God's Children


Hiroshi Shinomiya's documentary "God's Children" takes the audience into the lowest levels of hell on earth. It revolves around the lives of Filipinos who eke out a living in search of scrap metal, plastic bottles, etc. at a massive garbage dump near Quezon City called "Smokey Valley," a sardonic euphemism in line with "Smokey Mountain," another garbage dump outside Manila whose denizens were featured in Shinomiya's first film.


Eighteen thousand families were drawn to Smokey Valley because there were no economic alternatives. During a question and answer period after last night's screening at MOMA, the director stated that the unemployment rate in Manila for youth now stands at fifty percent.


In the opening scenes of the film, we discover that a typhoon had ripped through the area in July 2000, causing a landslide of garbage that demolished shacks abutting the dump, killing more than one thousand dwellers. We are reminded of the aftermath of 9/11 as we see rescue crews pulling dead bodies out of the fetid rubble, but with one difference. Given the power relationships that govern this planet in this epoch, nobody ever held memorial concerts or raised millions for these victims of the nameless and faceless terror known as capitalist neo-liberalism.


After this disaster, the government closed the dump. Shinomiya's film then focuses in on the desperate effort of a group of families to survive, as their one economic opportunity is lost. Yams dug from nearby plots, or boiled rice and water serve as the only meal of the day. Throughout this ordeal, the families struggle to maintain their dignity. Farmers whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the inexorable forces of agribusiness or natural disaster head most of the families featured in the documentary. They have the same hopes as any other family: to bring children into the world and to raise them properly. Because of crushing poverty, this appears to be an impossible task. Cholera, malnutrition, measles and other diseases kill infants in massive numbers in Smokey Valley. As is the case with much of the film, the funeral scenes for these newly born are emotionally devastating to the point of being practically unwatchable.


During the discussion period, I commented that the United States was responsible for the misery seen in the film. It invaded the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century and imposed a series of oligarchies on the people that would protect the US-owned or controlled sugar plantations that exist to this day. If that land were used for small-scale farming, there would be enough food for everybody. To the sound of applause, I commented that nobody picks through garbage in Cuba.


In essence, this distinction is lost on leftists who judge Cuba as a failure because it has not transcended commodity production and many of the other features of capitalist society. But the true yardstick for such countries is not whether a people is liberated from the daily grind of work, but whether they can bring children into the world without worrying about losing them to cholera during infancy.


In the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly, we discover that life was much better in 1491 for the average indigenous inhabitant of the New World than it was for a European. (http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2002/03/mann.htm) We can probably assume that the same thing was true for the 15th century Filipino who survived by fishing, hunting and migratory cultivation. Unlike more centralized state-based societies such as China or India, the Philippines had more in common with North America where loosely governed bands enjoyed nature's bounty on an egalitarian basis.


The lack of an advanced state mechanism made the task of subduing the Philippines far easier. For 330 years Spain exploited the riches of the islands while turning the population into peons, whose indigenous beliefs were replaced by force-fed missionary Catholicism. Finally, when they gathered together the resolve to throw the Spanish out, the USA stepped into the breach and constituted itself as a new colonial master. This prompted Mark Twain to write the following:


"And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one -- our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones." (To the Person Sitting In Darkness, 1901)