The Woman in the Septic Tank: Poverty Film Farce


The Woman in the Septic Tank is a cheeky backstage farce of the poverty-film genre frequently exported by developing nations—here, the Philippines. Offhand, I can think of Brillante Mendoza’s 2007’s Tirador as a native example, but one senses that director Marlon Rivera and screenwriter Chris Martinez are operating from a whole network of inside jokes. Their Septic Tank begins in the stench of the Manila slums, as a mother of seven (TV star Eugene Domingo) sets out to sell one of her children to a pedophile, and an offscreen voice gives stage direction. The voice, we discover, belongs to director Rainier (JM de Guzman), who is visualizing this, his upcoming feature, with his producer Bingbong in a upscale Manila coffee shop, where they strategize how best to cater to the misery market. “The festival programmers aren’t going to have it any other way,” insists succès de scandale savvy Bingbong as they refashion the material, visualized as a docu-drama (“The film will blur the lines between reality and fiction”), a musical, and finally according to the soap-operatic ideas of Domingo, who plays herself taking a meeting with the filmmakers. The film’s dry punchline is that each revision isn’t given as a gradual compromising of artistic integrity, but only as another version of show business as usual. The novel and wickedly funny topic is mined for only a portion of its potential, but a little ironic astringency is certainly more unsettling than by-the-book slum drama.