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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

COLUMN: Decoding Film for Social Change

Films can liberate us from our prejudices and fears if we understand what they mean.

Leprosy is no longer the scourge of times past. Yet the drugs that cure it hardly take away the scars of being misunderstood. Anyone suffering from leprosy continues to inherit the discrimination and stigma of the disease. The hardest wound to heal is human prejudice.

Film, in its representation of leprosy, can multiply our fears of the disease. But a few have the power to change our attitudes. In the Philippines, one film from the 1970s deserves notice.

In Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You were weighed but found wanting, 1976), Berto suffers from leprosy. Assigned to the margins of society, he lives near a cemetery, inhabiting a space determined by human prejudice. Not yet dead, he is already made invisible in the eyes of a righteous society. Joining him is the crazed Koala, who becomes the village idiot after losing her mind due to forced abortion. Both end up as unlikely partners suffering from a small town's scathing verdict of their predicament. Together, they find that life is worth sharing despite their fates.

In representing these social "outcasts," does Brocka's film only mirror reality and so sensationalize the issue of disease? Or does the film reveal a truth about reality and give us a better view of ourselves, no matter how painful the sight we see on screen?

By yielding its capacity merely to entertain, the film fulfills its role as healer, even as teacher. It speaks a visual language that, while articulating marginality, produces empowerment, since knowledge helps us to understand even our own human errors and makes us better persons.

ALLY OR ENEMY?

In the introductory scene where Berto walks against a crowd leaving a cemetery, he is located in a film space that underlines his marginality. He is found at the extreme left of the frame close to the tombs, almost scraping them as if to disappear into their dark catacombs. No one takes notice of him until a child falls and the mother utters words filled with horror and intimidation upon seeing Berto help her child get up: "Don't hold her, Berto! She might get infected." These are words that - even if not meant to condemn - condemn the speaker of her own prejudice. A judgment has been rendered. And we know why. The next shot shows a disfigured face, the face of leprosy.

The scene is emblematic of how "normal" people harbor fear toward those who are different. And it is contentious: in showing a person discriminated against because of leprosy, one could argue that the film perpetuates discrimination. This is where film may be seen either as an ally or an enemy.

Knowledge is created through the camera's gaze diagnosing what is wrong with the scene The way the scene is set up, it is as if we are looking at ourselves in the mirror in a ritual of selfexamination. And like the mirror, the screen gives us back an image that we must work upon: a face that must be cleaned of dirt.

Knowledge is created through the camera's gaze diagnosing what is wrong with the scene.

But the film is not all self-recrimination; it also seeks redemption. In the only scene showing nature, three characters - Berto, Koala and the young protagonist, Junior - are framed in a triangular composition. The first two are at the base and Junior is at the apex. The triangle symbolizes what is being implied by the scene.

A lesson encrypted in the sign of a triangle
A lesson encrypted in the sign of a triangle

Berto talks about the discrimination cast on characters like him. He does so with understanding rather than anger. He offers compassion to those who commit prejudice because, he says, we must look at people with our hearts.

Junior, at the apex of this composition, is held up as the new bearer of this knowledge. With identification as film's powerful trait to make audiences empathize with the story, Junior becomes us. Thus, as Berto passes on the lesson of understanding and compassion to Junior, the knowledge is passed on to us. We are the ones who must change.

This lesson is encrypted in the sign of a triangle, which, since ancient times, has been an archetypal image loaded with metaphysical meanings about eternal ideals and universal truths.

Film can be a powerful medium to discriminate, but it can also liberate us from our prejudices and fears if we try enough to understand what they mean. Film, as a collective mirror, becomes a redemptive tool for social change.

Nick Deocampo

AUTHOR: Nick Deocampo

Nick Deocampo is a prizewinning Filipino filmmaker, author and film historian. Between 2001 and 2002 he was a fellow under The Nippon Foundation's Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowships Program.