‘And So It Begins’ Review: An Uninvolving Portrait of Filipino Politics

A companion piece to her documentary “A Thousand Cuts,” Ramona S. Diaz’s “And So It Begins” follows the 2022 Philippine election, and Vice President Leni Robredo’s run for office. The film lays out the broad strokes of the country’s contemporary politics in the wake of strongman President Rodrigo Duterte, while capturing the groundswell of support for Robredo. However, it features neither the narrative and aesthetic intensity needed for an up-to-the-minute chronicle, nor the political depth required of such vital subject matter, which Diaz’s previous work has in spades.

After a contentious vice presidency — she was elected on a separate ticket from Duterte, as is common in the Philippines — Robredo’s campaign kicks off with grassroots activism awash in pink apparel, often on a scale so large that overhead shots of her rallies barely fit within the frame. With political experience and a moving personal narrative at her back, she seems like a strong candidate to replace Duterte (who’s constitutionally allowed only a single term), while also replacing his violent populism with a more accepting umbrella. Her events are filled with song and dance, occasionally from queer and drag performers, and the generally joyful tone of her camp and supporters feels radical in an era of nationalistic strongmen. However, this aforementioned political dynamic can be divined from the movie’s opening minutes, and what follows seldom dives any deeper.

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Apart from its handful of scenes about the silencing of Filipino journalists (like Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, the subject of “A Thousand Cuts”), “And So It Begins” is rarely concerned with the make-or-break political minutiae upon which movements are built. It only gets its hands dirty when painting a portrait of online harassment and disinformation. Although this detour is informative and enlightening about the cost of speaking truth to power as a journalist, it doesn’t exist alongside a meaningful exploration of why a candidate like Robredo might be targeted in the first place.

That she’s a woman in the public eye who opposes Duterte’s general tenor certainly paints a target on her back, but what she actually stands for is something the documentary seems reluctant to discuss. Such an exploration would, perhaps, have to reckon with the dissonance between her support from queer voters and her opposition to same-sex marriage (though she supports same-sex civil unions), or her opposition to abortion despite being vocally feminist in other regards.

The film isn’t interested in these thorny discussions, or in casting Robredo in a controversial or even a nuanced light, as someone forced to navigate progressive moments while courting a deeply Catholic nation. Her affable presence makes her a great cinematic subject, but that affability ends up the movie’s entire focus. This, coupled with the movie’s straightforward, unobtrusive aesthetic approach — which mostly captures Robredo from afar unless she’s sharing a moving personal anecdote — can’t help but make “And So It Begins” play like a feature-length campaign ad.

When a major opponent arises, in the form of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (the son of former Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos), things take a turn for the concerningly bizarre. Propaganda runs rampant on TV and online, the kind that might seem ludicrous to an outsider, but it’s catnip to its target audience. This forces the movie’s secondary subjects, like journalists at Rappler (Maria Ressa’s website) to engage in discussions with one another, or hold seminars for the camera, about the insidious nature of modern far-right campaigns and other contemporary hurdles to democracy. This subset of ideas is all incredibly interesting, but it forms only a minor appendix to Robredo’s narrative. Her view on the topic is never sought in detail.

While detailed as a play-by-play of real events covered at length in the news, “And So It Begins” is rarely more than a 101-level course on the 2022 Philippine election for those unfamiliar with it. In that vein, it features narrative turns akin to a four-quadrant Hollywood production: who enters the picture at which point in the story, and what challenges they pose to the hero, map almost perfectly onto a three-act structure. However, as a political inquiry, it fails to capture the full scope, complexity and emotional impact of its own subject matter.

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