Arts and Culture

Seeing Wonder: On Engaging, Grace, and Believing in Love

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Source: Warner Brothers Pictures

Every year, our church does a series of sermons on the idea of discipleship and engaging our community. It’s a regular “tradition” in the church calendar, varying only in the Bible verses we’re led to reflect on in our small groups. This year, we pulled from the life of Peter, with the topic of engaging being linked to Peter’s ministering to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Our small group material in particular focused on Acts 10:9-16, which is about the vision Peter has before he’s asked to see Cornelius. (TL;DR, In the vision, Jesus reveals that we are called to reach out to all people, building on the Great Commission of “…going into all the world.”)  

It was a really great message, but while my fellow small group mates seemed absolutely hyped on God’s mission, ready to go out there and reach out to people and do some good in the world, all I felt was…resistance. 

Confession: I have never been good at engaging, and every year when my church does this message I sort of…tune out.  I tell myself that, as an introvert, God surely doesn’t intend for me to actually go out there and directly reach out to people.  Nah, let them come to me; I won’t go first. I never go first.

That night, in small group, I realised these were all excuses I was telling myself. The reason for my reluctance wasn’t so much that I was an introvert. No, it was something that ran a little deeper than that.

It was because, when I was twenty-three, I decided I didn’t like people.

This wasn’t some sort of impulsive thought: “Oh, I don’t think I like people today.”  No, this was a conscious choice on my part: I would not, could not like people, and I would not trust or engage with them. It helped that I was a fan of Game of Thrones, which is extremely good at portraying the dark, twisted roots of human motivation. It also helped that around that time, everyone was talking about the fate of Jon Snow: stabbed by people he trusted, by his “brothers,” and left to die.

Something that felt a lot like that—and I won’t go into details—happened to me.  This wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst time.  And so, after filing a very long leave from work and stewing alone in my room for several afternoons, I made my decision: I did not like people.

And people did not deserve to know me.

From that moment, I made a conscious effort to start…closing myself off. Some of it made sense: I get a bit anxious in large crowds, am not fond of small talk, and do not like partying.  Again: introvert.  But other things had less to do with introversion and more to do with the satisfaction of pushing away people I did not trust. Who had hurt me (consciously or unconsciously). Who I believed would hurt me again. Years of being bullied in grade school and high school had already made me a little wary of friendships, but this was the first time I was outright refusing them, putting up walls and putting on masks.  It made me feel like I was taking control of my life.  It made me feel good.  And if I ever felt isolated, well, it was better to stand alone than to be fighting alongside and for people who, in the next breath, could be turning their swords on me.

Essentially, I was enacting a closed-door policy on my life, which, as you can guess, does not go along well with the whole Christian commission to engage with the community and care for people.  But I figured, I’d find ways to get around it. I served in church. I still held small groups. I volunteered for orgs that did good work. And I had friends, people I would talk to online even if I avoided meeting them in person.  And I cared about these friends…

…but not as much as I cared about myself.  Real talk: if any of them were in the way of a passing truck, I do not trust that I’d have pushed them out of the way.  If it was them or me, I might have chosen me.

The world—and Game of Thrones—paints this “me first” mentality as wise.  Encourages you to lose your faith in people, to “…kill the girl and let the woman be born.”  Only the naive believe in the fundamental good of humanity; growing up means realising the truth, that man is wolf to other man and that you can trust no one because the more you care, the weaker you are. The more you love, the weaker you are. Because one day the inevitable will happen: those closest to you will either turn on you or leave. Or both.

And so I did not engage, because I did not want to care about people who would turn on me or leave. I kept people at arms length, stayed behind walls, ate at my desk, refused invitations with the bright and beaming smile that was both sword and shield to me.  This was self-defence, I told myself, even as it felt—and kept feeling—wrong. 

Small group was the first blow to this worldview.  The second was Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure: while I am a geek, I’m not a comic book geek.  I have watched zero of the Marvel blockbusters (despite some of them garnering critical acclaim), and, up until recently, had the same batting average for DC. But when a post came out talking about how Wonder Woman seemed like it was being set up to fail at the box office (and thus prove stories about empowered women did not sell), my baby feminist heart could not handle it. I told my mum we had to book tickets to watch this movie when we came out, which we promptly did.

It was, in a word, a wonder.

