Being above "Above the Clouds", or why this is not a movie 'mountaineers' will like

Above the clouds on Mount Pulag

Pepe Diokno’s “Above the Clouds” has it all wrong. In a pivotal scene where Andres (Ruru Madrid) scrambles to find a small boulder where his late parents had a photo during one of many outdoor jaunts the two had with their future son’s grandfather (Pepe Smith) many years ago, he is suddenly overcome by powerful emotions of grief and nostalgia. The boulder is one of many jagged outcroppings in a field dirtied by ignorance and apathy. The boulders themselves aren’t spared: each one is covered by names of people who’ve been there, a trait apparently carried on from habits developed by pre-historic hunter-gatherers. The particular boulder that tugged at Andy’s heartstrings is itself emblazoned with the memory of his parents’ young love. Later on, with the help of his grandfather, they push the boulder erect to reveal not just the name of Andy’s father, but that this piece of rock was meant to bear witness to everlasting feelings.

Above the clouds on Mount Halcon

The scene is wrong on so many levels, as it seems to glorify vandalism as a means of reminding the future that things took place in the past. The sweeping camera work on this field enveloped in fog reveals what is wrong with nature tourism in the country: that those who seek savage beauty and pristine surroundings have neither the common sense nor the foresight to want to keep things beautiful and pristine. People will be watching this movie and think: I must leave my mark somewhere, so that future generations, perhaps my children, or my children’s children, can return to that place and say: I was there.

Above the clouds on the Kibungan Mountain Range

To be fair, the movie is not a treatise on adventure tourism or the local outdoor industry. It dissects the relationship between two people who are related by blood, but who are strangers to each other. Whether we see this relationship transcend years of being apart is the important question. So it ignores what hikers, adventurers, and, alright, “mountaineers” who piled the Cultural Center of the Philippines for the annual (truncated) Cinemalaya expected. We were hoping to see our outdoor passions translated and painted in the broad strokes of the cinematic artform. But we witnessed none of that. There were many places familiar to us: the Lumiang Cave in Sagada, pine forests in Benguet, the Wawa Dam in Rizal, and the sea of clouds of the Mount Pulag grasslands. Andy and his grandfather go on this hike in an effort to rekindle memories or perhaps create a relationship. The movie wasn’t meant to be a clarion call for people to take up hiking as a hobby. It was not meant to symbolize the local mountaineering community’s collective feelings about why they go outside. Quite frankly, despite generous sweeps of beautiful views and enchanting forests, the movie does little to encourage it. In fact, the mountaineering community may be offended by it: the grandfather litters the same trails he’s taken “a thousand times”, and seems to symbolize all that we don’t want to see when we are outdoors.

Among the pines on the Akiki Trail

The boulder is important to Andy as he retraces the trails taken by his father, and later, by his parents. The vandalism is glamorized as he turns the boulder into a shrine, picks up all the trash around it, and arranges it in such a way that others who may come upon it would remember that they were there. Vandalism has long been abandoned as an acceptable act of recording history. Andy should have been happy with the photo. His parents should have been content having Pepe Smith’s character remember the scene through that photograph. The movie romanticizes vandalism, which is unacceptable behavior particularly where the outdoors are concerned.

The Wall of Shame on the Tarak Ridge Trail

Just last weekend, I went to the Mariveles Mountains. The last time I was there was in 2011, and I was surprised to find that Nanay Cording’s “Wall of Shame” has expanded in size. The wall is a collection of tarpaulin banners left behind by outdoor groups with odd names that sometimes belie their true intentions. It is an ugly sight, and it makes me sad, because it has now become a conspicuous landmark of the Tarak Ridge hike, appearing on social media almost as often as the Papaya River. But a quick survey of the banners left there to rot results in this conclusion: none of the more respectable outdoor clubs I know has left any trace of their visit to Mariveles: not AMCI, not the UP Mountaineers, not the Loyola Mountaineers, not Sierra. Because we know that we need not leave behind our names on rocks, on trees, on walls of dishonor, to inform others that we have been there. Our photographs, our footprints, our memories are sufficient. And yes, I just paraphrased that cliché.
Another tadhana disaster
Someone wrote an open letter to Jadaone sharing the same sentiments before. This is the problem when media, with writers having little knowledge, come up with a film to get the attention of their target market -- it leads to destruction. Just like "Above the Clouds", "That Thing Called Tadhana" consciously unconsciously (Psych term) taught people to release all their negativity (make "hugot) to a certain "escape" place recklessly by-passing all travel SOP. Like Tadhana, the movie gives the WRONG impression to its viewers, especially to the uninitiated in the outdoors to vandalise and bastardise whatever their blade can strike.

