Philippine social realism is a beaten track. Poverty has been overexposed. Class inequality is old news. Corruption is a social sickness Filipinos have been immune to. The contemporary challenge to socio-realist art is knowing not what to tell but how to present prevailing realities to a society jaded from hearing the same old message. Jeffrey Jeturian takes on this challenge with his Cinemalaya 2013 entry Ekstra (The Bit Player), a cinematic microcosm of bigger, social truths dressed as an exposé on TV production.
Ekstra follows Loida Malabanan (Vilma Santos) in her latest acting stint for the teleserye Nauna Kang Maging Akin. Her roles stay modest: part of the crowd, housemaid, and someone’s double. The ‘dramedy’ revolves around the production world that favors reputation and esteemed titles, while remaining unkind to the nameless, namely extras like Loida.
As with any local socio-realist film, poverty has to exist somewhere. In Ekstra, it lies in Loida’s meager lifestyle. She faces the singular problem of survival, from sustaining her daughter’s, Joyce, education to supporting this two-member family through her sideline acting. Every acting opportunity becomes Loida’s source of income, and lends momentary peace only disturbed by Joyce’s monetary reminders.
But these opportunities are hardly places of refuge. Despite working alongside the likes of Papa P, being cast as a bit player means working in dehumanizing conditions. Apart from ‘out-acting’ her fellow extras and asserting herself as a talented actress in the dog-eat-dog TV world, Loida has to deal with sleeping on mats, cold breakfasts, and blurred cameos.
She endures this simply because of what she is not: neither an Amalia Fuentes nor a Marian Rivera. Loida’s profession earns her her bosses’ marginalizing treatment. Jeturian’s genius shows in how he conveys this marginalization through brilliant juxtaposition of scenes.
Take for instance the production’s lunch break. The quick transition from the VIPs’ abundant feast to the cafeteria set-up of the less important becomes the explicit suggestion of injustice. Fairness is questioned when the audience sees Loida make do with a lazy amount of foundation while Cherie Gil gets better eye makeup.
The success of this film is partly founded on its metaphorical layers. While it does illuminate the difficult life of bit players, Ekstra provides a microcosmic perspective on what is happening in immediate society. In this country, there is bias toward the popular and affluent, while there is dominant apathy for the plight of those in poverty. Society’s VIPs are those blessed with influence and beauty, and not the millions of people who live off minimum wages. No one is above the law, or so they say until someone privileged goes above it.
Ekstra manages to materialize these realities with the help of the unfamiliar narrative of the bit player. The popular and affluent are represented by the celebrities, who are always forgiven of their flaws because of what they are. The privileged takes the form of the production’s most important staff members; and the extras, of course, are the oppressed, who are reminded daily on-set of their lowly status.
The film might sound grave but believe this: Ekstra is funny. And not even of the slapstick kind. Another part of the film’s success lies in its masterful use of comedy. Jeturian, Jadaone, and Dulay — the geniuses behind the screenplay — have written a script oozing with humorous wit that makes the audience think while not bordering on being alienating or highbrow. Despite the gravity of its social depiction, this film stays socio-realist in the most refreshing way possible; that is, in a jovial manner so uncharacteristic of the grit and grime associated with socio-realist films.
The irony of Santos, Philippine media’s “Star for All Seasons,” playing a bit player adds to both the film’s hilarity and meaning. It’s almost as if the film is asking this: if seeing someone as respected as Vilma Santos marginalized could only elicit sympathy, what can the people sans Santos’ credentials possibly do to invite empathic thought?
The film ended with a question: “Sinong namatay?” It was addressed to Loida but it could possibly be for the audience. It is easy to know who literally dies in a teleserye because it shows it. In real life, those figuratively murdered is silenced to anonymity. What socio-realist films like Ekstra thrive in is lending voice to people and realities made silent. What these films need and have always needed is an audience that will listen. Their taking action is the next best thing.