Vapor Trail (Clark): wastes of history

A cinematic project in the Philippines that began as an exercise in political documentary and ended as excavation of the toxic legacies of the country’s early-20th century war with America is a vital counterblast to global amnesia, says Graeme Hobbs.

Graeme Hobbs
29 January 2011

“All history is selection, and emphasis; neutral neither in origin or effect”

In Vapor Trail (Clark), John Gianvito presents a filmic archaeology of waste. The waste is quite literal; it’s the toxic junk and the heavy metals that remain in the soil of a decommissioned airbase in Pampanga province in the Philippines. Its effects are still being felt, tragically and lethally, by the many innocent victims who were unwittingly exposed to it after being resettled on the base temporarily after the massive eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, and by those who continue to be exposed to the effects of the pollution that has seeped into the groundwater and found new “pathways of exposure” through local rivers to the nearby town of Madapdap.

On one level, this is a film about this waste, the lives of the people it continues to effect, and those local people and organisations who are pressing for someone to take responsibility for a clean-up operation. In making the film however, Gianvito found that to get to the root of why this waste was there in the first place and why nothing was being done about it now, he had to go back over a century to a now mostly forgotten war, the American-Philippine war of 1899-1902. His film also stands therefore as an extended meditation on colonialism, national identity and the erasure of history.  

It started out as another film entirely, as part of a debate on the effective uses of sound and image in political documentaries. This issue of ongoing toxic contamination from US military bases was one that Gianvito had read about some time before and remembered, and he planned that it would form one of the filmed sequences to be debated.

However, when he went to the Philippines and started filming there, the responsibility he felt to address the problems he was hearing about in people’s testimonies became overwhelming. “How can this filmmaker help us?” was, he felt, the continual appeal directed his way, and to which he responded, changing his film in the face of the injustice he encountered in people’s stories. Being in the position to actually do something about it and bring the issue to wider attention, he accepted responsibility.  

Ah yes - responsibility; the word itself runs like a toxic term through the film. The situation lying behind the noxious waste is this. As part of an exit strategy from its decommissioned military bases, the United States offered - and the Philippine government signed – an agreement that meant the US could not be held responsible for any problems arising from their use; however, the mess on the bases not being theirs, the Philippine government does not think that the clean-up is their responsibility (even though they signed the contract), and have said that “they will not pay a single centavo” towards addressing the problems caused by contamination.

The likelihood of the US shifting its stance is nil - if it cleans up one base, what about all its other bases across the globe? Unfortunately, waste, whether old and unexploded ordinance, medical waste or harmful chemicals that have seeped into the soil, is inconvenient, not knowing that it has been decommissioned and is meant to be out of action.

The people caught in the middle, the ones with the leukemia, diarrhoea, nosebleeds, lead and arsenic poisoning, the ones who suffer fevers, nausea and persistent headaches, miscarriages, the ones who were born prematurely, or with defects, or who died with their bones still soft, are the innocent. “My eye wants to close and doesn’t want to open”, says one woman, left with a persistent sickness since her stay in Cabcom, the central section of Clark Air Base from where the problems stem. It is a statement that could just as well apply to the US and Philippine goverments. 

“All history is the history of what is remembered, and what is remembered by those with the power to inscribe that memory – and thus open to question”

A little way through Vapor Trail (Clark) we are shown a brief CNN news report on the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, the event that precipitated the ongoing situation. The report is slick, the presenter assuming his concerned voice as he presents a glib synopsis. Its effect, coming as it does in the middle of this committed and compassionate investigative film of interviews and testimony is utterly loathsome, a presentation of one aspect of the human theatre in reprehensible slo-mo. The non-stick commentary and presentation contrast tellingly with Gianvito’s work, which is a film of necessary leakages between subjects and eras, unfinished business, sticky mess and waste, of uncleaned-up experiences told at length and in a person's own words instead of paraphrased into acceptability of length and phrase.  

Throughout the film, Gianvito asks interviewees if they have heard of the American-Philippine war (he admits that he himself didn’t know of the war until he read Howard Zinn’s book A People's History of the United States); of those that have, he asks if they know any details. No one does. “I know there was a war”, says one child, “but at school they didn’t teach us specifics”. In a park containing the statue of the Filipino nationalist, radical and revolutionary Andrés Bonifacio, founder of the Katipunan movement that sought independence from Spanish colonial rule, Gianvito asks people nearby if they know who he is. One offers the suggestion that he is a guardian of the park. Bonifacio's statue holds a raised, and now broken, scimitar in his hand.

This loss of apparent relevance for significant events in a country's past, and over such a short space of time, is troubling. For in the end this film is is about how something as intangible as the loss of historical memory, and the loss of an awareness of how a national identity has come about, can lead to very tangible effects in the form of deaths from polluted land.