While I have watched/read female-centered franchises before (I was a huge fan of The Hunger Games, and in Game of Thrones I cheered when the last season featured strong female-centric plotlines), Wonder Woman was…different.  The movie felt so unapologetically idealistic, so full of empathy and tenderness even as it celebrated the superhuman strength of its lead.  It was the total antithesis of the gritty cynicism that seemed the highlight of current male superhero mythology and even my mainstay of GoT.  Wonder Woman did not sugarcoat how dark people could be—“Be careful in the world of men, Diana,” says Queen Hippolyta, early in the film, “They do not deserve you.”—but without completely absolving mankind of that darkness, it still presented a reason to hope.  Yes, people are cruel and easily-corrupted, cowardly and twisted and undeserving, but, as Diana says in the climax of the film, “It’s not about [what people] deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

Despite the fact that I am an avowed cynic, I do believe in love. In fact, that belief is at the core of who I say I am: as a  Christian, my very existence is founded on the idea of grace, of receiving a love I did not deserve.  I lash out at the people I think hurt me, but the truth is I too am just as cruel, just as unforgiving, just as—or rather, more so–twisted and bitter and dark…and Someone I did not deserve came to fight for me.  To save me, even when I was not worthy of saving.  The very essence of Christianity is that no one deserves anything: love is a gift. Love is a grace. And when you receive it, you can’t help but give it away.

“Only Love will truly save the world.” says Diana. In a world that is hurting and broken and twisted every which way, Love is humanity’s great hope. And while it is tempting to keep safe from the world, stay behind my walls to avoid getting hurt, “How will I be if I stay?”

It was this message that hit home for me and sent me out of the theatre in tears. The truth is, considering the darkness we are capable of, none of us really deserves kindness or grace or an open hand. But it really isn’t about “deserving.”  Instead, it’s about what we believe in, and what I believe in—what I quite loudly shout that I believe in—is Love. A Love big enough to save the world, to cover over a multitude of dark and twisted and awful. A Love that was big enough to save me from myself, and to keep on saving me.

It’s easy to think of yourself as a victim, when you’re hurt, but the truth is the world is hurting. “We all have our own battles,” says another character in Wonder Woman. We all have our own darkness, and at the core of that darkness is pain.  The difference lies in what you decide to do with it.

And, as another of my all-time favourite characters, the Twelfth Doctor, puts it, the right thing to do is this:

“…do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this: No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!

That is what engaging means: taking the pain, holding it tight, and deciding to fight it instead of letting it own you. And the way to fight it is Love, is sharing Love instead of keeping it all to yourself, hiding it behind walls and never letting anyone close. 

There are people I say I care about. There are people out there who I say matter to me. And there are people out there I don’t like. Who i don’t want to care about. Either way, they all need what I know: Love.  And so, even if the prospect terrifies me, even if I’m not some superhuman with armour and a shield and a magic lasso, I leave my island. I step out behind the wall. I stretch out my hand, and I let my guard down, and I have faith that, despite the pain…I will see grace.

I will see Wonder.

~aRT~

P.S.

For more comprehensive (and awesome) reviews/reflections on Wonder Woman, check out:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/30/15709572/wonder-woman-review-gadot
https://www.bustle.com/p/wonder-womans-message-of-love-cant-be-repeated-enough-right-now-62157 – Got the blog’s featured image from here, by way of Google Image Search.
http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/wonder-woman-is-the-hero-we-need-but-maybe-not-the-hero-we-deserve-9481938
http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/june/why-we-need-wonder-woman.html

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[travelogue] Coming Out of My Cage (And It Feels Just Fine)

A/N: Submitted this as an entry to World Nomads’ travel scholarship competition. I didn’t win, but it felt like a piece of travel writing worth sharing.

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It’s June.  The night is humid, glowing amber in the lights of Armenian Street.  I’m twenty-three, and girls much younger than me have done this before—wandered off at night in search of adventure—but I’d always been the “tame” one.  At home, they call me tita (aunty), lola (grandma). The girl whose idea of partying is having tea in bed after work.

Certainly not the girl who’d be rounding the corner of a graffiti-covered alley at half-ten at night, the remnants of a sangria buzzing in her blood.  But it was my last day in Singapore, and I’d found myself wanting to live a little.

Emphasis on a little.  There would be no shared drinks with strangers.  Instead, I was looking for new music, and Timbre at The Substation was supposedly the best place to find it.

