On the morning of the 23rd of November in 2009, in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, fifty-eight people were gunned down by over a hundred armed men, their bodies and all their effects, including their vehicles, dumped and hastily buried in three mass graves by the same backhoes that had just dug the open pits of earth. The victims were part of a convoy of supporters of the gubernatorial candidate Esmael Mangudadatu, led by his wife, Genylyn, two sisters, Eden and Farinah, and other relatives, mostly female, and thirty-two journalists who were accompanying them on their trip to the capital to file Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy. On their way, they were accosted by the mercenaries of the incumbent, Andal Ampatuan—a battalion of hired killers led by Ampatuan’s son and namesake, whose own candidacy and the continuation of his family’s political dynasty was being challenged.
Carried out in broad daylight with a particular brutality that was heinous even by the standards of electoral violence characteristic of Philippine politics, the mass killing was dubbed the Maguindanao massacre in a demand for justice that, seven years later, is nowhere near to being met.
Requiem for M (dir. Kiri Dalena, 2010, 7 min.) is a video prayer for the dead of the Maguindanao massacre, as well as for the masses of people murdered daily and with impunity in the Philippines, but, arguably, for those murdered globally as well. The seven-minute video is composed of footage of the funerals for many of the journalists, which were held a few days after the killing, as well as of the victims’ relatives’ and colleagues’ visit to the massacre site two months later. A documentary filmmaker and visual artist, Dalena had joined the mourners originally intending to make a journalistic reportage of the event. As she was editing the footage, however, she came to understand that “we all want justice, we all want the perpetrators to be arrested and placed behind bars, but in the end what we really wanted was for these things to not have happened.”
To not have happened. That is the prayer that plays the documentary footage in reverse, that makes Requiem for M the reverse of documentary and news—“this impossible desire to change what transpired, or change history by turning back time, making them not take that path.”
We start off on that path, climbing the dirt path leading to the mound where the bodies were exhumed. A woman is screaming in grievous anger,
We see from out of the mass grave, the silhouettes of people peering down. We look at lit candles placed in the depressions and hollows in the earth imprinted by exhumed bodies, newspapers that had covered them, cigarette butts and debris strewn on the grounds of the victims’ executions. These are the acts of mourning, the search for the remains of life expunged. But we do not look at the bodies, spectacular images of which abound in the news, the dead killed over and over again in representation, converted into signs.
Instead, we witness the mourners, the living who bear these losses. In Requiem for M the empirical details and referents that make for the truths sought by documentarians are no longer to be found. The massacre is no longer the event that is at the center of the news, nor the object of investigation and verification on which justice will either founder or be found. Such events and their apparatuses of production–the very writing of life and death into spectacle, into history–figure prominently in an order of politics based on the command of appearances and, by extension, disappearance. Was the massacre not in fact a flagrant attempt to disappear not one or two but fifty-eight persons as if to bury the very fact of them as a collective act, to rub out their existence as a would-be event? Where the paths to value are strewn with the signs of life writ and spent–where disposable lives are the necessary cost and media of producing worthy, significant, powerful life–war and elimination is the modus operandi of first and last resort, of imperial sovereignty and desperate revenge.
The video reverses this path–the representational course of events, the course of history. Dalena plays back in time the rites of the funerals: a grieving woman crumpled on the floor rises back to her feet, a hearse drives in reverse, tombstones recede as people walk backwards away from the cemetery, white balloons come down to earth, returning to the grasp of those who released them, flowers and dirt rise back to their enclosing fists.
Against the relentless march of time of cinema, the image of the consumption of time, Requiem for M reverses course, rewinding that same unfolding spectacle in which expendable life becomes money and power. Only the woman’s grievous cry and the flight of a bird appear in non-reversed time. They are no longer, after all, within the time of accumulation, the non-reversible, abstract time that links the cinematic image to the money-image, the time of surplus-value cinema.
M thus stands in for all that is lost, but also all that is to be regained, what can publicly bear no proper name, the lives of “so many” taken in exchange for the graven image. “Money, that fucking money,” the woman cries, is the counterpart, what is in front (not the root but the equal and opposite)—ang katapat, she accuses–of all of this death and hurt. Money as katapat: the equivalent of, commensurate with, death.
What is left over after the murders–the grief and rage of the mourners of the dead, the effects of the effect (of capitalist predation)–becomes the beginning. What comes after becomes the before, the prelude to this requiem in time, not a turning back or wishful denial of history, but an unraveling of that time that has already happened. No longer documentary or critical account, the requiem is an experiential procession away from the event, from its inexorable internment of the living.
If the spectacle is “a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself,” the reversal of cinematic time becomes the practice of undoing this negation. Against the foreclosure of that utopian image, the requiem becomes a careful following of the unraveling of a determinate end, a process of unfolding and opening time–a practice therefore of enacting the very time of the living.