Screening Room: Jeepney

We hope you were able to enjoy Jeepney! The film has been taken down, but this page will remain up with the filmmaker interview and other teaching resources. 

For the next two weeks (November 20 to December 3) we have the pleasure of screening the visually stunning documentary film Jeepney by filmmaker and artist Esy Casey. The film follows the material and social life of military jeeps left in the Philippines after US military intervention. These customized jeeps are both an indigenous art form and the most accessible public transportation system. This iconic symbol of the Philippines, and main mode of transportation for many, is at the brink of extinction due to increasing government regulations, taxations and raising oil prices that make it difficult for independent Jeepney owners to make a living. There is also a dwindling interest in continuing the skilled craft of Jeepney making. The film pays close attention to the complex networks of specialized craftwork that go into making these mobile artworks as much as it does to the social life of the Jeepney.    

A beautifully shot film that explores the complex socio-cultural entanglements between aesthetics and politics that take material form in the Jeepney. The brightly colored Jeepney’s at once speak to indigenous rights, struggles and dreams of economic justice, and government policy towards the environment and multinational corporations as they drive passengers around the urban areas of the Philippines. This is a film of interest for those concerned with material culture, cities and urbanism, indigenous art forms, globalization and social inequality, and economic justice. 

Film Website

Synopsis

Jeepney visualizes the richly diverse cultural and social climate of the Philippines through its most popular form of mass transportation: vividly decorated ex-WWII military jeeps. Unlike mass transportation in many parts of the world, jeepneys are not a government service but are individually operated by the drivers, who manifest their identity, values, and dreams in its painting and decoration. The stories of a jeepney driver, artist, and passenger take place amidst nationwide protest against oil price hikes that pressure drivers to work overseas to earn a living. Lavishly shot and cut to the rhythm of the streets, Jeepney provides an enticing vehicle through which the rippling effects of globalization can be felt.

Biography

Esy Casey (Director/Director of Photography)

is a Filipino American Filmmaker. She produced and shot Things With No Name, (2008; available on iTunes + Amazon), which was nominated for the Haskell Wexler Prize for Best Cinematography at the Woodstock Film Festival. Her films with Sarah Friedland have been featured on the sites of Filmmaker Magazine and Art Asia Pacific Magazine.

Sarah Firedland (Producer)

Is the director of Thing With No Name (2008), which was nominated for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Her award-winning editorial work (Free to Fly: The US–Cuba Link I, principal editor, 2004, The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo, assistant editor 2005) screened at the Tate Modern and MOMA, and she was named one of the top 10 filmmakers to watch in 2009 by the Independent.

Interview with Director Esy Casey

Patricia Alvarez: Could you tell us about the background of the project? What attracted you to theJeepney?

Esy Casey: My mother’s from the Philippines and my father’s from Detroit, so I suppose I feel akinto a Filipino American vehicle. My mother was born in a MASH camp in the mountains during WWII, and raised near Subic Bay, by the largest offshore US military base in the world. The first time I visited the Philippines I was seven; the jeepneys were even more ornate back then, with little plastic dolls glued to them, and even more hand painted patterns. I was really into Barbies at the time, and this was like riding in a Barbie dream van come to life. Plus you could hang off the back!

PA: The Jeepney allows you to link and relate different social, economic, political andenvironmental issues affecting present-day Philippines while also considering the impact and legacy of war and US occupation. Can you expand on the figure of the Jeepney and how did it become clear to you that they were such a political and complex symbol?

EC: At first I was surprised that no one had made a film about the jeepney; it’s become such a glaring icon of the Philippines, and it illustrates the islands’ tribal, colonial and current history on its sides. But some are embarassed by how out there it is, decoratively. The more I looked at it, the more beautiful it became, revealing all kinds of very personal sentiments that people might not otherwise talk about, like the heartache of missing your family while working abroad. Or a dirty joke. But having it all there in one place, the funny and the sad and the holy and the crass strikes me as one of the most earnest, honest art forms I’ve seen. They’re so individualized, when everywhere else in the world it’s about blending in to this sleek homogenic blandness that’s somehow come to represent modernity and progress.

PA: The skill and specialized work that goes into making a Jeepney is amazing. Eventhough they are based of off military Jeeps, these are completely transformed into something else. One does not typically think of modes of public transportation as objects of art. Can you talk about the relationship between local arts, especially indigenous arts, and politics that the Jeepney seems to embody?

