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JESSICA ZAFRA | The Best Filipino Films of 2013: 'Badil' - Democracy for Sale
The online news portal of TV5

Elections are the pinnacle of Philippine political life - so emotional and all-encompassing, everything that follows is practically negligible. Every effort is exerted and no resource spared in order to win the vote; by the time the winner is proclaimed, there is nothing left.

During election season, we make stirring declarations about truth, justice, change. "Vote wisely." "Be guided by your conscience." "Don't sell your vote." We mean what we say. The problem is that we know nothing.

Democracy is founded on the principle that the citizens have the right to choose their own leaders. Badil ("Gun"), the gripping political thriller by Chito Roño, shows us a system that has perverted this principle.

Badil takes place on an island in Samar - the kind of community that is most vulnerable to super-typhoons like Haiyan - 24 hours before election day. A small-town political operator named Ponso (Dick Israel) gets ready to make his rounds. He orders his daughter to count a sheaf of 1,000-peso bills and affix stickers with Mayor Del Mundo’s name on them. Ponso has had a stroke that left half his body paralyzed; he needs his son Lando (Jhong Hilario) to help him get around.

Dick Israel lets us feel the impatience and frustration of a physically powerful man reduced to hobbling. This is a man who does not accept defeat, and as he traverses the barrio on Lando's arm, we see that he is a man of influence. The people pay their respects, he asks after their families, and then he gives them some of the money in his stash. (A lot of money is given away; how do you think the winning candidate gets it back?) Ponso is not buying votes; he doesn’t have to. He already owns them. He is merely handing out reminders that the barrio folk should go out and vote tomorrow.

It's become a staple in Filipino social realist indies: the character takes a long walk through his neighborhood and has seemingly aimless, repetitive conversations with the people he meets. It's supposed to capture the smallness of ordinary life, and in the hands of an unskilled filmmaker it can make you scream with boredom. Lucky for us this is Chito Roño at the helm, and the small talk spells out the power dynamics in their community.

The people elect the mayor, and in return he doles out money, puts their children in school, gives them jobs, pays for funerals, and does various favors. To ensure that this arrangement continues, the people have to vote for him—or his anointed successor, usually his children - every election. Ponso's morning walk is patronage politics at work. We see how the "Filipino values" of utang na loob (sense of obligation) and pakikisama (tribal feeling) are perverted for political gain. Mayor del Mundo (Tonton Gutierrez) doesn't even show up, but his face is plastered on every wall, reminding the voters to fulfill their end of the deal. Election campaigns are just entertainment: the votes are already accounted for. (And we wonder why nothing changes.)

Just when you think Badil is a well-meaning exposition on grassroots politics, it turns into a thriller. Never has the gunning of a motorcycle engine carried such dread. It is to the credit of Roño and screenwriter Rody Vera that the transition from near-documentary to thriller is as smooth as the concurrent passage from day to night.

Ponso becomes ill, and the job of securing the vote falls to his dutiful son Lando. Lando is a rather unambitious man whose main concern is keeping his date with his girlfriend, Jen (a strong, surprising Nikki Gil). Jen is a public school teacher, which makes her part of the board of election inspectors, which reminds us of the assorted conflicts of interest that make up politics. She’s also the daughter of the principal, who supports the other mayoral candidate, Canlas. The love story involving the children of political opponents would seem like a dramatic contrivance if it didn't happen all the time.

Lando's job seems simple enough, but this is local politics. He learns that the Mayor's  opponents are trying to neutralize his votes through a method called "dinamita" (dynamite). Simply put, one candidate pays his opponent's supporters not to vote on election day. Their right index fingers are marked with indelible ink, which means they can no longer cast their votes. They don't have to switch sides, all they have to do is not vote. Technically, they didn't cheat or betray anyone - the sort of palusot (slippery gray-area maneuvering) common in Philippine elections, not unlike getting past term limits by fielding one's spouse as candidate. Thus is a method for preventing electoral fraud used to affect the election’s outcome.

In Badil the voters are not innocent victims; they are in cahoots with the political operators. In their defense they need the money, but by taking it they ensure that their situation will not improve. Technically no votes are sold, but politics makes prostitutes of everybody. Do you see how crafty and devious this "democracy" is? It gives the people the power to screw themselves over.

It is Lando who gets an education that night, and Jhong Hilario gives a quietly brilliant, empathic performance. He's not particularly interested in the election; all he wants is to do his father's bidding and then settle down to a quiet life with Jen.  Badil is canny about the way the system exploits family ties: You must show the Mayor that we are trustworthy men, Ponso snarls from his hospital bed. So Lando goes out looking for the men with the dynamite, and in doing so he protects the system that would crush his hopes.

Badil is full of masterful touches, from the Mayor who is absent yet omnipresent, to the casual action that identifies a killer, to that cup of "cappucino". It educates without lecturing the audience, it's important but not self-important. Even as we are disheartened by the twisted truths in this tale, we are exhilarated by the power of Roño's filmmaking. Badil should be required viewing for all Filipinos.

Badil was part of the Sineng Pambansa All-Master Festival organized by the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP). The FDCP gave eleven established directors an initial fund of 1.5 million pesos each with which to make the movie they wanted, free of interference, indie-style. The films were shown for one week in September; there's no word on whether the individual films will be shown in theatres.

Next in this series on The Best Filipino Films of 2013: 'Sana Dati'