The Story of the Gun in Babae at Baril
Gary C. Devilles
We are familiar with the dramatic principle called Chekhov’s gun, which means that every element in a story must be necessary, and anything unnecessary should be removed. If there is a rifle hanging on the wall, it absolutely must go off. But in the film, Babae at Baril, the gun is not just a consequential element in the story, it is a character in itself that moves and animates everyone, it has a life of its own. To think of a gun as though it has agency in this story stems from a political ecology of things that philosopher Jane Bennett endorses that is also productive in making sense of the story here. Bennett believes that things have this strange ability to exceed their status as objects and manifest traces of independence or aliveness, affecting us and constituting the “outside” of our own experience. In Babae at Baril, the woman and the gun constitute and poetically mirror each other, they are both considered as objects to be manipulated, controlled and dominated. But the woman and the gun have also exceeded their status as objects in the end, they can do things, have sufficient will to make a difference, produce effects, alter the course of their own stories.
Though the film starts with an unnamed beleaguered saleslady (Janine Gutierrez), who suffers from not being promoted, the measly remittance she gives to her mom, and harassment from male coworkers, the gun evolves way back in the past in the seventies, when it was owned by a policeman, Sonny (Allan Paule), who was convinced by his colleague to take a side job to assassinate a student leader. Sonny was injured in the operation and became incapacitated. When his son Miguel (JC Santos) grew up, he became a cop also who gets involved in shady extrajudicial killing operations against drug suspects. It is in these operations that the gun accidentally goes to the suspected drug peddler and balut vendor, Jun (Elijah Canlas), who eventually throws it in the garbage and is retrieved by the saleslady the night after she was raped by her colleague (Felix Roco).
The story is deceptively simple with all the features of film noir, from cynicism, dark alleys settings, stark lighting, frequent flashbacks, interweaving plots, and an underlying existentialism. We could easily see the trajectory of the storyline; how would she use it against her oppressors? How would she avenge herself? Will she suffer like the invalid Sonny, or the overconfident Miguel, or the perpetually hunted Jun? The complexity of the film lies in the intricate weaving of these side stories invigorated by the gun itself, transforming all their lives caught in the vicious cycle of violence, as the gun is supposedly a necessary weapon of last resort and ultimately becoming a wielded power of an authoritarian regime in drug war. The gun in the story becomes metonymic with her story as one of its extensions and possible trajectories from the time of Martial Law to today’s all-out war to terrorists and drug users. Somehow, we see then our own stories too as though unfolding in the film. At the back of our head, we can see the victims of extra-judicial killing, all 29,000 of them, we can also hear the hundred children killed considered as collateral damages, from Kian delos Santos, to Raymart Siapo, Carl Arnaiz, Reynaldo de Guzman, Heart de Chavez, Rowena Tiamzon, Joshua Sumilang, Rex Appari, Jericho Camitan, Erica Fernandez, Oman Manaois, among others. The film reminds us that no significant justice has been given to the victims as the sight of bodies on the street has become commonplace with fear of being or knowing the next victim pervasive. The film may be considered as noir but with what is happening the film is painfully too real.
EJK also assumes a gendered perspective, as mostly widows are left to raise their children and wives often become vulnerable to domestic abuses. It is not farfetched therefore to put her story as an aspect of this state sanctioned violence. Her rape is not a metaphor as her dehumanization extends to all forms of alienation and objectification. The words of her rapist become extended bullet shots that ricochet deep in her flesh, in her vagina, that uncannily also echoes the President’s order to soldiers to shoot female guerillas in their bisong or genitalia. With our experience of pandemic today, violence against women has worsened. Philippine National Demographic and Health survey said in 2017 that one in four Filipino women aged 15-49 has experienced physical, emotional or sexual abuse by their partner or husband. They also said that this statistic has risen since Covid-19 lockdowns began in March this year with around 600 women, or an average of eight per day, maltreated or raped across the country from March 17 to May 23 and at least 12 complaints of domestic abuse per week.
State violence is misogynistic, guns are considered phallic, women are always construed as lacking an “appendage” in psychoanalysis. But instead of using the gun, like all the men in the story, her story and resolution is one of disavowal. She throws back to her rapist the same words used against her, “Do you want this, do you want me to shoot this to you?” But she fires warning shots and lets him run away. She eventually throws the gun in Pasig River. The proverbial Chekhov’s gun goes off, but its story concludes where her story of reclamation has begun. In other words, she refuses to be part of the cycle of violence, goes against the mob and misogynistic mentality of rationalizing war and bloodshed. Both the gun and woman have seen how they have outlived their perceived usefulness in society. Both now are renouncing their objectification. As the gun is claimed back by the river so is she, claiming herself again. The last scene where she is running after her perpetrator is quite reminiscent of the last scene also of a Lino Brocka classic, Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag, where the main protagonist, Julio, is running along the streets of Manila, eventually to be cornered by the mob in the end. Only in this film, she is running against the crowd, inconspicuous, yet with her red coat as if bearing her woundedness for others too preoccupied to see her. She has salvaged her body as the eventual protection and refuge of a true proletariat who desires, one day, above all, to be free.
