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Museum of You

Bontoc Eulogy, dir. Marlon Fuentes

Still from Bontoc Eulogy, dir. Marlon Fuentes

By Aaron Hunt

The St. Louis World’s Fair opened on the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase, April 30, 1904, to reassure its attendees of the US right and privilege to others’ lives and land. Among the fair’s cutting edge inventory were the ice cream cone, the baby incubator, the automatic potato masher, iced tea, Ainu people from Japan, “Patagonians” from the Andes, members of 51 distinct indigenous peoples of North America, seven Congolese individuals, and 1,102 Filipinos. Filipinos were the country’s latest overseas acquisition, and so were provided the most lavish display case on the grounds. A fair advertisement proclaimed the 130 buildings, built on 47 acres and overseen by a battalion of 431 Philippine scouts and 300 Philippine constabulary, “Better than a trip through the Philippine Islands!” It is here that filmmaker and photographer Marlon Fuentes sets the stage for an interrogation of the kaleidoscopic Filipino identity, as perceived by a first generation Filipino immigrant, in his film, Bontoc Eulogy (1995).  Fuentes plays the “narrator,” who appears on screen as a Filipino immigrant living in the US. In the opening scene, he listens to a recording his grandfather made on a phonograph, and is later seen browsing the Smithsonian archives on the St. Louis World’s Fair, which Fuentes also did in real life to acquire the archival footage and stills for the film.

Fuentes’ alter ego searches for any trace of his grandfather Markod, a Bontoc Igorot chieftain who was taken to the St. Louis World’s Fair and never returned. Fuentes shot footage for and wove this fictional thread through the actual events of the St. Louis World’s Fair. This Filipino port of entry punctures the “actual” recorded narration, presumably gathered from the Smithsonian archive, of an American “voice of god” describing the attributes of the various Filipino ethnic groups. The twin threads of Markod and himself, a Filipino immigrant perceiving these events in retrospect, foils the purported authority of the ethnographic lens.

I watched Fuentes’ Bontoc Eulogy less than a month from the day that I talked to my family in the Philippines for the first time. My father was adopted when he was less than a year old and brought to the US by Emmet and Alma Vera Hunt, my adoptive grandparents. He was raised among a Black family in a predominantly Black community in Chicago and, until now, had very little connection to his Filipino heritage. My father made initial contact with his blood relatives in the 90s and they exchanged some letters, but communication was harder then for our Filipino family and they fell out of touch. On Facebook, I started messaging people who had the same names as my aunt, uncles, and cousins, as well as the person who translated one of the letters to English. There were a lot of people with the same names who were not my relatives, but on December 17, 2020, I woke up to several missed calls on Facebook. Rolando, an English teacher who translated one of the letters, recognized the photo of the letter I sent him and relayed that my eldest uncle, Jeff, was still his friend and carpenter.

My father, having discovered his family and seen their faces on Facebook, struggles to recognize himself in them. When this first started, he asked me, desperately, if I thought they looked like him. It felt less like he doesn’t think they do, and more like he doesn’t even trust himself to know. As a half white, half Filipino person, I’m also struggling to recognize my appearance in theirs. But as we talk more through the Facebook messenger app using Taglish and Google Translate, their faces have begun to look more familiar. Still, I see my sister’s face in a cousin, or my father in an aunt or uncle, but not yet my own face in theirs. Had I browsed their profiles and seen their photos without confirming so beforehand, I could not have confidently said we were related. Earlier in my search, I struck up a Messenger conversation with someone that had the same name as one of my cousin’s. I thought I might have found my uncle’s daughter “Lovely,” but ultimately it was a false alarm. Before knowing the details wouldn’t check out, and feeling like she might be the one, my sister and I looked at her photos and agreed that they both looked a little bit alike.

