America has ‘liberated’ the islands, and the Philippines has just been proclaimed a new republic.
Every morning, at the crack of dawn, Father and Mother stretch Julio, pulling his limbs in opposite directions. He is made to drink a concoction made from the liver of codfish, believed to stimulate growth in children. He stands in the blazing heat of the sun.
The family swells in size to six children. Father hunts for food while Mother tends to domestic duties, leaving Julio and his siblings alone, exposed to their lush natural environs. Soon enough, the youngest two are taken away and distributed amongst the two aunts without offspring of their own.
Big Boy chronicles the growth of a family, the myths of progress that consume them, and the violence not just in war and colonization but also that which is inherent in coming into being—-for a boy, a man, and a nation.
——————————————————————— Philippines - 2012 - 89 min - Super 8 - color ———————————————————————
Big Boy is about a boy whose parents believe the taller he is, the better off he will be. Set in 1950s Mindoro, Philippines, the film depicts the boy’s transformation into the poster boy for his parent’s home-based business. The film is an experimental portrait of a family amidst change — an experience that will engage audiences in something strange but familiar.
Philippines / 2012 / 89 min / Super 8 / color
International Premiere, Bright Future section, International Film Festival Rotterdam 2013
History Written in Bodies Richard Porter on Big Boy in de Filmkrant part of the Slow Criticism Project
Big Boy 2012, Philippines, Dir. Shireen Seno
Richard Porton checks in from New Jersey and took a film trip to The Philippines in Shireen Seno’s debut film Big Boy, shot audaciously in Super-8, resembling a fever dream slyly generated by a home movie aesthetic.
How does a filmmaker tackle history without indulging in the banalities (and one-dimensional view of the past) that often plague Hollywood blockbusters such as Lincoln? One possible antidote to fatuous historiography (and hagiography) is suggested by Shireen Seno’s debut feature, Big Boy. While documenting a specific moment in the history of The Philippines – a period after World War II when American economic hegemony became solidified despite the country no longer being an official American colony – Seno’s film veers away from the macrocosmic generalities beloved by commercial filmmakers and filters history through the microcosmic prism of a family struggling to survive in the tumultuous postwar era.
For Seno, history is literally written on bodies – in particular the body of a Julio, a young boy living on the island of Mindoro in the wake of what the press book sardonically labels the Americans’ decision to ‘liberate’ The Philippines. Julio’s parents, as clueless as they are inadvertently cruel, stretch his body mercilessly and ply him with a locally made growth serum. They apparently associate a tall, strapping boy with healthy, American-style virility. It seems that a ‘big boy’, even if his growth is the product of blithe sadism, is more likely to compete with, and surpass, his peers. The IFFR catalogue labels this perverse optimism an investment in the “American Dream.” That’s a perfectly valid assumption; it’s also possible to claim that this familial obsession with Julio’s size is Seno’s way of encapsulating the identity of a nation at a crucial juncture in its history – or, to put it another way, to meditate on what Benedict Anderson, a historian with a longstanding interest in Filipino nationalism, terms an “imagined community.” Bombarded with American products parachuted into Mindoro, this family, desperate and foraging for food, become flesh and blood embodiments of the wages of imperialism.
Formally precise as well as ideologically potent, Big Boy, shot audaciously in Super-8, resembles a fever dream slyly generated by a home movie aesthetic. Leisurely long takes differentiate the dreary world of adults from the more carefree pursuits of the younger protagonists. Yet, even though the children frolic in the countryside, Seno’s grim vision is far from pastoral. The social tensions tearing apart the islands eventually rupture the film’s family unit. And despite the emphasis on ‘Americanization’, the family Big Boy depicts is far from ‘nuclear’.
In his 2010 monograph, Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema, José B. Capinomaintains that ‘Filipino films made after the end of U.S. colonialism in 1946’ appropriate fantasies of American life in order to advance ‘the projects of decolonization and globalization (…) fantasies have articulated empire and mobilized against it (…) posed challenges to the alibis of patriarchy and nationalism, and opened up paths for Filipino participation in global culture.’ While many of the films Capino discusses are genre pieces – low-budget horror films and melodramas – his observations apply equally to art cinema. At a juncture when ‘Philippine Cinema’ is now an important commodity on the festival circuit, the yearning to open ‘up paths for Filipino participation in global culture’ is more tangible than ever.
Big Boy (2011) D: Shireen Seno S: John Lloyd Evangelista Julio, Michael Ian Lomongo, Pam Miras
Big Boy is a suitcase of memories, a water tank of images and sound that floats and floods our consciousness triggered by sigils. As flickering as they may seem, these images wait in our heads, swirling, cascading. A train of pearls, cabin by cabin. We insist in cocooning into these vespers of our own triumphs, engaging in little details that stretch into segments of our lifelong struggle to establish our identities.
But time, partnered with our own recollections can be tricky. Voices become disembodied, faces are worn down, parcels are fabricated, patched, in an attempt to prevent dissolve. They wear us up, we wear them down. Shireen Seno uses a bevy of devices to depict the slow show of memory: asynchronous dialogue, a rain of random images, vague dream-like sequences with Lynchian sharpness (dotted by balls of torch-fires, a burning emblem of bookmarks). The use of Super 8 only reinforces the unreliability of memory. Images become fuzzy as we go along, the sides are eaten by the decay of time but the core is still there, beating, brewing.
