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Imburnal: Davao down the drain

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By Lito B. Zulueta

Sherrad Anthony Sanchez’s “Imburnal” builds on the strengths of the young filmmaker’s commanding debut, “Huling Balyan sa Buhi,” with slight modification of geography: from the mystical but conflict-ridden hinterlands of Mindanao, we are brought to the sewers and emerging ghettoes of Davao City, a countryside in transition from the pastoral to the cosmopolitan. The extended opening shot of the sewer framed by a giant pipe as the waters and effluents merrily gurgle along provides both a foreshadowing of what is to come and an objective correlative of a countryside village in urban transition: nature apparently unaware of the wages of progress it is welcoming, innocence quite too innocently embracing the development that would prove to be its own undoing. The innocence is reflected in the two boys, Allen and Joel, of Barangay Matina Aplaya, Punta Dumalog in Davao City, whose points of view are the lenses through which the viewers get to see Davao. Through their unaffected gaze and ways, we see Davao’s beauty and ugliness, the latter taking the criticaal dominance in contrast to tourist brochures and loud marketing campaigns that have always provided Davao a patina of charm and allure.

Often touted by locals and denizens as the world’s largest city (even Mt. Apo, the country’s largest peak, is part of the city’s territory), Davao, in “Imburnal,” makes a paradoxical claim to being not quite yet a city but not anymore the village it once was. Its “in-betweenness” would prove fatal: in its race for progress, Davao appears to have discarded much of the strengths of the past that should have provided some stability and a critical corrective to the depredations of promise. “Huling Balyan” in fact prefigures this with its focus on an aged and ancient minstrel in whose memory is reposed the folklore and legend of the collective consciousness, who’s caught in the conflict of wars and insurgencies. In “Imburnal,” the city’s looming ghettoes are painted in expansive strokes: unlike the urban jungle of Manila, Davao’s inner cities are sprawled across the wide panorama of nature that is slowly losing its evergreen vibrancy; in its place are the creeping traces of shanty living and the anomic wanderings of agrarian people displaced by industrialization and the service needs of the hospitality industry.

While still a showcase of nature because of Mt. Apo and its surviving fruit farms, Davao is in the process of disintegration, “Imburnal” appears to say. And the disintegration is mirrored not so much in the spatial transition from jungle to city but in the ways of its denizens: Allen and Joel collect cockroaches; they curse and talk about sex, and take a bath in the sewers. The teenager around them take drugs and conduct sex orgies in the abandoned water pipes from public works left unfinished since the money has run out due to kickbacks and corruption. In concrete geography and in social and spiritual environment, Davao has practically collapsed.

Sanchez tells the story of the breakdown of a civilization in a bucolic way, the better to provide an emotional correlative to the painterly sounds and sights that comprise his Davao canvas. The pace is unhurried, the images nearly approximate the poetic, and the editing is even leisurely: the realism is cinematic but without the sentimentalism or spuriousness. Sanchez seems to say: this is how Davao goes down, not with a bang but with a sigh, nature’s final heave undetermined in a slow wasting away.