Poverty Porn and Donor

Poverty porn. I first heard of that term two years ago at the height of the awards season. Many criticized Slumdog Millionaire for putting India in a bad light by exposing its societal ills and abject poverty. Hence, the use of the term poverty porn. We all know what happened next. Despite criticisms, Slumdog Millionaire swept major critic's choice awards and prestigious award-giving bodies including Oscars.

Back home, the term has been used to describe the works of Brillante Mendoza and Jeffrey Jeturian, among others. Their films, like Slumdog Millionaire, were received with great acclaim. Mendoza's Serbis and Kinatay were chosen as part of Cannes' main competition, a feat never been achieved before even by the great Lino Brocka. Meanwhile, Jeturian's Kubrador earned plaudits in Moscow and Brussels. So who can blame Pinoy filmmakers for exploring the same themes as Slumdog Millionaire, Serbis, Kinatay, and Kubrador? Poverty porn seems to be the country's ticket to international film festivals.

What qualifies as poverty porn? Is the criterion purely thematic? Or are style, intention, and exposition determining factors as well? The term is loosely used to refer to films that feed the audience with the horrors of poverty. It puts the spotlight on the dispossessed, the powerless, the working class.

Donor seems cut out for that definition. The main protagonist, Lizette (played by Meryll Soriano), belongs to the bottom of the social rung. She tries to eke a living by selling pirated DVDs in Quiapo. After a raid, she loses her job and finds herself temporarily put behind bars. Along with other jailed vendors, they appeal to the police to let them go. They point out that selling pirated DVDs is better than prostitution, theft, or drug trafficking. There is a smidgen of truth in that statement. But should one settle for the lesser evil, instead of doing what is good? Is poverty an excuse to do bad deeds? Can values be compromised depending on one's social status? There are difficult questions that viewers will face while watching the "underprivileged" life depicted in Donor.

Going back to the story. A job abroad looks promising, but where will she get P20,000 as placement fee? Growing desperate to find money, she decides to take the offer of Busko (Jao Mapa) and Angie (Joy Viado) to sell her kidney to a Jordanian businessman, but here's the catch: she needs to marry him. Apparently, organ transplants between locals and foreigners are prohibited by law. Angie sees no problem with the deal. Anyway, that is just marriage on paper. She is willing to do anything to get her life on track. But will her live-in partner Danny (Baron Geisler) approve it?

Danny is a very unlikable character. He doesn't have a job. He wastes himself in alcohol everyday. He constantly asks for money for "emergencies". He doesn't seem to care about Lizette, her operation, or her marriage with the Jordanian. All he cares about is having a gun. I wonder why Lizette is still with him. She can just ditch him so she can live peacefully, but she just can't. I was initially wondering why Direk Mark wrote such an awful character, but everything made sense in the end.

Some may see the ending as an attempt to merely shock the audience and leave them with a sinking feeling. I, on the other hand, see it as a happy ending. Given that difficult decisions and sacrifices were made, Lizette is finally rewarded. There is justice in this world. In the end, her life is bound to get better because of perseverance and determination.

Poverty porn is not bad per se. Exploitative cinema is. So what if numerous Pinoy filmmakers use the plight of the poor to tell their stories? As long as the intention is to impart an important message or open the eyes of the audience, then the exposé is justified. But if the sole intention is to make the audience depressed through excessive melodrama, then it verges on exploitation.

Yes, Donor is poverty porn and a good one at that. It mirrors the struggle and eventual triumph of the working class.

Rating: 4/5

*published in PEP

4 comments:

Eternal Wanderer... said...

poverty porn - nice term.

but if applied to the real life socio-economic level of the philippines, it might as well be an orgy.

Fidel Antonio Medel said...

And poverty porn directors are master masturbators.

Eternal Wanderer... said...

you got that one right on *apir!*

pinoyindiekuno said...

And poverty porn directors are "masterbators"

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