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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Musings on the Mundane

Jaime Oscar M. Salazar

The appellation “Mrs.” is referred to as a courtesy title, but the woman who bears it, however willingly or happily, submits to the effacement of her birth name and the subordination of her personhood to her marital (and, sometimes, parental) status—a highly ritualized and widely socially accepted process that deserves greater scrutiny as to the degree of respect or consideration that it actually affords to the said woman. Mrs. (2016), directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr., engages the issues with which this form of address is fraught and resonates by way of exploring a complex set relationships—sororal, adversarial, filial, mentorial, and platonic—between women in the course of a relatively spare drama.

Chief among these relationships is that between a pensioner recently recovered from a bout of hospitalization, Virgie (Elizabeth Oropesa), and her resident caretaker, Delia (Lotlot De Leon). The house that they inhabit, overly large for two people and a gaggle of dogs and cats, shows many signs of wear and tear, in connection not only with its age but also with its being built over an active fault line—running along the walls are cracks attesting to structural damage.

In spite of the dilapidation that surrounds her, Virgie intends to continue living there, keeping faith with the memory of her father, who had bequeathed the house to her, and clinging to the belief that her son, Sonny Boy (Sebastian Castro), a communist guerilla who disappeared years ago, will surface one day soon. Her determination, if not obduracy, to remain draws her into intermittent bouts of antagonism with her relatives. Her younger sister, Glenda (Daria Ramirez), the legatee of the land on which the house stands, is eager to sell off her inheritance in order to mitigate the consequences of her spendthrift ways, not least among them the large debt to Virgie that she has racked up over several years. Virgie’s daughters, Marina (Rosanna Roces) and Jenny (Angelina Kanapi), believe that she would be better off staying elsewhere.

Image result for mrs adolfo alix

Delia, who for two decades has helped Virgie around the house and kept her company, is, in her own way, as unwavering as Virgie. When Delia discloses her plan to marry her lover at the forthcoming mass wedding ceremony sponsored by the local government—following the acknowledgement, prompted by Virgie, that she is three months pregnant—she is quick to provide assurance that she aims to stay in Virgie’s service. In the face of Virgie’s reluctance at this proposition, rooted in the notion that a wife ought to defer to her husband, Delia wears Virgie down with persistent pleading.

Oropesa turns in a fine performance as Virgie, displaying a formidability that is leavened with tenderness; whenever she is alone in the frame, which is often, she proves more than capable of compelling attention with countenance and gesture. De Leon, who initially essays her role as a kind of comic foil to Virgie, with an almost bovine naïveté, succeeds in making of Delia a figure of tragedy, heartrending and horrifying.

What is particularly striking about Mrs. is its penchant for meandering in and around a range of interiors—of houses, of restaurants, of a barangay hall—and dwelling at length on the mundane actions and interactions that its characters perform there. These mundanities point to well-established, and, at times, tedious routines in which men are, for the most part, spectral presences with varying degrees of influence. Virgie and Glenda rehearse longstanding resentments arising from Glenda’s waywardness, financial and otherwise, and Virgie’s stubbornness. Virgie and Marina squabble, over the telephone and in person, about Marina’s seeming deficiency of discernment in her choices: of partner, the layabout Benjo (Arvic Tan); of religion, by joining a cult; and even of how best to treat the ailing Justin, the “imported” cat that is beloved by Josel, Marina’s young daughter. Jenny, who resides in Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two children, tries to coax her mother to join her permanently, as an immigrant, during one of their video chats. Virgie visits her friend Agnes (Anita Linda), an elderly activist who has also lost family members to state-sanctioned violence, to check on Agnes’s health and to exchange news. Virgie and Delia carry out household chores—for instance, watering the plants, sweeping the yard, looking after the pets, and preparing meals.

