Of Cats, Dogs, Farm Animals and Sashimi: Cinema Verité and the Anxiety of Language

In Of Cats, Dogs, Farm Animals and Sashimi, the interference of translation may ultimately reveal an agenda, a slow curve into social realism, one more difficult to digest.

A disconnect exists, as much as in literature as in cinema, where the best intentions of language survive only to tie a narrative by the thinnest of threads. The realization of this is a burden borne by those who understand both the work of art’s native form and its versions—we call this being “lost in translation”, and not a bad thing per se. Translation becomes a liability, however, when it fails in transmitting a fair quantity of parallel understanding to non-native speakers, or especially if it becomes an avenue for coloration of dialogue, providing a dramatic hue to an otherwise flat sequence of events.

In Of Cats, Dogs, Farm Animals and Sashimi, a slice-of-life documentary film by Filipino filmmaker Perry Dizon, this disconnect becomes apparent, especially to one looking to critique. Set in the province of Zamboanga Sibugay in Southwest Philippines, Of Cats…and Sashimi follows the realities of people in a rural setting, and eventually focuses on a young boy working in a rubber plantation. Interspersed with cutaways of rural scenery is the wretched duality of human experience- the condition we in the more civilized parts of the world come to call “unfortunate”, but that which is called “life as we know it” by those who live it. Unfortunately, the duality of cinema also appears- that in as much as cinema is art- it is also science, a method, and, when a critic (especially one with a firm grasp of the science and the language) is presented with a piece like this that wriggles technically problematic at the outset, the immediate disbelief turns into something ominous. The scattered geometry of camerawork, the deficiencies in focus and exposure, the random montage all afford the lure of rejection, to dump the piece into an unexpected kind of poor. That this enticement is fleeting is the gift of wisdom, and the critic, in an exercise of better judgement beckons reflection- that the apparent lack of proper film technique also aids the realism of the piece, and the filmmaker is not so irresponsible as to hide it.

The driving force, it seems, lies in the latent narrative, cloaking the absent mise-en-scene. Here, the nuances of the Cebuano language carry the passive articulations of an unchangeable past, the thunderous inflections of today’s despair, the saturnine brooding of optimism for a better future. The attempt to transmit this through translation, especially to a heterogeneous, foreign audience is the demon that haunts filmmaking and literature in general, and as far as slice-of-life documentaries go, where one does not have control of dialogue, the temptation to puppet-string the mundane into the affective materializes.

That is not to say, however, that the manipulation of language translation in Of Cats…and Sashimi is blatant in nature. In fact, it may be forgivable altogether, but the “restrictive” authenticity cinema verite demands is immutable- to disregard would be a disservice to the genre. The interference of translation, as observed therein may ultimately reveal an agenda, a slow curve into social realism, one more difficult to digest.

Overdoing sashimi gives you indigestion, too.

—Chuck Lozano

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