A Life More Valuable: Overthinking Mikhail Red’s “Birdshot”

You might have heard about (or a permutation of) the popular trolley problem in your Philosophy class. 

It goes like this: 

A speeding train which lost its brakes is about to hit five people ahead. They won’t be able to get out of the way in time. There is, however, one option to rescue all of them: you, the driver, can pull the lever, and redirect the train to another track.

The only problem is that, there’s a child playing at the other track, oblivious to the possibility that a train might hit her. Choose to save the five, you kill the girl; choose to save the girl, you kill the five adults.

Who should you save? What is the most ethical thing to do?  

​In Mikhail Red’s mystery-thriller film “Birdshot“, the ethical dilemma is not about who should live–all the lives that should’ve been saved are already dead. But the moral quandary is nonetheless troubling.

Two crimes are revealed in the story: the kidnapping of farmers on their way to Manila to file a case against the landlord of their farm, and the murder of the haribon kept in the eagle sanctuary. Officer Domingo, one of the leads in the movie, was tasked to solve the kidnapping first, but as he digs deeper into the case, his superior pulls him out of it and assigns him to the second case, much to his frustration.

When he insists on solving the kidnapping, his partner officer Mendoza sternly warns him: “What if you find out something that you’re not supposed to discover?”

It’s not only Domingo who grapples with the issues of an insatiable quest for the truth and the problem of blind obedience: Maya, the girl who shot the eagle, realizes the conflicts that both present as the film progresses. Repeatedly, Maya’s father Diego tells her that she doesn’t understand anything, and it is true–the gravity of her crime eludes her. Despite her ignorance, she is not exempted from suffering the consequences of her crime which, it must be said, she only committed in the first place because she was obediently following her father’s advice that she needed to fend for herself.

It is Domingo, however, who must answer these questions: who deserves justice the most? Which life has more value?

​One might easily say that it’s ridiculous to compare an animal to people. I guess what exasperates me is that the film drills how ludicrous Diego’s predicament is–that he is made to prioritize solving the eagle’s death over the disappearance of the farmers. Thoughtlessly, one might say that it should not even be a choice at all. To many, human life takes priority over an animal’s.

My kneejerk reaction is, I would most likely agree–I would immediately save people over an animal. But this shortsightedness, to only prioritize what we feel is within our in-tribes (whether our families, our community, and our species) is perhaps what has created the problem in the first place.

When one thinks about it, the murder of the farmers in the film is the result of this shortsightedness: that the landowner’s needs take priority over the farmers’.

It is devaluing the other that makes it easier to destroy them. 

​In a reality of limited time and resources, ascribing value to certain things helps in increasing efficiency. We learn how to “better” spend our hours and money on things that create “more” for us. But is it this very problematic way of ascribing value and putting people in hierarchies the very thing that is creating more problems for us?

You might say that this is futile overthinking. Some would even argue that value is lost when everything is given equal value.

​Yes, I think Domingo should’ve focused on solving the kidnapping first. But the disgust over not being made to do that should not be because he is made to choose the other case–it should come from how both lives are not seen with the same value.

Birdshot is being shown nationwide from August 16-22, as part of the official selection of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino.

Another interesting read: How do Buddhists answer the trolley problem?

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