Filipina filmmaker Monster Jimenez’s documentary debut “Kano: An American and his Harem” premiered to the world last Saturday in Amsterdam, and is one of the 16 finalists in the First Appearance Category of the International Documentary Film Fest Amsterdam(IDFA), the largest non-fiction film festival in the world with more than 300 entrants. I sat among the sold-out audience of the 80-minute film where Monster unveiled the story of a monster, or is he simply a broken human being?
Update: “Kano” has been shortlisted and is one of three (out of the 16) vying for the First Appearance Category award. Congratulations!
Watch the trailer here (story continues below):
“Kano” is the story of Victor Pearson, an American war hero who settled in the Philippines (he was diagnosed with PTSD following the Vietnam War and relocated to the Philippines to “escape” fate in a mental asylum, but this fact is left out of the movie). He moved to a poor town in Negros Occidental where with his generous dollar pension, he builds a new life that, according to Monster “only men could dream of in their wet dreams.” By Monster’s count, hundreds of women passed through the doors of Pearson’s complex, many of them to stay.
In 2001 Pearson’s home was raided and he was charged with 80 counts of rape. He was convicted for only one charge, and serves 80 years for it. His appeal was overturned and barring pardon, he will most likely spend the rest of his life in a prison in Manila where he is currently incarcerated. The film followed the women of the harem: who they are, why they did it, how they feel, and how they continue to live.
Read ProPinoy’s review of the documentary here .
It’s not an easy story to tell, let alone digest. Monster started writing the story as a newspaper journalist in 2005, and began filming the documentary in 2007. Five years on, Monster recounted to me over a Thai dinner (at the Red Light District, of course!) that just after the screening, a Dutch woman came up to her at the theatre and told her: “I’m not sure I liked the movie. I think it’s a terrible story to tell. It bothers me a lot.” Monster’s response: “If you’re thinking about it, it’s good enough for me.”
Monster: I was hoping some people would get something out of it that after five years of working on this project I don’t know.
And that’s what struck me most about the film (and its director), more than its edgy home-video style filming, or the symbolism in the videography, or its seriousness peppered with a sad humor that I think only a Filipino character could tell and a Filipino artist could frame (but thankfully a foreign audience could appreciate, judging by the bouts of embarrassed laughter in the theatre, including mine). Like proper journalism, of which a documentary is an extended form, “Kano” provoked thought on the world we inhabit.
Monster: I could’ve [told the story] many ways. There’s the legal aspect. Women’s Rights. Crazy American, you know, a monster. I chose Family Portrait. I wanted to talk about how [the women] felt trapped, but not obligated. Victor didn’t have a gun pointed at their heads, but there was poverty. And for Victor, there was the fear of being alone.
The story unravels like a first-impression judgment collapsing before you. You come in thinking how on earth a man could do this to women, how on earth could women do this to themselves – sleep with their cousin’s husband, sleep with their sister’s lover, effectively sell their children for maintenance money, insist their daughter was not raped in exchange for literally a roof over their heads. What depraved men, what diseased society. And then you get to know these women, and you remember them, their names, their faces, how they laugh with their toothy mouths covered, how much they care for Pearson and how much Pearson cared for them. And you shrink inside the shoes you forgot to put yourself in.
Monster: It’s not so surprising that this [the story of Pearson and his women] happens. Feudalism is something we live with every day. Sex as a currency is a value judgment. It depends who’s looking at it. One of the girls was telling me, if you’ve been so hungry, you don’t think about puri. I’ve seen how poor they were. Some of the girls ate soil, kung gutom talaga sila, kakainin nila. They’re so poor. I mean, one peso and they’re rich. It’s hard to imagine that.
And it’s one hell of a story. There’s feudalism and there’s poverty. There’s sex, legal battles, ailing justice systems, broken childhoods and painful memories. There’s regret, pain, discovery, truth, and the obfuscation thereof. There’s laughter and sisterhood, a sense of family, a sense of destiny, happiness, love, hope and companionship. There’s a lot to think about.
After the screening I felt like getting up and telling the audience (humorously since I did thoroughly enjoy the film) that I’m Filipino, I swear this is not the typical family, visit the Philippines despite our poor tourism marketing, thank you very much and goodnight. But at the same time, I thought that the bond these women share and their affection for Victor Pearson is not at all un-Filipino. In fact, it is very Filipino, albeit seen through an unconventionally shaped looking glass. Family matters. Respect the head of the family. Love no matter what.
Monster: My first audience is Filipinos. I want them to think about feudalism, gender politics, reverence for foreigners, status symbols. You know, just think about it. If I had a message, I just want to generate discussion.
“Kano: An American and His Harem” is an uncut diamond. Visually, it is not perfect. But it is a piece of journalism that is compelling, where the issue is stripped bare. A great journalist once told me that rare are the times when your audience cannot decide who is right and who is wrong, and thus rare are the times that a journalist gets the story right. “Kano,” therefore, is a rare achievement.
“Kano” has no scheduled appearances in the Philippines as of yet; support and funding still need to be secured for a Filipino screening. Of documentaries in the Philippines, Monster says: “The great thing about the Philippines is it’s a strange and beautiful country and you never run out of stories to tell. There are good filmmakers, there are just no avenues.”
Monster is now working on her second documentary, “Are clouds blue?” (they are white, but you used your blue crayons in kindergarten, didn’t you?). It explores faulty textbooks in the Filipino public school system.
Victor Pearson is yet to see “Kano.” It is the first thing on Monster’s agenda when she returns from IDFA.
Photo credit: Kano the Movie website