This is one of Gianvito's points, for if a citizen was aware that their present country was founded on an act of betrayal and broken promises by America, in which they initially said that they would support Philippine insurgents against their then Spanish colonisers, but instead ended up “buying” the Philippines from Spain for $20 million in 1898 and excluding the insurgents from the negotiations, and that an American general - William Shafter - declared in 1899 that “the war is over, no matter what 10 million niggers think about it” - then maybe that citizen would be more wary about the same country's intentions in the future. If they were a government official, they might even be a bit more savvy about signing contracts regarding responibilities for ongoing pollution from military bases.

Vapor Trail (Clark) is a long film, 4½ hours, and that’s just the first part.The second, Wake (Subic) is being edited together at the moment from the ninety hours of material Gianvito shot across his three summers in the Philippines on non-renewed visas so as not to attract too much attention to what he was doing. Gianvito is aware of the problems of that such length imposes, but is unrepentant. “It demands a lot from you, but I could argue that it should demand even more”, he said before the screening. “It’s asking you to watch a movie – in the bigger scheme of things, what’s that?”

However, the film’s strength lies precisely in its uncompromising approach. It isn’t going away any time soon - and nor is the problem. In fact, with United States bases worldwide currently numbering over 700, and so-called “non-traditional security concerns” apparently justifying their continued presence, it is a problem that is going to exist for some time to come.  

Campaigning documentaries in our time tend to founder in a film wasteland with their neat borders tended by the already converted - unless they demand something of you and cross boundaries. This is wholly part of Gianvito’s exercise - to make links and aid practical assistance: a handout at the screening gives the name and address of the Alliance for U.S. Bases Clean-up, Philippines. After such a powerful experience in the film, the responsibility for action is transferred to the audience.

“The soul of history is economic”

President William McKinley referred to the newly purchased Philippines as “a gift from the gods”. In the film we see the same words painted on the front of a lorry parked outside of a backyard waste-sorting enterprise, complete with a large unexploded bomb, near to the fence of Clark military base. Other sorters are at work through the film, men digging down into the foul-smelling, foetid earth of decades-old toxic landfill on the ex-Clark Base in the hope of scraps to sell. These are men digging their own graves.

Vapor Trail (Clark) is a thoroughly inconvenient film for all sorts of reasons - not least because Clark Base is now Clark Freeport Zone, a rapidly expanding and economically important commercial centre for the Philippines that certainly doesn’t want to hear tales of ongoing contamination from its land, situated (as its website blurb has it) at the heart of growing markets in the Asia-Pacific region. The “toxics” have been fenced off, according to the spokesman for the Clark Development Corporation. What more can they do?

But, as one nearby resident says, “the juices of the garbage are creeping to Madapdap”, where drinking-water from a pump turns milky yellow overnight when left in a plastic bottle, and if that wasn't enough, also incubates a couple of orange oily lumps for good measure. The flow of rivers runs through the film, but by the end of the 270 minutes, the opening images of flowing water at dawn have assumed a terrible retrospective portent.

I am reminded of Heavy Water (2007), Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff's film about Chernobyl, which allies poet Mario Petrucci's words about the disaster and its aftermath to images from the exclusion zone: This side of the fence is clean, that side is dirty. Understand? / You must forget that soil is like skin.

Heavy Water shows a farm in the Chernobyl area. A flycatcher rests on a corrugated iron fence, respecting no such niceties of differentiation, as a cat peers over, readying to leap.

The presiding spirits of the film are Howard Zinn, with whom Gianvito came up with the three premises on history that open the film and which I have here used as section headings, and the lesser-known side of Mark Twain, whose caustic tract against imperialism in general and the American prosecution of the Philippine war in particular, entitled To the Person Sitting in Darkness and written in 1901 for the Anti-Imperialist League of New York, Gianvito quotes from in the film.

“There must be two Americas”, Twain says, “one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive's new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” At the end Twain, presciently, proposes a new flag for The Philippine province. “It is easily managed”, he says, “... we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

Some images from the film: a sodium-hydrosulfite barrel used as a planter in a street frontyard; a billboard with the words Don’t Give Up - Pray, It Works; another, for a washing powder, saying Tide With Sun Power Washes Clean; and lastly, at the end of this first film, children flying black kites over a black river in Madapdap.

Vapor Trail (Clark) makes the point (and this is still current practice today when a state wants to discredit an enemy) that during the American-Philippine war, America downgraded the terminology by which it referred to Filipino fighters for independence from revolutionaries, to insurgents, and finally to bandits and brigands. “What do you think of yourself as?” I asked Gianvito. “A troublemaker”, he replied, and later (only half joking), “enemy combatant”. 

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