Defying Gravity

On 24 October, Raja Khan a twenty-three year-old father of two lit himself up in front of the Pakistani parliament. Unable to find a job to provide for his family, Raja Khan borrowed money for a bus trip to the city and decided to bring his plea to the government with his remaining recourse. He doused his body with kerosene and set himself alight. Television cameras cast an eerie proximity to his aged father’s grief. Reports say that he was badly burned that only the soles of his feet remained untouched by fire.[1] One imagines with little difficulty his burnt flesh, the acrid smell wafting in the air, infusing it with desolation.  In Raja Khan’s war against despair, he might have lost and won. The loss may have been the cycle of misery and despondency from which his children and family were not freed, and the gain that was redemption by way of this final sacrifice.

Himpapawid (Manila Skies, Pelikula Red 2010 release) directed by Raymond Red, scrutinizes with unerring eye the unravelling of a despairing mind. It surveys the landscape of misery and dejection by shifting seamlessly between the topographies of troubled psyche, indifferent city and the inert pastorals of the countryside. Based on a foiled hijack of a local Philippine flight in early 2002, Himpapawid follows the doomed fate of Raul, the film’s main character with a sensitive eye, a well-crafted narrative and technical virtuosity. Red understands the city well and this intimate knowledge of its contradictions he is able to transpose onto the film’s inner life. This allows him to deftly construct the workings of Raul’s threadbare hopes against a landscape equally desolate, seeming to have reached its brim, fearsome in its coldness and detachment. Indeed, for Raul and others in the film, the skies offer the only reprieve. “Lilipad kami.” (We will fly) was Raul, Crispin and Juan’s shared dream.

The theme of flight is apparent through recurring shots of airplanes overhead and Raul wistfully gazing at their sleek, gliding bodies against stark, foamy clouds. Indeed, flight has become his obsession. He keeps mementoes from home inside a biscuit tin box whose lid is inscribed with Himpapawid, consults a flying manual to fashion a crude parachute and keeps his spare coins in a plane coin bank. He filches cloth from strike banners of worker’s unions, patching them into his own protest, a self-engineered escape. Flight is construed as release and freedom from life misshapen by poverty, failure and injustice.

Raul’s life-story dovetails with a young boy from a family of farmers and basket weavers   who dream of a better life. For this boy and his father, the only recourse is education and a job in the city. Thus, the film begins with a scene that presages its end. It is a resounding echo of the painfully unending cycle of despondency that plagues us. On his way home, the young boy’s father comes across Raul’s fallen body and the tattered parachute that failed to save him. We discern confusion as he brought home the bloodied loot from the hijack. Indeed, we can only guess whether the loot will be used to fund their family’s dream of education for the young boy and a better life. This marks a series of failed attempts at redemption and the crushing weight of aborted dreams.

Raul harbours the same hope. He works as a port delivery man and dreams of working overseas to help care for his ailing father. We are cued to his barely contained anger when he asks his supervisor for a day off, when told he has the wrong requirements at the employment agency, and when he thunders at the interminable queue of people all eager for work abroad. In his fruitless search for a job, Raul surfs the tides of high hopes and crushing despair. We feel his brewing, calamitous fury as he rages not only at his supervisor or the employment agency clerk, but at a larger system that incarcerates. After fruitless attempts at employment, he reluctantly joins an amateur heist to rob the employment agency “Overseas”, and get even with the owner who swindled Juan and Crispin of their placement money. The botched job left two of his companions dead, Juan tortured and Crispin badly wounded. Raul drives the getaway cab to a vacant lot in the city and begets the left-over from the heist, a gun and hand grenade.

Red shots this scene of a red cab with the bloodied corpse against a yet untouched pocket of land in the city and frames it with the towering buildings of lit windows. Here as in other views of Metro Manila, Red encourages us to share the dream of his characters to “fly”, to bask in the skies. We find our vision consistently drawn upwards yet he presents the city on camera as that – ‘screened’, beset by conflict and incongruity.

Raul’s forays in city streets and the refuge he finds in the dim shambles of his rented room all reflect his murky state of mind. His walks speak of sporadic determination and constant dejection. He flees to the city’s alleys after the heist and is swallowed by darkness, a dimness that triumphs in his soul. Unable to muster the workings of a system driving post-capital labour and production, he resorts to mimicry. He fashions a parachute which he thought would land him in Romblon after the hijack and joins a gang robbery, both failed attempts to override an overarching structure. Red explores in depth what may have been construed as a deranged attempt. By doing so, he makes us realize the possibility that such derangement is social malaise. The tortured psyche reflects the faulty system it had placed faith on.

Himpapawid succeeds because it is able to paradoxically meld both psyche and urban form, the agitation of one enforcing the indifference of the other. The scenes that show Raul against the screen of the city heighten the snarled relations between his hopelessness and grief, and the place that feeds his agitation. Thus, Raul’s mind becomes the motley plan of Manila, which in reality nearly defies reason. In Himpapawid, Manila becomes catatonic, almost indifferent because brimming with contradiction it cannot contain. Red captures this with irony and honesty, juxtaposing the city’s almost restrictive immobility with the vastness of the skies overhead. He veers from the abuse of the urban in films where it is depicted replete with danger and darkness hence mesmeric in its way, a manner of romanticizing the decrepit city and its secrets. Red avoids such commonplace depiction by shifting our attention to where the psyche and the city meets, and reveals that they are not at all estranged. Manila grows in Raul’s mind and is linked to the chains of hope and despair that is his life. In this interminable push and pull between bare life and dreams, time is painfully forestalled and is closely represented by the impenetrable, weary face of city streets and alleys and the unflinching faces of towering buildings.  Himpapawid presents Manila in disquieting lassitude.

Delirium happens when Raul realizes the gleaming dreams the city inspires are also its monstrosities. The soul has to be liberated from the burden, and how else is redemption sought? Like Raja Khan who set himself alight in front of Parliament, or numerous others who climbed towering billboard scaffolds to contemplate death or the man who plotted a failed hijack, Raul sought to end his despair with the crumbs of dignity left him by a poverty-stricken and fraught life. Such misery can only be assuaged by death in one’s hands, the lone recourse in a life marked by futility. Like the Icarus flight Raul embarked on, Himpapawid leaves a question hovering in midair. Do we fuel this festering cycle with apathy and greed? This query demands an urgent answer because the Raja Khans of this world are many, and their deaths indelibly mar our conscience.

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