PHILIPPINES: How to Disappear Completely (2013)

by Nolan Spaulding

The Philippines has a history marked by violence. From colonization and occupation to internal conflict; from a period of martial law in the 1970s to the modern-day war on drugs; violence permeates Philippine history to such an extent that it has become a central aspect of the Filipino identity, manifest in all facets of the Philippines, including its cinema.

Throughout the 16th century, Spain explored and established settlements in what would soon be known as the Philippines (History). The Spanish eventually “set up their capital at Manila in 1571, and they named their new colony after King Philip II of Spain” (History). Thus, the violence of Spanish colonization was woven into the colony’s very name. Spain would go on to impose a racial hierarchy throughout the Philippines (Racial) and to Christianize its inhabitants (History). To this day, Christianity is the dominant religion of the Philippines (Christianity), and it features prominently in Raya Martin’s 2013 film How to Disappear Completely—the Filipino film that my video essay focuses on. The Moros (Muslims) of the south were one of the only native populations to remain largely unaffected by Christianization, but they still experienced violence throughout the colonization of the Philippines (History).

Spanish control of the Philippines started dwindling during the Seven Years’ War of the mid-18th century when “British East India Company forces captured Manila” (History). The Philippines was returned to Spain after the end of the war, but Spanish control again dwindled in the late 19th century as a nationalist movement—led by the likes of José Rizal and Andres Bonifacio—rose to prominence and eventually culminated in a violent revolution led by Emilio Aguinaldo (History). The revolution was briefly fought off by Spain, but when the Spanish–American War started in 1898, Aguinaldo took the opportunity to once again fight the Spanish—this time, alongside the Americans (History). Once the Spanish were defeated, fighting broke out between the Americans and the Filipinos that did not end when the United States colonized the Philippines and made Aguinaldo president—continuing into the early 20th century with various insurgencies and a Moro rebellion (History).

From 1941 to 1942, as the United States was preparing the Philippines for independence, Japan attacked and took control of the Philippines, and the United States was not able to take it back until 1945 (History). The Philippines finally gained independence on July 4, 1946 (History). However, the new nation was still economically dependent on the United States, and the United States “continued to maintain…23 military installations [within its borders]” (History). In the years to follow, communist-backed guerilla forces would rise and fall, tensions would increase between the Christians of the north and the Moros of the south, and anti-American sentiments would become increasingly prevalent (History). Guerilla warfare and Anti-Americanism both feature in How to Disappear Completely, and it is interesting to note that while the vast majority of the film is in Tagalog (How), the scene that I used as the focal point of my video essay—a scene that exposes the death of an innocent Filipino boy to be the fault of an American soldier—is in English.

In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos was elected president of the Philippines, and things, at first, appeared to be looking up, so much so that in 1969, “[he] became the first president to be reelected” (History). However, the coincidence of a communist insurgency, a Moro insurgency, and other political violence with his reelection and second term led him to declare martial law in 1972 (History). Marcos’s corrupt regime controlled the Philippines with aid from the United States until he lifted martial law in 1981, and Marcos remained president until he was ousted in 1986 (History). Later presidencies were opposed by attempted coups and a mutiny and tainted by all forms of corruption (History).

Today, violence is just as prevalent in the Philippines as it has always been. The communist and Moro insurgencies are still a major issue, with the current president, Rodrigo Duterte, vowing to quell them (Felongco). Meanwhile, Duterte is in the midst of waging a notoriously violent war on drugs, having just recently said “I will finish off all of you” (Maru) to the family of a mayor killed in a drug raid in 2017 (Ozamiz). This quote sounds strikingly similar to “We Are Going to Hunt You Down,” which is both the title of my video essay and the last line in the English scene in How to Disappear Completely. In addition to all of this, a recent study conducted by the Council for the Welfare of Children (a Philippine government body) and UNICEF found that “eight in [ten] children and young people in the Philippines have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime that usually begins at home” (Crisostomo). This high rate of violence against children is featured throughout How to Disappear Completely, with many of the film’s victims of violence being children.

With such a long history of violence, it is no wonder that it has become a part of the Filipino identity. Nearly all Filipinos have experienced violence at some point in their lives, and for many, it is an everyday occurrence. Violence as an aspect of the Filipino identity is readily apparent in Philippine cinema, and How to Disappear Completely is a perfect example of this, as violence permeates the entire film. The film also highlights something that appears to be a common thread through all this violence—the continued involvement of other nations, particularly the United States, in Philippine affairs, despite the Philippines no longer being a colony of said nations. Today, oddly enough, “no country in the world [has] a greater proportion of people who [admire] the United States than the Philippines” (Tharoor), but the United States is at least somewhat responsible for much of the violence in the Philippines today. In its English scene, How to Disappear Completely simultaneously condemns the United States for this and embraces the violence in the Filipino identity.

Works Cited

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