The Exacting Forest and the Forgivable Man in Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas (2016)[i]
Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers.
Baboy Halas: Wailings in the Forest (2016), Bagane Fiola’s second film, is the narratively spare imagination of a life in an unsullied earth. Centering on the story of Mampog the boar hunter, the film attempts to find out how a life that relies so much on the natural world is possible.
A landscape of the leafy and befogged heights of the mountains of Davao backdrops the film’s title card. To the urban audience, the forest is fearsome and threatening even in its flattened form. The forest in profile—a landscape—immediately introduces the engulfing Other of Mampog and the rest of the Matigsalug people. Inside the seemingly impenetrable thicket, the forest is revealed in its claustrophobic glory. Raphael Meting and Mark Limbaga’s camera cuts its own path in the forest, following Mampog’s hunts through dense foliage, and the thick undergrowth beneath which hide treacherously slippery rocks. The skillful handling of the camera imagines an ordered world and makes us believe that Mampog’s purposeful meandering through a thick, claustrophobic forest can be followed through a navigable, albeit alien, space.
Mampog hunting. (Still photo credits to Origane Films)
This ordering mirrors the Matigsalug people’s attempts to negotiate with their wild home: ancient forest dwellers are appeased and cajoled, a hooting owl is considered a bad omen, and a white pig is a disturbance in the order of things. For the forest is the only source of Mampog’s family’s sustenance. Wild pigs are hunted, freshwater fish and toads are trapped in streams, and wild crops are foraged, but in no other way will the natural world be bent to human needs and desires. Everything is appealed to the forest dwellers, animals (the dog Bugtong, the hooting alimokon (wild pigeon)), and inanimate substances (the fire). In the most remarked upon scene of Baboy Halas, Mampog lights a small fire to warm a cold night inside a cave, keeping his end of a “dialogue” with the Cave Dweller. As the audience is glued to the hunter’s struggle for fire, we are also reminded how negligible human existence is in the riot of life in the forest: “It is much to ask, but do keep us alive,” Mampog pleads to the cold blackness of the cave.
Mampog trying to light a fire. (Still photo credits to Origane Films)
This smallness is somewhat amplified in Baboy Halas’ unidimensional characters: there is nothing much that we know about how Mampog thinks about their way of life, or how his wives think about the family’s constant struggle for food. Mampog’s younger wife looks off into the distance, apparently deep in thought about the nightmare explaining the cause of her husband’s recently disturbed behavior, but these thoughts are up for anyone to guess. This denial of revelation can be read, on the one hand, as signifying an ethical decision to maintain a respectful distance between filmmaker and subjects. On the other hand, it also asks us to connect with Mampog on a different level. Clearly, Mampog and his people do not struggle with the forest to live, but they negotiate in a reciprocal relationship. Mampog’s transformation into a boar can be read, among other things, as settling scores—the hunter pays for his hunt by becoming the hunted. This need for equilibrium is echoed in the formal laws of the Matigsalug, as revealed by the settling of dispute between two communities. Brass gongs and horses are exchanged over civil discourse, tobacco, and brew.
To an outsider, Baboy Halas feels like a documentary exposition of the everyday life of the Matigsalug. Isolating the Matigsalug from the urban lowlands, the film conceives of a people who live peacefully in an unsullied earth, with no modern clothes and tools, reliant entirely on what the forest provides. Yet this isolation can be anything but literally real. Baboy Halas is set in Sitio Maharlika, Barangay Baganihan, Marilog District in Davao City.[ii] Baganihan is known for its cold climate, and is a familiar haunt for Davaoeños seeking to escape the heat and bustle of the city. This imagined isolation in Baboy Halas gathers special significance, a year after reports of harassment and killing of Lumads in Mindanao broke national news in August to October 2015. Mampog and his family live undisturbed in forests where the Matigsalug have been living for generations, belying the systematic and concerted efforts of the state and mining capital to terrorize communities for their ancestral lands. But Fiola chooses not to foreground this and instead presents the Matigsalug as a community in its own, not necessarily almost always defined by their subjection; in an interview with Davao Today he reveals that the film’s narrative was largely drawn from the stories the Matigsalug told him.[iii] Though these stories are largely about privation and want, the Matigsalug are nevertheless active agents in their lives—in their negotiation with an indifferent natural world, in settling community disputes, in choosing to stay in the mountains and refuse the allure of the plains. The Matigsalug themselves act out their stories, and the uneven performances—some were indifferent, while some were engaged (as with the expansive Du)—assert each nonprofessional actor’s own understanding of his/her participation in a film representing their way of life.
Du wooing another man’s wife. (Still photo credits to Origane Films)
In a sense, the white domesticated pig that Mampog shoots down stands for the tamable life that the lowlands offer. Feeding a family would hypothetically be easier as opportunities to work for a living in the bayan are far more reliable than the fruits of a hunt. Faced with a choice, Mampog does what he has always done and “kills” the white pig, desperate for meat for his family. He consequently loses his grip on reality: the white pig (if there ever really was one) is still alive and well, but visible only to him; the white pig transforms into a mysterious white figure (a forest dweller?); and he cuts down men who had eaten the pig roasted. Mampog has fallen out of favor with the forest, which then denies him meaning. Only his metamorphosis will reconcile—indeed, literally reincorporate—Mampog again with the forest.
[i] A previous version of this review was edited for factual accuracy.
[ii] Capistrano, Zea Io Ming C. “‘Baboy Halas’: Davao’s indie film heads to Netherlands film fest.” http://davaotoday.com/main/culture-2/entertainment/baboy-halas-davaos-indie-film-heads-to-netherlands-film-fest/. 8 January 2017.
[iii] Capistrano 8 January 2017.