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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.