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COMMENTARY: Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema as Postcolonial Critique (3)

Last of three parts
Major Landmarks

Etched, indeed, in the history of Mindanaw and Sulu cinema was the year 2012, which marks an auspicious period for major landmarks. The first landmark happened when the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) Sineng Pambansa launched its first leg in Davao City. The 2012 FDCP Sineng Pambansa was a bittersweet memory for Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema. On one hand, some of the grantees’ films have been exhibited and recognized in different local and international award-giving bodies and festivals. Mangansakan II’s Qiyamah, which dramatizes the complexity of the Qur’anic images, teachings, and verses about the end of the world in a rural Maguindanaon village, bagged the Best Film award at the Young Critics Circle in 2013. Samarista’s documentary Taguri: The Kites of Sulu about the concept of “Orang Suluk” (People of the Way) and Kite cultures in the landscape of Sulu was nominated for Best Documentary at the Gawad Urian in 2013. On the other hand, the film Malan was pulled out from the festival when a dispute about the final cut to show during the festival erupted between its director Benjie Garcia and producer Buhilaman Visions Davao, Inc. The dispute ended when Malan was screened at the second leg of Sineng Pambansa and won the Special Jury Prize award.

Book cover of The Invisibility of the Visible.

The second landmark was the number of Mindanaw and Sulu films screened simultaneously in different film festivals in 2012. Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Jungle Love, a hazy telling of a story set in an unnamed jungle where lives of various characters intersect, competed at 2012 Rome International Film Festival. Meanwhile, Gutierrez Mangansakan II’s Obscured Histories and Silent Longings of Daguluan’s Children and Arnel Mardoquio’s Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim both competed at the 14th Cinemanila International Film Festival – Digital Lokal section. Mangansakan II’s Obscured Histories and Silent Longings of Daguluan’s Children reaches the point of maturity of slow cinema as a style and tradition in Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema. Using cinéma vérité and found footage, the film documents the quotidian minutiae in the lives of the village children as they cope with the effects of decades-old war and injustices.

In Mardoquio’s Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim, the lives of three Tausug rebels and that of a nine-year old Tausug boy amidst the looming tragedies of the Bangsamoro struggle is dramatized. The film articulates a critical and rare view of a gay love story set within the narratives of Muslim faith tradition and their lachrymal laments and frustrations on the ideologies of the revolution. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim may symbolize the certainties and uncertainties of the people involved in the never-ending cycle of war, but are holding on to survive the dark night in anticipation of the sunrise. The film won the Grand Jury Prize awards in both the 14th Cinemanila International Film Festival and 2012 Cinema One Originals Film Festival; and the 2013 Gawad Urian Best Picture award from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. In all this, Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim leaves a mark as one of the most significant “regional” films in Philippine national cinema. These turns of events inscribe the importance of 2012 as the year of “consolidation of style and tradition” in Mindanao and Sulu cinema. The Island-Region’s films have finally reached a point of maturity and ripeness according to the demands of the cinematic form, content, and elements.

Scene from Ang mga Tigmo sa Akong Pag-uli (Riddles of My Homecoming). Photo courtesy of The Riddles of My Homecoming Crew

The succeeding years witnessed the production of more daring Mindanaw and Sulu films such as Arnel Mardoquio’s Ang mga Tigmo sa Akong Pagpauli (Riddles of My Homecoming) and Adjani Arumpac’s War is a Tender Thing, which were both produced in 2013; and Bagane Fiola’s Sonata Maria, 2014. Mardoquio’s experimental work makes use of tableaux and sharp metaphorical conundrums about the folkloric and indigenous belief systems on Lumad death and their journey in “the other worlds.” In War is a Tender Thing, Arumpac utilizes the poetic and reflexive modes of documentary in gently probing the anatomy and senses of familial and familiar relationships amidst war and conflict. Meanwhile, Davaoeño short filmmaker Bagane Fiola, guided by the foreign influences in his filmic styles and techniques, finally directed his first full-length film, Sonata Maria, in 2014. Despite the derivative aural and visual language as it borrows moments from different iconic films in world cinema, the film won the Best Achievement in Sound and Aural Orchestration and Best First Feature from the Young Critics Circle. Sonata Maria is also marked as the first Mindanaw and Sulu film to have a theatrical release in a commercial movie house in Davao City outside of a film festival circuit.

Still reeling from the recognitions given by the different power-generated institutions in the National Capital Region, Mindanaw and Sulu films took this opportunity to get funding and seed money from different festivals. In 2016, the QCinema International Film Festival awarded grants to Bagane Fiola and Sheron Dayoc to finish their films. Fiola’s Baboy Halas documents the everyday life of a Matigsalug family who chose to settle in the forest. It’s a finely textured film rich with ethnographic details and sensitive camera works that counter the exotic and erotic angles and shots made by previous Mindanaw and Sulu filmmakers. Meanwhile, Dayoc’s Women of the Weeping River explores the realities of women in grief brought by land disputes and mamauli/mamahuli (clan feud) – the practice of seeking revenge to redeem the martabbat (honor and self respect) of the tawtaymanghud (family) and overcome the sense of sipug (shame) in the Tausug cultures. Women of the Weeping River emerged as QCinema International Film Festival’s Best Film and won major awards including Best Picture at the 2017 Gawad Urian.

