Festivals, Reviews

Cinemalaya 2019: ‘Iska’ – A Realistic Portrait that Failed to Say Anything Real

We open to a scene that takes its time drawing in breath, holding it in for as long as it can until the inevitable exhale. It is a practiced patience, a testament to the unconditional love this life-beaten grandmother has for the autistic grandson her daughter abandoned. If, like a practiced diver, the film held this control as it delved deeper into the narrative, it could’ve had the potential to deliver a message that would measure up to Ruby Ruiz’s masterful performance as the film’s lead. In its ambitious attempt to say too much, Theodore Boborol’s “Iska” ended up not saying anything at all.

That is not to say the technical aspects of Boborol’s first independent film are not in themselves commendable. Cinematography, lighting, and sound mixing seamlessly immersed its audience into this world – enhancing a reality yet staying true to it (as all good cinema should). Acting was another strong component in the film, favorites being Soliman Cruz and Pryle Cruz who play Joven and Dongdong respectively; each actor breathed life into figures in and around the true star of the show: Ruby Ruiz as Iska.

There wasn’t any pain the audience didn’t feel as their own, no laughter we didn’t want to share in, no other thief we would entertainingly watch count to 100. Ruiz dissected the character and played all her beauty and faults enough that we couldn’t help but root for her, so much so that when life turns its back on Iska (and when the material the actress had to work with began to falter), we feel heart shattering betrayal upon the film’s unsatisfying final act (that I dare say borderlines “shock factor” due to the failure of supporting scenes to justify it).

Technicality and acting aside, individual parts don’t make a whole. This film put too much emphasis on too many things–health care, contractualization, student activism, poverty, flaws in the orphanage system, even the inaccessibility of public transport–that the core of the film, the love for family despite all the aforementioned issues, drowned. While it is important to chronicle Iska’s experiences with each, all must come full circle for the film to make sense, to make one cohesive story instead of a mere for-the-sake-of documenting reality. It takes harmony for several parts to create a true piece of art—then and only then will the message it wants to say pack a punch.

While it stands true that independent cinema is an avenue to tell important stories, it is still an art form that requires a certain discipline in the craft and all its elements to bear anything fruitful. It is a shame that Iska had to crumble in on itself when it had the potential to be more than mere poverty porn at best, and a harmful oxymoron at worst.

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