From The Celine Archive
By Corrie Martin
“Where are the women in Filipino American history?” asks filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu in the opening moments of The Celine Archive (2019). “I am hungry for Filipino women’s American stories that come from traversing continents.”
Shimizu’s latest project uncovers the life and death of one such woman, Cecilia “Celine” Navarro (1904 – 1932). The film will be featured at this week’s Golden State Film Festival.
Shimizu is a remarkable storyteller who establishes that Navarro’s legacy neither begins nor ends with the story of her gruesome murder. A young, hard-working mother of four, Navarro was harassed, tortured, and eventually buried alive by prominent members of her own Filipino American community of Stockton, California, a so-called “Little Manila” that was home to the largest population of Filipinos outside of the Philippines. The crime shocked locals and even made a bit of a splash in newspapers around the country for a few months. The perpetrators were prosecuted, then acquitted, the victim’s remains interred in an unmarked pauper’s grave. For nearly a century afterwards it seemed that everyone had simply moved on.
But, as Shimizu’s film reveals, Celine Navarro persisted in ghost stories circulating in migrant labor camps, in rumors and gossip throughout the Filipinx diasporic community, and in the fragmented memories and longings of her descendants spread across the U.S. and in the Philippines. In resurrecting Navarro’s story, Shimizu breaks new ground as Asian American and American documentary filmmaking. Indeed, the horrors visited upon Celine Navarro at the hands of her own immigrant community resonate as a classically American tale of how a community punishes women for speaking up, or standing up, or otherwise standing out: think of how 17th-century Puritans—recent immigrants themselves—turned on the outspoken mother of 16 children, Anne Hutchinson, exiling her from Massachusetts, and of their insensible, collectively murderous actions during what we now call “the Salem Witch Trials.” And of course, at the heart of American literature there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quintessentially American masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, and the fate he describes for the novel’s central character, the unwed mother, Hester Prynne. The Celine Archive adds another haunting chapter to this American tradition.
Unfolding this pivotal chapter in the history of the Filipinx diaspora, Shimizu’s documentary exemplifies what she once described in a 2012 article as “Asian American narration in historical knowledge.” At the same time, by interweaving her maternal reflections on the sudden death of her youngest child, Shimizu also adds a profoundly affective dimension to The Celine Archive through the filmmaker’s own narration in personal knowledge of living through unbearable loss. “I feel for [Navarro’s] family as a grieving mom,” Shimizu says in the film, connecting her grief with theirs.
A scholar, professor, and director of the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University, Shimizu structures her film as a project of careful, historical, archival work. We watch her go about the intense, persistent, patient, sometimes joyful, often painful labor of uncovering, preserving, and recovering the historical record. Shimizu’s film pulls back the curtain to show us the process of unearthing and documenting what she calls the “counter-narrative” to the official and unofficial histories that have heretofore failed to render the full story of what happened to the film’s protagonist. We witness emotionally powerful interviews with family and community members, historians and scholars, ushering us beneath the sensationalized reporting on Navarro’s death that was dominated by anti-Filipino racism.
The film’s title reminds me of Grace Talusan’s The Body Papers (2019), a stunning memoir also of the Filipinx diaspora that highlights the crucial role of the material archive in seeking to resolve the enigma of our own memories, especially those haunted by trauma and relentless internal and external forces of silencing.
Similarly, Shimizu tells AsAmNews, her film takes us into actual and conceptual archives and “claims space for women’s stories in Filipinx American history.” Both Talusan’s memoir and Shimizu’s film transcend their respective genres and in their expert hands the archive is transformed from a static, inert repository of dusty, old records. Both works encourage readers and viewers to actively make sense of our own generative abilities and seize opportunities to construct, question, experience, and shape our individual and collective identities, meanings, histories, communities, and futures.
As Shimizu’s film drives home, physical violence is only part of the brutality Navarro suffered. Her persecutors not only sought to erase her physically but also symbolically. Ninety years after her death, “Celine’s family lives with the history of their matriarch being brutally murdered by her community while stories circulate that contradict their own family knowledge about her sweetness, courage and devotion,” Shimizu recounts.
Because silencing Navarro’s voice was the community’s primary objective, with her murder a means to that end, Shimizu’s film seeks to expose the long process of silencing and distorting the past, and to restore Navarro herself as a mother, sister, daughter, wife, laborer, in short, a person. While her physical and symbolic murder turned the real Celine Navarro into a kind of ghost, a specter that filled the space that was the lack left by the imposition of silences and rumor, the film does not merely seek to drive away her ghost and fill that space with “the real story” in the manner of a true-crime show. On the contrary, the film accomplishes something much more meaningful and consequential by making it impossible for us to merely consume and then dismiss this story as simply another lurid event from the past.
In one powerful scene in the film, Navarro’s grandson, Henie, recalls the ghost of the family matriarch speaking to him in the middle of the night, dispelling his doubts and confirming that he has indeed found her and that he is on the path to bringing her justice. “Life in its creativity changes the absolute nature of time: it makes past into present–no, it melds past, present, and future into one indistinguishable, multilayered scene, a three-dimensional body. This is what ghosts are,” writes the scholar Fei Xiaotong in A World Without Ghosts. The supreme achievement of Shimizu’s film is in the way it teaches us to reconsider the reality, substance, and humanity of our ghosts.
Watching The Celine Archive is a process in experiencing the “ghost” of Celine Navarro become embodied, a three-dimensional presence. In this way, Shimizu’s film is a spectacular species of ghostwriting. Not a ghostwriting in the sense of a project written by an anonymous other, but in the sense–described by post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak in her seminal essay of the same name–of a kind of writing and storytelling that reclaims the otherwise “absent place of the mother” in history, art, memory, political critique. As Stockton-based poet Dr. Jean Vengua says in the film, Navarro’s story “makes you wonder how many stories haven’t been told.” Like Shimizu, Vengua is able to imagine Navarro’s dimensionality through creativity and art. Her epic poem, Marcelina: A meditation on the murder of Cecilia “Celing” Navarro, has recently been reissued by Paloma Press.
One cannot experience this film and remain inert or hopeless even, or especially, in the face of unfathomable loss or unspeakable injustice. The Celine Archive makes us hungry for more ghost stories and storytellers like Talusan, Vengua, and Shimizu.
Stream The Celine Archive online through the Golden State Film Festival from March 19-25, 2021.
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