In the opening moments of John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark), the ghosts of the insurgent Philippine Army look out across the century from behind the bars of Postigo Prison in Manila. Moments later, the voice of the late Howard Zinn tangentially comments on the image, providing the film its ideological husk through his plaintive reminder that “the soul of history is economic.”
From 1903 to 1991, Clark Air Base Command (CABCOM) on Luzon Island in the Philippines served as a staging ground for successive American wars of foreign intervention. The base provided the U.S. military with the strategic positioning necessary to enact campaigns in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, eventually becoming America’s largest overseas air base and the world’s most urbanized military facility. Vapor Trail (Clark) bears solemn witness to this chapter in our nation’s history, bringing into relief the grim historical forces at the heart of America’s century-old involvement in the Philippines, where the demands of commerce, made sacrosanct by the tenets of Manifest Destiny, compelled the U.S. to expand its borders into the Asian-Pacific region. In June 1991, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century, laid waste to a huge section of CABCOM, destroying 40,000 homes and displacing some 250,000 Filipinos. In November 1991, a hastily engineered exit agreement turned the base over to a Filipino government deep in crisis. Abandoned and looted by scavengers, CABCOM was repurposed as a housing facility for those left homeless by the eruption—an expedient, reckless action with dire and horrific consequences. Families living in the camp, as well as those in the miserably poor indigenous communities immediately adjacent to it, began to experience nightmarish illnesses. Public health officials and environmental regulators deemed the region’s alarming rise in infant mortality the result of CABCOM having been left to ecological ruin. Toxic chemicals originating from the base had severely polluted the streams of Pampanga Province, the area’s primary fresh water source, resulted in rampant blood poisoning and numerous deaths, particularly among children. As to why these conditions were allowed to persist, there has never been an official explanation by either the American or Filipino government, much less a unified cleanup effort—only reassurances to a myriad of foreign investors that the area is now safe for future development.
Whereas some filmmakers might revel in the bitter ironies of these events, Gianvito’s moral seriousness renders these unmitigated calamities the tragedies that they are. A surfeit of historical documents, including photographs, sound recordings, and film footage, offer ample evidence of the wanton disregard for human life at the heart of U.S. imperialism’s Faustian ambitions, but the dignity Gianvito accords those affected by this particular injustice is the film’s single most damning bit of evidence. Harrowing testimonials grant victims and their families their basic right to be heard, while Myrla Baldonado, founding executive director and international campaign coordinator for the People’s Task Force for Bases Clean Up, situates the film in the realpolitik of grassroots activism. In one of the most important and moving passages in the film, Baldonado tells the story of what first spurred her to political action while the sun sets over the beach of Olongapo City, where three decades earlier she had been arrested and tortured by the Marcos government for her opposition to America’s continued imperial presence. Baldonado’s struggle is ineluctably linked to the earlier struggles of the Philippine Army, her ordinary courage symbolic of the indomitable spirit of resistance.
Neither patronizing nor simplistic, the scope and humanist grandeur of Vapor Trail (Clark) raise eternal questions about our collective responsibility to history, the efficacy of organized political action, and the hellish effects bureaucratic capitalism has had on developing nations. Dedicated to Minamata director Noriaki Tsuchimoto, who passed away in 2008, Vapor Trail (Clark) shares with that uncompromising, courageous, and epochal film a passionate regard for physical facts, the struggle for justice, and the affirmation of the role of the individual in standing up against the impersonal forces of history.