Dog eaters

ABS-CBN’s The Inside Story showed an episode on Filipino dog eaters last Tuesday which left me wondering exactly why watching it became for my family such an offensive experience.  My children, typically liberal and modern, are not normally squeamish about these things.  But this time they were screaming.

The camera shows a light brown native dog, not more than a year old, wagging its tail – its half-open mouth a picture of trustful playfulness. A group of young men, who do not look desperately starved, begin to surround the dog.  One of them winds its leash tightly around a post. The dog  continues to wag its tail while it scans the faces of the men.

Suddenly, a man, carrying what looks like a metal bar, steps into the foreground and begins hitting the dog on the head.  The dog struggles to get out of the leash, while the man, sensing his prey might get away, continues to pound its face with his weapon.  The dog escapes, but its dash to freedom is quickly cut short by the same group of men. Then the narrator calmly intones that the dog had been somebody’s pet, but that the owner had given it or sold it to the dog eaters.

The next scene shows the animal, now lifelessly hanging by its hind legs, being singed by one of the men with a blow torch.  The camera closes up on the light brown fur as it is slowly scorched.

At this point, my children were totally distraught.  One of them grabbed the remote control and said “Enough!”.  I think I saw Ms. Nita Lichauco, a crusader for animal welfare, speaking.  I am sure whatever she said was used by the producers of the show to draw public condemnation for dog eating and its attendant cruelty to an animal that most of the world regards as a pet.

The Inside Story and its multi-awarded host Loren Legarda have usually taken a politically correct stand on many sensitive issues. They will likely justify this episode as an attempt precisely to jolt the viewing public into taking note of  this common savagery and examining it in the light of higher values.

Not too long ago, a documentary shown on cable television featured the trade on dog meat in Thailand.  It is a valid and attractive subject – one that never fails to persuade western viewers about the general meanness of life in the Orient.  But, it is a subject that is approached with great care precisely because of the heightened danger of offending the sensibilities of viewers.

That documentary showed dogs in crowded cages, some of them still wearing tags identifying them as some family’s pet.  The camera quickly pans this sordid scene and stays with some of the dogs just long enough to show their owners’ tags.  There are no clips of the actual slaughter, no blood, no faces of gleeful or hungry men going after their prey.  Perhaps the most potentially offensive shot was that of flesh being dried in the sun.  But the camera never dwells on gore. It zeroes in instead on the speech of the men who engage in it as an occupation.

But Loren’s show was something else.  It showed the brutalization of an animal in such a manner that one is tempted to ask whether the man behind the camera was enjoying it or whether the journalist who accompanied him ever felt any compulsion at any point to intervene on behalf of the dog.   Or, could the entire scene have been staged precisely so that it could be filmed?

Situations like these involve judgment calls – decisions that require of the reporter of human events the exercise of utmost discernment. The camera, in this sense, is not the neutral eye that it is often thought to be.  It chooses what to see and how to see.  The relationship between the camera and the viewer therefore is essentially one of trust.

The viewer is defenseless before a predatory camera that is mounted upon the base of his unexamined drives and passions.  A responsible camera protects its viewer: it allows for the play of his reason.  It sensitizes him to the meanness of everyday life to which we all contribute in unsuspecting ways; but it doesn’t numb him.

The dog eaters episode is only the latest expression of what I feel is becoming an accepted trend on Philippine television: the visual feasting on the deviant, the esoteric, the physically and mentally disfigured, the deranged, and the anthropologically-strange.  That is why we are among the remaining countries in the world that still feature in the early evening news burnt and mangled human bodies, headless corpses, psychopaths in the grip of their personal demons, sociopaths numbed by drugs.

Over the past week, television has tried to diagnose what ails Jonathan Galora, a young man who beheaded his own mother, repeatedly stabbed his own sister, and chopped the household’s cat and dog.  It is one family’s tragedy that is difficult to comprehend. Jonathan has sought refuge in the inaccessible layers of his psyche, where, mercifully, television cannot reach him.

But his family has been unable to protect  him from the peering eye of the camera.  Television just would not let him be even in his solitary cell at the Valenzuela jail.  It surveys his distant and angry eyes, and records its own concept of what a madman is like.  Is this journalism?


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