06/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cannes 2009: The Underside of the Philippines

Filipino director Brilliante Mendoza's new film Kinatay (which means Slaughter) drew me in, I admit, only because of a hallucinatory summer I once spent on Dumaguete Island in the Philippines. Mendoza's film is basically the story of a group of thug policemen who abduct a stripper and torture her in a car, rape her in a basement, and then dismember her. The climax of the story is the challenge of sticking the body parts in a plastic bag.

What was compelling to me -- in this film which was obviously not compelling de tout -- was the fact that after my summer in the Philippines I too wrote a story (transplanted to Thailand) where three thugs are preoccupied with the body of a prostitute, the climax of which is the challenge of sticking her in a bag. What inspired this story were probably the muggy nights I and fellow teachers (we taught streetchildren) and Peace Corp volunteers spent in The Music Box, a disco joint which also doubled as a scuba diving outfit -- and a prostitute ring.

It was a warm, humid summer, with a strange undercurrent under the surface: a 19 year old Peace Corps volunteer I had a beer with was shot in the head the day after our drink -- pulled out of his car by Muslim guerrillas from Mindinao island. One morning the director of the humanitarian outfit I worked for "invited me" to see the corpse of a little girl found naked and murdered on a beach (I declined).

And a most disconcerting afternoon was in the local prison, where I ran creative workshops. The amiable clients (who slept all in one room on a wicker mat, without beds, chairs or any idea of the court-process) opened up to me about their crimes: one had killed his brother with a pen-knife, another had raped his little 12 year old cousin; a third cut the throat of a boy who stole a Coca Cola can from his shop.

So perhaps that is why I wrote a story where a woman's naked cadaver is manhandled for hours, while the men, bored, smoke cigarettes in the languorous night.

What was it about the Philippines that inspired such similar unconscious workings of the "imagination"? To the point even that the ringleader in my story -- Vic -- has the same name as the ringleader in Mendoza's macabre tale: he too named Vic?

I met Mr. Mendoza on the terrace of the Grand Hotel to find out.

Why did you make this film?

I want to show in my film what most other filmmakers would not show: I am showing what is really happening in the Philippines, implicating the military, the police. My film was based on a real confession of a police student of criminology: his experience witnessing the killing of a woman, and being part of the gang. What I want to show in my film is the abuse of power; the police are like god. They can butcher people.

Are the Philippines really so dangerous?

You were there. You experienced it. Some places in the world are really dangerous. My film is about the danger and the fear that we experience in Manila; the danger that we encounter every day. The police student did not know he would experience what would happen to. The police are involved in all the corruption that is happening. As for the justice system -- that's a mess. As you say, some people will go to jail for twenty years, with no court process. A lot of times they are not guilty

What do you think about the situation of prostitutes in the Philippines?

Prostitutes are treated like dirt. Because we are a Catholic country, when a woman is working on a bar, one looks down at her. The women are seen as bad. 'You should not be prostituting yourself, You should be working.' I did research into prostitution. A lot of women are working in the bars, and some have boyfriends in the military, so she can do whatever she wants. He protects her. I went to bars that have prostitutes behind it: everyone knows that this exists. It is illegal, but it seems to be legal. At least my film makes people aware that such things exist.

Will film-goers in the Philippines appreciate your message?

I will not show in the commercial theaters to be humiliated again as I was with my last film (Serbis). People in the Philippines see melodramas, Hollywood films, comedy, soap operas. They are only interested in Hollywood -- not serious topics. Serbis did not do well there. Serbis did well in the States, released by Regent.

You have a subtext in the film about Catholic values -- running counter to the corruption: signs saying "Jesus is the Way to Truth" flash on the back of buses, pedicabs, as the men drive off in the night: Can you comment on the meaning of Catholicism for Filipinos?

The Philippines are 90 percent Catholic. You look everywhere and see these images of Catholicism. I myself am a Catholic, brought up in Catholic schools. We are all exposed to religion from an early age. It is a major part of our life. Being exposed to Catholicism, there is still a lot of corruption. I am showing the strange irony of it. Amidst all this faith, we have all this corruption. You have the gangs in the midst of the street; and you see all the signs. On the police shirt is written: "Integrity once lost is lost forever." It is really on the shirt. I only noticed this when I was editing.

Can you comment on the negative reviews your film has received here?

It is a film that you have to slowly absorb. I don't expect people to like it. I want people to think about it after they go to bed.

What did you do before being a filmmaker?

I worked as production designer with other commercial directors in the Philippines. I did that for six years. Before I worked in advertising; for ten years. My clients were coca-cola, soap...

In the Philippines, I could only find "whitening" soap! Did you promote this as well?

Yes, I did. Filipinos want to be white. It's the American influence: the US occupied the Philippines you know, and Filipinos still idolize the US. So the soap makes people feel psychologically better.

Do you feel guilty about having marketed this whitening soap?

Of course. Now I feel good about what I do: a good life is feeling good about yourself.