EC: Gerry, the main driver we follow in the film, is a proud Igorot, whose family hails from theBanaue rice terraces, these incredible mountains that you see in brochures about the Philippines. Part of the reason we focused on the city of Baguio was that the indigenous arts of the tribes there are still very much alive today; this mountainous area in central Luzon (along with tribes like the Maranao in the southern island of Mindanao) was one of the only areas that the Spanish colonizers were unsuccessful in permeating, because of the rough terrain and because of success of the tribes' resistance. We hiked some of the terraces and these 80 year old tatooed women would just breeze by like it was nothing. I was very glad to see traditional farming and arts still going on up there, and with a lot of support from artists in Baguio. Some of the more percussive music inthe film is from a now disbanded group called Pinikpikan (also rooted in that region); their work used a lot of traditional instruments made from wood, steel and coconut, which are the same materials as the jeepney. Including it was a way of imagining the jeepney's 'voice'.

PA: One of the things I really enjoyed about the film is the ways we as viewers getto inhabit and become familiar with the Jeepney’s. We really get a sense of the materiality, details, craft, space, movements of the Jeepney’s. Can you talk about these editorial decisions that always keep the Jeepney as the central element of the film?

EC: It's tricky to make an object the main 'character' when we as audiences are so accustomed to documentaries following human characters to create that emotional connection; that's what gets funded, so that's what we see. I knew it would be a challenge, but I really wanted to try it. The enormous amount of jeepney art + mudflap quotation footage we amassed proved to be helpful to illustrate a lot of things that people said, which helped it maintain a consistent presence.

PA: We see how the Jeepney as a mode of transportation is on the verge of beingeliminated, leaving large masses of people without transportation. In conjunction to this it seems to be also dying as an art form. Younger generations don’t want to continue the craft. What’s your impression of the future of the Jeepney and the broader social and economic impacts that might unfold if it disappears?

EC: Someone asked me what this film was really about in one word, and I said "loss." A lossof individual expression during a time when economic need presses people to leave their countries + identities behind to eat. So the jeepney tells of a loss with the drivers who become migrant workers overseas, who lose the independence of running a jeepney business, and sometimes lose their own families and community in the process of serving the global elite as oil workers or domestic workers. And the forecasted loss of jeepney artists and builders by the manufacturer Ed Sarao, that fill the city streets with traditional imagery and stories of the past. Amidst the warmth and humor of the many people we met, there was an underlying sense of loss and absence, as there are in many countries who depend on the remittances of migrant workers. But it was important for me not to victimize the people in the film, since films examining these issues can easily veer into that for a strong emotional response. There is loss, but there are a lot of people recognizing the roots of it; The Philippines has an incredibly strong network of people inside and out of the country voicing these issues via BAYAN, whose unite in masses far greater and more diverse than the Occupy movement every time there is a need to hit the streets and be heard.

PA: How was the experience on filming in public transportation and Jeepneyworkshops?

EC: From the articles I’d read on the completely male jeepney culture, I’d anticipated the most extreme situation—a super macho, maybe threatening environment that wouldreject us. But that couldn’t have been further from our experience; everyone was very warm and welcoming of us nosing around and appreciating the skills involved in putting this vehicle together. In public, we shot with small DSLRs to keep a low profile, and largely in slo-mo to minimize bumpiness. And the jeepney's long side windows just happened to fit the 16:9 ratio beautifully.

Influences/Related Films

Incluences for Jeepney

Kidlat Tahimik—Perfumed nightmare

EC: Kidlat Tahimik (see Perfumed Nightmare) is one of the filmmakers from the Baguio area, and has been one of my experimental filmmaking heroes who can bring a bittersweet history into a a thoughtful, beautiful, and funny portrait. And somehow through the grapevine, I ended up at his son's wedding party on my first trip up. I took it as a good omen.

Michael Glawogger—Workingman's Death 

EC: The late Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death is a mesmerizing portrait of work that keeps the labor as the central focus . . .

Jessica Oreck—Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo

EC: . . . and Jessica Oreck's Beetle Queenconquers Tokyo proves that experimental doesn't always mean slow; it's got a fun pace to it, which definitely prompted me to think of the pace of the jeepney as part of the shooting and editing process. I think it was Coppola who picks a thematic word that guides him through the visualization to realization process, and the word for Jeepney was "fleeting."

Related Readings from Cultural Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology has a Curated Collection on Infrastructure; a theme list on Cities and Urbanism; and articles on the politics of art such as Öykü Potuo─člu-Cook's "Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Instanbul" (2006), Joshua Rubin's "Making Art from Uncertainty: Magic and Its Politics in South African Rugby" (2014), and Ana María Alonso's "Conforming Disconformity: "Mestizaje," Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism" (2004).

Cultural Anthropology has published many articles about the Philippines, including Deirdre de la Cruz's "Coincidence and Consequence: Marianism and the Mass Media in the Global Philipplines" (2009), Lieba Faier's "Runaway Stories: the Underground Micromovemnts of Filipina Oyomesan in Rural Japan" (2008), Nicole Constable's "At Home but Not at Home: Filipina Narratives of Ambivalent Returns" (1999), and Sally A. Ness's "Originality in the Postcolony: Coreographinc the Neoethnic Body of the Philippine Ballet" (1997).