Cut, Cut, Cut

Katie da Cunha Lewin reviews Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto

Gina Apostol, Insurrecto.
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £14.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto is a novel deeply enmeshed in the technologies of cinema — not only as a method of seeing, but as a method of art-making that is both the product of an individual imagination and the labour of an enormous cast and crew. There are several films weaved into Apostol’s narrative, all fictional: a 1970s film called The Unintended, shot by American filmmaker Ludo Brasi; the screenplay for the film, by Brasi’s daughter Chiara; and the overhaul of the screenplay, by a writer and translator named Magsalin. These films are more than just the novel’s underscoring: their invention is a crucial element of the plot, and through them Apostol questions the responsibilities of narrative, the ethics of historical representation, and ideas of authorship. But there is another dimension to their role in Insurrecto. When a novelist like Apostol writes of an imagined film, the questions she raises are about both aesthetic form and possibility.

“Imaginary films”, as Massimo Fusillo writes, “are a part of a broader fascination with the realm of the potential”. Although the work of cinema depicted by Apostol may be an amalgam of other films, a tissue of references and signifiers, its existence lies purely in language: its visual power becomes possible only with the input of the reader, and the potential to release that power can be found throughout Apostol’s layered, intricate, and imaginative work. Introduced with an enormous cast list and told through intersecting narratives in numbered sections, with the different narratives enacting the films of Chiara and Magsalin’s re-write, Apostol uses film as a framing device that allows her to replay historical events in conflicting ways. Early on, she gives a précis of the structure of her book:

It will be set in 1901, or maybe 1972, or maybe 2018. … There will be unapologetic uses of generic types, actors with duplicating roles. Anachronisms, false starts, scarlet clues, a noirish insistence on the pathetic pursuit of human truths will pervade its miserable (quite thin) plot, and while the mystery will seem unsolved, to some it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair.

What follows are many narrative strands that cross over incidentally, through character or event, but are always broadly focussed on the Filipino-American War and the occupation of the Philippines by American soldiers. This occupation, Apostol shows, is not just a discrete historical occurrence at the beginning of the twentieth century, but something constantly replayed and reoriented through the enduring American presence in the Philippines. As she writes at one point, the two countries are culturally intertwined: “Manila is necrotized in America too, — scar tissue so deeply hidden and traumatized no one needs to know it.” That film is so central to this narrative is all the more interesting when we consider that Hollywood cinema is an essential component of American soft power, a key method of “winning hearts and minds” and thus maintaining American military and economic prowess, as well as ideological influence.

Brasi’s film takes as its subject the brutal attack by American soldiers on the town of Balangiga in 1901. After a group of townsfolk in Balangiga killed almost fifty US troops in a surprise offensive, military reprisals across the island of Samar employed a scorched earth strategy that left hundreds of families homeless and some two thousand Filipino men dead. It’s difficult to know how Brasi’s depiction of these events on film would have been read by different audiences. This horrendous act of violence, in which an entire town was destroyed and countless people were slaughtered, is little remembered in the United States; but, for Apostol, it is a crucial moment in the history of the Philippines, a moment through which the voracious appetite of America’s colonial occupation is truly revealed: “The Americans in Balingaga are at war in the Philippines for no reason they can express, but what they feel is powerful enough.”

As Brasi sees it, his film is centred upon “a crime of history that no single vision can redeem”, and, in her own way, Apostol agrees: she shows the film reconstruction of the violence through the eyes of an onlooker, Caz, who watches the assistant director choreograph a mass death scene with children and is struck by “how strange it was to see it dawning upon [the actors] that this was their history unfolding before their eyes”. In these scenes, which feature children and mothers made up to look like bloodied corpses, the director re-stages the violence of the occupation to give visual form to an event that was not widely documented at the time it occurred. But his imaginary scenes become all the more vivid and multifaceted for readers of Insurrecto, because Apostol’s description of Brasi’s process recalls the production histories of other military epics filmed on location with famously large budgets. Harking back to the cinematic undertakings of post-War Hollywood and the American New Wave, Apostol specifically name-checks Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986). She also evokes the spirit of Lewis Milestone’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952), in which real-life locals (of Tahiti and Mexico, respectively) were used as extras to replay horrendous historical events. Insurrecto reminds us that Hollywood has a pedigree in co-opting people into re-enacting their own histories for the gratification of another culture.

Apostol’s two American women artists who make art that ostensibly responds to the violence in Balangiga seem to find the reality of life in the Philippines incidental to their projects. In Chiara’s case, this attitude is partially a result of the way she has been brought up, and Apostol wonderfully describes her glossy privilege in a way that evokes the impenetrability of a certain kind of celebrity. Her descriptions reminded me of tabloid holiday pictures I used to look at when I was an easily-impressed teenager: impossibly pristine actors or singers wandered in blazing sunshine, wearing enormous sunglasses and trailing expensive luggage behind them: “Not a hair out of place, not a speck on her camouflage-print safari-style Louis Vuitton.” Chiara is a clear type, born from celebrity into an otherworldly realm in which she is untouchable. But Apostol’s writing of the character goes beyond her immaculate exterior to interrogate the motivations she has for embarking on her screenplay in the first place. Chiara’s film seems to be more focussed on the mythology of her dead father than on the country she finds herself in. For Chiara, Apostol writes, “life… has always been the imminent confabulation of her desires with the world’s potential to fulfil them”. This might be the most succinct description of the power of money that I have ever read—apart from a line from Grace Paley’s ‘An Irrevocable Diameter’ in which a young woman is described as “the shiny daughter of cash in the bank”.

