This is what art activism in the Philippines looks like

The bullet, a mere metal object, becomes the ender of dreams, of a childhood lived in innocence and mischief, and a lover’s euphoric escape. It is almost like a script, except it shouldn’t be. There is a name behind each number. There is a family behind each name. There is suffering behind each family.

A kilometer away from each crime scene, another body lies, but in a bed, sleeping soundly. The alarm rings as loudly as the sirens a few hours before. We live in a time where a selected population goes through the day without a shudder, as if walls are enough to silence the howls.

For the former, the night is a threat and the daylight isn’t any brighter. For the latter, the curse of desensitization from what seems to be the gift of privilege roams the room. They become as numb as the pulse of those who passed.

Still from Hapag by Cha Roque

To counter this, there are artists who dedicate their time and artistry to humanize the victims of extrajudicial killings. Filmmaker Cha Roque uses the power of cinema to depict the anguish of death through motion pictures. Artist Tona Lopez creates abstract pieces through impactful symbols and the art of semiology. Photographer and filmmaker Jonathan Olarte documents the presence of resistance through empowering images and thought-provoking shorts.

While art is undeniably powerful, it remains but an entryway to revolution. Its strength is its very weakness: It is abstract. These artists recognize that, and they don’t stop at art.

When people want to express opposition, they go on a strike or rally. Why use art?
Jon: Art, photo, and film [are] just another way to express resistance. It can also be used to explain something through facts in a visual manner.

Cha: Actually it’s more of using art “also” and not “instead.” When we use other ways in expressing opposition, it doesn’t mean that we find others ineffective, and even if I make films about my advocacies, I still try to be present in on-ground demonstrations like rallies.

We are in a time of fast-paced technology and information-saturated daily lives. This is why we need more creative ways of getting our messages across, catching the attention of our audience, and influencing decision makers. It is the perfect time to recognize the power of film and art in raising awareness about social issues, to initiate discourse, and make people care about issues they weren’t paying attention to before.

Cha Roque

Tona: Sabi ni Ai Weiwei, “Everything is politics, everything is art.” Baka personal lang na opinion, but art can only do so much in terms of activism. Gets ko ’yung art moves in spaces where rallies cannot sometimes, pero at the end of the day hanggang exhibition space ka lang. What you do outside your art to directly contribute to the movement is just as, if not more, important.

Also, Tona, you come from a well-off family. How do you think this affects your art and ability to relate to citizens?
Tona: Privilege changes everything. It is easier to dig and find “obscure” new material when you have a desktop and an internet connection. I always keep this in mind.

“We are in a time of fast-paced technology and information-saturated daily lives. This is why we need more creative ways of getting our messages across, catching the attention of our audience, and influencing decision makers.”

Tell us about any significant experience where your art has inspired someone to do something.
Jon: My collective started this project called PUNTO, where we were able to distribute point-and-shoot cameras to a group of individuals part of the #OccupyPabahay movement. After this project we were able to empower the participants to voice out their own personal stories and aspirations through this project.

The mainstream media was giving a lot of negative remarks and black propaganda regarding the Occupy movement, yet with the help of our project we were able to counter what mainstream media was throwing out with the personal truths given by the participants of our project.

Cha: Last year, I made an experimental documentary about coming out. It features me talking to 13 years of footage of my daughter in an imagined conversation, recreating how I would come out to her as a lesbian. It was very personal and I did not expect that it would go around film festivals, and that a lot of people around the world would relate to it.

When it was shown in Austria and Hong Kong, a lot of LGBT parents approached me after the screening and shared how they were touched and inspired by the film. Some shared having [the] same sentiments and even going through the same experience, and some told me how the film has given them an idea of how to come out to their children.

Tona: I’m not “formally trained,” I took up pre-med then multimedia arts. Yes, there was that summer in RCA [the Royal College of Art in London], but I think when labels aren’t highlighted as much it becomes easier for people to think, “Oh, I can do that too.” It was the same for me.

Jonathan Olarte

Being very upfront with your activism through art, do you ever worry about safety? If you do so, why do you choose to continue?
Tona: I do. A friend once told me, “If you stop because you’re scared, they win.”