Childhood goes on forever, Big Boy insists. And we believe. We are trapped in the rituals of growing up: afternoon naps, fights inspired by komiks gangs, swallowing bitter concoctions, losing friends, the thrill of discovery and the threat of the real world. A blueprint of pleasures. And like the pared-down demo version of The Strangeness’s ”Cain Was Furious and He was Downcast,” Big Boy is a long sigh from an afternoon of recollection. The rocking chair sways and we listen to a cadence of words, forming images to go along with it.
I read that Big Boy was the result of your trying to recreate “a memory of a memory.” Tell us something about that.
Big Boy is loosely based on stories from my father about growing up in Mindoro in the 1950s, which he told me while I was growing up in Japan. While writing a script of sorts for the film, I asked my father to retell those stories. Funny enough, his recollections ended up different from the way I envisioned them all these years.
I realized the film didn’t have to be one way or the other. It could be fragile and fickle, like memory itself. Sometimes I’m not sure if I remember something from experience or from seeing a photograph or a film of that moment. We also talked to other people from Mindoro about their experiences there. The film is as much ours as it is theirs.
Out of all the memories you could choose from, why pick that one?
When I was in high school, my family started living apart, the five of us in three countries. You come to appreciate family much more after you’ve lived on your own, apart from them. I thought a lot about them, about our individual and shared experiences. I guess these particular memories just stuck with me, and I needed to deal with them, to demystify them.
Why call your film Big Boy?
It actually used to be called Tall Tales. I wanted to look at the idea of growth and success; the obsession with outward appearance; images and their proliferation and power; the Philippines, with an image prescribed for it, first as an object and then as a market. As a Filipina who grew up mostly outside the country, I’ve struggled with my identity and my relationship with the Philippines. I tended to get caught up with my own image, how I appeared to others, instead of accepting myself and opening myself up to others. Going back to the title, Big Boy just seemed more personable.
You have a set of shorts under your belt. What made you decide to try making a full-length film?
To get these scenes out of my head! Seriously, I think this helped me let go of these stories and fantasies, to come to terms with them. I’ve realized now that making a film, or anything at all, for that matter, has to balance discipline and rigor with openness and humor to what comes your way.
Why shoot it on Super 8?
Super 8 has an intimacy unlike other formats. The film itself is very small, literally 8mm, so the projected images are really grainy, but that gives them a very visceral effect, kind of like recalling memories. It was harder than we thought, though. Each roll of Super 8 is only two and a half minutes, so you can’t shoot a take any longer than that. We had more than a hundred rolls! We also had trouble with sound, because the camera itself was just so loud. But separating sound from the image opens up a lot of possibilities.
You collaborated with other notable directors, including Pam Miras and, of course, John Torres, on this film. How was it working with them?
Oh gosh, they really brought so much to the film. They would all tease me about making it so hard for everyone—a period film, with kids, on Super 8—but would then reassure me that everything would be okay. One thing I found jarring was shooting the scenes out of order, on account of scheduling conflicts and the weather.
Pam was great with the kids and really made it easier for us just knowing what to expect, having directed and produced her own films. Gym [Lumbera] lit the film beautifully using only available or minimal lighting, not to mention lightening our moods. Both he and John provided their own crazy ideas, making me see things in different ways, while John always reminded me of the bigger picture, making sure I didn’t take all day on one scene. These guys, and the whole crew, made everything come together.
How about working with the kids?
The kids are all non-actors from the towns where we shot. I actually didn’t want them to be so conscious about acting. I thought it was more important that they had a connection with the place. I got to admit it was pretty difficult, too, but having less dialogue and more atmosphere made it work. I have a soft spot for the moments when the kids were caught off guard, unscripted—being kids, having fun.
At the same time, it was a relief to have Ian [Lomongo] with us. He was the only one with acting experience and helped especially with John Lloyd, who plays the main role, get inside the character of Julio, rather than just memorize his lines.
Having completed your first full-length project, do you think you’ll be making more?
I hope so. I had a vague but interesting dream a while ago… I can’t say what it was, but I think I may be onto something. [Laughs]
Wild Grass Light & Space Contemporary 17 November 2012 - 23 January 2013
Shireen Seno is still taking us places in Wild Grass. In her second solo exhibition, she surfaces into color photographs taken from 2009 to 2012. Not entirely rooted on a series of flora growing in the desert, the exhibition deals with wild grass in the context of the everyday incongruous, the photography’s perplexity that surrounds the process of capturing an image, and the photo as wild grass betwixt life&death and clarity&obscurity.
Wild Grass takes on Seno’s tendency to settle with a component of nature and its abstracting characteristic, easing the tensions that are the quiet overgrowths over the series. Shireen Seno’s solo show continues to allow the physical experience of being confronted with varied-sized images of different formats and themes, as well as the act of maneuvering around video installations.
Photographs, from the top (click to zoom):
Here Lies Bulaklak ka ba Family Reunion Damong Ligaw (Lost Grass) Fireweed Starweed Fuzzyweed Prickly Heat Boys Girls Twin Shadows