WHISPERINGS FROM THE MARGINS: A review of Hunghong sa Yuta

Thus, gentle reader, what you are reading now is not strictly a film review. It will aim at assessing the film from the perspective of contemporary film aesthetics – biased towards cultural studies' theories –  but it will also evaluate its relevance as an educational campaign material.  For Hunghong's relevance cuts across the two domains. Herein lies the relevant historical underpinnings of the film's entry into a relatively "mainstream" movie-making and film-viewing landscape.

I begin with the fact that Hunghong will, hopefully,  be used extensively as a material for peace education, not just in Mindanao but throughout the Philippines.

The Brothers of the Sacred Heart Philippine Delegation – the film's main producer – clearly states their intent in the making of this film: "Together with some creative artists in Davao, we reaffirm our faith and commitment to be with the Filipino people in its undying quest for Peace in Mindanao.”

The timing of the film's showing and ensuing popularization could not have come at the most appropriate time. The Malaysian troops tasked to monitor peace and order conditions while the GRP-MILF peace talks were on will be pulled out of Mindanao starting May 10, making many Mindanawons quite worried about the repercussions. Already there are reports of troop movements on both sides. The newspapers report that the hawks in GMA's Cabinet have the upper hand and would impact decisions made vis-a-vis Cabinet changes.  Peace advocates on the ground are haunted with the memories of wars waged only in the recent past.

Hunghong delivers as a conscientizing material that can play a role in the continuing peace-building efforts in Mindanao.  As such, it links itself with Mindanawon's Mapagpakalinawon (Having the Capacity to Wage Peace)  Social Movement.  It is a material that can help to sustain the peace-building efforts that have grown by leaps and bounds, especially since after Erap's lamentable all-out war in the early 2000s.  Paulo Friere, the Brazilian lawyer-educator who coined the term "conscientization" would love to view this film.

So also would Michel de Certeau and James Scott who wrote about"tactics" and "weapons of the weak," respectively.  For them, there is need for the weak "to poach" into enemy territory and they, actually, do across historical moments and landscapes. Within the film, the weak reveal their tactics and their weapons (that range from dancing to carrying an armalite). With the film, the weak have a "weapon" that can interface with the tactic of popular education.  As the film literally carries "whisperings from the margins," such whisperings  can serve as metonymy for those of the spirits who in the world of our ancestors carried such power (a fact, referred to in one scene of Hunghong).

This terrain, however, has been covered earlier by Marilou Diaz' Bagong Buwan, the mainstream film produced by Margie Moran-Floirendo's company which was both a commercial hit and a much-awarded movie. It is not coincidental that Ms. Moran-Floriendo considers herself a Mindanawon and one must credit her for her brave effort to invest money in what could have been a commercial flop. (One wonders though why there has not been a follow-up movie from the esteemed director and the brave producer).

Hunghong, however, has a greater value than Bagong Buwan, in so far as conscientizing the public is concerned. Despite its more modest production costs, Hunghong covers a far wider coverage of the Mindanawon reality covering spheres of ethnicity, faith traditions, cultural heritage, languages,  identity, gender, age levels, ideological orientations and physically-challenged realities.  One expects a lot more time – and a lot more astute nuancing – would be required if students will discuss the film in the classroom settings which one hopes will take place all across the country.

Various questions can be dealt with in classroom discussions to reveal the truth of the complexity of the Mindanawon reality. Who is the common enemy that the Moros, Lumads and poor settlers have to contend with? What is at the root of the Mindanawon peace problem? Why do the Americans continue to be present in Mindanao's political landscape? When is the option of taking up arms justifiable?  How come languages are bridges to dialogue for mutual understanding rather than blocks? Why are women and children often the most victimized by wars? Are there really children who take up arms and why? Is being a teacher still the most noble profession than that of a warrior/soldier?

Hunghong is a good supplementary material to a number of documentaries already produced on the Mindanao situation including those produced by MindaNews and, again, Ms Moran-Floirendo's company.  Once available in DVD, schools and other civil society institutions would have a popular material useful for continuing peace education.

One can understand why the producers and artists involved in this film are proud of the fruit of their collective efforts. There are reasons to justify this sense of pride. Films that respect and appreciate the diversity of languages in a location where languages do co-exist are rare. Hunghong's spoken words are in Tagakaolo, Tausog and Cebuano-Bisaya. A character speaking in Tagalog clearly manifests how Tagalog is a class-based language when used in most areas of Mindanao. However, English is de-emphasized even in scenes involving a "classroom" situation with the lead actors. However, so that the spoken languages can be understood outside Mindanao, there have to be subtitles in English. (Whoever did the translation work should be commended).

Hunghong is a worthy "successor generation" of indie films produced in Mindanao. Neil Frazer, based in Ozamis City, made a few  indie films in Cebuano-Bisaya in the l970s. Young filmmakers have come up with short indie films and shown during Mindanao Film Festivals. There is a group of Moro filmmakers who are also into short films, including documentaries. Hunghong is first in terms of using a more sophisticated digital camera and  the final product could be shown in a big cinema. And running one hour, forty-seven minutes, it is certainly the longest feature indie film produced in Mindanao.

Whether it is aesthetically a good film is almost immaterial when dealing with Hunghong as material for advancing the cause of peace. But the film has to be reviewed on its own terms as an art work involving "artists-oftentimes-doing-very-hard-work" – in the same manner that films are ordinarily reviewed in most magazines and talk shows –  if we are to honor the production people behind the film.

