A paragon of guerrilla resourcefulness and a model citizen of the global village, Cavite is a more anxious and vivid experience than most movies with budgets literally a thousand times bigger. This impressively tense micro-thriller was made for little more than the cost of a pair of economy-class tickets to Manila, by a two-man cast and crew: the Filipino American duo Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana, who between them, wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited, and starred in the film.
Shot entirely on location (and without permits), the film steals a few quick scenes aboard a transpacific airliner before launching with full vertiginous force into a quasi-real-time ransom countdown. Adam (Gamazon), a lapsed Muslim who works as a security guard in San Diego (and is navigating a rough patch with his newly pregnant American girlfriend), travels home to the Philippines for his father’s funeral. At the Manila airport, having discovered a cell phone and a severed finger in his luggage, he finds himself a helpless pawn in a terrorist plot. Taking instructions from an unseen Abu Sayyaf operative who has kidnapped his mother and sister, Adam embarks on a forced tour of the slums of greater Manila.
Despite its indie ingenuity, Cavite is a blockbuster at heart, a no-budget relation to screenwriter Larry Cohen’s beat-the-clock contraptions Cellular and Phone Booth; the filmmakers have proudly cited Speed as a key influence. But the movie’s documentary elements are its selling point. The Philippine shantytowns, terra incognita for most Western audiences (Lino Brocka’s groundbreaking melodramas remain largely unavailable and underseen), are only now starting to come into view: Cavite had its New York premiere at New Directors/New Films this year alongside a somewhat more buoyant portrait of slum life, Auraeus Solito’s The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. Dela Llana’s nimble video camera shadows Gamazon through the squatter camps and garbage mountains in the titular town on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. After an exotic detour to a cockfighting ring, the movie reaches a sweaty-palmed climax in a crowded Catholic church, the intended terrorist target.
The premise may carry a whiff of exploitation, but the awful poverty on display never seems unduly touristic, partly because Adam’s sense of bewildered foreignness is very much the point, and also because the increasingly dire locations are less backdrop than context—extreme conditions, as the film implicitly notes, can breed extremism. Cavite is such a shrewd melding of form and content that any seeming contradictions and shortcomings end up working to the film’s advantage. The raw, hectic videography suits the freaked-out tenor of Adam’s stricken excursion. The quizzical looks of the locals, as this Americanized Filipino blunders through their midst, are unfeigned and wholly apt. And as Gamazon himself squirms under relentless scrutiny, struggles with his rusty Tagalog, and reacts to the uglier aspects of a motherland he no longer knows (or maybe never did), any conventional notion of acting seems beside the point. Fueled by guilt, sorrow, and above all, visceral alienation, Cavite is a nightmare vision of an expatriate’s homecoming—it’s some kind of landmark in diaspora cinema.