Bontoc Eulogy is a 1995 docudrama directed by Marlon Fuentes and distributed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It was produced, written, directed, edited by, and stars Marlon Fuentes in the main role of a screen narrator going through an excruciating internal conflict regarding his heritage and following his thoughts as he recounts his grandfather’s journey to the St. Louis World’s Fair. It is the fifth film produced by Marlon Fuentes, following Arm in 1994.
Despite a limited audience view worldwide, this experimental documentary offered a deep and critical insight into Filipino history, and is considered a pioneering work in autoethnography. As a photographer, filmmaker, and conceptual artist, Marlon Fuentes’ work has been shown in over 60 separate exhibitions in the past 20+ years alone and has been represented in collections such as Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art, the National Museum of American History, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Library of Congress, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Furthermore, his work has been nominated for the International Documentary Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award and has received many awards from the international community.
Controversy surrounds the film even decades after its release. Some questioned the film for making audiences believe that this seemingly personal account was “real,” because the piece combined fictional and factual content as a seamless historically based personal narrative. However, it can be soundly argued that the film’s meaning would have been altered had this cinematic device been revealed in the beginning. Some critics have argued that the declaration of its fictional conceit via the film credits is actually the meta-denouement of the film, part of the multiple layers of interrogation conducted by the filmmaker/narrator in trying to ascertain the relationship between form and narrative. The location of the filmmaker (as “narrator”) within the commingled streams of fiction and historical facts raises critical questions about the porosity of diegetic, extra-diegetic, and non-diegetic space in cinematic representations of culture and identity formation/s. The film balances its multi-layered critical objectives and formal devices without sacrificing accessibility to an audience. As an experimental, post-ethnographic film that uses/extends (albeit in stealth) the devices of structuralist/materialist cinematic conventions, the film still passes the test of “eminent watchability” despite its rigorous art-historical/theoretical agendas and lineage.
The unnamed narrator, a serious Filipino-American immigrant, muses about his days in the Philippines and continues on to speculate on the mysterious disappearance of both of his grandfathers. His curiosity leads him to research his past and urges him to discover the whereabouts of his kin. He offers the audience an inside look to his internal conflict regarding his family history by narrating throughout the film. Much of the movie consists of snapshots and footage of the World’s Fair and some of the “real” footage has been, in fact, just a reenactment of what is thought to be the past.
The film begins with the narrator thinking of his children and subsequently thinking of his days as a child in the Philippines. He expresses his sadness of belonging to neither country (America or Philippines) and his desire to gain a foundation for his personal history. With this said, the narrator recounts the story of both of his grandfathers’ lives. One of the grandfathers’ (Emiliano) had fought in the revolution against Spain in 1896 and the Philippine–American War in 1899, only to be killed in the trenches and never have his body found. The narrator speculates that his grandfather is probably buried in one of the several mass graves on the outskirts of Manila.
While Emiliano had an interesting death by fighting in the war, the other’s story was far more interesting. The other grandfather, named Markod, had been an Igorot warrior in the Philippines. When the Americans had first came to the village, the tribal members were afraid. But, they soon realized that the Americans wanted to become friends and take them to America to showcase their culture. Markod was, at first, hesitant since his wife was expecting a child. In 1904, Markod and several families of his village decided to go America as participants in the St. Louis World’s Fair. At the time, Markod had been a young chief, known for his skills as a hunter and warrior.
Markod was first taken to San Francisco on a boat and then taken to St. Louis on a train, where 2 of his companions froze to death in a boxcar. Once at St. Louis, the Igorots built an entire village out of the “traditional” elements of the Philippines. The St. Louis World’s Fair was set to begin.
At the World’s Fair, many people came to see the men and women on display at the Philippine reservation. These people wanted to catch a glimpse of the Filipino in flesh and blood, in their “natural habitat”. Over 1,000 “natives” of various heritages were on display simultaneously at the fair. Native tribes which had not known of each other’s existence were placed next to each other on the reservation. The aim of this was to show to the American people the various stages of social progress, from “barbaric” to “civilized” and Christian. Markod admired the skills of the different tribes and he marveled at the various animals on display at the fair.
One day, a sick baby girl born to an African couple was taken away and never seen again. The father of the child talked about the incident and the authorities of the World’s Fair became wary of an uprising. Extra scouts were posted in the village. Markod thought about how the Western people say that their God is strong, but their medicines are weak. The death of the child deeply disturbed Markod and he became fearful that evil things would begin to happen. Markod became homesick and missed his wife and home in the mountains. He became disturbed at the noise and brightness of the fair and longed for the quietness of his home. Two Igarot men also disappeared and the whole village mourned at their death. They mourned for days while the American public watched, unaware of their grief.
Markod tried to escape after this incident. He escaped into the woods and relished the music of the sounds of nature he knew so well. He hoped to get by unnoticed and would be able to escape from the fair. When reaching the edge of the forest, he fell into a deep sleep, only to awaken surrounded by unknown American faces. He was then placed in a solitary confinement to keep him from escaping.
When the World’s Fair ended, Markod mysteriously disappeared. The narrator comes back into the plot here and he discovers through archives, that there had been an unusual incident just before the closing of the fair, which involved the death of an Igarot male. The remains had been mangled beyond recognition, but authorities had determined that he was Filipino by the color of his skin. This man could have been Markod, or he could have been put on display at other fairs around the country. Still, Markod’s remains could currently be displayed at the Smithsonian Museum where the brains of two Filipinos had been removed immediately after their death.
At the end of the film, the location of Markod’s body was still unknown and the narrator still wonders on the whereabouts of his ancestor.