Questioning The System: Eileen Cabiling’s Basurero

by | Sep 29, 2021 | FILM & TV

We sent Ryan Kent to the Richmond International Film Festival. He came back raving about a short film from the Philippines called Basurero. So we got him to interview Basurero’s director, Eileen Cabiling — who, it turns out, has some strong connections to Richmond.

I know nothing about film. I’ve never even seen GREASE. Do you know anyone over 30 who hasn’t seen GREASE? Shit, anyone under 30? Let that roll around in your noggin for a while.

When RVA Magazine asked me to cover the 10th Annual Richmond International Film Festival, I lied and said I’d pretty much only seen Rocky III. They said that was fine. Maybe that was their angle? Send some fool (me) to watch these films and write a greenhorn account of the festival? Not a connoisseur’s interpretations. Not the interpretations of someone who works in the industry or anyone who could rattle off the technical jive that’s typically lost on the popcorn-dropping laymen.

I asked if this was what they wanted. They said, “Yes. Exactly.”

All right.

I mean, I’ve eaten chili before, but I can’t go to a Chili Cook-Off and write about chili without sounding like an asshole, or like some dude who talks to a professional mechanic about that one time he changed a tire, or his oil. Like suddenly they have something in common. God help me. 

I’ve seen a movie though. I know how to movie. So, I movied eight films. 

No Visible Trauma (Canada)
Before I’m Gone (Canada)
Hurricane (USA)
Basurero (Philippines)
Love (Albania)
Dance House Kogane 4422 (Japan)
Without Getting Killed Or Caught (USA)
Little But Fierce (USA)

Given the opportunity, I’d see each of these films again multiple times. Either for educational reasons or simply because I was entertained. This is the best no-frills compliment you can give a director: “I’d see your film again.”

However, Basurero (a 17-minute short film originally released in 2019) is what compelled me to write this article. Bong (Jericho Rosales), a poor fisherman, finds himself earning cash to feed his young family (one child needing injections) by dumping the bodies of slain drug dealers and addicts into the polluted waters of Manila Bay. A basurero. A trash man. It’s not a true story, but it’s also not far-fetched.

I was told once to “write about what you know.” I don’t know anything about anything important. Certainly nothing about the Philippines or the country’s so-called war on drugs, which had claimed 5,500 lives (human rights organizations have claimed the number to be roughly 27,000) at the time of the film’s 2019 release. Those dead-eyed statistics rolled just before the end credits. I didn’t know any of it.

But I know how the film made me feel. I think that’s the artist’s intent, right? To evoke an emotion. At least, it should be. 

I was moved. Not to say the other films I saw during the Richmond International Film Festival didn’t move me – they did. You can’t possibly leave a film like No Visible Trauma or Little But Fierce or Hurricane and not feel like your heart was switched with a marionette. Yet, I kept thinking about the film from the Philippines. This went on for days. 

It was a no-brainer.

Suffice it to say, my life doesn’t have much in common with Basurero’s main character, or the moral plight in which he is caught, but the film forced some ethical questions to bubble to the surface of my mind: Do you feed your family at the expense of others? Can you live with yourself after that expense is paid?

Eileen Cabiling wrote and directed Basurero. She was born in Baltimore but grew up in Richmond. Her parents emigrated from the Philippines as medical students thirsty for the American Dream. This move proved to be a wise decision financially. Her family flourished. She attended Richmond’s St. Catherine’s School, and later the prestigious American Film Institute in Los Angeles, where she lives now and works for Disney (once as a writer for Winnie the Pooh).

Cabiling said she would meet me to have a short conversation about her film. We talked for an hour.

I went into the Bow Tie theater on September 9th thinking Basurero was going to be about drugs. I like drugs. I’ve taken drugs. Drugs are fascinating. Yet drugs take a backseat to another human dilemma here. Basurero shows how a colonized people loses its identity. Beliefs replaced with someone else’s. Traditions replaced with guilt. It’s like the encroachment of rust, or black mold. Drugs are barely riding in the same vehicle. Not necessarily a hood ornament, but something more akin to a full luggage rack. 

Drugs are just more baggage. Piled right on top of American flag t-shirts, the Catholic Church, and Barbie. Sound familiar? 

Maybe it does. Marginalized people as a theme isn’t a new one. However, the beauty of Basurero is in its subtle realism. It doesn’t come off as a sermon. There’s no god here, even though Jesus is everywhere.

I didn’t start picking up all the popcorn on the floor thinking it would get me into heaven. I sat there with my mouth hanging open for 17 minutes, suddenly very aware of an archipelagic country I normally didn’t think about. 

“My mother chose Richmond because she received a position here at a really old school practice. It’s like all old white males and then my mother, which is really bizarre,” said Cabiling. “I think we just played the game, right? To fit in. To not rock the boat. She would do whatever it took to be successful for our family. My mom always told us to be polite. To really think about what other people are thinking so that you can be successful.”

For Cabiling, though, this approach is unnecessary. “It’s kind of manipulative, actually. You don’t need to think that way. To bow down to a patriarchal system and not really have a voice, or just be a chameleon.”