17forbidden11By skimming through the list of Mindanaw and Sulu films produced from 2006 up to 2017, most of them arguably harbor the style of documentary filmmaking. This approach, along with long takes and slow cinema, is probably innate in the Island-Region’s cinematic aesthetics. Conversely, it can also be noted that documentary filmmaking is thriving in Mindanaw and Sulu cinema. In 2016, Gutierrez Mangansakan II proved that he is an important voice in documentary filmmaking in the country by directing the gripping Forbidden Memory. The documentary articulates some of the collective and traumatic fragments and memories on the Malisbong Massacre of 1974 that killed and tortured almost 1,500 Muslims in Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat. Another documentarist, Nawruz Paguidopon produced God Bliss Our Home, 2017, which combines actual footage and animation in documenting his struggles as an immigrant from Cagayan de Oro City who struggles to pursue his dreams and passion in the fast-paced life in Quezon City.

In 2018, another filmmaker from Northern Mindanao, Julienne Ilagan, made her debut film Kauyagan (Way of Life) through a grant from TOFARM Film Festival. Kauyagan depicts the perpetual conflict between tradition and modernity experienced by Talaandig people in the mountains of Bukidnon. Arnel Mardoquio, after taking a break from filmmaking, directed Alma-ata, 2018, a brave and controversial film that probes on the theories and practices of the New People’s Army and the Lumad paramilitary group (organized by the reactionary government) in Mindanaw and Sulu. Alma-ata updates Lino Brocka’s cinematic renderings in Orapronobis. In the same year, Gutierrez Mangansakan II collaborated with acclaimed filmmaker Lav Diaz whose roots can be traced in Datu Paglas, Maguindanao, in the storyline of Masla A Papanok. Set in 1892 when Katipunan and La Liga Filipina were newly established in Manila, Masla A Papanok fills the gap in Philippine colonial narratology about the role of Mindanaw and Sulu during the tumultuous period.

In the discourse of fourth cinema in Mindanaw and Sulu, cinematographer and editor turned director Arnel Barbarona started its formation in Tu Pug Imatuy (A Right to Kill), 2017. Fourth cinema refers to films on and by the Indigenous People whose experiences and realities are yet to be documented and shown in media. Written by Arnel Mardoquio and based on true events that unfolded in the uplands of Davao and Bukidnon, Tu Pug Imatuy follows the tragic life of a Talaingod family that was red-tagged, victimized, and tortured by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Barbarona’s second full-length film Kaaway sa Sulod, 2019, is probably the first film from the Island-Region to use the popular genre of action/bakbakan to depict the root problem of the socio-political malaise in Mindanaw and Sulu – unjust economic distribution.

Also thriving in Mindanao and Sulu cinema are the congeries of accomplished short films that highly constitute and encapsulate the aesthetics and elements of the medium. Some of the most notable short films depict a wide range of subject matter such as familial relationships, identity and sexuality, cultures and politics, Indigenous Peoples, folklore, and science-fiction.

In the course of this critique and reconstruction of Mindanao and Sulu cinema, it is also important to stress the daunting task of creating and developing a film community and regional audience. The Film Development Council of the Philippines, for instance, established three micro-cinemas in Mindanaw and Sulu: Davao City, Nabunturan, and Zamboanga City (which is under renovation since 2018). Various filmmakers and cultural workers in Davao City, with the help of Yam Palma, Bagane Fiola, Angely Chi, Glorypearl Dy, and Jay Rosas established Pasalidahay, which aims to serve as a venue and avenue for serious discussions of cinema. In South Cotabato, Gutierrez Mangansakan II cultivates the significance of discourse in editing the New Durian Cinema, “a film magazine devoted to the celebration and discussion of the regional film new wave in Southeast Asia.”

The conjuncture between the production of films and developing a community and audience fortified the different film festivals all over the Island-Region. With the advent and rise of digital and filmic technology, various festivals were synchronically established. In Davao City, there are two annual film festivals that take place every October and December: the Ngilngig Asian Fantastic Film Festival, the only horror film festival and film camp in the country; and the Mindanao Film Festival (formerly known as Guerilla Film Festival in 2002), which is considered to be the oldest region festival in the country. In Cagayan de Oro City, the Xavier University manages the Cinemagis Digital Film Festival. Gutierrez Mangansakan II supervises the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival in General Santos City, which also conduct a film camp for amateur filmmakers. In Zamboanga City, Ryanne Murcia directs the Chavacano-inspired Festival de Cine Paz.

Clearly, it is in the realm of sense and sensibility that the Mindanaw and Sulu cinema is viewed: an important voice and valuation of artistic productions that articulates the Island-Region’s visibility in its seemingly invisible presence in the landscape of Philippine national cinema. However, it would seem that the independence of Mindanaw and Sulu cinema couldn’t be fully realized if it will still adhere to what the film festivals and film grants (especially those that have tyrannical guidelines and policies), award-giving bodies (both major and minor), and other power-generated institutions impose on how a “Filipino film” should be. The Island-Region’s cinema should liberate itself from the rules and guidelines enforced and inflicted by the center’s hegemonic orders and practices. The critiques I propose adhere to a postcolonial framework that demands more complex worlding and articulations of cultures, histories, identities, and politics. While our imagination of national cinema can be deconstructible according to different lenses and scaffolds, the regional cinemas interrupt and intervene in its reconstruction.

Given these delineations, cinema can be perceived as both aesthetic and socio-cultural artifact – a site of contestation in which the discourses of cultures, identities, class, gender, and ethnicities from marginalized areas like Mindanaw and Sulu are configured and reconfigured to posit meanings and imaginings.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Jay Jomar F. Quintos is an associate professor of Philippine studies and literature at the University of the Philippines.  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)

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