Even as Mrs. runs the risk of narrative unwieldiness, the film insists on the immersive moment, rather than the propulsive event, and this is what constitutes its achievement. With its sustained, painstaking focus on how its characters go about the dailiness of their existence—the use of lingering close-up shots to highlight the smallest flickers of thought and feeling is notable in this regard—the film renders anew the feminist slogan, “The personal is political.” It challenges viewers to reevaluate the intertwined concepts of “domesticity” and “femininity”, and their associated tensions and contradictions, as they play out, are negotiated with, or are resisted in the fluid, contentious realm of quotidian lived experience. How do institutions like marriage reinforce and perpetuate prevailing relations of power, especially in terms of gender and class? How does state repression manifest itself within and affect the private sphere, and how can this sphere be re-imagined as an arena for broader struggles? How can women establish networks of support between one another that circumvent, slip past, or subvert—however limitedly and fleetingly—the social mechanisms that seek to surveil and control their bodies, their homes, and their lives?

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Posted by on 17 April 2017 in Film Review

 

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The Exacting Forest and the Forgivable Man in Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas (2016)

The Exacting Forest and the Forgivable Man in Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas (2016)[i]

Emerald Flaviano

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.

WITF_Still 4Mampog 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.

WITF_Still 10Mampog 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.

WITF_Still 9Du 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.

 
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Posted by on 16 April 2017 in Film Review, Philippine Film

 

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Long Walk to Peace

Skilty Labastilla

The penultimate scene of Women of the Weeping River (Sheron Dayoc, 2016) finds the protagonist, a young woman named Satra, heading towards the other side of the river in her remote village in Sulu, her face gripped with a sense of purpose and urgency but her gait betraying a tinge of wariness as she moves amidst the brambles in the woods. Her family is embroiled in a bitter feud with a rival family, borne out of a land dispute, that has cost dear lives from both sides, and Satra is intent on ending the cycle on her own, against the wishes of the men in her family who believe that their maratabat (family honor and prestige) is at stake, and that when life from one side is taken, any retaliation less than taking life from the other side is tantamount to showing weakness.

Unbeknownst to her, the person she intends to talk to, Shadiya, is doing the exact same thing. Shadiya previously confronted Satra when her son was killed by the latter’s brothers as revenge for the death of Satra’s husband. She told Satra then that she does not wish for anyone to carry the pain that she feels, but that her family has no plans on letting go of the piece of land both families are fighting for.

When both women finally meet towards the end of the film, they first warily size each other up, not knowing what the other will say or do, then they stare at each other wordlessly for a good half-minute, their eyes saying everything they needed to say.

The scene then cuts to the film’s final scene: of several soldiers lying dead in the mud and in their truck, the rain washing over their bodies, having just been ambushed by enemies.

It is but fitting that these two scenes come at the very end of the movie – which on the surface is about the repercussions of rido (blood feud) on the families involved – as they reflect the intricacies of present-day Muslim Mindanao sociopolitical realities, and connote that although there is a sliver of hope in ending cycles of inter-clan violence by recognizing the power of human agency, particularly of women, who are even more marginalized in Muslim society, there is still the matter of larger structural issues that need to be dealt with.

Mindanao, particularly Muslim Mindanao, has for the longest time been at the margins of the Philippine nation-state. Decades of political and economic exclusion brought chronic poverty and disenfranchisement, and the weak state gave rise to local elite families who can readily challenge weak authority and control to, for instance, source firearms extra-legally and build private armies, as well as capture government resources for their own selfish needs.

WWR home

Revenge killings, certainly, are not atypical in any small-scale society where family and kinship ties, instead of the state, are the main sources of authority. As Wilfredo Magno Torres III points out in Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao (2007), in societies where the state is weak, decision-making and enforcement become more decentralized and the provision of security is based mainly on self-help. In the same volume, Gerard Rixhon argued that the turbulent history of Sulu such as numerous military occupations and incursions from foreign powers, its (forced) inclusion into Philippine  territory, “divisive politics, widespread corruption, inadequate justice system, and government neglect” have led the Tausug to resort to a private form of justice called mamauli (revenge).