BABAE AT BARIL: Cancelling the Culture of Male Privilege
In director-writer Rae Red’s Babae at Baril, Babae (Janine Gutierrez) is introduced as a department store saleslady, taking corrections from her fastidious supervisor for her worn-out stockings and wrinkled blouse. She appears docile and embarrassed in front of her co-workers during a regular uniform inspection. Babae looks subservient but by the end of the film, she becomes vocal, aggressive and woke. Or so it seems.
Red begins Babae’s arc of transformation with a series of incidents with abusive or domineering men starting with store manager followed by an offensive customer, a heckling street gang, a rude sari-sari store owner, a peeping Tom landlord, her roommate’s brutish boyfriend and worst of all, a predatory Male Colleague (Felix Roco) who feigns generosity and sympathy. In these encounters, Babae uncovers the varied faces of hegemonic masculinity. She struggles with the way these abhorrent men from time to time demean or violate her. Babae is not alone in her troubles. Her roommate (Bie Ruaro) struggles to protect herself from her nasty boyfriend. Her mother is abandoned by her lover. A young girl is warned not to sleep close to her father. Babae along with other women has to cope with the challenges of living in an inhospitable city which, as suggested by the film’s roguish opening song Alak, Sugal, Kape, Babae at Kabaong (written and composed by Lourd de Veyra and Francis de Veyra), is overrun by phallocentric forces of consumption that objectify, exploit and victimize vulnerable women like her.
Conscious of her working class status, Babae often has to stand back to the subtle and countless spectacles of male privilege. When she is raped in the department store’s seedy locker room, she crumbles at Male Colleague’s violation of her dignity. She feels powerless to avenge the assault until one day, she spots near her residence a revolver discarded by a fleeing thief. She gingerly picks it up, conceals it at work and imagines firing all its bullets at Male Colleague. Somehow, her possession of the gun emboldens her to disrupt the existing order of power relations. She dares or rebukes the other men who bully her such as her manager (Gie Onida), the small store owner (JM Galang) and her roommate’s boyfriend (Jess Mendoza). She then plots to execute Male Colleague and decides one night to secretly follow him on his way home. In a dark alley, she takes aim at him from behind. But just as she is about to pull the trigger, Red interrupts the narrative and cuts to the martial law past to reveal the revolver’s origin.
In another set of episodes that run to the present, Red charts the gun’s history and transfer from Eduardo (Archie Adamos), a gun supplier to Sonny (Allan Paule), a needy policeman to his menacing son turned cop Miguel (JC Santos), on to Jun (Elijah Canlas), a harassed balut vendor and Steph (Sky Teotico), a thief seeking respect from his peers. In these vignettes, Red signifies the gun as an emblem of a repressive patriarchy due to its deployment in lethal state-sanctioned power struggles resulting in the assassination of student activists, extrajudicial killings, drug busts and a murderous burglary. So by the time the gun reaches Babae and the film returns to the present where Babae is seconds away from blasting Male Colleague, Red raises the narrative to another level and asks: given Babae’s personal trauma, will Babae extend the legacy of violence the gun represents? Will she display the same brutality that her predecessors and all the other men in her daily life manifested?
Red shows Babae choosing to do otherwise. Babae throws the gun into a river and looks relieved for doing so. In Red’s assessment, Babae is capable of self-reflection. Her decision points to a modicum of agency on her part, an ability to recognize and resist patriarchy’s agenda of oppression and barbarity. This is a positive but narrow view. Babae’s gesture of disavowal does not mark a definitive detachment from the regime of male power. Disposing of a gun does not cancel the patriarchal culture. Babae’s rape by Male Colleague is one of many expressions of patriarchy that Babae has to confront. Patriarchy persists, masquerades and morphs into multiple modes, sometimes benevolent, at other times invisible and normalized. Babae’s response is just a first step in a long journey. Dismantling patriarchy’s manifold structures requires continuous immersion and active participation in collective upheavals instead of merely defaulting to violence.
These ideas may lie beyond Red’s discourse. But they arise in response to Red’s cinematic vision. As Babae, Janine Gutierrez delivers a nuanced performance that captures the shifting shades of Babae’s turmoil turning into understanding. The setting of Babae’s daily grind is made palpable by the interplay of Tey Clamor’s atmospheric cinematography and Eero Francisco’s gritty production design. Fatima Nerikka Salim and Immanuel Varona’s musical score intermittently punctuated by punchy percussions mixed with street sounds and sirens likewise projects the rough and tumble rhythm of Babae’s world. With Ilsa Malsi’s deft stitching of the characters’ disparate lives into a thought-provoking whole, Red is thus able to shape a narrative space where women can reclaim their agency in a world burdened and fractured by male privilege.
BABAE AT BARIL (2019) Direction and Screenplay: Rae Red. Editing: Ilsa Malsi. Cinematography: Tey Clamor. Production Design: Eero Yves Francisco. Sound and Music: Fatima Nerikka Salim and Immanuel Verona. Cast: Janine Gutierrez, Felix Roco, JC Santos, Elijah Canlas, Sky Teotico, Ruby Ruiz, Archi Adamos, Allan Paule. Producers: Cignal Entertainment, Epic Media, Quezon City Film Development Commission. Running Time: 80 mins.
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