An Inquiry to the Construction of Filipino Ethnic Identity

This was a reflection paper I wrote for my  Philippine Studies 212 “Filipino Identities” class at Asian Center, UP Diliman.

Something welled up inside of me as the lens of my camera points to a group of Iraya kids while they were playing in their make shift basketball court. My concentration as I looked at my camera was gone. I never had peace since then.

We long for something authentic as human beings. We look for sincerity and honesty in each conversation and each social interaction we have. We long for the truth and reality displayed. This has been my issue since I did my undergraduate video documentary.

Two major questions welled up inside of me.

The first question has to do with the authenticity of the imagined and constructed ethnic identities we (as filmmakers and storytellers) choose to document and later on project on screens. The second has something to do with my legitimacy to document, project and from the very beginning construct an imagined ethnic identity.

We see it. We hear it. We feel compassionate about it. Activism to help our indigenous groups have gone mainstream. Their plights are no longer invisible to the modern society. As a mass media practitioner, we are intentional to what we show to the screen. Dubbing our actions as service for the Filipino people, we search for stories of people whose voices are rarely heard. However, not all actions are authentic. They can show reality but it is a mocked show. Media choose in a certain way to portray ethnic identities. They solicit sympathy from the viewers while cutting them from the reality of the people involved. Our people groups are exoticized.  They are shown as wild people, vagabonds, uneducated and people who need to be shaped up as modern people. Lies circle these point of views.

As a social scientist, I believe that culture is changing. There is an influx of factors affecting a social group, its interactions, traditions and beliefs. There is nothing pure in a culture. Social construction of ethnicity is very dependent on the framing and point of view by the outsider. And there is nothing authentic to an ethnic identity constructed that doesn’t emanate from the people in study and that doesn’t understand the wellspring of the culture: its people. Unless a media practitioner upholds these two things, there can never be true ethnic identity projection. There will only be hazed images and gossips of who our people are and what they do. Each will never represent the truth.

It is also parallel that when we cannot fully study a group of people, we cannot fully study the culture of a society. It is a gross overstatement to understand a culture in its entirety. There can never be an understanding of the whole culture and life of a society. As such one, whether a sociologist, anthropologist or a filmmaker, should be cautious. We analyze and comprehend only a fraction of what we document and study. We should never generalize and never make claims as though we embody the whole society. This raises my second question with the legitimacy of the viewer.

I see it fitting to call someone a viewer or voyeur. We view something, analyze it, get gratification out of it and make our lives revolve around it. But shows we view are momentarily. It deem to end. As a filmmaker, I know very well, that as the lens of my camera points to the Iraya Mangyan kids, it captured a fraction of the reality only on that specific time. My legitimacy to document an ethnic identity is very limited to a moment that was present. It was in the same way constrained by the medium of recording that I choose to record that constructed ethnic identity. This makes me flawed and unable to construct an identity. I have imaginations of that ethnic identity but imaginations are imaginations. They are wishful thinking tried to be birthed out as reality.

The two questions that I’ve had as I started out my journey to document lives, gave birth to a deeper question. It was a question whether or not, to what extent and necessity should a culture be preserved or conserved. Is it even necessary? The motivation behind it should be put to light. Was I doing it for the Iraya Mangyan kids? For the future Iraya people? Or for the academe? Or for awards? Was I documenting or was I hoarding a cultural knowledge and treasure away from them?

We can never know the fullness of reality and identities. We can only touch parts of it as how we touch an elephant when we are blindfolded. Some may be able to touch the elephant’s nose. Some it’s legs. Some it’s butt. Each can never claim they fully knew the elephant. Their imaginations and constructions are just part of the whole. And parts are better than none. (metaphor from Dr. Melba Maggay)

Published by Kathleen Lei Limayo

Documentary Filmmaker, Documentary Photographer & Visual Anthropologist

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