By Eleonora Mignoli
Dir. Brillante Mendoza
Slingshot (original title Tirador, 2007) is one of those movies where the camera never stops. Directed by filmmaker Brillante Mendoza, winner of the Best Director Award at Cannes for his Kinatay (2009), Slingshot is set in the director’s motherland capital: Manila. The film opens with a police raid in a shanty town in Quiapo, which hosts one of the poorest slums in the Philippines. We are soon thrown into a documentary-style recollection of the lives and deaths of Quiapo’s residents during the Catholic Feast of the Black Nazarene, held every January. The cameras are hidden, the streets narrow, the noise perpetual and everything is washed in a monochromatic sepia hue, the colour of mud.
Slingshot makes an amazing job of bringing its story to life. Even though it’s a work of fiction, it looks real and it feels real. The scripted actions blend seamlessly with the background of the real Festival. As we skip from one character to the other, the impression is to witness the dissection of a strange animal, the place itself. In its vein-like alleys, thieves, prostitutes and drug addicts move incessantly and we can almost hear the sound of a beating heart. Small things create big commotions, like the constant yet useless police raids (“What? Another raid? Can’t you see we’re fucking?”) or the loss of a fake pair of teeth, while mortality and sickness are faced with a matter-of-fact attitude. The festivity hype adds to expectations and delusions, and politics and religion make more than a guest appearance in this life like portrait of existence at the margins. The petty crimes of Quiapo’s inhabitants are then contextualized in the framework of a corrupt society where the saints are the only reliable authority left to the people.
Mendoza’s most impressing feat, the utterly convincing documentary style, has stirred some critics towards Slingshot. There’s nothing at fault with the style itself: while it might be a little bit too much for fans of Wes Anderson aesthetics, it is functional in its depiction of the struggles of human beings living in a state of extreme poverty. The point is Mendoza’s implicit appropriation of the discourse about Quiapo’s inhabitants’ state of indigence. Shifting his perspective from an authorial point of view to an impersonal and objective gaze over the life of Rex , Caloy, Leo, Odie and many others, Slingshot’s director signs a declaration of authenticity over a world made of nudity, cruelty, poverty and despair with no safe haven in sight. Even in the final moments of the film, where the slum dwellers find a spark of hope in the Festival’s prayers and the politician’s promises, the potential of a better future is spoiled by an act of thievery as a man pickpockets an unwary target.
This critique, however, has a short reach. The debate over cinema’s ability to represent reality is as old as the silver screen itself and ultimately the medium, even when unaltered by cuts and directorial bidding like live-feed webcam, is bound to present only one take on reality, therefore remaining nothing more than a perspective.
In Slingshot’s case what’s important is that it’s a powerful, opinionated look on life in Manila’s slums that will not leave us unaffected. Whether we embrace the critique or not, the question it raises about the existence of places where people have resigned to a degraded existence remains standing strong.
You can watch both Slingshot over at FilmDoo now (UK & Ireland only).