To the outsider’s view, Manila appears as a city full of disturbing contrasts. It is the midpoint of a densely populated agglomeration, homing state banking and commerce headquarters, tourist lures, international businesses and new media corporations including, ironically, centers for Facebook content moderation. All this is heavily seasoned with the remains of the colonial rule of Spanish, American and Japanese origin, the terrifying political course of infamous president Rodrigo Duterte, an incredibly high volume of child pornography, and the biggest population of homeless people in the world. Taking into account the local censorship rules, there is no surprise that Filipino cinema becomes more and more politicized. SCHOOL SERVICE (international premiere and competition contender at Warsaw Film Festival’s 34th edition) by director Luisito Lagdameo Ignacio and the scriptwriter Rona Lean Sales does not go into radical activism territory, though it still has the confidence to expose the troubled reality of Manila’s suburbs.
The film covers the 24-hour span after the 8-year-old Maya gets kidnapped on her way home from school and is brought to the outskirts of Manila to become a beggar. She is immersed in a completely new world and so are the viewers, even if the director refrains from using any explicit and shocking imagery. What becomes the film’s key feature is the perspective of a child who is progressively losing its innocence.
The central character, a schoolgirl seemingly coming from a safe environment, enters the dusty city streets with an attitude as rebelling as it is ultimately useless. Escaping has got nothing to do with how hard you try: it is just impossible. Maya’s attempts to run away leave room for optimistic expectations, playing with the conventions of children films, but as the story goes deeper, anxiety starts to take over. It would be easy to blame the kidnappers, but the film shines a light into a complex universe where oppressors are themselves oppressed, and enslaved to complicated social predicaments. With no right decisions available to make, violence becomes the only way out, and young beggars are quick to understand that they have to follow these rules to fit in.
There is an episode in which an outrageous dream built around the desire for things to be normal evolves into an animated sequence, echoing the opening titles and their idealized, crayon-drawn version of a family; an image impossible to chase, and impossible to escape. Meanwhile, the film’s focus gradually shifts from Maya’s individuality to the kids as a group, and eventually dusky Manila steps out as a threatening character of its own. The film employs a realistic visual style, and even though it is combined with children-focused storytelling, it is quite a sincere attempt to provide a take on poverty, prostitution and social stigmas.
SCHOOL SERVICE is a work that is inseparable from the context that inspired its creation. While it does not look as an immediate call for action, it is clearly intended to resonate with the audience and to engage the audience in public discussion. The film is produced with a clear aim at domestic release but it will also provide an emotional insight into the social issues for international audiences.