Annotations on Marlon Fuentes’ “Bontoc Eulogy”

By Mel Rose Aguilar- Maestro


“Every regime of representation is a regime of power formed.”
– Michel Foucault

Historical and ethnographic representations in cinema are implicative of the positions from which we draw specified, often temporalized ideological representations of cultural identities. “Bontoc Eulogy”, a 1995 ethnographic mockumentary by Filipino- American, Marlon Fuentes is an attempt of memorializing the experience of uprooted Filipinos (Bontoc Igorots) displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The historical
narrative interweaves fiction and non-fiction, circumscribing four generation of Filipinos; “four generation of displacement” as what Jim Zurich has mentioned in his scholarly review of the film.

The film presents a vital discourse in the cultural identity and representation of Filipinos during the St. Louis Purchase Exposition vis- a- vis self- representation of America operating as a colonial narrative. Robert Rydell in his book, All the World’s a Fair, reckons that even before the dawn of the industrial revolution, the creation of fairs is displays of hegemonic triumph as well as symbolic edifices. What is rooted in the foundation of the fair is a colonial ideology. Albert Jenks, chief of the Department of Ethnology for Philippine Reservation that time recalls that “the intent of the exposition was for Americans to gain a prouder estimate of their country and countrymen”; the
glorification of the great civilizing act imposed upon Filipinos.

The determinants of civilization posed by the Americans rubricated the imperialist social schema. Education is the primary determinant- a tool of transmission of the imperialist ideology. Civilization also, in a sense is equated with loyalty and the civilizing process done by the Americans involved such “degrees”. Frank Fanon in his book, “Black Skin, White Mask” argues that “colonization is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content… by a kind of logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures and destroys”. The film is centered on the second to the last in the heirarchy, the Igorots. What could be
the reason of the selection?

In the film, there is a depiction of the Bontoc Igorots coerced to perform choreographed rituals repetitively for the spectators, which subjected them to detemporalization and disintegration of the rituals’ cultural essence as well as the
exotization of the Igorot representation as savage dog eaters and head hunters. As W. Cameron Forbes puts it, “the exposition is a great social and political injustice creating a
socially false impression”. The film’s pseudo- narrative is a rerouting of the Bontoc Igorots’ ethnological traces; broken puzzle pieces that are congeries of Filipino cultural identity. As a colonial narrative per se, the selection of one of the most primitive and “uncivilized” Filipinos as subject, as “specimen” under a nomenclature, is an apparent exotization of the Filipino cultural identity. Ironically, this material is intentionally produced for American television.
The introspective statement of Fuentes in the end on whether his grandfather returned to the Philippines or went along with other fairs is appalling to imagine if we are to re-experience it. “To return after any long absence is to experience again the shock of “doubleness” of similarity and difference” (Stuart Hall on Essay on Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation, Ex Iles, 1992).

As a film that constitutes a part of history (I have my contentions as to classifying it under historical film), here is an important question: how vital is the film as an artifact? The fact that very few Filipinos knew or have seen the film stirs such irony hitherto, scholars and film students regard it as a historical opus. On what terms does Bontoc Eulogy validate its authenticity? According to Keith Warner in Stuart Hall’s essay in Identity and Cinematic Representation, it is admittedly the foreignness that gave so many films their apparent authenticity and credibility. If we were to apply Edward Said’s theoretical concept on imaginative geography and history (Orientalism,1978) and Homi
Baba on representation, the cinematic apparatus helps the mind to intensify its own sense
of itself by dramatising the difference between what is close to it and what is far away; an imagined community that purports hegemonic identity according to the ambivalent identifications of the of the imperialist.

How did the film assert cultural identity? There are two ways of thinking about cultural identity according to Hall. First, cultural identity as an idea of “one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self’… a reflection of the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us ‘as one people’ with stable,
unchanging continuous frames of reference”. The second one elucidates cultural identity as a matter of ‘becoming’ as well of ‘being’. Therefore, it belongs to the future as much as to the past. Using the latter concept, the film asserts the Filipino cultural identity as hegemonic representation constructed by the Americans. If we are to apply Jacques
Derrida’s theoretical concepts as a position, there is a difference or rather ‘differance’ within identity (metaphorically as well as literally, a trans-lation). The Bontocs or Filipinos per se belonged to the “marginal, the under-developed, the periphery, the ‘other’; we are at the rim of the developed world. It is seemingly valid to theoretically assert that “without relations of difference, no representation could occur”. Bontoc Eulogy is not an artifact that will bring us nostalgia but rather a historicization of the Filipino experience under the imperialist regime. It is among other photographs and trade materials that will constantly remind us of the irretrievability of our cultural identity.
The film rather seemingly operates as a looking glass. As Hall writes, (irepresentation vis- a- vis cultural identity) far from being grounded in the mere recovery of the past, which is waiting to be found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity… only then we can understand the truly traumatic character of the colonial experience.

 Said, E. (1978). Orientalism
 Chan, M. (1992). Ex- Iles: Essays on Caribean Cinema

Mel Aguilar- Maestro is a mom, college lecturer, and visual artist. She is currently finishing her MA degree in Media Studies at the premier University of the Philippines. Her work mostly focuses on feminist media practices. 

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