The Woman in the Septic Tank opens with a traveling shot through a run-down slum in the Philippines. We see garbage, debris, squabbling neighbors sweeping dirt at each other, and, most remarkably, a toddler pooping in the middle of the street while a stray cat approaches to lick the feces. The setting echoes the squalor of The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, and the mood is that of Fernando Birri’s seminal Tire Dié, which pictured indigent six year olds running barefoot after a moving train, begging the passengers to throw them a dime. But N. Rivera’s film immediately exposes the artifice required to bring to the screen the unadorned naturalness of the downtrodden in all of its heartbreaking glory. What at first looks like a product of well-intentioned fly-on-the-wall documentary “realness” soon becomes a parody of the kind of film that aestheticizes poverty for film-festival accolades. The voices reading off the very scenes (“Sequence Number 37. Mila’s House. Exterior”) that we watch are quickly revealed to be that of the makers of a film-within-a-film. They are a group of young well-to-do Filipino filmmaking wannabes trying to excel in the art of the “slumsploitation” picture, this one about a mother so desperately poor she must give away her child to a Western pedophile. “Fuck Cannes, bro. We’re talking Oscars,” says one of them.
The filmmakers, Bingbong (JM De Guzman) and Rainier (Kean Cipriano), hang out at their local coffee shop, strategizing on how to best woo international audiences hungry for foreign-made and foreign-looking gloom, with the most poor-looking actress, children with the darkest skin, and mothers with the most offspring. Every element on the screen has to scream destitution. Scenes must be shot at garbage dumps where the smell is so foul it has texture, and the living conditions look so horrible that “every angle works.” The shots must be as shaky as possible, and we must be nauseated by a misery so exotic it’s as if it only existed elsewhere.
The Woman in the Septic Tank is a lighthearted critique on the fetishized notion of the “non-actor,” the ethics (or lack thereof) of the “docudrama,” and the packaging of national despair for exportation—from both the side of producers, who play up to international expectations (and projections) about extreme poverty as always foreign, and the colonial powers themselves, whose avid reception of the work can perversely mask what’s actually at stake. Some of the acting can feel a bit hokey, which is helped by the student-film look of several scenes. But its critique is probably more multi-dimensional than it even realizes.
In one of the versions the producers cook up, the camera hounds its subjects against their will. When they run into the problem of not being able to find a real mother willing to admit she wants to sell her child, or a real pedophile willing to be on camera, they imagine the film as a musical. “We are with nothing/We live worse than mice,” sings an actress. “My stomach is going crazy/There’s a riot in my belly,” sings another, as the entire slum dances around like Freida Pinto and her happy gang performing “Jai Ho.” That’s until a somber mood takes over the musical as the mother walks her son to the apartment of the old and creepy pedophile, who asks her if this is “the boy who’ll bring me endless hours of joy?” The answer is a melodic yes. And the festival programmers wouldn’t have it any other way.