Directed by Esy Casey. Produced by Sarah Friedland. 2014. Philippines. 60 minutes.
Study areas: Phillipines, World War II, art, globalization.
Jeepney gestures toward a number of contemporary issues in the Philippines such as the influence of multi-national corporations, the afterlives and continuances of U.S. imperialism, labor rights, overseas labor, and indigeneity within the Philippine context. Jeepneys are World War II remnants, mass produced and ultimately left behind by the United States. Through the jeepney, which has since become a major form of mass-transportation in the Philippines, the documentary’s director Esy Casey threads together a number of stories and voices. The documentary is attuned to how jeepney art, the wide range of images and crafts that adorn jeepneys, highlights varying social aspirations and different ways of seeing the world. However, the documentary also highlights the struggles of Public Utility Jeepney (PUJ) drivers against prohibitive oil taxes and other government regulations. Overall, Jeepney is a vibrant examination of labor, transportation, and foreign intervention in the Philippine context. The filmmaker is attentive to both the contexts out of which the jeepney is made as well as to their use as spaces for political and cultural expression. Although the jeepney is the film’s primary object of interest, Casey more broadly provides viewers a complex, multivalent local history of the unevenness of globalization.
One of Casey’s main focuses is the production of jeepney art. Casey and her interview subjects trace the history of jeepney art from the jeepney’s World War II origins, through Marcos era promotion of Philippine culture and arts, all the way up to contemporary airbrushing and computer design. She follows artists from the province of Ifugao, airbrushing artists, and other kinds of layout designers, drawing attention to the artistic expression made possible in the jeepney. One artist describes the care and labor he puts into his work, explaining that it takes him about three weeks to complete the images in each jeepney. Another artist, Domingo “Lhudz” Malungcay, describes his work as a means of sharing and exchanging his knowledge, beckoning the audience to see jeepney art as much more than a kitsch object or even simply a mode of transportation. A PUJ driver describes his own encounters with jeepney art, explaining that while he sits in traffic he often finds himself looking at the phrases or images on jeepneys around him, considering their many possible meanings. Similar to this driver’s insight, each of the vignettes highlight the varied art forms expressed on the jeepney canvas, as well as the ways that these artistic productions take an object which has its origins in U.S. presence in the Philippines during World War II and makes possible different forms of meaning.
Two of the characters, Ed Sarao, a jeepney manufacturer, and Gerry Diano, an Igorot PUJ driver in Baguio, help hold together the complex webs of jeepney cultural production and political context. Sarao helps contextualize the genealogy of the jeepney. Yet, as Sarao points out, there are also other genealogies of the jeepney such as kalesa drivers. (For those interested in further reading on the genealogies of transportation in urban Manila, historians such as Michael D. Pante have drawn crucial attention to these dynamic histories of colonial transportation.) Sarao also emphasizes the wide-ranging materials that make up the jeepney: wood, tin, and coconut fiber from all over the Philippines; rebuilt engines from Japan; and batteries constructed to be easily recyclable. Near the end of the film, Sarao expresses sadness for the lessening interest in the craft and art of jeepney-making. For Sarao, jeepney production is a vital but fading form.
Gerry too, is attentive to the artistic expression made possible by the jeepney. On the images that cover his jeepney, Gerry points to the ways that he has projected his aspirations onto the vehicle. However, Gerry also threads together issues of labor, multi-national corporations, and shifting relationships to the land. As he drives through Baguio, Gerry underscores the importance of land to the lives of his people, and he points critically to the ways that foreign corporate interests have monopolized and harmed the land in and around Baguio. Later in the film, Gerry draws attention to the phrase “Freedom Fighter” at the rear of his jeepney. Here, Gerry calls attention to the struggles of indigenous peoples in the Philippines and all over the world. For Gerry, conversations about the jeepney are an entry point to critical examinations of the impact of foreign capital on Philippine land and labor as well as to discussions of indigenous relationships to the land.
Transportation in urban cities in the Philippines is certainly a pressing political issue. As mass Filipinos rely on various forms affordable transport, oil prices, infrastructure, fare prices, government regulation, and overall accessibility remain pertinent. Casey’s interview subjects add another layer to this story, drawing attention to the PUJ drivers who spend half their daily gross income on gas for their vehicles as well as to the gas station attendants making about 272 pesos ($6.07) each day. At one point, Gerry wonders aloud about the free reign that multi-national corporations are given throughout the country, noting the stark inequity of the situation. That is, while corporate environmental destruction and exploitation goes untaxed, the PUJ driver must navigate fears of a prohibitive increase in gas prices or perhaps a fine for smoke belching that will cost days worth of wages. This project is particularly well-timed as Casey is able to draw attention to the work of groups such as PISTON to organize around issues facing laborers in the transportation industry. Here, the question that ends Casey’s documentary, “Development for whom?” looms heavily. If we consider the informal economies associated with transportation such as the dispatchers/“barkers” who gather passengers for the jeepney or vendors that sell water, snacks and other goods to PUJ drivers and passengers along jeepney routes, then the economic disparities revealed are even more harrowing.
Individuals within Jeepney speak about their own or others’ experiences seeking livelihoods elsewhere, such as working overseas or even shifting from the transportation industry to agricultural work. In each instance, they constantly confront the reality that development does not seem to benefit them. This documentary makes clear that the issues of labor pointed out by the interviewees extend far beyond the transportation industry. However, Casey’s story is also deeply interested in the possibilities within the daily actions and navigations of her subjects. Jeepney art presents vibrant modes of expression and aspiration, worker protest can demand attention to the ways that different kinds of labor are so critical to the Philippines, and the jeepney itself underscores the ways that a colonial, wartime object can be made to have meanings beyond the contexts of its origin.
This documentary is suitable to multiple audiences. Students and educators would find this to be a useful and vibrant introduction to a number of contemporary Philippine issues. Furthermore, this documentary can help guide/promote discussion on labor, migration, U.S. empire, indigeneity, and globalization on a number of levels.
For an interview with Esy Casey that describes her influences as well as the music used in the documentary, see this article in Cultural Anthropology:
For more information about the film, visit the film website:
Last Updated: July 8, 2015