By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento
Children of the River
Directed by Maricel Cariaga Cabrera
AS A coming of age story, Children of the River is as gentle and flowing as the river of its title. Like her first feature length film Pitong Kabang Palay (winner in 2017 of both the Golden Owl Award at the 22nd Aichi International Women’s Film Festival and also best children’s film in the Dhaka International Film Fest), Maricel Cariaga Cabrera’s 2019 Cinemalaya entry revolves around the regular lives of ordinary folks in rural areas.
The young protagonists: sensitive Elias (Noel Comia, Jr.), the merry prankster Agol (Ricky Oriarte), loyal Robin (Dave Justin Francis) whose pretty twin Agel (Elyshah Dinn Rasa) is Agol’s crush, and the spunky Pepsy (Junyka Santarin), the only female in this gang of four, have all just entered adolescence. They are not in thrall to screens or social media, but still play together in the nearby forest with guns fashioned from young green banana stalks, taking turns at role-playing the army vs. the insurgents. Tellingly, no one is killed in their make-believe encounters. Every game ends with a playfully negotiated and peaceful surrender. The prospect of death is only too real in their tender young minds since their fathers are all soldiers, stationed far from home in the battle zone. Every morning, they await their fathers’ phone calls, a ritual kamustahan (how-are-you) to reassure one another that all is well in their part of the world. It is a moving revelation that soldiers are also family men, not mindless killing machines.
There are troubles too during the idyllic summer in which Children of the River unfolds. Elias’ baby sister Emily is often sick. Their worried mother Elvy (Rich Asuncion) resorts to an Ilocano folk remedy locally known as talado for inexplicably persistent childhood ailments. The concerned mother brings her ill child, along with her chosen coterie of trusted relatives or kumare to their town arbolario (folk healer, usually a respected elder). In the film, the venerable, white-bearded Tata Isko (Nick Ramos) presides over the talado. Each of the mother’s companions takes turns in setting an egg on its rounded end on the tabletop, while pronouncing the new name she or he has chosen for the sick child. If the egg remains upright, that is the new name by which the child must henceforth be called by family and friends. It is a practice which is believed to confuse the malevolent spirits who had targeted the child (binati) in the first place.
Growing up in Santiago, Isabela, Cabrera Cariaga had been through a talado herself. The simple, rustic world she depicts in her films is one which she knows well since she does not come from the usual showbiz or film school background. She is the daughter of a farmer and an OFW who still works as a domestic worker. Like many Filipinos, she struggled to get an education, but managed to become an IT college professor in her own city. She married a simple farmer herself, and has two young daughters. Her spare time is spent, not in partying with the terminally hip and angsty film crowd, but tending to her home garden. However, despite motherhood and a teaching career, the passion to express herself through film would not be appeased. Relatively recently, she managed to send herself to the Asia Pacific Film Institute in Mandaluyong. Her commitment to her vision is what drives the best among our independent filmmakers. Yet, in all honesty, she remains true to the simple homespun truths she has known all her life, as plain and forthright as the abel Iloco (Ilocano plain weave) which is part of her heritage.
In Children of the River, the main protagonist Elias is beset by new confusing emotions when he meets hunky, handsome Ted (Juancho Trivino), the maritime academy classmate of Robin’s older brother Fernan (Jiro Custodio), who is visiting for the summer. Elias’ latent homosexuality is lightly treated. It’s not a scandal or a tragedy, but just who he is growing up to become. Nonetheless his burgeoning feelings over Ted, leave him in a fevered state and he is also compelled to undergo talado with Tata Isko. The name chosen for him is “Elia.” a homonym to the Spanish ella meaning “she.” This is in keeping with traditional and conventional concepts of male homosexuals as having exaggeratedly and stereotypically feminine attributes (binabae), such as a taste for the home arts (Fernan asks Elias to do the décor for his birthday party) and being more nurturing (Elias is often tasked with caring for his baby sister).
Without giving away any spoilers, another crisis changes forever the lives of Elias’ three friends. Being children of the river, they have the wisdom and resiliency to go with the flow. They will go on.