Shealea reacts to: The Guerilla Is a Poet (2013) – a film review

Title: The Guerilla Is a Poet
Director: Sari Dalena, Kiri Dalena
Writer: Ericson Acosta, Kiri Dalena
Cast: Karl Medina (young Jose Maria Sison), Angeli Bayani (young Julieta de Lima)
Genre: Drama, Documentary
Year of release: 2013

* More about the film on IMDb and Facebook.
* Watch the official movie trailer.

Directed by sisters Sari and Kiri Dalena, The Guerilla Is a Poet is an unconventional documentary with a distinct and apparent socio-political theme as its narrative revolves around the life of an exiled political leader, Jose Maria Sison, who is responsible for reviving the Communist Party of the Philippines (in 1968) and founding the New People’s Army (in 1969).

I used the adjective ‘unconventional’ to describe this film because the directors’ approach deviated from the traditional structure of most documentaries by largely utilizing Sison’s literary piece, “The Guerilla Is a Poet”, as a subtle yet noticeable framework. Excerpts and specific verses extracted from the poem were cited and reiterated a handful of times throughout The Guerilla Is a Poet, consequently creating a somewhat lyrical tone in the film’s storytelling and effectively stressing its overall message. It was, in my opinion, a masterfully beautiful and evocative manner to address the urgency of revolution. Admittedly, this might be a slightly biased comment because I am an avid fan of poetry.

In addition to this, I believe that The Guerilla Is a Poet was not only a title but also, and more importantly, a recurring theme as the metaphor linking the guerilla to a poet was emphasized through the scenes that showed Sison’s character using a typewriter or drafting public statements. The audience was, time and time again, reminded that the writer and the revolutionary leader were, indeed, the same person. This only further solidifies my belief that the documentary used Sison’s arguably most striking poem as a framework for its story.

What I liked the most about the film was the brilliant and purposeful usage of documentary elements such as interviews, narration and archival footage. The film included actual interviews from Jose Maria Sison, Julieta de Lima and Commander Dante as they are now. As I watched the documentary, it was clear to me that the sequences and transitions were deliberately put together. For the most part, The Guerilla Is a Poet adopted an apparently serious storyline as it tackled important issues, armed struggles, and bleak situations. However, elements of light humor and spontaneity prevented the film from becoming too tedious to watch. Specifically, during some of the more solemn portions of the story, interview scenes that depicted candidness (e.g. Sison’s wife Julie admitting that she can’t remember the date of their wedding, Sison narrating how he used to play matchmaker among his comrades) were smoothly inserted, thus offering a quick breather from the sobriety and seriousness of the account.

Furthermore, the interview footage was used in a strategic manner that permitted the interviewees’ individual personalities to noticeably emanate, which, in turn, supplemented more color and dimension to their characters in the main storyline. For instance, Jose Maria Sison was not only portrayed as a revolutionary figurehead but also as a husband, a father, a poet, a companion, a dreamer and a man with a sense of humor. Aside from aiding the film’s characterization, it also added color to the historical events included in the documentary, allowing them to radiate a rather nostalgic feel instead of a more factual vibe.

The Guerilla Is a Poet is generally based on historical events, together with firsthand accounts from Sison, his wife, and Commander Dante. However, their portrayal was more similar to that of a memoir or a lyrical commentary rather than a completely objective reportage. In line with this, the commentary on these events was largely influenced by the dominant perspective, which was that belonging to Jose Maria Sison.

For a large fraction of the film, the story seemed to reinforce the idea of communism; however, towards the end, I think the prevailing message became less about that particular ideology and more about the complexity of revolution. The film was not about actively supporting communism per se; rather, it encouraged the notion of fighting for one’s principles and decisive action from the youth. It talked about translating passion into a collective movement, taking the initiative to inspire change, and challenging the status quo. All three of which were extremely evident in Sison’s unrelenting defiance against Marcos and Martial Law.

As part of the Filipino youth, I found this film to be both absolutely timely and timeless – timely because of all the ongoing controversies regarding and surrounding the Marcos family (i.e. Ferdinand Marcos’ burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery, his son Bongbong vying for a high-ranking government position, historical revisionism of the Martial Law era), and timeless because the film successfully encapsulates one of the darkest and most haunting portions of Philippine history.

The Guerilla Is a Poet is a lyrical yet highly informative commentary that I believe everyone should experience, and no, I’m not just saying this because one of the directors is currently my film professor (yep, I felt the need to add a tiny disclaimer). The brilliance of this film is undeniable.

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First of her name. Queen of millennials and the constantly caffeinated. Protector of books. Breaker of norms. Iskolar ng bayan.

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