I think this all has less to do with pure physical attributes than a self-image that’s been half dulled for the majority of my lifespan. While reading Filipino novels, I conjure white characters by force of habit, and struggle to manifest Filipinos in their place. Slowly, my mind is becoming more populated with Filipino bodies and faces, making it slightly easier for my mind’s algorithm to conjure them at will. I saw myself in some of the archival portraits that Fuentes zooms into in Bontoc Eulogy, which put me face to face with an Igorot stranger and challenged me to accept him and myself.

Bontoc Eulogy gazes directly at these contradistinctions. During the World’s Fair exhibit, the Philippine Constabulary Band epitomized the “benevolent assimilation” that colonizers dream for in colonized peoples. Perhaps listeners believed the band sang gratitude with their drums. To contrast against these model subalterns, the exhibit also showcased Bontoc men eating dogs in public, highlighting the imperial potential to “civilize.” In a scene where the narrator describes the Filipino’s unsettled response to the electric lights that switch on in the fairground at night, Fuentes cuts still photos of the illuminated grounds with footage of a Pinoy man smacking his fishnet against a stone and fabricates a snappy, electronic whipping sound that intensifies each time the man repeats the action, evoking an anger not inherent to the images.

Near the end of the fair, two Igorot men died in their “habitation” and their bodies mysteriously disappeared. The villagers had no choice but to mourn their deaths without proper burials. But the narrator, and Fuentes, discovered their bodies (as well as two brains) embalmed inside the Smithsonian archive. There was another report of a male Igorot body suspiciously mangled beyond recognition, which the narrator feels could have been his grandfather, but the end of Markod’s story ultimately “eludes” him. “If I don’t find Markod, perhaps my children or my children’s children will. If they see him, I wonder if they will recognize him,” the narrator wonders, of his second generation Filipino American children.

I have something of an answer to Fuentes’ question, although it’s obviously complicated by other factors. I did not immediately recognize the family I had never met or seen, and I don’t think it will ever come to me suddenly or all at once. For both Fuentes and I, the fiction of Bontoc Eulogy fills a hole. His mother and grandmother owned one of the first photo studios in Manila, Amor Studios, and consequently owned thousands of family photos. A few years after his mother passed away, he sought to make a home movie with that archive, but a flood destroyed all the family photos. When he dived into the Smithsonian archive, Fuentes realized he could devise his own home movie by creating a fictional channel between himself and the materials. As Fuentes had prowled the archive to form a historical narrative, I combed through my Filipino family’s digital albums to form a rough timeline of their lives in my head, hoping to connect with the decades of memories they made apart from me. I also understand the correlation between losing historical souvenirs and the actual memories associated with them. When my parents divorced, my family endured economic hardships and a series of bad decisions that caused us to haphazardly move several times. In the process, storage disappeared, dishware handed down generations shattered, old year books and photo albums were misplaced or mangled, and with them the spine of our historical continuity zig zagged and lost essential vertebrae, the cumulative depression making us suddenly and visibly amnesiac.

I’m not sure if it has helped me to realize that my homeland, the Philippines, inherently suffers from the same fragmented identity. Its earliest history is scarce and distorted by the country’s various colonizers. It is unlikely I will be able to track my ancestry beyond my Filipino aunt and uncles, as traumatic events also drew them away from their own families and history. Maybe when your ancestry cannot be traced back through more than a generation or two, it’s more devastating when the beginnings of your own legacy comes to an end.

I talked to Marlon Fuentes after watching Bontoc Eulogy, and he encouraged me to film my first trip to the Philippines, something I had thought about, but felt leery to do. I didn’t want to come in as an outsider and immediately subject my family to a camera. But Marlon told me that the ambiguity I’m feeling now and will feel when visiting is precious and I should capture it so that I can look at it years from now and better understand it. “Make a museum of Aaron Hunt,” he encouraged me. I understood why someone who lost the physical representations of family history and knows what it means to be portrayed and preserved by outsiders would want to live their life as if they’re populating their own museum. I’m still trying to figure out what it would mean for me.

Aaron Hunt works in production as a cameraperson, and is an endeavoring filmmaker with bylines in Filmmaker, American Cinematographer, Sight & Sound, MUBI Notebook and more.

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