Thursday, February 19, 2004


I could not make it to the big-screen special viewing at the mall last Sunday so the director lent me a copy in VHS (she wouldn’t part with the DVD) that I could watch at home. But she gave me instructions in a pleading tone. I was to watch her latest film opus with no distractions, preferably in a dimly lighted room, on a big TV screen.

I followed her instructions. I went through the motion of detaching the wires from the DVD and connecting them to the VHS machine and testing if I found the right holes and the sound was right and I had the right remote with the right batteries. My, this took a while. When I was done, I freshened up.

I don’t have a mini-theater, but I guess my clean and spartan room meets the specifications for viewing. What was all this ambiance-preparation supposed to achieve, I wondered. So there I was, in my cool and darkened place smelling of fresh sheets and brewed coffee, ready to behold the unfolding of Ditsi Carolino’s ``Riles: Life on the Tracks’’.

The opening scene jars and assaults immediately. A train roars past a squatter community living dangerously close to the railroad tracks in Sampaloc, Manila. Here is a world so unlike the one where I’m sitting. Cacophonous, foul-smelling, filthy, dangerous, degrading, deprived, rat-infested, unfit for human habitation. This is ``home along da riles’’, no, not of TV sitcom fame. This one is true-to-life, the characters real, the misery real, the hope real but undying. Cinema verite with clenched teeth, and yes, with a dash of Pinoy humor.

The docu (in vivid color, in Filipino with English subtitles) has no narrator. It unravels by itself. The people don’t act and talk to the camera. They are their natural selves. This is as real as it gets.

At the center of the documentary is the Renomeron family--couple Eddie and Pen Renomeron and their two kids plus three adopted ones whose parents were crushed by a train. For them and the riles community, the railroad tracks is a playground, a free zone for all until those brief moments many times a day when the almighty train slices through, rattling homes and sending everyone scampering to the sides for safety.

Just as quickly as the train rumbles past, the people from both sides of the tracks reclaim their middle-space, their center. Life and livelihood thrive not just beside the tracks but right on them. For example, the enterprising have fashioned home-made modes of transport mounted on the tracks. There people do their chores and test their creativity. There women socialize and men gamble.

The family of Eddie and Pen could barely survive. Eddie sells balut at night, while Pen, with one breast lost to cancer (she cleans her scars while on cam), works as a day maid here and there. One gets intimate with the Renomeron family as they go about from sun-up to sundown and till the dead of night. One listens in to the petty quarrels, the meal conversations, the rough language, their thinking aloud, punctuated every so often by the sound of the passing train.

How do they get by, how do they survive on so little, how do they earn, cook, eat, bathe, fight, show love? How do they view life?

Carolino’s camera does not follow the Renomerons alone. One gets to know the family better by getting to know characters in the neighborhood. One can see how prolifically they procreate. And how unabashedly they recreate. Next to television, the videoke is the most wondrous invention that has visited this community. Teenage girls dreaming of becoming entertainers in Japan, shirtless men with trembling bellies—they all have their turn with the microphone and croon to the moon. Music is the opium and aphrodisiac.

Parts of the documentary must have been shot during the 2001 election season because it shows candidates (Solita Monsod, among them) visiting the place to pump hands and win hearts. Elections have come and gone, the people complain, and there has been no improvement in their lives.

Proof is the home of the Renomeron family that would be demolished. The landlord, himself a railroad dweller, announces this rather imperiously. The day comes and the family packs their belongings as the demolition crew begins wrecking. It is heartbreaking to see them leave for another rat-infested hole.

In this portion, Carolino’s camera does not solicit sentimentality, it captures details and nuances but it moves in a stoic way, leaving the viewer to either feel or think or both.

Many of us see riles communities only from the window of our passing vehicles when we cross the tracks and look left and right. When we see an oncoming train we step on the gas and speed away.

For a year, as a college junior, I spent two hours every Saturday afternoon in a squatter area beside the tracks along South Superhighway. This was part of the ``do-it’’ component of our theology courses. St. Scho was tough. As freshmen and sophomore brats, we taught the blind and the poor kids in order to give balance to our academics and get our feet soiled.

That place by the riles is still the slums but it is now referred to as ``Dasmariles’’ because not far away is the posh Dasmarinas Village. I remember a wiry woman there named Aling Asang and I have kept the photo I took of the riles kids.

I had watched and reviewed with raves Carolino’s first major documentary, the award-winning black-and-white ``Minsan Lang Sila Bata’’ which was about child labor and abuse. Duplicating that feat must have been a challenge for Carolino.

But ``Riles’’ (70 minutes) has also earned praise here and abroad and won as best docu-film in Cinemanila International Film Festival in 2003. ``Riles’’ has the same Carolino touch. It is called soul.