Back home in Manila, I balanced a responsible, serious job as an agency strat planner with a self-proclaimed “career”—profitability be hanged—as a singer/songwriter for a rock band.  When my bandmates heard I was traveling to Singapore, they’d filled my head with stories of underground gigs with inspiring acts.  It was this promise that got me to wander a foreign city at the oddest hours of night.  I’d tried to find it in Clarke Quay, but the bands there sounded professional when I was looking for raw.  A quick Google search for “indie music gigs Singapore” pointed me in the direction of Timbre.  

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Several attempts at a cab ride later, I’m elbowing my way into the dark, open-air club, dodging a bunch of finance-looking bros nursing beers.  I grab a stool near the bar and, just as I catch my balance, there’s that familiar screech of an electric guitar being sound-checked.  Then, the mics crackle to life as a raspy mezzo-soprano (just like me) launches into the familiar first line of The Killers’ hit, Mr. Brightside.

Soon, it’s midnight. Though the sangria’s worn off, I might as well be drunk. I’m dancing in my seat, shout-singing along with those finance bros through a series of pop-rock hits. Later, I’ll notice my phone battery is dead.  Later, I’ll catch my first ever bus.  Later, I’ll huddle, scared, at a deserted taxi stand in a different part of town (How did I get here?!) until an off-duty cab takes pity on me and brings me back to my hotel.  

Later, I’ll wonder what possessed me to wander around at night, in an unfamiliar city. But, with rock music blasting from crackling amplifiers, later hardly matters.

For the first time, I’m coming out of my cage, and right now, it feels fine.

~aRT~

 

My first Metro Manila Film Festival, or, 2016 Had One Good Thing

Alternate Title: Bandwagoning on the review train because I took ONE Film Appreciation class in university.

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I don’t usually watch Filipino films, but when the Metro Manila Film Festival–infamous for showing hackneyed franchise films, advertisements-turned-movies, and slapdash vehicles for studio loveteam(s)-du-jour–released an indie-dominated 2016 slate, I knew I had to hit the cinemas.  Originally, I was just going to watch Saving Sally, the animated/live-action hybrid that promised to fulfill all my Scott Pilgrim/(500) Days of Summer/John Green fantasies (go ahead, call me basic), but after I saw the trailers of the others, I decided to go for broke (literally; popcorn is expensive) and watch more.

Here’s what I checked out:

  • Saving Sally – Best Original Score
  • Sunday Beauty Queen – Best Picture
  • Die Beautiful – Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor

Since everyone is leaving their thoughts on Facebook–and frankly since I want the MMFF to go on like this–I’ve decided to share some of my thoughts on the films I did watch.  Ladies and gentlemen, here is my MMFF Review Digest (complete with emoji score), starting with the first film I watched…

Saving Sally
Rating: 🎨🎨🎨/🎨🎨🎨🎨🎨 + one 😭 bonus for the after-credits scene.

“It’s not a ten, but it’s the best eight I’ve ever seen.” – My friend, Marvs

Actually, Sally as a movie was more a seven (or high 6) for me.  Even though I loved the film to bits and 10/10 would watch again, I have to admit that the criticism it’s received is well-founded.  The story isn’t balanced, dragging at some points (especially the first thirty minutes) and being rushed in others.  The climax, in particular, was, well, anticlimactic, and I have to agree with another friend, AJ, when he said that the story could have ended at an earlier point in order to remain more powerful (the credit sequence would have sufficed to round off the plot without killing the drama, although we would have suffered a bit from never learning the “secret project”).

Script-wise, Saving Sally definitely could have been stronger, but its visual appeal cannot be overstated. The blend of animation and live action is gorgeous, with many screengrab-able moments for when you finally watch it on DVD/digital download. The little inside jokes and nods to Pinoy geek culture are fun to spot, especially if you’re a fan of people like Arnold Arre and Budgette Tan/Kajo Baldisimo.

Objectively, you could call Saving Sally a mediocre movie. Could.  It suffers from a lot of “great idea, meh execution” moments. But the strength and simplicity of the idea–the heart of the movie, really–carry the film through.  It’s definitely a movie for the John Green/Scott Pilgrim/Garden State crowd, and you might have to manage your expectations against overhype, but if you fit this film’s admittedly niche target market…you’ll love it. Especially if you stay for the post-credits scene, which I feel rounds off the film perfectly and reduced me to tears.

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Dressed as Sally to watch the movie because I’m geeky like that.

Also, I will definitely be going as Sally to APCC/NexCon/Cosplay Matsuri this year.

