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COMMENTARY: Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema as Postcolonial Critique (1)

 1st of three parts

mindaviews commentary

While other Filipino film critics and scholars engage in never-ending disagreements over when to celebrate the centennial year of Philippine national cinema, filmmakers, academics, and cineastes from Mindanaw and Sulu have been focused on witnessing a history that accelerates toward the formation of the Mindanaw and Sulu New Wave Independent Cinema Movement.

Even before the 2016 National Presidential Election that installed Rodrigo Roa Duterte, the first Christian Visayan settler from Mindanaw and Sulu to hold the highest position in the Philippine government, Mindanaw and Sulu cinema had already received much attention from the viewing public since the new millennium began. The advent of digital filmmaking has marked the production of films that feature Mindanaw and Sulu as the favored subjects and locales by filmmakers both from the Island-Region and Metro Manila.

While some of the early cinema produced by Filipino filmmakers could be imagined as products of a deliberate “adaptation, negotiation, and indigenization” of American cinematic codes and conventions, steered by Hispanic theatrical aesthetics, the other cinematic projects especially the ones that dramatize the plight and struggle of the non-Christian groups in Mindanaw and Sulu seemed to exhibit orientalist and colonialist gazes. It can be inferred that even before President Manuel L. Quezon’s Commonwealth government (1935-1941), various cinematic interpretations about Mindanaw and Sulu had already been produced, such as Jose Domingo Badilla’s Princess Tarhata (Araw Movies starring Adelina Moreno), Jose Nepomuceno’s The Moro Pirate (Malayan Movies starring Eduardo de Castro), and John Nelson’s The Brides of Sulu (people have been arguing that John Nelson and Jose Nepomuceno are only one person). At varying levels, these films depict the “exciting and beautiful picture of native life” in the islands and seas of Mindanaw and Sulu as “capital” for the American and global market.

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One of the first most successful films on Mindanaw and Sulu in terms of commercial viability was Eduardo de Castro’s Zamboanga, 1937. Produced by Filippine Films and starred by Fernando Poe, Sr. and Rosa del Rosario, Zamboanga tells a love story whose codes and conventions follow the European metrical romances. Lamberto Avellana’s refined yet melodramatic Badjao, 1957, then followed Zamboanga. The film Badjao demonstrates rigorous ethnographic details but is sometimes plunging into what Tito Genova Valiente calls as “ethnocentric mysticism,” such as the scene when a newborn baby was thrown to the sea to prove its rightfulness as a “child of the sea.”

Perhaps, the germ of Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema can be traced back to the operation of two film production outfits established by business entrepreneurs from the Island-Region. Kagay-anon Henry Canoy, through the help of former Cagayan de Oro Mayor Ruben Canoy, established the Canoy Productions which was responsible for the films Sa Dulo ng Kris (At Kris’ End), 1977, directed by Celso Ad Castillo and starred by Joseph Estrada and Vic Vargas, with participation by local extras; and Sa Imong Lawas ug Dugo (Your Body and Blood), 1979/80, which was written in Sugbuanong Binisaya and directed by Lorrie de la Serna. In 1980s, Hadji Usman Ummar and HJ Sitti Ummar founded Sitti’s Film International – the first and only Tausug Filipino film production outfit in the Philippines. Sitti’s Film International produced six films from 1983 to 1985 but none of which was about the Tausug people, cultures, and traditions. Several Tausug actors were casted and launched by the said film outfit.

Mindanaw and Sulu studies scholar Karl M. Gaspar, however, contends that the advocacy and educational videos produced by missionaries in 1970s can be the Island-Region’s nascent cinematic industry. Gaspar further opined that the alternative and independent films produced by a former Columban missionary based in Ozamis City named Neil Frazer can be viewed as the origins of Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema.

From this trend, the next decades witnessed films depicting Mindanaw and Sulu produced and directed by filmmakers from the National Capital Region. In 1980, Eddie Romero directed the epic film Aguila, which chronicles the Muslim people as revengeful and violent people. In 1990, Canadian filmmaker Nettie Wild produced A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution, a documentary about the controversies evolving around the Communist Party of the Philippines-New Peoples Army (CPP-NPA) in the Davao Region. The documentary investigates the national and local government’s anti-communism crusade, guerilla warfare in the mountainous fringes, and the vigilante infiltration. A Rustling of Leaves is lauded for its poetic and reflexive modes that were never before seen in Philippine documentary cinema.

The reductive and simplistic interpretation of Mindanaw and Sulu in the film Aguila is repeated in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Bagong Buwan (New Moon), 2001. The film suggests that the root cause of the decades-old war in the Island-Region is religious differences: the Muslim and Christian conflict. Definitive filmic statements like this are dangerous because it reduce and dissolve the political, social, and economic causes of the conflict and war in Mindanaw and Sulu.