Cha: My film Hapag is a symbolic take on how the war on drugs in the Philippines affects families, and it was part of CineResbak. Though there have been no problems about screenings of Hapag here, I still worry sometimes about the implications of the film for my safety. I’m glad that as of today, filmmakers and artists in the Philippines can still express their sentiments about the government and the other issues that concern us but I fear losing that freedom of expression soon if we let the socio-political situation stay the same.

Jon: I’m not really worried. Why should I be? If I die, people will find out and know why it happened. And if I do, I hope it starts an outcry and that people from all generations really start to think about what’s happening around them and start helping to contribute for the greater good. I mean who wants to live in a shitty world like this, anyway? And also if I died, at least I died fighting.

Tona Lopez

Every day, there is devastating news about EJK. Was there any particular news that inspired you to devote your time and energy to fight tyranny?
Tona: None in particular. May mga headline na nakaka-stress, more than usual. Pero lahat naman ’yan ay parte ng sistema.

Cha: Hapag is inspired by a news item I read about the mother of an EJK victim who doesn’t have enough money to claim her son’s body. She ended up bringing home some of her son’s blood in a plastic container so she would have something to mourn. This struck me about what the families of the victims go through.

As a mother, I was also very much affected by the stories of Kian delos Santos and Kulot. I was thinking then, they could’ve been my kid.

Jon: I grew up in a gated community. I went to a private school for boys [where] all my classmates and friends were rich kids that didn’t give a fuck about what was happening. They like to pray and go to church, yet they can’t give alms to the poor or their families are corrupt politicians and heads of unethical conglomerates.

Back in 2015, I was covering protests regarding the Lumad killings and APEC week for VICE, when my father asked me about what I was doing. As I told him about it, he responded about how I have roots in the Manobo-Mandaya tribe, and how he and my uncles were involved in the people’s resistance movement back in the late ’70s. At that moment I was triggerd to learn more about the peoples’ struggles, my family background and history and actually be part of the resistance movement.

“Can we really change the system now? It seems impossible. This world is so full of contradictions pero sobrang dami pang pwedeng gawin. The least we can do is work towards it.”

How do you think we can put a stop to everything that is happening right now? What is the youth’s place in this?
Tona: Spread the right ideas, build alternative spaces, make public art, etc. Can we really change the system now? It seems impossible. This world is so full of contradictions pero sobrang dami pang pwedeng gawin. The least we can do is work towards it.

Jon: The best thing to do to stop everything that’s happening right now is to continue organizing the masses, educate yourself and others regarding the peoples’ struggles, be active in resistance actions. Don’t stop creating, and stay angry.

Cha: We need to keep reminding the youth about the dark times in our history so we can realize our faults and not do them again. It is important for the youth to take part in this “revolution” because they will soon have voting power, and they will be the ones stuck in whatever kind of country we leave to them in the future.

We should recognize that we have a voice and we should use that voice, it could be through visual arts, music, or cinema, to send a message, educate people, and put an end to the culture of apathy.

KADAMAY, Block Marcos, SIKAD and RESBAK anti-martial law rally, 2017

Since you are very vocal with your activism, have you ever been bashed by ka-DDS or anyone in particular?
Jon: Several pointless times.

Cha: There was a photo of me with my colleagues in DAKILA in a rally that was made into a meme before. There were a lot of shares and comments but thankfully we did not get personal attacks or threats.

Tona: Yes. Almost always I get tagged as “dilawan,” which is funny because I criticize the Aquinos just as much.

Cha and Jon, film is a powerful medium. As filmmakers, do you have reservations about what to show for the sake of cinema ethic?
Jon: I’d show what I want to show. I’d also show what is appropriate and meaningful. As for ethics, I’m not a fan of censorship. As long as my work will help my subjects then it needs to be shown.

Cha: All my films so far were self-produced except for a documentary that was funded by a grant in 2013. I guess this gives me freedom in deciding what to show. But given a funder or producer, I would still be firm in not having reservations in showing what needs to be shown. I would be more concerned about proper portrayals and representations of the subjects I show in my films.

