The Philippines’ official submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards, Signal Rock, was Cinematografo International Film Festival’sopening piece and, boy, did it set the tone for the whole festival in the best way.
Signal Rock depicts a harrowing and truthful tale about immigration, but where it twists in that familiar story is its focus on the home, rather than the away. Many immigrant stories tell of those abroad in a foreign land, away from family, friends, and anything familiar, so it’s very refreshing to see a story about the home and how leaving home affects those who decided or are forced to stay. It is a point of view rarely explored, so this offered to have some fresh perspectives and material for some real originality.
In this small coastal town, the only place for reception is on a huge rock far out by the ocean, hence the name Signal Rock. The town and country are beautifully shot, and the opening roar of the ocean over these people clinging to a massive black rock is beautiful. Dozens of people dot this rock, trying to reach loved ones far away. It is a simple but exceptional opening that holds nothing back.
The film follows Intoy, whose sister, Vicky, is fighting for custody of her child, who was born out of the country. Intoy does all he can to try and prove his sister looks like she could financially raise a child. He fakes tax documents, land deeds, and other documents that would get them in huge trouble if caught.
Meanwhile, Intoy has a relationship with a girl in the village who is supposed to leave, like his sister, to work in a bar so she can meet a rich foreigner. This is how this town operates. The women get groomed to pick up rich men in the cities so they can send money back home. It is how this village has survived so far. Women of all ages in the village are at a point in this custom. Some are old, and their old foreign husbands have long died. Now they are rich and enjoy a lavish life in the town; others, like Intoy’s girlfriend, are just beginning. You could go on about this for a long time, and in ways, the film’s dealing with this is abrupt and honestly disappointing, but it is told in such a personal way that you can’t dismiss it as passive. The natural tone and way the story is told are purposeful and meant to feel like a different world. Because it is a different world.
Intoy, and really the whole town, struggles with the consequences of their customs. The film switches from a beautiful and intimate camera, that holds a close gaze on Intoy, to one that feels almost documentary in ways. Intoy and the whole town feel amateur in the best way. Nothing in this story comes off like it doesn’t know what it is doing or talking about. This is a world and reality they all deal with every day. Many of the interactions feel like the director just set the camera up without telling the actors they were rolling. Everyone is cast in an honest light that doesn’t try to layer on thematic nuance or cinematic grandiose to fool you. This is their life, and this is what happens.
At times, it may almost feel melodramatic, but the truth is, Signal Rock is an impressively personal and real story. Looking past the low-budget, the humanity of the characters and world roars below the surface, just like the ocean roars under the signal rock. There is no attempt to paint this film in some white-man way. If there is a term for it, this is far from the white-man gaze on foreign land. Signal Rock shows everything, and everyone, for what they are: the sum of their parts.
Intoy is a boy becoming a man, who must grapple with the truth of his world. He finds no escape, but rather than dwell on the tragic truth some may find in it, he seeks to hold onto the beauty of his world. He doesn’t wish to run away and leave what he is, he wants to hold onto that, and love that. That is a fresh and original story.