So far, we have affirmed the significance of Hunghong. For the reasons stated above, Mindanawons – and all Filipinos for that matter – should go and watch it. And all should pay to see it, if only to make sure that the producers get back their money and are encouraged to make another alternative, relevant movie. Produced at roughly Philippine Peso 1.5 million, it will only take 150,000 Pinoys (of the total 88 million) who will be willing to set aside P10 each for the investments to be recovered. And those 150,000 could certainly make a difference in terms of the peace campaign!

It is possible that thousands will watch Hunghong because they do want to be part of a peace campaign. It would be such an experience to sit in a viewing room with elementary school students and watch how they react to the film. One can expect that there will be many of them who will be moved by the film as it depicts children caught in a situation far removed from their normal everyday lives. If shown among the BECs in the rural countryside, one can assume that people will have running commentaries of the film's characters as the film is rolling for the rural folks can easily be seduced into the narrative flow of any movie, especially if they not only understand the language of the dialogue, but they speak it in their everyday lives.

However, there are thousands of people who will go and see Hunghong because they believe it is a good film, not a good conscientizing material! The word-of-mouth in turn can help in terms of turning a film into a sleeper hit!

Here is where Hunghong has limitations. Its basic flaw is that Hunghong is a stage play masquerading as a film.  Not that stage plays do not make compelling films; a number of classic, award-winning films are adaptations of stage plays. Think of musicals like West Side Story and Chicago, dramatic films like A Streetcar Named Desire and Equus. At home, there were  films that Lino Brocka made from PETA's theatrical pieces.

But Hunghong as film struggles to be set free from its birth pangs. One assumes that since the writer-director, Arnel Mardoquio, comes from a theatre tradition, much was asked of him to shift his orientation from theatre to film as both have different sets of languages. Alas, Mardoquio fails to shift to film  language on his first try.  He makes a valiant effort, for sure; it is, indeed, a commendable effort. Still it has to be said:  Hunghong would have been a much more powerful and touching film, if it broke out from the mold of being a stage play that was filmed by a digital camera.

This, too, was the problem of films like Jesus Christ Superstar and Proof. These were stage plays that were made into films, but the directors failed to push the plays towards the language of film and failed in engaging the movie viewer.

Hunghong would have been truly brilliant if Mardoquio succeeded in translating his script into a screenplay, if he followed a certain logic in the interplay of the different languages as well as the interfacing of landscapes (e.g. the seashore and the uplands), if he allowed space to be revealed as natural terrains rather than stage settings, if he worked with his actors so that they acted like film rather than stage actors, if he made his scenes unfold naturally rather than letting them be "staged" and  if he got the production designers and those in-charge of costume to downplay the colors and textures so as not to overpower the actors' emotions and actions.  In short, if he assisted us in suspending our disbelief lasting an hour and forty-seven minutes.

Which is to say that the film is far too long considering its heavy content, slow pacing and the indie film's limitations in terms of a richness of characters, locales and settings as well as  in production textures.

The film, fortunately, is saved ironically by the technology employed rather than its poesis.  Hunghong's best features are  its photography (Egay Navarro), editing (Arthur Ian Garcia),  lighting, sounds and make-up.  Compared to many Manila-based indie films, Hunghong has superior technical achievements. And to think there was only one camera available all throughout the filming!  For all the limitations of budget, the production staff found very suitable locations for the film;  the mountains, seashores, rivers, cliffs, forests and fields of these locations are, in themselves, characters of the film.  One knew that this film was shot in Mindanao.

One can tell that like many indie films, Hunghong was a collective effort involving multi-tasking. The stand-out among these is that of Popong Landero. He does the musical scoring and composed the film's theme – Pambihirang Nilikha.  In this field, Landero delivers adequately. A gifted musician and performer, Landero's musical poetry adds to the soul of this film. Landero, however, also plays one of the most important roles in this film. His character, Taok, is the kontrabida par excellence of recent Mindanawon history, namely the Deep Penetration Agent or  DPA.  Again, Landero delivers.

All members of the cast do well, despite this being their first experience in acting for a film. The children – especially Jaymar Generana and Marvin Mindog – are gifted young actors without the mannerisms of child actors one sees on TV. Nelson Dino, Lucia Cijas, Joan Mae Soco, Mario Lim and Christine Lim – who mostly honed their acting skills in theatre showed they, too, could be good in acting in films. One wishes that they will all have more roles to play in coming film productions to further hone their talents.

One wonders what this film could have become if not for budget constraints. There could have been more people to play the role of villagers in Hinyok. With only about 8 adults and 5 children in the cast, Hinyok's population constituted only an extended family rather than a village or community.  There could have been more soldiers and rebels. There could have been more "reality" to the film's locale.  I wonder if budget was the problem, rather than initiative or creativity.

Still, in the end, we salute the producers, the production staff and everyone involved in Hunghong.  The making of this film is, truly, a political act. It came out of a political will.  The film has a political agenda that all Mindanawons should be engaged in.

Hunghong's demand that we set aside one hour and forty-seven minutes of our time is too little for all of us to be able to listen to the whisperings of the earth that could have such implications for peace to, finally, reign in Mindanao. (Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw]. Gaspar holds a doctorate in Philippine Studies from the University of the Philippines)