Stephanie Comilang’s Honing Device
It is possible to imagine a time, maybe not so long ago, when the year 2020 sounded futuristic. There’s something about the repetition of digits that really stakes a claim in the temporal registry. But the time is upon us, and with 20/20 bearing reference to the rating of perfect hindsight, it seems that its arrival has spawned a fair bit of retrospection as we put a forensic lens to the past to reflect upon how it is we got “here.” It is a question worth asking. It might also be worth parsing that query even further to consider who is this “we” and where is “here.” Filmmaker Stephanie Comilang invites the interrogative in this more exacting form, in ways that consider “we” and “here” as dynamic yet personal terms, recognizing that both identity and positioning are not fixed entities, and neither are they nameless people and places.
With a focus on the migrant experience, one capable of reducing people to anonymous individuals living and working in unstable elsewheres, Comilang considers the growing disparity between the human and the global. Through a genre she terms “sci-fi documentary,” Comilang, winner of the 2019 Sobey Award, creates films whose narratives are driven by multiple voices and points of view to consider how culture and society engage with such salient aspects of the globalized world as mobility, capital and labour. The intimate narrative and filmic devices Comilang employs cause her films to fit not so neatly into either category of that hybrid definition—they feel too possible to be sci-fi, too close to be documentary, and instead carry something of the imagistic epistolary or confessional.
Both her recent films, Yesterday, In the Years 1886 and 2017, 2017, and Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise), 2016, are narrated in Tagalog by a ghost named Paraiso, embodied by a drone, whose character is voiced by Comilang’s mother. Viewers never glimpse the body of Paraiso but instead see the world through her lens (I hesitate to put “eyes”) and are invited to share in her ruminations on the very human trope of purpose as it relates to the formation of identity. In using a drone as a tool to explore notions of mobility in a globalized world, Comilang has chosen well, as the drone has become an agile and accessible icon of 21st-century mobility, offering superior viewpoints to anyone with the means to afford them.
By endowing Paraiso with consciousness and a female voice through which she shares and interrogates the existential crisis particular to the migrant, she becomes a vessel for a multi-lensed world view. Here, she performs a mode of seeing reminiscent of watchful guardianship rather than the panoptic stare normally associated with aerial views. Through Paraiso, Comilang has effectively embodied the disembodied view. As such, she disengages what feminist scholar Donna Haraway calls the “God-trick,” a manner of “seeing everything from nowhere”—a perspective often mistaken for objectivity. But something else is also achieved; in our sharing of Paraiso’s point of view, she invites us inside and thus becomes a dwelling, a temporary mobile home. The assimilation of her perspective is not imposed; rather we are somehow absorbed by it, representing just one of the many connections between humans and machines that make society necessarily, yet nervously, hybrid.
With an enduring interest in the concept of “home,” Comilang looks at its possible re-creations, recognizing it as a fluid, polyvalent entity—a place where one dwells, lives, works, is returned to or isn’t. Living in constant mobility, “home,” as bell hooks once said, “is no longer one place. It is locations.” In both films, Yesterday, In the Years 1886 and 2017 and Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise), Comilang presents many locations and many forms of mobility, and reveals the elasticity of the concept of home in that public squares can be dwellings, whereas domestic spaces not your own can become spaces you pass through as a kind of commodity or are restricted to as some sort of property.
As a child of immigrant parents who moved from the Philippines to Canada in the ’70s, and as someone who presently divides her time between Berlin and Toronto, a fluid concept of “home” is influential in the formation of Comilang’s world views and her sense of identity. She describes her creative practice as one motivated by a multi-layered conception of truth. Compounding personal truths on top of a singular essential version, she produces intimate and multi-perspectival stories that generate more sincere, inclusive and necessarily plural versions of history.
In Yesterday, In the Years 1886 and 2017, Comilang considers the commonalities and connections that bind the migrant experience, revealing the oftenunrecognized roles migrants play in the “capital H” version of history—that “grand” story replete with heroes and villains (otherwise known as “us” and “them”) told in the authoritative colonial voice of omniscience. Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise) recounts stories of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong. Through the caring relationship between the drone and the women, and the story’s concentration on the social life of the domestic worker told from the ground level, the film represents a counter-narrative of labour normally told from the top down, in which actors such as the domestic worker are minimized or erased. Paraiso: Where are you from? I hear some people say. Those who haven’t seen flying ones like me ask this. Then I try to describe this place. A long time ago me and the women lived here under these hills. We were the strongest in the society and also the communicators. We held everything together. Then slowly we began to lose our homes, our resources.… Lumapit Sa Akin, Paraiso (Come to Me, Paradise) opens with an aerial view of landscape that could be described as “pastoral,” if it were to be classified according to European art historical terms. The pastoral is a narrative that celebrates the monument of enterprise in its architecture and industry, while overlooking the small human efforts fractured into the repetitions forming the larger spectacle. With the less pictorial forms of labour concealed by pretty domestic vignettes accompanied by birdsong and billowing clouds, it is a depiction of landscape that tells a singular superficial story from a privileged point of view. To clarify, the pastoral seems an early small-scale iteration of the global, in the 21st century, a period and place brought into a ruinous mess by the capitalist amalgam of man and machine, mobilized by technical ingenuity and base desire.
However, the landscape Comilang presents in this first scene, which is filled with a repetition of green hills stretching towards an undulating horizon line, is not quite pastoral; neither is the superior vantage point from which it is filmed, typically aerial. This location that seems not quite tamed will act as a kind of elastic anchorage between here and there, then and now, a place that will come to stand for “home” in its most ideal sense.
Set in modern-day Hong Kong, but bookended by the lush rolling landscape of Bohol, Philippines, Come to Me, Paradise is a montage of the lives of three Filipina domestic labourers. Assembled through drone footage, personal vlogs and “ambush” interviews, it is meticulously stitched together to form a discordant, yet remarkably logical patchwork of clips that moves between sound and silence, motion and stillness. The jostle mimics the dizzying mosaic of today’s robust virtual visual culture, and so caters to the manner in which digital citizens have been groomed to metabolize stories. Through the production of a more refined version of what can be an aggressively absurd archive of images and text found on the Internet, Comilang offers a more inclusive way of reading stories, one that accommodates multiple voices and a wide spectrum of time, and which acknowledges truth as a multi-layered entity.