A question of brilliance
In trying to manipulate the public sentiment, no one masters the craft better than the director of cinema. This is the reason why filmmakers are often sought to collaborate in state propaganda.
Inspired by recent behaviorist theory in psychology, which had shown how the emotional reactions of people can be controlled through “conditioning,” Soviet filmmakers like Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein during the period of silent cinema employed various contrasting images as visual stimuli to generate certain emotional responses.
That editing technique known as “montage” became characteristic of propaganda films commissioned by Stalin to solicit support for the new communist state. During this early stage of cinema, when it was still mute and monochrome, both filmmakers and Stalin were realizing the power of a simple shot or cut to move the emotion of the viewing public, in this case, the whole nation was their captive audience.
This Soviet example of the power of cinema to move the masses influenced Adolf Hitler, who also was himself a self-confessed fan of the new art form.
Through his chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, he hired one of the most brilliant German filmmakers of the time, Leni Riefenstahl, to be part of his team.
With Hitler as executive producer, Riefenstahl filmed the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by 700,000 party members.
With sound only recently introduced in cinema, the young woman director experimented with matching music and cinematography, employed numerous cameras and even aerial shots to show the huge crowd that gathered to support Hitler. The documentary, entitled “Triumph of the Will,” became one of the classics of propaganda cinema.
Reifenstahl was also commissioned to film the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin. Again, the Nazi director employed multiple camera cinematography, classical and modern editing techniques, dramatic use of sound and other innovative techniques to produce Olympia, a beautiful cinematic masterpiece that would influence the way sports documentaries would be made until today. The film, whose prelude alluded to the ancient Greek civilization as the origin of the Olympics, also helped to promote an image of Nazi Germany as a strong, modern yet friendly state before the war.
Talking about the Olympics and filmmakers, there was also Zhang Yimou, the internationally acclaimed Chinese director who was commissioned by the Chinese government to direct the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics held in Beijing. The director combined classical Chinese theatrical techniques with electronic wizardry, including computer-generated fireworks, to produce an epic international presentation.
Given this tradition of filmmakers taking part in state propaganda, it was not a surprise that our very own internationally acclaimed director Brillante Mendoza would be asked to direct the first State of the Nation Address (Sona) of President Rodrigo Duterte. After it was announced prior to the Sona, there was much excitement over how Mendoza would make it different.
Like Riefenstahl, Mendoza used multiple cameras placed in several locations to show various angles of the President giving a speech. Crane shots reveal an overlooking shot of the crowd. There was also a shot from behind the President to show him before the audience. There were also those rather abrupt cuts (ala Eisenstein) to close up shots of the President’s hand gesturing as he talked. These were, however, common techniques now adopted by network television.
What became controversial were those extremely low angle shots showing a tight view of Duterte with one hand grasping the podium. It’s so low, yet close enough to reveal, as the joke goes, the holes on Digong’s big nose.
Indeed, a lot of people find that shot awkward and a bit obtrusive. Used in between the more conventional long and crane shots, the insertion of those shots are a bit too disruptive and diverts attention from Digong to itself. In other words, it’s too artsy and self-conscious.
They say art is best when there is the least of it. Indeed, some filmmakers deliberately aim to disguise art, to make techniques as invisible as possible so that we focus more on the narrative or the content rather than form.
And given that this was to be the first and most-awaited Sona of the new President, the focus of the nation is on what Duterte had to say. The gravity of the message is the whole point and Mendoza could have used art to make it easy for people to pay attention to it. In other words, art should not get in the way.
But someone as brilliant — pardon the pun — as Brillante Mendoza could not have missed that. So we wonder, what could have been in his mind. Was that shot actually deliberate? What message did he want to suggest in that low angle shot?
It was certainly less flattering to Duterte’s big nose, but that “worm’s eye view” takes the perspective of someone inferior, like a serf looking at the landlord standing over him. As such, it betrays the egalitarian tone of the speech.
But who knows what’s on Mendoza’s mind? He could have done it purposely. After all, it is already ironic that the filmmaker who earned his first major international award for a film about extra-judicial killings is now made to direct the speech of perhaps the biggest suspect behind such killings.
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