The film effectively shows this weak hold of the state on families by emphasizing the remoteness of the dwelling of Satra and her family from the town center, with them transporting what few farm produce they have on two baskets slung on a cow and walking for hours to the poblacion, where they still need to plead with traders to give them a fair price. When the land dispute between Satra’s family and the Ismaels explode into a bloody encounter where Satra’s husband is killed, the decision whether or not to exact mamauli falls on the men in the family, particularly on Mustafa, the family patriarch, a bearer of a Tausug culture where traditional values of bravery and masculinity are highly prized. It does not take long before the vengeance killings transpire, and this time the lives of two young boys from both sides are tragically cut short.

WWR river

As the men in the family prepare for more bloodshed by selling treasured family heirlooms to acquire more long arms and Satra’s youngest brother gets trained in shooting a rifle, the deeply troubled Satra consults her mother, Nuryama, in a lovely quiet scene where the two women sit by a clearing in the woods surrounded by wild yellow daisies. Satra, tired of her life-long acquiescence to the men in her life (her father and brothers), asks Nuryama if there is something either of them can do to finally put an end to the senseless cycle of violence they find themselves in. Nuryama, having lived her whole life in the shadow of her husband, naturally expresses hesitation, telling Satra that whatever the two of them decide to do would mean disobeying Mustafa. This scene obviously presages the “staredown” scene I described earlier, when Satra finally finds the courage to defy her father for fear of losing even more loved ones.

WWR daisies

The fact that the film does not conclude with a pat, optimistic ending is testament to Dayoc’s keen understanding of the Muslim Mindanao context. In 2015, he made the documentary The Crescent Rising, which highlights the narratives of men and women caught in the quagmire of war and poverty in Muslim Mindanao, and posits that there are no victors in war. Even in making viewers empathize with marginalized Tausug families through Women of the Weeping River, Dayoc does not glorify them either. In confronting viewers with that stark parting scene of military soldiers lying lifeless in the rain and mud, he also reminds everyone that there is no single solution to violence, be they inter-clan or inter-ethnic. Even if families realize the futility of the never-ending feuds; even if men and women can find solutions on their own or with the help of mediators; and even if traditional values of maratabat, of masculinity, and of bravery will eventually be harnessed for the greater good and not for familial one-upmanship, the state still has supreme responsibility for the welfare of the long-suffering Moro groups.

The forms that this state responsibility – for long-lasting peace and equitable development – will take are obviously varied and multi-pronged, and should involve every group that has a stake. The enactment and implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (the film shows a scene where Satra witnesses a rally of mostly women and children Muslims in the town center chanting for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law) will be a long drawn-out process but, in the meantime, different modes of local participatory development engagements go a long way in easing the region’s poor and marginalized out of their suffering.

WWR rally

Women of the Weeping River is outstanding not only because of Dayoc’s judicious handling of relevant themes (he also wrote the script) but even more so because of his exceptional grasp of film language, particularly in trusting that the scenes will work more effectively with minimal musical score, and by letting the camera patiently capture the characters’ inner turmoil through intelligent mise-en-scène and symbolic imagery. It helps that the film’s actors, mostly amateur, all deliver superb lived-in portrayals, particularly newcomer Laila Ulao as Satra.

With just four feature-length films under his belt (the other two are Halaw, 2010; and Bukod Kang Pinagpala, 2015), Dayoc is quickly emerging as one of the country’s most relevant and perceptive filmmakers. As regional films continue to make their mark in Philippine cinema, I’m positive his name can only shine brighter.

(All photos are taken from the film’s screening copy.)

 

References

Rixhon, G. (2007) ‘Tausug and Corsican Clan Feuding: A Comparative Study’, Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao. Makati City: The Asia Foundation, pp. 304-324.

Torres III, W.M. (2007) ‘Introduction’, Rido: Clan Feuding and Conflict Management in Mindanao. Makati City: The Asia Foundation, pp. 11-35.

 
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Posted by on 11 April 2017 in Film Review

 

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