Jon, you’ve worked with the music industry for a long time now, but you also have been putting out material that is politically provocative. What was your turning point?
Jon: Back then I thought I was–as cringy as the word is–“woke” already. [I was] listening Joey Badass, Pro Era, The Underachievers, and Flatbush Zombies; locally, Ankhten Brown, Rhxanders, RawMF, and similarobjects.

They always had spiritual things to say in their bars. Along with the whole subculture of healing crystals and the rest of the esoteric things in that group. I was really, really into that whole thing. Until a few years ago, I realized a lot of the things that the esoteric culture tackles aren’t even in the physical realm. I mean like they are not entirely tangible.

And then when I learned more about politics, I understood the physical manifestations of negative energy. At that point, people like BLKD, Calix, Den Sy Ty, Bambu, and The Blue Scholars were what I was already listening to. They had more concrete things to say regarding a lot of the problems people face in this dimension or reality we are in.

“As long as there are solutions for all these [political] problems, I will not run out of inspiration.”

Having admired these artists, personally, where do you get inspiration?
Jon: As long as there are solutions for all these [political] problems, I will not run out of inspiration. My son Xoce (pronounced as Jose, it’s just spelled in Russian) and Baby Momma Kiri, are big inspirations for me, too. All the others fighting and resisting are also big inspirations.

Tona, what do you fear the most for the country and how do we stop this from happening?
Tona: For a lot of us, what we fear most is already happening. I used to think that the darkest form of tyranny was just about to be seen, but now I know that it’s here.

Film still from Hapag by Cha Roque

Cha and Jon, tell us about your most re warding experience as a filmmaker.
Jon: Being a photographer and filmmaker allows me to travel and I am also able to see the effects my work has with others.

Cha: When Hapag was shown under CineResbak, I was overwhelmed to see artists and filmmakers come together for the same cause and I felt really honored to be part of that. Hapag was also part of the official selection of the 14th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival, which was held in March 2018 at New Delhi, India, and it felt really great to be part of a festival that celebrated all women filmmakers from around the world.

Recently, I was awarded the Art that Matters for Film under Ignite Awards 2018 of Amnesty International Philippines. As an advocate and as an artist, there are times when I question myself and get tired of what I do. This award is a reminder why I make films, why I tell stories. This served as an inspiration to keep on making films about the triumphs and struggles of people.

What advice can you share with young aspiring filmmakers or photographers?
Jon: Don’t stop shooting. Be patient. Study on your own. Don’t stay comfortable. Check your privilege, understand where it comes from, and use it to help others.

Cha: Film, like any other art form, is very powerful in stirring emotions and shaping minds of people. We always say in DAKILA, “Art may not change the world but it can change the way we view the world.” I believe that as artists, we have the responsibility not only to entertain but also to use our art to help those who cannot raise their voices by telling their stories.

‘Slacktivism only works to a certain degree. Nothing beats actually being there and talking and learning to and from the victims of systematic oppression.”

Aristotle says that art is the imitation of real life. How do you extend your activism outside of art?
Tona: Yes. Artists often get pigeonholed as “political” when in fact the body of work is a snippet or reinterpretation of their reality. Lahat naman ng bagay ay political.

I think it’s important to help those who are silenced. They are the ones who need to speak their truths. Recently, for KALASAG, I was tasked to teach the kids how to draw editorial cartoons and caricatures.

Malaking bagay rin sa activism ang pag-create ng noise. I think the online part is especially interesting given that governments are comfortably weaponizing social media. Uso na ang fake news.

Cha: I am part and currently the organizing director of DAKILA. Right now, we are conducting Heroes Hub, a fellowship for selected youth that will train them in both human rights and arts.

Jon: My activism extends through being in the actual field, working with my collective and fellow activists. Slacktivism only works to a certain degree. Nothing beats actually being there and talking and learning to and from the victims of systematic oppression.

Photography by JP Talapian
Makeup by Janica Balasolla

This story was originally published in our 33rd issue and has been edited for web. The digital copy of Scout’s 33rd issue is accessible here.

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