It emerged as I came to understand that their political trajectories were inexorably linked to more introspective and relational processes. The film could not convey that which is political if it did not traverse what is personal and inhabited an intimate space, be it individual or shared. The filming process unfolded as I cultivated relationships and bonds with the guerrillas with whom I was sharing a life and the film began to take a meaningful shape when it embodied a common aspiration: to assert that their lives exist, that such lives are possible, and that they are world-changing. But these life visions had to be brought into a space of reflection that would be personally compelling to the viewers. It was therefore necessary to find a communicative strategy that would allow the viewers to walk in the shoes of a guerrilla fighter, to find themselves reflected in dilemmas and values that are recognized wherever democratic aspirations exist.

Once our collective was united in the pursuit of this common goal, we realized that opening up the domain of the personal entailed filming their faces. However, doing so meant breaching dangerously the security rules of clandestine life. Even so, many guerrillas shouldered this risk without blinking an eye. This decision marked a point of no return as from then on being above ground would put the “characters” in the film at fatal risk. Therefore, the predominant close-up shots that characterize the film are a radical political gesture. In this way, every aesthetic decision became political potency and vice versa, in accord with the reciprocity we professed to each other. Trust and commitment wove a cinematic density and depth that I had not imagined happening prior to this journey. At that point, the film became possible, real, as it sprung in the manner of a collective venture. It became a polyphonic portrait, narrating the everyday life of a unit of young NPA fighters. My task was to direct but—following the habitual practice amongst Filipino revolutionaries—everyone participated in the conceptualization of the scenes.

There is no voyeurism in the film. The camera exists in synthesis with the circumstances as our comradeship was the driving force of the filmic dialogue. We were all political actors on equal footing. While there is a necessary degree of observation, what is recorded is not put at the service of the filmic apparatus, does not become an object of the analytical gaze, nor is it merely a representation. The images outpour in a sort of hypnotic trance.

Time looms as the communicative thread that structures the audiovisual narrative. The relationship with time patterns revolutionary life—from the rigidity of military tempo to the opaque indetermination of the act of waiting. The strict schedules, the routine rotation of everyday tasks, and the calendar of events contrast with a state of constant alertness in anticipation of possible bursts of violence. In between, periods of waiting swell within a confined existence thrust by a hopeful and endless drive to attain revolutionary victory. On the other hand, daily life revolves around the “decisive moment”: knowing how to calculate the precise time for an offensive, understanding the cadence of revolutionary growth, measuring the tension of the enemy, recognizing the necessary conditions for advance… The fatal blow may, at times, be lurking when a strike is victorious and occasionally both can even overlap. The will for control that crystallizes in political tactics and discipline is eroded by the contingencies of life, by global geopolitics and by the unknown.

Life on a guerrilla front is full of sacrifices, and it is never too far from death. The NPAs combat the destruction of life—in peasant communities, in fishing and indigenous communities, of the natural ecosystem, of the crops, of the ancestral cultures—so that being alive can become more than mere survival for the people. Moreover, life is constantly being questioned as guerrillas remold their relationship to both the world and themselves. Even so, the images on film, magnetized by the expressions on the fighters’ faces, radiate a peculiar sense of tranquility, of serenity and wellbeing.

The film is set in the Philippine tropical forest, although its specific geographical location cannot be revealed. The place cannot be pinpointed, because the dense and rather homogenous vegetation shields each scene. In this way, the imperatives of clandestine life affect many of the aesthetic choices. Gradually, this wilderness becomes more than a backdrop, acting as both a metaphor and a character. Like the revolution, the forest covers the entirety of the Philippine geography, even when both are welcoming with naturalness and simplicity, the complexity and depth of their ecologies do not abide by ordinary conceptions or classifications. Everything that takes place does so amid the deafening shriek of the cicadas—as persistent as the risk of attack—which tensely pierce the narration. The sound of the cicadas forces its way into the film as a soundtrack, seemingly working as a poignant testimony to all that occurs off-camera, to that sense of emergency that is paramount to the social relations of the guerrillas. In conjunction with the abrupt terrain, it also works as a protective safeguard. The forest is also an essential actor in the film, providing the basic energy for the reproduction of revolutionary production—its wood provides shelter, light, and cooking fire and its many streams quench thirst and allow for daily hygiene.

The protraction of the conflict has turned these Filipino communities into a repository of wisdom and knowledge on sociopolitical change. Transiting the singular, the common, and the universal, my work became an exploration and a reflection on these forms of knowledge, as a counterpoint to those of our globalized society.

Paloma Polo.