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TAMBARA: A film that debunks the myths of modernity and helps us to revisit our past

Produced by:  Sandglass Productions in association with the Mindanao Film and TV Development Foundation and the FDCP
Directed by:  Orvil Bantayan

Cinematography by:  WillieApa Jr. and Bagand Fiola
Editing by:  Willie Apa Jr. and Orvil Bantayan
Music by: Dave Ibao
Sound by:  Maki Serapio and Dave Ibao
Production Design: Buggy Ampalayo, Raleon Monsanto, Kristy Lim
Main Cast:  Gregg Tecson, Sheila Labos, Joan Magtibay, Roweno Caballes and Paul Carreon

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/30 June) — I am very glad that the first film I watched on the first day of  the First Sineng Pambansa  National Film Festival sponsored by the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) is Orvil Bantayan’s TAMBARA.  As Davao City is this festival’s host,  a film touching tangentially on the indigenous belief system  of  Davao’s original  people  – the Bagobo – is a must see!
As first impression does count a lot, having been impressed by Tambara, I now look forward to watching the other films of this festival, hoping that the others are at par with Bantayan’s film or even better. There are 11 more feature films, three full-length documentaries and two short animated films to watch at this festival that runs from 29 June to 3 July.

Based on Macario Tiu’s Balyan – a  Palanca-winning short story – the film’s title refers to the religio-cultural artifact used by the balyans (shamans) as the centerpiece for their healing rituals.  On this improvised holder – made usually of bamboo and woven at the top into a  basket – the shaman places the  ritual materials which are  mainly food items and herbs. In front of the tambara, the balyan conducts the constituted elements of a ritual.

Today, the tambara is an iconic symbol that –  along with the Philippine eagle, the durian, the Kadayawan festival and Mt. Apo –  has been so associated with Davao’s specific identity.  However,  among the persons on the street who are mostly  migrant-settlers of Davao,  this symbol’s meaning is not that popular.  If this film turns mainstream and reach wide audiences, then the tambara’s place in Davao’s socio-cultural history will be secure.

Having been based on a short story, the film’s plot is quite simple and its main characters limited in number.  Lando (played by Paul Carreon) is an elementary school teacher who thinks of himself as modernity’s prophet in his village. His nemesis is Datu Pikong (played by Gregg Tecson),  the resident Bagobo balyan  who conducts healing rituals through his direct line (literally through an imaginary cell phone) to Apo Sandawa, the Bagobo’s Deity.

Having been mandated by the parish priest to oversee the repair of the barangay Catholic  chapel – which in its sorry state was used by the balyan as venue for his healing rituals – Lando and Datu Pikong were bound to clash in terms of their worldviews especially in how to cure the people’s illnesses.  And they did, given Lando’s discourse of science in his mind and the memory of his mother who died because she didn’t make it to the hospital when sick.  This clash ultimately led to Lando’s desecration of the tambara.

The spirits were naturally angered by this and their wrath would fall on Lando’s wife, Luisa (played by Joan Magtibay), who was shortly due to deliver their first-born. Unlike Lando, Luisa is a friend of the baylan and she is being assisted by Nang Minda,  a midwife (Sheila Labos) who also has no quarrel with Datu Pikong.  However, when Luisa was about to give birth, strong rains and ensuing floods  made it impossible for Lando to bring her to the hospital. Forced to deal with this emergency situation, Minda did her best only to find out that she desperately needed the help of the balyan.  In the end, Lando had no choice but make a connection with the balyan and the spirit world.

Tambara is Bantayan’s second feature, after his first film – Mananabang.  The same reviewer praised the filmmaker’s initial attempt at coming up with an  independent film that had a heart with its deep commitment to champion indigenous wisdom; however, he also pointed out that the film could have been much better if the director– of course, with additional funding – was more able to utilize greater use of  film language, chose a better cast and directed them well, tightened the film’s pace through good editing and found a way so that the scenes were not too dark.

