The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Ang Damgo ni Elueteria: Virtuosity in peripatetic filmmaking

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By Butch Francisco

The vernacular word tuhog has various meanings. Primarily it means to string together—as in string sampaguita blossoms into a lei. In the culinary world, it means to skewer—as in skewering chunks of meat for barbecue purposes. This must have been what gave the word a salacious definition in Tagalog. In less polite language, this is what we say when a Lothario begins squiring two or more siblings or related individuals (“tinuhog ang magkapatid”).

That is the title of the 2000 Gawad Urian best picture winner, now adjudged by the Manunuri as one of the best of the decade. Tuhog is the story of two women—mother and daughter, actually—who both become wives to the head of the family, a man who shows no compunction deviating from social norms by committing incest.

In cinematic sense, however, filmmakers refer to tuhog as a method of shooting wherein the camera grinds continuously without editing or cuts.

One of the scenes in the first few minutes of the masterpiece Oro, Plata, Mata, is tuhog shot. This is in a party where guests continue to make merry despite the impending threat of the Second World War.

In Hollywood, Orson Welles in 1958 used this device in A Touch of Evil. Robert Altman did a much-longer take in the 1992 The Player. But film being film, the camera has to stop grinding because a roll of film can only last about 20 minutes. That is why in The Rope (1948), Hitchcock wanted to tell his story in real time, running for about one hour and 21 minutes, but shot it in eight takes at 10 minutes each.

The arrival of the digital age has changed all that, enabling quite a few filmmakers everywhere to experiment with the innovative idea of shooting a film nonstop from beginning to end.

In the Philippines, Remton Siega Zuasola, an indie director from Cebu, first tried using this film technique in To Siomai With Love, Gawad Urian Best Short Film in 2009. Zuasola is in top form again in this year’s Gawad Urian but this time with his full-length feature Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, which he shot entirely in one, long single take—from start to finish.

For about an hour and a half, you witness the unfolding story set in the migratory bird sanctuary Olango island in Cebu. Told in Cebuano, but with English sub-titles, the film starts with a family preparing for the departure of the title character Eleuteria (Donna Isadora Gimeno) as a mail-order bride to a man she has never met. The man is in Germany, named Hans.

Eleuteria, or Terya, shows much hesitation and protestations, so she is practically dragged by her mother (Lucia Jeuzan) to the pier, which is her first stop to get to her final destination. The parents has pushed her to the eventual arranged marriage.

During that entire walk, she meets various characters familiar to present-day Filipinos. A cousin who has previously married a foreigner, shows up, toughened by experience, but rather affluent. Even if she is only rich by small-town standards, she makes sure everyone in that island sees her wealth. And then there is the recruiter you may not want to trust even with your old toothbrush. There is the village idiot, the blissfully ignorant, happily unaware of social and national problems, and friendly to Terya.

Along the way, she is almost snatched away for good by this swain who tries to convince her to elope with him. He doesn’t seem to be much of a choice—the future with him looks dim—but she loves him. Like the generation before them, they will marry at a young age, probably have children they cannot even raise properly and so the vicious cycle goes.

More than anything, the movie is peripatetic, one long, exhausting walk recorded to virtuosic effect by the camera. Cinematography is so good viewers feel the burning heat of the sun and empathize with the characters. The film also shows in passing Filipino customs and traditions, like our love for fiestas and the much-vaunted Filipino hospitality.

In one scene, the girl’s father (Gregg Tecson), who is not completely sold on the idea of “selling” their daughter to some foreigner, sarcastically tells his wife to be the one to fly to Germany and marry Hans. “I hope he makes Hans pork and beans out of you!”—referring to Hunt’s, the foreign brand that even people in our farthest islands consume and patronize.

Little details like this one all contribute to making Damgo one of the outstanding films of 2010. But its larger thematic material makes it truly significant, dealing with poverty and the role of women in our society.

The actors are non-professional but they all shine in their respective roles, particularly Gimeno, Jeuzan, and Tecson. These natural thespians do not act. They simply react and interact with one another.

But more than anybody involved in the film, Zuasola gets the most credit for the film for hard work and creative ideas. Though no one is credited for editing, Zuasola has done a lot of pre-editing before the shoot, and back-breaking, nerve-wracking rehearsals. One moment, one second has to be done without a mistake—otherwise the idea of the long single take will be ruined.

To non-Cebuano speakers, damgo means dream, aspiration. Like the word tuhog, damgo may represent various meanings since we all have different dreams. I can say that Zuasola has fulfilled a great dream with this finished film product—a movie in one single take, tuhog. And comes up with a landmark achievement.