She describes her childhood in Richmond as an interesting experience. “My family started doing well here. We went from a kind of a [small] house, to a middle-class house, to River Road. Even though I went to St. Catherine’s with all these white kids, I was still in the minority box,” she said. “I had this weird in-between experience with Richmond. Although there are a lot more Asians here now, when before, it was very Black and white. They didn’t really have a box for you.”

Basurero and the conversation with Cabiling shined two headlights on what I take for granted. I grew up in a middle-class family in rural Virginia. I chose to follow Catholicism, and then I chose not to. I am a straight, white, American male. I wasn’t colonized by anyone and haven’t had to overcome much of anything.

For Cabiling, it was so constant, she stopped noticing it… for a while. “I realized that I started to become kind of sober to it. I was not aligned, or living in my truth. I saw it in my work,” she said. “Whenever I would break out and do something that I was really aligned with, I was horrified. Usually that was the kind of work that would help me move forward.”

Leaving Virginia, living in places like New York and California, around different groups of people than she’d found in Richmond, she started to understand the feelings that floated beneath the surface. “I started understanding this idea of colonial psychology, which is what my parents grew up under. The Philippines was colonized by Spain for 300 years. I can imagine what that does to one’s psyche,” she said.

After the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century, the Philippines were colonized by the United States. They didn’t get their independence until after World War II, in 1946.

“It was very impressed, Americanism in the Philippines. To the point that they [taught] in English up until recently,” Cabiling explained. “I think, when you’re colonized, and a country comes into your country, tells you that you need to be civilized, that you’re a second-class citizen, it really does something deep to the psyche of a culture. I started realizing that within my own self.”

Cabiling realized that she’d mostly absorbed work by white men, and that there was a lot more out there that might relate more closely to her life experiences. “That was very cathartic for me, to start questioning that kind of stuff,” she said. “My understanding of the world is through a very specific lens, because we were educated that way. So that’s been my exploration as an artist. Even the work that I do for other people tends to be more about questioning the system. Being in a solution.”

As for Basurero in particular: “The film was more of a character study,” she said. “I love the idea of bringing up a problem and then exploring a potential for a solution. [It’s] about being raw and recognizing it. Feeling the feelings to empower oneself to take action.”

There was a sleeveless American flag shirt Jericho Rosales (Bong) wore during the film. A crucifix hung around his neck. Sixty years ago, Catholics in the US had pictures of the Pope and John F. Kennedy on their living room walls. Maybe those same pictures hung on the walls of Filipinos, 8,565 miles away from the White House. Another 1,800 miles from the Vatican. People who were fed American ideals and Christianity. Over the course of a few generations, maybe it becomes ingrained. Almost second nature. It isn’t surprising that most Filipinos speak English.

“I can tell you the story behind that shirt,” said Cabiling.

Please.

“We have these shops in Manila called cut-up stores, where other countries will send used clothing. They’re called ‘ukay-ukay’ stores,” she explained. “You’ll walk around Manila and people will be wearing shirts like, University of Oklahoma or a shirt [from] some random hardware store in Florida. I said, ‘Just give me a bunch of [those shirts],’ because that’s what the fishermen really wear. All of a sudden, [the costume designer] pulls out this American flag shirt. I definitely wanted him to wear the cross, because I know the guilt — and the guilt of the Filipino is for real, they feel guilty about everything — but [the shirt] was a choice in the moment. I was hoping that it would be subconscious in the film. I did the same thing with the Barbie doll.”

I asked if she remembered the fisherman’s line about the Barbie: “Good luck getting that girl to feed your hunger.”

“That line was something that came from the fishermen. In that scene, the only real actor is the old man. Those guys are real fishermen. They’ve never acted before. So, I just spent time with them,” she said. “Fishermen, at least these fishermen, like to talk about their future, and their lives and what they could have done, or what they did do.”

Cabiling talked about the struggles of Filipino fisherman, which have a lot to do with the effect climate change is having on the area. Less fish in the ocean leads to overfishing, and overfishing leads to wars over scarce resources — between China and the Philippines over aquatic territory, with corporations that have tons more resources than the local fishermen… even between each other. “They’re barely catching anything. So of course, they’re gonna need two or three other jobs to support their like, five children — because, again, with the Catholic Church, abortion is illegal. They think contraception is a sin,” she said. To Cabiling, the things the fishermen said in their regular conversations were perfect for her film. “A lot of those lines were kind of organic. ‘You don’t need me,’ and I was like, ‘that’s a good line.’ In fact, what he said is so deep in Tagalog. I speak Tagalog, which [the fishermen] are speaking. That was such a deep line,” she said. “Language [is] sometimes hard to adapt. But yeah, it’s the same colonized mind saying, ‘You’re reaching out for something that’s not of us, and you’re expecting it to feed our hunger’, which is what made that so much deeper now.”

The fisherman’s words almost seemed to echo lines from the Charles Bukowski poem, Dinosauria, We: “The fingers reach to an unresponsive God. The fingers reach for the bottle. The pill. The powder.”