Kudos to your article but brace yourself! Fortunately for you, the "fans" of the film are not jejetards. I hope no one floods your blog with nonsensical retorts from "avid fans".
RE: Another tadhana disaster
I didn't get to see Tadhana although I've been made aware of the tourism nightmare that resulted from it.

I am writing this review from an outdoorsman's point of view, and no one from the outdoorsy set will disagree with me in my criticism of the film's apparent glorification of vandalism. The fans are welcome to come to the blog and start a discussion. As long as they remain respectful and on issue, they may freely disagree with me.

Thanks for visiting!
Re: Another tadhana disaster
The producer of Tadhana and ATC is the same... Now we know where the problem lies.
Re: Another tadhana disaster
I'd rather not speculate, but I suppose they saw an effective formula in the first which they tried to replicate in the second. I really should try to see Tadhana.
Re: Another tadhana disaster
ATC was produced first but Tadhana gained so much hype so it went places around the country and was given more attention than ATC.
Leave Nothing but Footprints
#AboveTheClouds has a nice storyline BUT it tolerates and/or promote outdoor vandalism as socially acceptable practice of self-proclaimed conquerors (kuno) who visited the mountains - no whatsoever lessons about taking good care of the environment yet the movie portrays that the parents of Andy, one of the lead character, loves that particular mountain but they vandalized.
Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
I agree. I think that the filmmakers cannot hide beneath the veneer of realism or even artistic freedom. As public artists, they have a duty to ring the right bells, to send a clear and unequivocal message about caring for the environment. They may argue that this was unintentional, that it was never their plan to romanticize vandalism, but they should also be equally responsible for the result, for the consequence, however outside the sphere of their ambitions. I'd like them to answer the question: if those vandals were removed, would the film had been less effective, would Andres have been less affected?

Edited at 2015-08-10 02:20 am (UTC)
RE: Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
One more point that I'd like to add in my comment above, the movie DISRESPECTS the sacredness of the coffins of the dead.

"Kung iyong kabaong kaya ng kamag-anak nila ang buksan ng mga estranghero ng walang pahintulot para lang tingnan ang kalansay na nasa loob, okay lang sa kanila?"
(If the coffins of their loveones are opened by the strangers without permission just to see the skeletons inside, is ir okay to them)
Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
Sang-ayon ako sa iyo sa puntong ito. Kahit pa sabihin nilang ginawa lang nila ang kabaong na iyon (props) at walang aktwal na kabaong na ginalaw, sadyang nakapanlulumo ang karakter ni Pepe Smith, na magsasabing napakadalas nyang gawin ang paglalakad sa bundok, na sasabihin pa niyang ang mga espirito ay nagbabantay sa kapaligiran, pero ganun-ganon na lang ang pagbale-wala niya sa mga kaugalian ng mga taga-dun.
Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
An argument was started in Cinephiles Facebook. I was asked what would be my treatment if the vandal part was removed and here's my answer as a scriptwriter myself ---

Vandals are hardest to remove especially if they were carved in stone. As what you said, a photo would be enough. They should've let the stone where it was and it's former state (facing down the soil). Grandfather and grandson will renovate the ancestral home to remove the clutter (the house, with so much clutter, would suffice to symbolise the father's generations of destruction, opening a coffin is not anymore necessary), they will buy picture frames and assemble them all with their photos on a cabinet -- one of the frames will have the "vandal" and Ruru's parents' photos. I see this as a proper and transformative ending.

Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
Your alternative ending actually addresses what I felt was lacking in the film: a sense of denouement. Although there were signs that the characters of Pepe Smith and Ruru Madrid had approached an acceptance of each other, with the grandfather calling his grandson Andy, and the grandson introducing himself as Andres, I think that the act of reaching the summit was empty in itself. Did they finally bridge the divide that resulted from years of separation? Are they less strangers to each other after the experience?

Thanks for sharing your views. I wrote the review from a very specific perspective: that of an outdoorsperson. Glad to see a different view on the matter.
Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
You're welcome! After all, mountaineering is not all about reaching the top. It's all about we going home and bringing what we have learned in your journey to enrich your life and the people around you. Having a resolution at home would have had a great impact. As what another blogger mentioned (I forget the link, I am sorry), "their climb was aimless, only a show of grand cinematography from the top to add beauty to the film".

I hope Pepe Diokno and the entire prod team reads your blog as well as the comments. They have not grasped the true essence of mountaineering in their film.
Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
*to enrich our lives
"Only fools will make fool out of themselves"
Agree that the movie was neither promoting tourism nor mountaineering as a hobby. You are also on point about the transcendence of Grandpa-Grandson relationship. And yes there were vandalism: but I am sad that you missed the point that these scenes were mere exaggeration and sarcasm. "The movie romanticizes vandalism, which is unacceptable behavior particularly where the outdoors are concerned." -- only fools will make fool out of themselves. "Mountaineer-newbie" or "Mountaineer-wannabe", or "fools" whatever they were called will never, ever get this point and I like the way you 'quote' them.
Re: "Only fools will make fool out of themselves"
Unfortunately, most viewers have the monkey-see-monkey-do mentality. Say it was only used for sarcasm and exaggeration, there will be people who will be doing the same just because their favourite personalities have done it in film. Barely a few people look beyond the film. Barely a few people's minds travel beyond the films references -- culture, tradition, people. A few perils of filmmaking is either you assume that most people are intelligent to go figure or too dumb for their minds to function. I'm not saying that the filmmaker will have to spoon-feed information but to drop hints for people to have a full inference of your message.

Filmmaking is a form of communication through storytelling. Pepe Diokno explaining his film just shows that he is not effecting in that aspect. I hope he learns from this and from Tadhana (as it is his prod team who produced it).
Re: "Only fools will make fool out of themselves"
I agree. Pepe should be responsible also for the message the movie sends and its effect on people, whether he says it is intentional, or just part of his story-telling technique.
Re: "Only fools will make fool out of themselves"
Indeed I chose not to check my outdoorsman biases at the door. I was running late for the film and in fact missed about 5 minutes of it. That is probably the reason why I'm looking at it from this specific angle, as I am sure that other reviewers, who have a better grasp of the cinematic artform than me, could write a better review with the tools at their disposal. But I'm glad I did not brush off my mountaineering credentials, because this is what I'm most passionate about. I agree with you that the scenes depicting the dirty river, the dirty campsite, the vandalized rocks were over-the-top, meant probably to draw attention to a nagging reality. I have no argue with that. It is that Andy isn't shocked by the vandalism when he finally finds the boulder where the photo was taken, and in fact honors the spot. That to me seems surprising, following an argument put forth by the director saying the grandfather symbolizes years of neglect and destruction, while Andy is the new generation who leaves things as they are. Of course he doesn't leaves things as they are. He too is guilty of the same sins as his father, as his grandfather. But thanks for coming to the blog and offering your views. I'm always up for healthy discussion.

Edited at 2015-08-11 01:41 am (UTC)

I've seen neither of the films but I completely agree with your sentiments.

That said, I just discovered your blog, well-done, bravo!


Re: Agreed!
Hello there. Thanks for discovering the blog. Hope you find something worthy of your time here.