Just when we thought reality had lost its capacity to shock us in dramatic films, the threadbare DV production Cavite (2005) has popped out of the indie festival circuit. If you get the chance to see it at all, you’ll probably learn it was made by two film school graduates with a few dubious films under their belt and a website that reads like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Production. But it’s a film that is emotionally streamlined, elliptical in its construction, and morally complex in its suspense, and it offers a visceral look at contemporary life in the Philippines.

Adam, a twentysomething Filipino American, works as a security guard in San Diego. Although he’s trying to save a crumbling relationship with his girlfriend, he must travel to the Philippines to attend his father’s funeral. Immediately upon arrival, however, he’s thrust into highly tense situation–answering a cell phone in his luggage and leafing through gruesome photographs, he is informed that his mother and sister have been kidnapped and will be killed if he doesn’t stay on the phone and follow precise orders. The voice (later revealed as a representative of the militant Islamic group Abu Sayyaf) directs Adam through poverty stricken shantytowns where squalor breeds desperation and life is cheap, and eventually reveals a terrible agenda.

The film was created almost entirely by its two writer-director-editors: Ian Gamazon plays Adam and Neill Dela Llana operates the handheld camera. They present Adam bussing, taxiing, and walking the streets between the Manila airport and the slums of Cavite City, listening to his cell phone in a state of panic, lost in a country he should know but doesn’t, emotionally oscillating between obedience and resistance.

The film maintains an impressive narrative momentum throughout, but its documentary details make the biggest impression: the sunny streets are thick with dust, people, and cars; sharp turns reveal labyrinthine neighborhoods with rangy dogs and furtive inhabitants, a claustrophobic cock fighting arena, and open air markets; street urchins cluster in groups and dart in and out of hidden alleyways–and the action is enveloped in a cacophony of car horns, voices, shouts, barks, and revving motors. As Adam venture deeper into trash-strewn squatter settlements, the viewer shares his bewildered perceptions of an entire population forging lives in the margins of society.

Dramatically, the film rests on the crisis of its central conflict, but its ancillary elements register surprising notes of complexity. Adam’s humdrum job as a security guard is a far cry from the political realities of his heritage, and combined with his failing romance, he seems unable to achieve an ideal life in America. Yet he is a stranger in the Philippines as well, stumbling around in a situation completely over his head. One of the film’s most potent images is that of a scrawny child sharing a McDonald’s hamburger with his grandmother, an image with troubling implications regarding a globalized economy and the vagaries of fate. The Abu Sayyaf operative is cruel and malicious, yet as he ticks off the atrocities committed against his people in the southern Mindanao region of the Philippines, it’s difficult to regard him as a simple movie villain. Adam must ultimately decide to choose between saving his family or causing harm to others, and his choice is not an easy one. Impressively, the film resists the temptation to dramatically condone his final decision, ending on a note of muted ambiguity.

Cavite is a film with a solid conception and execution that benefits enormously from its method of production. According to the film’s website, Gamazon was cast as a last-minute replacement for a role intended for an actress, yet the antagonist’s constant jeers at Adam’s masculinity intensify the film’s themes of powerlessness in a way that would have been much less potent with a female lead. And the filmmakers’ decision to shoot in the Philippines rather than Los Angeles or San Diego (ostensibly for visual reasons) elevates the film’s documentary impact to extraordinary heights. Whether owing to lucky breaks or solid artistic intuition, the film is an effective, compelling, and uncommonly revealing thriller.

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