‘Katips’: Martial Law 101 on dramatic steroids

‘Katips’: Martial Law 101 on dramatic steroids
Jeremy Ponce leads the cast of "Katips: The Movie." —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

“Katips” is not for those looking for a nuanced, layered, complex movie about martial law. It caters to a less sophisticated crowd—those who have not yet seen a martial law film, those who have zero to little knowledge and appreciation of martial law, and those who deny martial law atrocities altogether. 

That’s a wider net, given the soaring support for authoritarianism and the “golden age” fantasia in recent years, which led to the crowning of Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as the Philippines’ highest royalty. 

That in itself is a very worthy cause, a lofty goal. But it’s not the only thing that makes “Katips” an ambitious undertaking. 

As though telling a martial law story were not tough enough, writer-director Vince Tañada gave himself the more demanding task of doing it with songs. There’s a reason the title is followed by “The Movie”: This is a big-screen adaptation of his own theater musical of the same name that was first staged in 2016.

Courageous effort

Those are two different animals, theater and film. As an art form, theater is not as popular among the general public as film. But within its own world, musicals typically are an easier sell for Pinoy theater buffs. Not so among movie audiences. That’s one of the two reasons local producers, too, stay away from song-and-dance films. The other reason is they’re more expensive to produce. Bottomline: money.

Movie musicals require a lot of it but don’t guarantee a return on the investment. “Katips,” the movie, is brave on that front as well, making it an overall courageous effort. That it’s about a topic as controversial as martial law, made in the time of Duterte and released just a month into the Marcos Jr. administration, makes it supremely valiant. Or foolhardy. 

Not all the musical numbers in the film work, though. But when they do—the clever and wistful The Lovers sequence, the Torture and Rape segment—“Katips” sings with real, endearing inspiration and singes with go-for-broke intensity. Especially the graphic, harrowing, no-punches-pulled Torture and Rape section: Excellently mounted, shot, acted, and edited, it’s the film’s indelible highlight. 

What the doctor ordered

Poster of the musical film

The film’s own not-preaching-to-the-choir preachiness, either by design or due to the filmmakers’ capabilities, is a virtue. “Katips” tells the fictional story of a group of young student activists during the First Quarter Storm circa 1970, which is often cited as the inciting incident that eventually led to the declaration of martial law in 1972. It’s the sort of black-and-white soap opera that the doctor ordered to rid its rightful audience of the malady of ignorance and apathy. 

Call it Martial Law 101 on dramatic steroids. In fact, the story is framed in the film using a lecture-type narrative device. 

It’s probably enough to educate the uneducated, convince the unconvinced, change the misdirected and turn them into believers of the gospel of darkness of this chapter in the nation’s history that the movie is evangelizing. 

Katips, as used in the movie, is short for Katipuneros, which is how the activists in the story call themselves (“bagong  (new) Katipuneros,” to be exact). If the film inspires just one viewer to be one, or at least succeeds in planting the seeds—to get out of themselves and fight for the rights and humanity of others, to love country as much as they love the romantic and familial loves of their lives—then “Katips” will have achieved something that not all the more sophisticated martial law films are able to do. 

Eric Cabahug is a Palanca awardee for his 2016 screenplay “Deadma Walking.” He has written two other films, authored two other fiction books, worships at the altars of Madonna and Gary Larson, and adores the Minions. He says he lives in the so-called Tiger City but is so not a fan of the “Tigre ng Norte.” —Ed.

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