To this reviewer’s delight, all these points were seriously considered by Bantayan for his second film which makes Tambara far more superior than Mananabang.  He and his crew certainly took advantage of the bigger budget allocation and put them to good use (although the budget at just over P600,000.00 is still a pittance, by Star Cinema standard; forget about comparing Pinoy indie films’ budget with Hollywood blockbusters!).

With greater confidence in handling a digital camera and how this captures light, Apa and Fiola’s cinematograpy is not just passable; some nature shots take the breath away.  In quite a number of scenes, the composition is well-established  and impressive.  However, a few of the night scenes, especially when the rains poured, were too dark.  Bantayan has become more adept in terms of film language; he does more visual imaging rather than making his actors talk so that we get to do the imaging ourselves.

Bantayan’s film is very rich in providing images of the everyday life of a quintessential Philippine village in the south. In a hundred years’ time, this film would provide an excellent visual ethnography of such a village.  From the characters you ordinarily meet in this setting (including those people riding on two rafts flowing down the river as Minda and Luisa cross the bridge) to the sari-sari store (caged naturally) and the basketball court, to the use of plastic (from plastic bags to plastic pitcher) – all these provided a viewer of the true lifeworld that exists in our countryside.

The film’s big ironic moment was well executed.  First the scenes where Lando and the men worked on repairing the chapel. From their view, this was a sacred act to do, even as the impetus came from the request of the parish priest.   There was a deep sense of purpose on the part of Lando to be involved in this project.  Then  just moments later, he destroys the tambara, a sacred spot for the indigenous believers but which for Lando is the embodiment of superstition and deceit.  If for this scene alone, Tambara’s mission is accomplished.

The actors do well as an ensemble. It is said that with good casting, two-thirds of the film is well on the way to being outstanding.  The five main cast members  generally came up with excellent performances.  Tecson as Datu Pikong nails his role in a manner that  makes us see how powerful natural acting is.  He totally inhabits the character of the balyan but not in the usual manner of a soft-spoken, saintly sage-healer, but a flawed one which makes him all the more believable. As he injects humor to his role, using an imaginary cell phone comes out as a natural thing that he would do as balyan.  In his earlier work in Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria – the Urian prize-winning Cebuano film – as the father, Tecson was a revelation. In Tambara, he cements his reputation as the poor man’s Vic Silayan.  However, he missed out on the last few crucial scenes where he could have shown a greater force emanating from his soul.

The two women, Labos and Magtibay, played their respective roles very well. Magtibay’s chemistry with Carreon is palpable; she helps to lighten up the scenes when she appears.  Roweno Caballes as Lando’s friend also does well with his role, capturing the happy-go-lucky aura of  a man with simple aspirations and expectations.  Carreon tries to do his best to respond to the challenges of his role. Unfortunately, he misses out on a number of very crucial scenes. Just before he desecrates the tambara, he fails to show why there was so much anger in his heart that he turned quite violent.  As his wife was dying, his pathos lacked the depth required by the scene.  But one can tell that Carreon has promise; with more film assignments, he certainly could go places.

Bantayan and his crew, especially those tasked to do sub-titling, may have to be more careful in their next film when doing translations.  Technically, tambara is not an altar; if the altar is to mean specifically the spot where Catholics hold their rituals or where they place statue and images of saints.  Both tambara and altar have very different sort of cultural contexts; thus they cannot be interfaced as if they mean the same thing. Same with diwata and fairies. There are no fairies in the Philippines or other Asian countries. Fairies are specifically European which is why they have fairy tales; we don’t. We do have tales about diwatas, engkantos and abyans but not fairies. So diwata and fairies should not be interchanged.

A final note again dealing with irony. The flawed character of Lando insists on his mission to modernize the people of his village. But he equates modernity with rationality, discoursing on the superiority of science and the role of doctors and fertilizers.  He does not realize that the world has shifted to a post-modern perspective.

Thanks to writers like Tiu and filmmakers like Bantayan, we are able to view a local film that debunks the myths of modernity and helps us to revisit our past where we can embrace flawed characters like Datu Pikong because he is us. (Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,”  “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” and Manobo Dreams in Arakan, writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)


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