British documentary exposes ugly side of Manila

Posted at 02/26/2011 4:35 PM | Updated as of 02/27/2011 1:00 AM

LONDON - From dangerous roads to extreme poverty, a British documentary highlighted several problems faced by millions of people in the Philippine capital city of Manila.

“Toughest Place to be a... Bus Driver”, part of a BBC series exploring difficult working conditions around the world, has chosen Manila as the toughest place for drivers due to appalling road conditions in the city.

The documentary followed the experience of John West, a British bus driver from London who spent a week in Manila to try his luck as a jeepney driver. “I know about Imelda Marcos and the shoes, but not much beyond that,” he said. “It wasn’t what I was expecting at all.”

The filmmakers revealed dangerous driving conditions in Manila, exposing lack of discipline by local drivers, lack of coherent traffic rules, lack of health and safety regulations, and chronic road congestion.

“The documentary is extraordinarily factual and we have high praises for the truths and realities presented,” enthused May Altarejos-Cueva from Project CARES, a Philippine initiative promoting road safety. “We are happy that there is a direct, no holds barred documentary shown to the world about our crazy, irresponsible, uneducated road traffic conditions. It could only serve as an eye-opener for all concerned to be part of the corrective solutions to these problems. There is a lot to be done.”

She continued: “The filmmakers concentrated mainly on Manila's congested and highly urbanized road traffic conditions and, hence, not reflective of the entirety of national road conditions. They should have also included general problems of bus drivers nationwide --long working hours, lack of training and qualifications, low insurance coverage, defective buses, poor road conditions, and the lack of responsibility from other road users including pedestrians and commuters.”

There are over 300,000 jeepneys in Metro Manila, the most common mode of transportation for the majority of its 20 million inhabitants.

Exposing the issues

West lived with Rogelio Castro, a local jeepney driver struggling to escape a life of poverty. During this time, the documentary explored substandard living conditions in the poorest sections of the city.

“He shouldn’t have to work so hard for the little things he’s got,” said West, who was deeply moved by the level of poverty he witnessed.

“The documentary was poignant in that it was a conversation between two bus drivers: one from London and one from Manila,” observed Liezel Longboan from the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. “While Filipino journalists have investigated various social issues confronting our country, a documentary presented from a Western person’s point of view can sometimes give us the opportunity for collective self-reflection and, possibly, collective action.”

She added: “The documentary finds resonance among Filipinos who came here to the UK for economic reasons. Based on my research among the Filipino diaspora who belong to marginalized groups in the Philippines, many of them left the country because of the limited opportunities available for them. Some of them have said that they would not have left the country if their salary was commensurate to their efforts.”

The documentary also highlighted overpopulation in relation to the lack of family planning and sexual health education among the masses, a crucial factor of the poverty cycle.

“The show talked about the reproductive health bill which is important for helping the poor back home,” noted Adrian Williams from Philippine Generations, a British Filipino sociocultural group, commenting from a Facebook discussion about the subject.

Eleonor Sy Templeman, commenting from the same online thread, added: “Perhaps we can lobby the Catholic church to stop obstructing the passage of the reproductive health bill. The church helps, but they need to be reminded that they are not the ones battling daily to feed several mouths, look for money to buy medicine and pay for education. They are not the ones who bury children, mothers, fathers, brothers or sisters because they cannot not afford hospital bills.”

It was revealed that the Philippine government has for many years attempted to implement a reproductive health bill, including plans for effective contraception. These efforts have been blocked repeatedly by the Catholic church, an institution that holds a strong influence in the sociopolitical affairs of the country.

A fiercely Christian nation, approximately 80% of the total population of the Philippines belongs obediently to the Roman Catholic Church.

The debate

The show sparked heated debates, particularly on Facebook, among overseas Filipinos who wish to scrutinize the merits of the program.

“Documentaries like this are good, in a way, to tell the world how a large percentage of our people live,” said Mikhail Sleepy. “Although the documentary seems to have a negative portrayal of the country, you could see the positives, such as the strong family ties we have.”

“We cannot turn a blind eye or ignore that such things occur,” added Cherrie Baya Querghi. “It hurts because we live a far easier life here than they do, but regretfully, everything that we saw in that documentary is the truth. There is no hiding from it.”

Paul Walters also commented: “There is nothing wrong and much to gain from showing the Philippines ‘warts and all’ as we say. I believe that true pride in a country is gained from understanding the good and the bad about it.”

Some Filipinos argued otherwise. Joe Quio explained: “I could not see any positive goal for such an expose. The negative impact for us Filipino expats will be ever present in the minds of many foreigners. We will be treated more unequally, and we’ll be rubbish to most of them. We don't need alms, we are survivors. Every one of us knew the dim reality most families back home are enduring, but please do not add insult to injuries.”

“Where did they get their biased interpreters from?” asked Natasha Garcia. “They are changing what the people say to suit their depiction of poor, dirty and illiterate Philippines. Get it right, or don’t do it at all.”

Craig Ramos-Stovin also observed: “As interesting as it was seeing that side of Manila, it didn't do the country any favors internationally. You can never ignore that side, but there needs to be a good balance between that and showing the joys of the country.”

Others encouraged acceptance of the reality of life in the Philippines. “People should not get embarrassed, or feel upset, or degraded when they see shows like this,” remarked Mae Angelica. “You should always feel proud, honored and privileged of your own backgrounds, no matter how rich or poor that may be.”

'Sensitive'

“I think it's understandable that some Filipinos are very critical,” said Jonathan Corpus Ong, a media sociologist from the University of Cambridge. “Given our colonial past, we are very sensitive when other people talk about us. Some academics use the concept of ‘poverty pornography’ to criticize how Westerners fixate on and derive pleasure from the suffering of other people on television. In my own research on elite Filipino migrants in the UK, I also found that Filipino elites typically want their country portrayed only positively, so their peers in the UK do not think of all Filipinos as poor or ‘backwards’.”

He concluded: “I found the program to be very effective and sensitive. It presented poverty as something reprehensible and shameful, and at the same time showed everyday struggles for dignity among the poor. It did not portray the Westerner as a savior of the poor--as they are usually portrayed--and instead focused on empathy and solidarity in a global context of gross inequality. It presents an invitation for compassion not only for BBC audiences living lives of comfort, but also for us Filipinos who may find poverty and tragedy so typical and unworthy of moral action.”

“Toughest Place to be a... Bus Driver” aired on BBC Two and BBC HD. It is available on BBC iPlayer until March 2011.