Bahay Bata (Baby Factory), Bonfire Productions and Cinemalaya, 2011
Direction: Eduardo Roy, Jr.
Screenplay: Eduardo Roy, Jr. and Jerome Zamora
Tessa Maria Guazon
I am the 3,941,710, 096th person to have been born on the planet, in a country with an average rate of 265 births an hour. The life expectancy for women in the Philippines is 71.3 years, slightly higher than males. The population of the Philippines is at a staggering 95 million in 2011 with the highest concentration in Metro Manila. These figures are dumbfounding and my disbelief turned to anxiety as I toggled between one population website to another to confirm our count.
The immense concentration of people in urban centres like Manila is cause for alarm, as disasters like typhoon Ondoy showed us. Neither the traffic lanes nor the numerous high rise developments dotting the city can keep up with this relentless growth. In addition to my train commuting penance (in coaches with people stacked like hay or sandwiched like sardines in a tin can), there are public school classrooms that house close to sixty students in morning and afternoon intervals, entire shantytowns futilely cloaked by towering buildings, the exodus of the labor force, a dwindling middle-class – the list goes on in factual morbidity. Majority of those left behind thrive on elusive chance and the nebulous glimmer of hope, exploited by schemes of prospect and risk. This picture coincides with the workings of birth inside the Fabella hospital.
Doctors and nurses deliver close to a hundred babies a day at Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, a government-run hospital in Manila. Bahay Bata takes us inside Fabella where this incessant number is proven by the interminable lines inside wards, delivery rooms, breastfeeding stations and corridors. The perpetual queues start at the nurse’s triage and culminate with those of husbands and relatives during visiting hours.
In the opening sequence, eight women wait to be interviewed by the triage nurse, and numerous others linger, cued to labour pains arriving in close frequency. Up to when these women are shuttled into the crowded delivery room and posted to the hospital ward to recover, the film frame teems with bodies, voices and the means by which they are identified, numbers. In the recovery ward, women and their newborns are billeted two to a narrow, hospital bed. Our eyes and ears are assailed by voices urging women to push and breathe, cries of newfound life, ward chatter about husbands and families, the doctor’s barking orders and the nurses’ break time banter. Fabella is a world ordered by numbers, those called out by nurses during rounds, numbers announcing discharge or enforcing release. Newborn cries are supposed to be jubilant but here, they are tinged with dreary expectation.
This world is framed for us through the pool of nurses on duty to attend to Fabella’s women patients, primarily through the eyes of Sarah, a young nurse stationed at the normal delivery ward. Nurse Sarah makes do with meagre resources in the hospital ward. When milk flow dries up, she calls on Cathy a young mother to supplement the supply. While director Eduardo Roy, Jr. allows us to view this overwhelming world of women birthing, he tempers its intensity by subtly weaving the tensions of the minute within a larger, ominous picture.
Ward life is recorded in vignettes, women joking about ‘holding in’ the birth of their children because cash prizes were given to babies born on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Adolescent girls chatter with delight about how they met their husbands and boyfriends while working breast pumps to feed their babies in incubators. Hospital staff drew lots for their forthcoming Christmas party, gleefully told that a cash prize awaits winners in the dance competition. We learn that Sarah is made pregnant by her married lover. While fellow nurses dream of rounds in a Canada ward, Sarah remains undecided about her application. Christmas is to come and the nurses bemoan the fact that they had been on Christmas Eve duty for two consecutive years.
The hospital teeters in perilous order, its staff of doctors and nurses make do with inadequate supplies, slovenly mothers, delayed bonuses and abandoned babies. This state of precariousness stealthily drifts into nurse Sarah’s private world, adept though she is with ‘making ends meet’ at the normal delivery ward. She delays filing her application for the nursing post in Canada despite prodding from her mother and friends. She holds out for her married lover who eventually leaves her to go back to his family. Sarah is stricken with devastating loss, the realness of the wavering world that surrounds her at Fabella becoming palpable in her own life. The cries of babies become unnerving and the sight of a mother struggling to push is suddenly fearsome. Nurse Sarah struggles to accept her fate and released from her Christmas Eve duty, she trudges the hospital stairs and corridors with unseeing eyes. We will not know for certain if Sarah will keep her baby but we know her life will never be the same as she welcomes yet another year at Fabella. Or perhaps like Cora, a senior nurse demeaned by their head doctor we are unsure whether she, too is to ever come back.
Numbers attain a foreboding presence in Fabella. Drawn as lots like fragile chances, called out and announced in cracking voices, tags that mark admission and discharge, numbers that make the shrinking, crowded space life has become for nurse Sarah, the adolescent mother Cathy who feeds others but unable to nurse her own because of a congenital defect; Melba who births her thirteenth child and still refuses to be ligated because her husband said so; Rose who gave birth to a baby with cord coil and so doing endangers her life, Tess, a prison inmate whose cuffed hands bars her from holding her child, babies suddenly abandoned to be picked up by DSWD. Names float in random chaos across Fabella and their resolute presence in this cramped laboratory of uncertain futures hem us in with stark precision.
It is striking that Bahay Bata adopts the tone of a documentary and knits it with a story told with biting humor and a rare subtlety. Other films cast deprivation in an ‘other/nether-worldly’ manner, paradoxically reversing realities which filmmakers initially set out to capture. We are confronted with sequences of crippling poverty, and their stark crudity endows us with paralyzed detachment. On the other hand, Bahay Bata exhibits a desire to get to the heart of the matter and does so inventively. Coupled with sound and image, the numbers and their exactitude conjure trepidation.
Bahay Bata couches the hard truth within a story of frailty and weakness, leaving out the moralizing yet urging us to reflect where falsity truly springs from. How can we morally espouse a just world for children, or preach the very sacredness of life when the very conditions we harbour one that reeks of injustice and hunger we adamantly ignore? To have children is to summon courage and somehow fear the future, even for women who did not birth children in Fabella. That future remains greatly precarious for mothers, their children and entire families as long as women are unable to make informed choices about their bodies and ultimately, their lives.