Through the double journeyings that take place in Insurrecto — as, in short, wealthy or otherwise privileged American pseudo-artists aestheticise the global wreckage of American adventurism — Apostol conveys a fascinating sense of a cultural tourism that pretends to document or understand a place, but isn’t finally able to hold back the colonial gaze. Chiara’s wealth means that she cannot see the world around her as anything other than there for the taking. Chiara also has a conceptual twin from 1901, a photographer named Cassandra, the subject of Magsalin’s narrative, who arrives in the Philippines to take pictures of the war. Ironically, though Cassandra may be a photojournalist, her background also tempers her ability to capture what is around her in any meaningful way: “She is also rich, as you can tell by her inability to see them, these desolate men standing in the mud and the carboa grass.” This “silken pest” may be able to compose a scene for the camera, but only in reference to certain details she admires in the paintings of the Old Masters — nothing to do with the reality and cruelty of the occupation and war unfolding in front of her. She seems instead to view the people of Samar as models to be manipulated and, even more disturbingly, she has a taste for the ghoulish and violent: “When she was a teenager travelling through Italy, her favourite pictures had been the gruesome ones.” She aestheticises everything she sees: “What strikes her in her tours about the country is that everything is heartbreaking and yet, she thinks, art-designed.” Although Cassandra breezily moves through the landscape, we, as readers, know that her world is so thoroughly composed as to be rendered inert, like a series of film stills, removed of life.

If Apostol is not exactly demanding that Chiara or Cassandra altogether avoid telling their chosen stories, she does suggest that the stories must be told in the right way. In many senses, then, Insurrecto reads like a fascinating rejoinder to the recent scandal with Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt (2020), which saw Cummins called out by many Latinx, Mexican, and migrant writers for her use of ethnic and cultural stereotypes, and, in more serious claims, for plagiarism — as well as for the enormous advance she received. But right-wing critics have subsequently belittled the criticisms she faced as the gripes of people calling her out for not being Latinx, ignoring the detailed and considered arguments made by scholars and critics and reducing them to bitter expressions of identity politics. As more and more distasteful details surrounding American Dirt came to light — Cummins herself, for example, sported a barbed-wire-print manicure to match her book cover — no shortage of Latinx critics wrote with fury that although this situation was particularly egregious, it was also simply another instance of a white writer stepping over people of colour and being fêted by a publishing industry that actively rewards whiteness. During a subsequent reading and Q&A session streamed live on YouTube, Cummins admitted that she had not read any of the criticisms levelled at her: in her refusal even to acknowledge them, she simply batted aside essential critiques about racism and power in the arts, and the ethics of narrative production.

In a similar way, Chiara and Cassandra cannot see the problems with making themselves creators of narratives which are not theirs to claim or manipulate. But Apostol does not condemn these women outright, acknowledging the uneven distribution of power as they interact with overbearing men. She shows, for instance, that Cassandra’s witness statement to the US Senate, providing testimony on the violence in Balangiga, is dismissed out of hand by the powers that be simply because Cassandra is a woman. And, in the relationship between Magsalin and Chiara, we watch the unfolding of a strange collaboration across the years, as one woman re-writes another woman’s writing of the woman who observed the violence: Magsalin’s Caz is a repurposed incarnation of Chiara’s Cassandra.

Magsalin is introduced to us as a mystery writer, and at one point considers that “a reader does not need to know everything”. This is certainly the case in Insurrecto as, even though the various sections of the novel are supposed to correspond to the different narratives written by each woman, there are points when filmic language bleeds into both of their lives: “Cut, cut, cut”, Magsalin screams at one point, in a scene of horrible violence, violence all too real and no longer historical but immediate, urgent, present. It’s hard to know where the script begins and ends here, or, to put it another way, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s fabricated. This is where Apostol’s invented films take on further dimensions of meaning, where the potential of her imagined narratives allows us to consider our own historical memory and — importantly — the sort of events it may lack. As Apostol’s novel weaves in and out of film and historical narrative, creating a world that can be cut at any moment, these cuts belie their own complexity because film is not the same as history: it is not commensurately meaningful as a repository for human experience. Insurrecto thus uses the visual potential of cinema to introduce an imagined audience to the ethics of its own subjective viewing — a spectatorship which, Apostol suggests, should never be denuded of its politics, and indeed cannot be.

About Katie da Cunha Lewin

Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a researcher, tutor, and writer based in London. She has a PhD in the work of Don DeLillo and J.M. Coetzee from the University of Sussex and was the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives, published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her writing has appeared in The London Magazine, the Times Literary Supplement, the Irish Times, The White Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.