Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

The translated title of the film “Tu Pug Imatuy”, “A Right To Kill”, could foreseeably cause some discussion.  The director, Arbi Barbarona, has said that the title (though not a direct literal translation of the Manobo phrase, which simply means “to kill”) stemmed from his rumination about how the “right to life” was a widely accepted notion, while its flipside, the “right to kill”, was less recognized, less discussed, and much less accepted.

Barbarona’s film is clearly partial to the latter.  Unlike the real-life Ubonay, the onscreen Ubonay was able to in turn do harm to the soldiers who had killed her husband and subjected both of them to torture.  But her act of killing was not made in the heat of her torment, but when she was finally able to slip away from the soldiers who were her captors.  Instead of simply making good her escape (which would have been easier, and safer for her own wellbeing), Ubonay was decisive.  In the midst of the chase, Ubonay thought and planned, and effectively premeditated the murder of the soldiers who were coming after her.

This major message of the film comes at a peculiarly appropriate time, when the zeitgeist in the face of bloodshed is the admonition “Thou shall not kill”.  The commandment is straightforward and unequivocal;  many find refuge in and expression of this in the form of the overall current condemnation of any kind of killing anywhere, including those made in the course of waging national liberation movements.

And this is why Ubonay’s final act in the film must be teased out properly, as it is clearly on the marginalized side of the global discourse on whether to kill or not to kill.

One way would be to seek justification:  Ubonay was as a victim herself; her husband was stabbed in front of her, she was molested and dehumanized.  Apart from these explicit instances of direct violence, she and her family were the victims of structural violence as portrayed in the death of her youngest child due to illness.  Hers was an act of punishment against the direct perpetrators of those crimes, and who, being soldiers carrying the authority of the State, stood in for the structural reasons for her poverty and misery.

But there are weaknesses to this interpretation.  For one, it belongs to the realm of fantasy in the sense that her violent act could (safely) be celebrated only because it is confined to celluloid.  Her premeditation makes it uncertain if she can claim self-defense.  As it stands, “taking the law into one’s hands” still horrifies “civilized” society;  we must find a more robust platform on which to stand if we are to uncover the true value of Ubonay’s final act in the film.

We can find this in philosopher Walter Benjamin’s explication of “divine violence”.  In his work “Critique of Violence”, Benjamin writes:

“…[T]he question ”May I kill?” meets its irreducible answer in the commandment  ”Thou shalt not kill.” This commandment precedes the deed, just as God was “preventing” the deed. But just as it may not be fear of punishment that enforces obedience, the injunction becomes inapplicable, incommensurable once the deed is accomplished. No judgment of the deed can be derived from the commandment. And so neither the divine judgment, nor the grounds for this judgment, can be known in advance. Those who base a condemnation of all violent killing of one person by another on the commandment are therefore mistaken. It exists not as a criterion of judgement, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it.”

At this precise point, Walter Benjamin, in a penultimate flash of insight after a long, dense text-meditation on the phenomenon of violence, introduced a conceptual cut into the fifth commandment: it was never given as a “criterion of judgment”, to be used, in an all-too-easy-way, to give a blanket condemnation to all instances of killings. Our spontaneous aversion (and fascination) to all photographs and shots of any scene of killings, nestled as we are from a safe distance, cannot use the fifth commandment to cast blanket condemnations. The fifth commandment is a “guideline for action”, a logical rule for all who respect not simply “mere life” (or “life itself”, reduced to its bare biological, replicative form) but for all those who cherish an expansive life worth our visions of what is proper for any decent life form in this planet. And, Benjamin continues, cherishing that expansive life also amounts to recognizing that there are always cases when “persons and communities” have to “wrestle in solitude” and risk a decision—a terrifying decision without any cover by any Big Other—of silently, self-conscious as the midday sun, “taking responsibility” of ignoring that stern law.

No other scene in the film speaks of this more than Ubonay returning to the pit where the soldiers lay dead or dying.  She could have just run away, after all, the threat against her had been neutralized.  But she returns, and she looks.  As she does that she does not flinch – she takes in the whole gruesome sight of the results of her actions – unmistakably owning what she had just done, or, to take from Slavoj Zizek, heroically assuming the solitude of sovereign decision.

As for the dead soldiers, what of them, then?  Benjamin cautions us from seeing these victims of divine violence as having been punished, for punishment offers the possibility of being unburdened (especially for the perpetrator), and being unburdened in turn leads to the path of things being set right.

But divine violence does not punish and unburden, for as Zizek avers, “those annihilated through divine violence are fully and completely guilty”.  Neither is it a way to set things right:  violent acts that do are hinged upon the idea that that there is an order to go back to – but what if there is no order, no justice to begin with, for the longest time?

Consider the final scene of the movie.  Are things set right?  Ubonay lives, but she has been shot.  Her husband is dead.  She is able to smile and embrace her children, but she offers no justification, no soothing word.  And the sky is overcast, the clouds are ominous.  Who’s to say that more soldiers won’t come back?  We know from real life that they will.  Her actions will clearly not end the violence to which she, her family, and her people have been, and continue to be, subjected; her killing of the soldiers are not, and can never be, “putting things back to right”.

Rather than restore or reaffirm order, divine violence is the very dramatic sign that there is no order and no justice, and that there is something very wrong with the world.  It strikes, it shocks, and it unnerves us from the normalized violence that disguises itself as the “peace” of living every day under a murderous State.

This is the proper framework of Ubonay’s claiming the right to kill.  She wrestled with the decision to kill in solitude, exercised the supreme freedom of carrying it out, and took on complete responsibility for her actions.  It is not to take revenge, or to punish, or to try to recapture a sense of correctness, for divine violence need not be imbued with such meanings to be able to register the wretchedness of this world.

In the scene when Ubonay was looking at the soldiers she had just killed, the camera shot her in such a way that what she was actually looking at was us, the audience, with the piercing gaze that carries the challenge to openly and fully comprehend the root causes of violence, and to stand with those persons and communities who wrestle with the decision of whether or not to take a life.

Towards the end of the movie too, with the appearance of the rubber boots-wearing, Mao cap-donned, red fighters, the additional challenge is posed of openly and fully comprehending the transition of divine violence to the revolutionary violence of the people’s war.

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