brokedown reality

by athena tam

Last year Claire Danes came to Manila to shoot the movie Brokedown Palace. She was later interviewed by Premiere magazine about the experience and was quoted as saying, "The place just fucking smelled of cockroaches. There's no sewage system in Manila, and people have nothing there. People with, like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth. We shot in a real [psychiatric] hospital, so takes would be interrupted by wailing women, like, 'Cut! Screaming person.' Rats were everywhere." As a result, she was declared persona non grata, forbidden to enter the country, and Brokedown Palace was banned from being shown in Metro Manila.

Danes' comments were ignorant and outrageously insensitive. However, government officials chose not to take them as constructive criticism and instead as insults and, worse yet, outright lies. For some reason we are completely willing to recognize our country's problems yet can't stand it when other people point them out. This was made plain for the whole world to realize when Brokedown Palace was banned. Obviously, nobody in the international community got the idea that the Philippines is the opposite of Danes' claims.

This year Danes formally apologized for her comments (though whether her apology was sincere is difficult to determine), and Brokedown Palace was finally shown here in late October. I went to see it in order to get a sense of Danes' perspective.

The story actually takes place in Thailand and revolves around several peculiarities in the Thai justice system. Two girls, best friends their whole lives, have just graduated high school and decide to take a memorable trip because they are about to be separated for the first time in their lives. Alice and Darlene (played by Danes and Kate Beckinsale) end up getting tricked into smuggling heroin to Hong Kong and are consequently thrown into a filthy dungeon crawling with cockroaches. They are later moved to a women's correctional institute, which also happens to be filthy and crawling with cockroaches. The girls are unable to defend themselves or communicate with the policemen and judges they have to deal with, being naïve when it comes to what are portrayed as third world practices.

Brokedown Palace portrays Thailand (using Manila) as stuck in medieval time--a dungeon for drug offenders and a justice system that bases its judgments on the moral character of a person. It is no wonder that Danes felt the way she did. The film was shot in an unsightly area of the city and she may have been concentrating so intensely on being "Alice" that she ended up adopting a similar attitude. I don't mean to defend Danes--as a Yale student, she should know better--but I do think it is important to realize that her comments weren't produced in a vacuum and therefore it is necessary to examine the context from which they came. Nobody learns anything when a movie is banned. Would it not have been a better idea to laugh in Danes' face and call her stupid and naïve? To say, "We know we have problems, but if you think it's that simple, why don't you come here and solve them for us"? At the very least, we would have saved face.

In situations such as this, it is necessary to think about which aspect needs to be focused on. In this case, it is why, exactly, the government gets so defensive about things they aren't doing anything to relieve--namely, corruption resulting in the lack of low-income housing and decent street cleaning programs. Even people who dislike the current administration seem to be using Danes as a scapegoat for everything going wrong in the country, when in reality she hasn't done anything much. The only way to make something good out of this is not to find the "right" person to blame but to know why someone has to be blamed in the first place. Why were there cockroaches all over the mental institution that Brokedown Palace was shot in? To figure out the answers to such questions is not to accommodate the needs of visitors like Danes but instead to focus on improving the quality of institutions, programs, everything in the country.

Athena Tam is a zine editor and wants to tell you about historical theft.

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