Cavite (the title refers to a Philippine city) begins with the main character Adam (played by filmmaker Ian Gamazon) in the United States. We see him dragging himself through a dull night shift as a security guard in San Diego. As he prepares for a trip to the Philippines to visit family, he engages in a fight with his girlfriend who reluctantly reveals that she just doesn?t think their relationship will work. Not exactly the best way to bid someone bon voyage.
After a long flight, Adam arrives in the Philippines and things don't get any better. No one is there to pick him up so he spends the night in the airport. In the morning, he gets a call on a cell phone that's been left in his bag. A voice on the other end explains that Adam's mother and sister are being held hostage, and they will be killed if Adam doesn't do exactly as he's told. What initially seems like a kidnapping turns into something much more complex as Adam must follow directions that take him through some of the worst parts of the Philippines. The person barking out the orders has a political agenda that he wants Adam to help him carry out, and along the way he wants to open Adam's eyes to the homeland his parents made him leave. He also wants to give his an education on his Filipino and Muslim heritage.
Cavite is pretty much a two-person production with Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana taking on just about everything - writing, directing, shooting and editing. This is genuine low-budget, guerilla filmmaking, and the filmmakers prove to be up to the task. They display their filmmaking smarts by crafting a pared down thriller that allows them to turn their limitations to their advantage. The streamlined story only requires one actor (the girlfriend role is just an afterthought and should have actually been cut out entirely) yet it doesn?t feel like a solo act because the bustling crowds of the Philippines provide a vivid and vital supporting cast. Then the film doesn't need any sets because Adam is frantically racing about the streets. As for shooting, it can be efficiently done with a small camera - maybe even something that looks like what a tourist would bring - and a miniscule crew - maybe just camera operator and audio person that just follows Adam around. Everything the filmmakers do is cleverly designed to hide their budgetary shortcomings and showcase their filmmaking prowess.
The story builds intensity because its very stripped down nature forces all attention on Adam and his plight. The filmmakers drive the plot furiously ahead with ticking efficiency. But as they pull you into the tension of the film's thriller machinations, they also provide us with a highly unconventional tour of the Philippines. It's a tour that's meant to open our eyes as well as Adam's to the poverty, suffering, turmoil and inequities of the country. It offers us a political and emotional education as Adam is forced to try local food, shown how people struggle to make ends meet and make do on next to nothing, and is exposed to the ingenuity of the local people. The social commentary is nicely layered into the story because it ties in with the character of the unseen man on the other end of the phone, a man so desperate for a change in his country that he?s willing to take innocent lives.
One scene typifies the filmmakers clever scripting. Adam is told to enter a bank to clean out his late father's account. The camera follows him up to the bank but then pulls away to follow a boy that we've seen before. As we hear what's going on in the bank, the camera follows the boy as he gets a McDonald's meal and takes it back to what appears to be his elderly grandmother. Together they share a meager and none too nutritious meal. The scene gives us insight into the boy's life and offers an explanation for why he might be involved in a peripheral way with the mysterious man on the phone. But the whole scene may have been prompted by the fact that Gamazon and Dela Llana might simply have not been allowed to shoot inside the bank. It's that kind of ingenuity that proves impressive.
Cavite displays the technical savvy of the filmmaking but it also reveals some flaws in thematic content and storytelling. Most problematic is the way the filmmakers bookend the Philippine story with scenes in the U.S. These scenes lack the finesse of the Philippine footage and come across as contrived and awkward. The relationship with the girlfriend only exists to make a forced point about prejudice, and her character should have been completely excised from the film. The Philippine story also comes to an abrupt end that raises complex issues that the film doesn't seem prepared to deal with. Plus, there's not a satisfying wrap up to what happens to Adam's mom and sister.
Cavite (unrated and in English and Tagalog with English subtitles) is a savvy piece of filmmaking. It will be interesting to see what these filmmakers will be able to do when someone offers them a bigger budget.
Companion viewing: Chan is Missing, Z -----