A number of salient films that perpetuate the crude and exotic renderings of Mindanaw and Sulu have continued with the rise of the New Wave Indie Movement in the middle of 2000s. This movement is conscious and replete with the shape of national cinema that it envisions as it aims for a more inclusive cinema that is not only focused on Metro Manila and its adjacent provinces. Danny Anoñuevo’s Rekrut, 2010, a Cinemalaya competition film that is loosely inspired by the perturbing Jabidah massacre, tells the story of an elite group of young recruits formed by the national government for a special operation in Sabah. The film is heavily criticized for its contrived and topsy-turvy script that is evidently lacking in empirical nuances on history and politics. Two other Cinemalaya films that depict the picturesque and postcard-like Mindanaw and Sulu are K’na the Dreamweaver, 2014, and Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma, 2018. Ida Anita del Mundo’s K’na dramatizes a folk story in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato about a young woman anointed to be a dream weaver at the expense of her one great love. The film appears like a costume tragedy fossilizing the Tboli’s cultures and lifeworlds. K’na the Dreamweaver, despite being questioned for its indigenous pageantry, won the Best Production Design and Special Jury Prize awards at the 10th Cinemalaya Film Festival in 2014. Iar Lionel Arondaing’s Musmos na Sumibol sa Gubat ng Digma, 2018, recounts the coming-of-age story of three children who found solace inside the forest to save themselves from the violence caused by the culture of rido. Shot entirely in Palawan, Arondaing’s film depicts the effects of the inter-familial disputes among innocent children in Marawi.

In 2015, Chuck Gutierrez directed Iisa, a full-length narrative film that narrates the typhoon Pablo aftermath in Andap, New Bataan, Compostella Valley. It portrays how the different establishments, institutions, and structures of the State and the society contribute to the oppression on the marginalized sectors amid natural disasters. Skillfully penned by Arnel Mardoquio, it offers critiques on the underground movement and the revolutionary justice that it seeks. However, it seems to focus on the Christianized characters that lead to the erasure of the Indigenous Peoples and Lumad elements. The ending of the film has also been questioned, especially its directorial stance towards the continuing war between the New Peoples Army and Armed Forces of the Philippines. Iisa competed at the QCinema International Film Festival.

Two films by Kapampangan filmmaker Brillante Mendoza that competed in various local and international film festivals have also featured Mindanaw and Sulu. First is Thy Womb, 2012, a film about the paradoxical life of a Sama Dilaut midwife named Shaleha, played brilliantly by Philippine Cinema’s Superstar Nora Aunor, who struggles with infertility that results in her husband’s remarriage and eventual severing from the remaining ties they have. Thy Womb’s ethnographic details of Tawi-Tawi are quite incisive but despite these, several flaws and inconsistencies are evident in the film such as the title’s allusion to the Christian doctrine and the sentimental narrative that twisted the marriage pattern in the social realm of the Sama Dilaut.

Mendoza’s second full-length that features Mindanaw and Sulu is the ambitious and apparently propaganda film Mindanao, 2019. It tells the story of Saima, a mother who takes care of her cancer-stricken daughter while she waits for her husband Malang, who joined a military operation against “rebels” in Mamapasano. These two narrative strands on pathological and socio-political cancer are linked by the animated story of Rajah and Sulayman, which was inspired by the pre-Islamic lore Indarapatra and Sulayman. The film is commendable for its competent ensemble of actors, Judy Ann Santos, for example, portrays a heartfelt performance as the strong-willed yet grieving Saima. But despite this strong point, Mindanao is frustratingly flawed with massive shortcomings, such as the rendering of Rajah and Sulayman as Muslims misrepresents the pre-Islamic epic of Indarapatra and Sulayman that should exemplify ancient Hindu cultures and polities. The title Mindanao also perpetuates the dominant ideologies against Mindanaw and Sulu, especially that it affirms the illusory unity of the viewer about the Island-Region being a site of war and violence.

While the aforementioned films from cultural outsiders have garnered various accolades from local (usually Metro Manila-based) and international power-generated institutions, their colonial gazes and renderings are still counterproductive in the material history of Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema. Misrepresentations in cinema maintain the status quo and ruling establishments, and more conspicuously, promote corruption at the level of cultural capital.

(This essay is part of the introduction to the anthology The Invisibility of the Visible: Emancipated Mindanaw and Sulu in Philippine Cinema, funded and published by the University of the Philippines Mindanao. It will be released in 2021. Jay Jomar F. Quintos is associate professor of Philippine studies and literature at the University of the Philippines)

TOMORROW: The Invisibility of the Visible




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