“There’s a word in Tagalog called ‘manhid,’ which means ‘numb,'” Cabiling said. “You have become so numb you can’t feel for people anymore. That has happened a lot, especially between the rich and poor in the Philippines. It’s similar in India. The majority of the population in the Philippines is poor. When [Rodrigo] Duterte became president, he used the platform of taking care of the drug problem. ‘If you use drugs or if you sell drugs, we’re gonna kill you.’ That really freaked people out, but a lot of people voted for him. And a lot of the people that he was killing voted for him.”

The way Cabiling sees it, the drug problems Duterte ran against were more myth than reality. “He created this idea that there’s a major drug problem in the Philippines and we need to eradicate it. That was one of the main reasons people voted for him,” she said. “I started talking with locals, the churches, the local governments; drugs are not really a problem. The reason a lot of the poor start using crystal meth is because they’re working three or four jobs. It was a way to keep going, but it is a highly addictive drug. People are so poor in the Philippines; they tend to use it to numb pain.”

Cabiling sees poverty as the real problem for the Philippines. “When I started spending time with some of the journalists and some of the activists, I’d say, ‘If there isn’t really a drug problem, why has Duterte killed almost 30,000 people?’” she said. “Manila [is] one of the densest cities in the world, population-wise. There are high-rises. Some parts look like the future, and some parts are serious slums. Homes made of cardboard.”

“The country wants to become rich. They want to become like Korea,” she continued. “This is very dramatic for me to say, but that’s why people say it’s a war on poverty in the Philippines. It’s not so bad that these drug dealers and people taking drugs are doing all this crime or killing people. Sure, people are getting addicted, but it’s not like a thing for your [political] platform to say, ‘We’re gonna save this country.’ That freaked me out, when I started realizing it was only poor people who are being killed.”

I asked her how her family responded to the film. Some members were there for its showing at Bow Tie. 

“It’s a mixed response. For some people that have lived in the Philippines, it’s a very mundane film. That’s what they see. I filmed it very real,” she said. “I didn’t put the intention necessarily on the colonized. As someone who is still an outsider, I see from a various, specific lens. I see the colonization going in, but someone who lives there every day, that’s all they know. They don’t necessarily see it.”

“[Basurero] for me was a psychological study. It explores a lot in a small amount of time, and it says something about the Filipino psyche. Trying to get out of the country and find work, having big families, and the church — it’s all in there,” Cabiling said. “If you look at the day after, of anyone in the Philippines, they’re moving through those spaces right there. They’re going to go pray because they dumped bodies.”

To Cabiling, the Filipino tradition of penitensya, an event during Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter) in which people inflict wounds upon themselves in public in order to atone for their sins of the past year, is an important element of the culture she tried to capture in Basurero. “I filmed that, but I didn’t put it in the film, she said. “I filmed the whole scene Easter week, in their village. These fishermen whip themselves if they feel they need to have penance. They cut themselves with blades and have these bamboo whips. They walk through the streets with their heads covered, bleeding, then they walk into that water, exactly where I shot. They cleanse themselves. That water’s crazy dirty, but their bodies are used to it, I guess.”

Cabiling hopes her film made an impression outside of the United States, in the part of the world it depicts. “[Basurero] world premiered in Busan [South Korea], which is like the Cannes of Asia,” she said. “It made it into that, so I know it resonated. Then [the film] did well in Europe. And in the United States. Some people see it more as a crime film. Other people see it as a teaser for a bigger film, and other people see it on a deeper level.”

Maybe after watching Basurero, you’ll fall into the latter group. I certainly did. Apparently, other people in Richmond did too, because Eileen’s film won the festival’s Audience Award.

That’s the artist’s intent, right? To evoke an emotion? I felt several emotions, and not one was even in the same hemisphere as what I’d consider joy.

You don’t need to have much in common with Bong, or Eileen Cabiling, or Filipinos in general, to feel the heaviness of Basurero. You don’t need to have children. You don’t even need to be poor. 

You just need to be human.

After the Trump presidency and the ongoing global pandemic, America is experiencing an influx of “numb.” There’s a tangible lack of compassion for others. Dare I say common decency? It’s not a new trend; it just didn’t seem as blatant in years before. Almost as if it’s wedged itself in between everything and there aren’t any answers. Just a lot of hard questions no one should ever have to ask.

Do you feed your family at the expense of others? Can you live with yourself after that expense is paid?

See Basurero. It’s the most compelling 17-minutes you’ll spend all year. 

Top Photo: Kimberly Frost

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent

Ryan Kent is the author of the collections, Poems For Dead People, This Is Why I Am Insane, Hit Me When I'm Pretty, and Everything Is On Fire: Selected Poems 2014-2021. He has also co-authored the poetry collections, Tomorrow Ruined Today, and Some Of Us Love You (both with Brett Lloyd). His spoken word record, Dying Comes With Age, will be released by Rare Bird Books in 2022. Ryan is a staff writer for RVA Magazine and maintains a pack a day habit. (photo by D. Randall Blythe)




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