Tears in the Rain: Alimuom and the Philippine Dystopia

January 08, 2019
Emil Hofileña

The Philosophy Department held a screening of the Filipino science fiction film Alimuom on December 13 at the Faura Audio-Visual Room. An hour-long open forum followed the movie, with writer-director Keith Sicat and lead actress Ina Feleo. Also in attendance was Feleo’s mother, actress and director Laurice Guillen.
Alimuom premiered in Philippine cinemas in September, as part of the 2018 ToFarm Film Festival, an advocacy-based competition featuring new movies that explore local agriculture and the lives of Filipino farmers. As one of the festival’s six entries, Sicat’s film is set in a distant, dystopian future and follows a botanist who uncovers a government conspiracy.
Sci-fi cinema has gone relatively unexplored by local filmmakers, not only because of how the genre typically demands high-budget visual effects and production design, but because sci-fi’s commentary on society—as filtered through the lens of scientific advancement—is generally seen as more relevant for more developed countries. Still, Sicat and his team forged ahead, working against the constraints of a Php1.5 million budget and a total of two and a half months of production time. With only six days of actual shooting, the director had to rely on creative solutions and favors from friends to bring his screenplay to life.
The end result is surprising in its scope and ambition. Alimuom uses the phenomenon of Filipino farmers being displaced and serving as migrant workers to investigate a series of intersecting issues ranging from long-distance relationships and healthcare to rebellion and underfunded state institutions. The challenge was to communicate all these ideas through a visual language that would be consistent with sci-fi tradition while remaining accessible to a local audience. Sicat relied on subtle details, such as bottles of San Miguel beer and references to the MetroCom, to ground these speculative notions in Philippine history and everyday life.

Most of the open forum was spent unpacking these details, with Sicat explaining how the technology of Alimuom points back to a variety of aesthetic inspirations: the works of David Cronenberg, the 1962 French short film La Jetée, and Nick Deocampo’s Oliver. However, the director also acknowledged the tendency of sci-fi to fall back on machismo and outdated, sexist tropes. His solution was to consciously build this story around women. Though tough-talking, self-satisfied men represent the government and the military, Sicat thinks it is the women who are ultimately in control—cultivating life in ways the established order hasn’t figured out yet.
Still, even with this empowering message, and Sicat’s own enthusiasm for the material, Alimuom carries a sardonic sense of humor—a result of the film’s belief that Filipinos living within a corporatized system will always be exploited and robbed of their humanity. “If everything is profit-oriented, it’s probably not going to be good for humanity,” the director lamented. “If [technological advancements aren’t] coming from an altruistic source, [humanity will be] abused.” The film may boast pretty visuals, but Sicat treats these as a smokescreen for a society that hasn’t actually improved its quality of living.
“The economics of the future is still built on the backs of Pinoys, or any kind of minority group,” Sicat said, citing Filipinos’ long history of being involved in migrant labor. In response to a question about why there would continue to be a need for OFWs in the future, he replied, “It’s cheaper to send a biological piece of meat than a high-tech robot that’ll be obsolete by the time it gets [to another planet.]”
Alimuom takes its title from the smell of the ground after rain—a smell said to bring sickness, according to local superstition. But within the context of the film, alimuom would become a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and a symbol of hope. “What if, in this toxic universe,” the director proposed, “the one thing that [can] help you is [something that might] get you sick?” The future imagined by Sicat sees us in a lose-lose situation. The good news is that we still have some time to prove him wrong.