Southern discomfort

Font Size

MMFF Movie Review


Directed by Brillante Ma. Mendoza

Mindanao, Brillante Ma Mendoza’s latest Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) entry, humanizes as well as mythologizes the second largest island in our archipelago. We can all relate to its great themes: serious illness and death, the suffering of little children, families riven by war. Admittedly though, we, the so-called Christian lowland majority, are largely ignorant about our “Muslim brethren,” or the Moro, which is how the Islamic societies in the Philippine South now call themselves.

Here, they are all too human. Saima (Judy Ann Santos) helps her cancer-stricken daughter Aisa’s (Yuna Tangog) cope with her pain through the re-telling of the saga of the brothers Raja and Sulaiman, and their battle with the enemy dragon spouses Ginto at Pula. The Princess Aisa is a character in this tale, shown through animation, just as the little girl might imagine it. The battle cry for these fragile children to be brave and keep fighting against their dread diseases, is repeated by the other parents at the House of Hope Transient Patients Home and Hospice. Aisa and her mother stay there, in between treatments at the Southern Philippines Medical Center.  When death comes for one so young, you do not give up that easily.

Ms. Santos’ Best Actress awards are well-deserved. One senses Saima’s strength as well as her infinite sorrow. She is helpless – she cannot protect her child against the cancer which is her death sentence – but she must remain strong for her. She sniffs at the empty strawberry ice cream container — that was Aisa’s favorite flavor — as the scent is a way to remember her. Little Yuna Tangog was utterly convincing as a retinoblastoma patient. That is an especially cruel cancer which first eats away at the eyes. It usually afflicts toddlers and preschoolers. Often the only way to stop its nefarious progress is to remove the cancerous eyes, while continuing other treatments.

The celebration at the House of Hope and the testimonies of the survivors sympathetically depict the community among the poor who look out for one another in their suffering. It is to be hoped though, that after they saw the conditions there, a big star like Ms. Santos or the successful director Mendoza himself, might donate at least two sets of institutional size cookware (one for halal, and the other not) to the House of Hope. That way, these poor mothers, already burdened with having to care for their patients, would be spared the inconvenience and expense of having to bring their own cooking pots and utensils. It would definitely make for a smaller carbon footprint and a greater sense of community, for them to pool their resources and cook just one big pot of rice and two large batches of halal and non-halal food, rather than kaniya-kaniya (every man for himself).

Saima’s husband Malang (Allen Dizon) is an army medic who must be away in battle while his child is dying. The director Mendoza has declared, “Whether we like it or not, when we say ‘Mindanao,’ people relate it to the conflict there. Therefore, you cannot just make a film about Mindanao and not mention the conflict.”

The Maguindanaoan public intellectual, Datu Gutierrez “Teng” Mangansakan, curator/director of the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival differs: “We do not deny that conflict is part of our history, but Mindanao is more than that. At a time when we are faced with tragedy and disaster, we rise beyond our differences and see our common humanity.”

What we Christian Lowlanders would take as simply a moving film about family tragedy which just happens to be set in Mindanao, apparently has other far-reaching reverberations, especially among the Maguindanaon, the ethnolinguistic group to which the protagonist Malang belongs. Mindanao has 13 distinct ethnolinguistic groups of Moro with their own cultural practices and traditions. Mr. Mendoza was called out for “ignorance of the dynamics and peculiarities of Bangsamoro geopolitical reality and experience.” A respected personage from Basilan has endorsed Mindanao and a Tausug academic was the production consultant.  However, it was pointed out that those worthies are not authorities on Maguindanaon or mainland reality and cultural specificity. Cotabato City’s Alnor Cinema, the only movie house in the Bangsamoro region and in Maguindanao, where this film is supposedly set, did not screen Mindanao The Movie during the Christmas holidays.

Datu Mangansakan found strong elements of the Maguindanao ethos in the film, eg., of alamatan (foreboding or premonition) and of mulka and bagkiyas (retribution). He cites the sequence where Malang’s best friend, the soldier whom he calls “Buddy,” (Ketchup Eusebio) visits Aisa in the hospital, and brings her pansit which he jokingly tells her is for long life, although he knows she’s dying of cancer. Later, on the way to a military operation, Eusebio’s character gets a loving call on his cellphone from his son who’s celebrating his birthday. Datu Mangansakan explains that in Maguindanaon, this is an instance of ‘kaalamatan sikanin’ or the foreboding of a dread event. In the next scene, “Buddy” is killed. ‘Nabagyasan nu wata’ for his insensitive remark to the dying child Aisa. Datu Mangansakan goes on:

“In an earlier scene, the Maguindanaon soldier Malang (Allen Dizon) performs the sagayan (the Maguindanaon war dance) wearing both his military uniform on and the tiered skirt of the sagayan dancer, embodying both the hero and the antihero. Towards the film’s end, he is wounded in the military operation, and misses his daughter’s funeral. ‘Nabagkyasan nu bangsa nin’ or in Filipino ‘na-karma’ (got his comeuppance) for bastardizing his own tradition.”

Datu Mangansakan has written about how when the Bangsa Moro resisted the American Colonial presence, cinema was used to represent them as ‘The Other’: “Because the studios were some 300 miles from Mindanao, the construction of images of the Moro has been marred by misrepresentation rooted in ignorance of cultural traditions, as well as religious prejudice and discrimination that mirror the prevailing political, historical and social climate, rendering the Moro as a subaltern: unable to speak, voiceless.”

Still, to have big stars such as Judy Ann Santos in this film, Cesar Montano in Bagong Buwan (2001, Marilou Diaz-Abaya), and Nora Aunor in Thy Womb (2012, Brillante Ma Mendoza) portraying Muslims, has been a cause for elation among the Bangsa Moro. Even Datu Mangansakan recalled how when Bagong Buwan was shown, for so many Moro, “It was as though our identity, our struggle and our very existence have been validated via the big screen. Suddenly we have become larger than life, our narratives made part of the national consciousness.

“Mainstreaming of Moro narratives gives us a positive jolt and that is totally understandable. But we must be able to discern beyond the cosmeticism provided by our exotic culture and traditions, and the portrayal of armed conflicts that have been our truths for many Ramadans past. We must also be able to determine the intention why the same narratives of our people are perpetuated, thereby cementing them in the national imagination. We Moros should not be passive players in the hegemonic business of appropriating the Moro image and narrative. Mga pagali ko, the subaltern can now speak! We must endeavor to create the Moro image and narrative ourselves.”