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Ang Babae sa Septic Tank: The Rise and Fall of Eugene Domingo 'Sa Septic Tank'

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By Mario A. Hernando

The indie film is going mainstream. From arthouse venues at the malls, the UP Sining Adarna, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines—all of them accommodating only a microscopic share of the movie market even put together, one film invaded over 40 theaters nationwide, a situation made possible by the distribution system of very mainstream Star Cinema which has bought from independent producers Quantum Films, Martinez-Rivera Films, and Straight Shooters Media the rights to the 2011 Cinemalaya hit Ang Babae sa Septic Tank.

It is curious that a film would so catch the attention of a big, seasoned movie outfit usually known for its commercial, glossy movies under traditional genres with reigning box-office stars. The one very familiar name in the top cast of Babae sa Septic Tank is the actress who plays the title role—Eugene Domingo, she who plays character (yes, supporting) roles in other Star Cinema-produced movies and the one female talent who crosses not one, not two, but three rivers in the highly competitive and possessive network wars. In ABS-CBN, GMA, and TV5 sitcoms, soaps, and game shows, Domingo is often sidekick, cousin, girl Friday, maid, or bestfriend to the star, always the bridesmaid never the bride.

This, until Domingo wowed moviegoers with the independent film produced by a small group that included heartthrob Piolo Pascual—Kimmy Dora. That was an uproarious, crowd-pleasing performance made difficult by the challenges of a double role—that of a set of identical twins named Kimmy and Dora. The commercial success of Kimmy Dora was helped not only by Domingo’s spectacular presence and skills but also by a host of wonderful co-players and other big stars making cameo appearances, like Kapamilyas Pascual and Sam Milby, and Kapuso Dingdong Dantes.

Kimmy Dora was a tough act to follow, but Domingo does herself proud in the current Babae sa Septic Tank playing a mainstream actress who flirts with the indie system.

The movie itself is a movie-within-a-movie, where ironies abound: Babae is produced independently with a relatively modest budget, starring still up-and-coming actors JM de Guzman and Calla Lily vocalist Kean Cipriano, along with Cai Cortez whose overweight acting credentials may be seen in Cinema One’s Maximus & Minimus (opposite award-winning Mikel Campos) and the UP stage musical hit Shock Value. As in Kimmy Dora, other stars do cameos in Babae, chiefly Cherry Pie Picache, and Mercedes Cabral, two actors who have done their fair share of acclaimed indie films.

As satire, Babae bursts the balloons of misguided filmmakers who exploit poverty in the Philippines (it is also called slum voyeurism) and dream of glory with what they perceive to be the ultimate art film (though artsy these films often turn out to be). It pokes fun at its own kind—the indie movie—the foibles, naivete, the pompousness and ambitiousness of the typical indie filmmaker, and the absurd realities facing them.

The leading characters—the director Rainier (Cipriano) and producer Bingbong (De Guzman)—are young filmmakers who are full of enthusiasm and determination. They are not starving artists but well-off film school grads who ride a flashy car. An efficient production assistant, or P.A. Jocelyn (Cortez) tends to their needs. They plan their movie, or moves, in the favorite hangout and “study room” of young people—the omnipresent coffeehouse. They dream of taking the foreign festival scene by storm.

And while they brainstorm, they mouth lines that get in the nerves (at least of this writer and several other people I know), like “at the end of the day” and “the bottomline is…,” both phrases uttered in one sentence, too. And if their speech is peppered with platitudes, their movie is turning up to be similarly tainted.

Just about every stereotype found in cheap indie movies is here, principally the setting. Depressed living in a dumpsite may stink, but to the filmmakers who want to catch the attention of the foreign arthouse audience and penetrate the international festival scene and attract the festival directors and programmers, the squalid location is a bed of roses—until they get clobbered by harsh realities.

One reality is the criminal nature of the folk they at first romanticize in their story. In their original concept, the slum-dwellers suffer quietly. They show a mother, noble, strong, and emotionless, preparing soup, which is all she can feed her eight children. This is one of the film’s hilarious sendups. Domingo and Picache appear in the same role with different approaches to show how indie acting is a world apart from mainstream acting. One is matter-of-fact, understated, authentic, “realistic.” The other is soap opera style, with lugubrious tears and curse-the-world histrionics. There is also that underlying idea that some actors act—and directors direct—to get awards.

The mother is shown taking one of her boys—undeniably a minor—to the apartment of a foreign pedophile in a desperate effort to profit from it, a situation that has its own comic results.

Another reality is the youthful team’s encounter with their much-coveted star, Eugene Domingo played by Eugene Domingo playing a diva who mouths her support and love of indie cinema. Seemingly sympathetic to the indie cause, Domingo the character is agreeable to join in but is still nevertheless unable to shake off some of her prima donna requirements.

One important matter, she notes: there is this part in the script that sees her falling in a septic tank. Yuck. She conveys to them her concern: can they allow their star to really swim in a slimy, smelly, absolutely filthy septic tank? Will Domingo the actress and Domingo the actress-character expose herself to the indignity and health hazards accompanying that fall, a task no different from a fraternity/sorority initiation and descent to malodorous hell? For that matter, will the Babae filmmakers allow that?

Revealing the answer would be a spoiler (though the publicity for the movie has thrown the giveaway). Suffice it to say that Babae sa Septic Tank is a serious, riotous satire that never runs out of surprises. Like a Bollywood extravaganza, a scene may erupt into a musical number or it may degenerate into hysterical melodrama. The septic tank itself has been a shock-schlock devise in the Oscar Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, another movie that may be categorized as having waded in poverty porn.

Unlike other films of its kind, Babae sa Septic Tank does not quite fall into the gutter trap, because it does not take itself too seriously as an exposé or docu-drama and because it is full of sharp, comic observations about the culture of poverty hereabouts, and how it delights in the fact that lesser filmmakers exploit this culture.

Deservingly, the film won five major awards at the 2011 Cinemalaya including best actress for Eugene Domingo, best picture, and best director for Marlon Rivera. One creative person who deserves the lion’s share of honors is screenplay writer Chris Martinez (Here Comes the Bride and Kimmy Dora, and director of 100 and the recent remake of Temptation Island). Martinez and the director have benefited from the contribution of key technical people in the staff: editor Ike Veneracion, production designer Reji Regalado, music scorer and composer of the musical number Vince de Jesus, soundman Albert Michael Idioma, and cinematographer Larry Manda. They have put the actors and the comic-dramatic material in great light—surely away from cinematic gutter, and turned clichés into nuggets.