Sunday Beauty Queen
Rating: 👸🏻👸🏻👸🏻👸🏻👸🏻/👸🏻👸🏻👸🏻👸🏻👸🏻

Honestly, I’d debated whether to give this a 4.5/5 or a perfect five, since Sunday Beauty Queen‘s style of documentary storytelling does take a bit of getting used to.  However, looking back, I don’t think you could tell this story any other way without ruining it.  This docudrama refuses to pander to the usual OFW clichés, rendering its painful moments–and there are many–with restraint, a choice which makes those moments hit so much harder than if it had assaulted us with primetime soap opera-worthy crying faces.

The Beauty Queens themselves refuse to be “martir.” Even as the describe the abuse they receive at the hands of unfair employers, they are sassy and brassy and brave, refusing to lose their dignity.  Whether they are fumbling their English pageant answers (I felt so bad when people started laughing in the theater! I even shushed my mum!) or describing a fight with a soon-to-be ex-boss, these women are as straightforward as the film that portrays them, and wisely, that film focuses more on the personalities of its subjects rather than the drama of their circumstances.  You really get to know these women, get to watch as they go from helper to queen to helper again, and find underneath every transformation this fighting spirit that’s at once touching and inspiring.

10/10 more proud to be Filipino than ever. Must-watch.

Die Beautiful
Rating: 👄👄👄👄.5/👄👄👄👄👄

This film should have won best screenplay (also basing this on my friends’ reviews of Seklusyon, as I can’t watch horror without making my insomnia worse) , and anyone who says otherwise can FITE ME.

That being said, let’s address the elephant in the room: this is an LGBT+ film.  A very unapologetic LGBT+ film.  And I am an extremely conservative, Bible-believing, world-would-call-me-a-bigot-I-know, Christian.

So what are you doing watching that kind of movie?

Compassion.  That’s why.  It is so easy to scream “Sinner!” and “Unspeakable!” when the ones you scream at don’t have names or faces, but I dare you to think of Tricia and her compatriots as anything but human after watching this film.  While still possessing a level of camp–the jokes get green, and they get green fast–Die Beautiful triumphantly demolishes the disgusting, one-dimensional gaysploitation convention that the MMFF’s previous, Vice Ganda-led comedies actively capitalize on.  We are not watching caricatures here; we are watching people, and that fact shines through even the film’s own clumsy, less-nuanced moments (*coughthe funeral directorcough*).

Which is not to say that Die Beautiful does not disgust. At one point in the film, I wanted to walk out, but even then it was for a reason the film I’m sure intended. A lengthy, graphic (though not explicit or exploitative) rape scene that is revisited several times in the film acts a reminder of just how brutal the cruelty LGBT+ individuals receive can be. It’s sickening that some people have said Laude–the transgender murder victim whose story inspired the film–deserved to die because of what they were, and Die Beautiful makes sure you understand just what that assertion means, makes you look it in the face multiple times and challenges you to say that anyone could deserve what Tricia Echevarria got.

If there was anything that lost Die Beautiful its points, it was the unfinished nature of Tricia’s story with Shirley May, the adopted daughter. We find Shirley a repentant rebel at the beginning of the movie, and later on flash back to her as a loving and supportive, wise-beyond-her-years little girl, but what fueled the shift from doting daughter to prodigal was largely left unexplored, and in truth, writing Shirley May as an angry teenage girl was unnecessary, if her story wasn’t going to contribute much to the plot. (The handling of Gladys Reyes’ role as Tricia’s sister Beth was much better, despite her shorter screen time.)

Still, even if the film was not perfect, it definitely lived up to its name: Beautiful. Challenging and compassionate, it reminds conservative viewers to look at these often-marginalized members of society with eyes of grace, not judgment.  For that reason, I was glad that it was the last movie I watched in this year’s MMFF line up: it was the perfect example of what Filipino films should be.

Also, Christian Bables is a national treasure, and Barbs should win the award for best friend ever.  With all love to Paulo Ballesteros, whose award for this film was well-deserved, BARBS WAS THE REAL STAR OF THIS MOVIE. I CANNOT. BES, I LOVE YOU BES.

This concludes my “review dump” for the MMFF.  I’ve heard reports that the festival may be extended to January 7, and if the news is true, please watch all these films and the others, if you haven’t yet.  PLEASE.  Let’s keep the MMFF this way! 

(#SavingSine, char.)

~aRT~