ARTS AND CULTURE: The endangered indigenous healer

Review of Indie Film: MANANABANG
Writer-Director-Cinematographer-Editor: ORVIL BANTAYAN
Assistant Camera Operator: MARK ANTHONY PERANDOS

There is always something very appealing about an art work which is a labor of love!  This is especially so, if it happens to be the artist’s first major production.  One can tell that such artists invest their soul into their first creative production. Consequently, the appreciative viewer responds favorably to the artists’ assertion of a soul seeking to express deep longings and aspirations even as they take the risk to be vilified and damned for over-estimating their gifts.

As an appreciate viewer I salute Orvil Bantayan and everyone who collaborated with him to come up with Mananabang for their courageous attempt to place themselves as serious stakeholders in a most promising nascent Mindanawon independent film movement. Like Arnel Mardoquio, Teng Mangansakan, Sheron Dayoc and other Mindanawon filmmakers before him who have made waves in cinema circles even beyond the Philippine shores, Bantayan produces a first film that immediately conveys that he is a filmmaker with a future!  Like Mardoquio, Mangansakan and Dayoc, Bantayan does it by grounding himself in Mindanawon context and realities, transcending the odds of a limited budget and tapping on local talents that can compare with those of imperial Manila.

Mananabang tells the story of Manang Soling, a community-based indigenous healer, who – like hundreds of them since time immemorial – responds to the health needs of her community especially in assisting pregnant women from the period of preparing them for the moment of birth to the actual procedure of childbirth. An unfortunate incident where she assisted at her own daughter’s childbirth but which ended tragically resulted in her demonization by her very own community following the orders of the local Department of Health personnel to stop her midwifery practice.

Unlike her neighbors, an expectant mother named Magda has not lost confidence in Manang Soling’s health skills. The wife of Jepoy, a landless poor peasant who earns money from weeding and selling firewood, Magda takes on the pragmatic stance. Since she and her husband do not have the money to go to the lowlands and be admitted at a hospital, she asked Manang Soling to assist her at childbirth. The old woman healer resists as she, too, fears that she could be put in prison if found to still be involved in being mananabang. Jepoy and other neighbors also conspired that Manang Soling should stop engaging in her practice.

But as luck would have it, Magda’s water bag broke unexpectedly just when Jepoy had gone to town to find money for her hospitalization. In the end, Manang Soling had no choice but assist in Magda’s labor and the film ends validating the importance of Manang Soling’s service to her community.

Even as we praise Bantayan’s breakthrough film, we honor him by taking his work seriously. That means engaging his “film text” by pointing out both its lights and shadows vis-a-vis the “what-could-have-beens”. The film’s strengths are manifested in a number of striking features: how it deals with the everyday reality of a rural community along with the topical issues very relevant to the Filipino citizenry, its attempts to capture the texture and sounds of an isolated village, the moods created through the use of various sounds and music, the confident camera work and the ensemble acting of all the members of the cast (some are former theatre actors who have shifted naturally to acting on film).

One is amazed at the level of acting of all members of the cast. Despite limited exposure to film acting they deliver. The three women actors are the most outstanding; they play their roles without any hint of artificiality. There is truth in the emotions manifested even if they “acted” for a film. Luchie Ong as Kora, Lorie Ann Cascaro as Magda and Malou Tiangco as Manang Soling embraced their roles and gave it their all. If Mananabang is their first film, one imagines how their acting could blossom if given more opportunities in the future.

The film, however, is beset with many shadows, primarily because of the travails and limitations of doing an independent film project, a lamentation heard not only in the Philippines but even in the margins of Hollywood as expressed by filmmakers who end up at the Sundance film festival.  If even the likes of well-established and award-winning film directors such as Joel Lamangan and Mario O’Hara are faced with such financial woes, what more for beginners like Bantayan?

Given such budget allocations, the director cannot actually show the contrast of women giving birth in government hospitals in the towns or cities compared to those given care in their own homes where the former gets demythologized as the ideal setting for childbirth. Thus the neighbor Kora (Luchie Ong) is reduced to telling the Baryo Kapitan Nestor (Mario Lim) what she saw were the horrible scenes in the government hospitals even as she expressed how upset she were with the government’s health personnel.

Since the director could not afford to stage crowd scenes, it is difficult to understand how deep the demonization of Manang Soling from the perspective of her neighbors is, as this impacted the mind of Joey (Marvin Mindog), the young nephew of Jepoy who fears Manang Soling as an ungo (witch) who devours infants.

Given limited lighting gadgets, the indoor scenes are mostly dark which make them hard to view. The production design has to keep everything at minimal levels. While the “aesthetics of poverty” could work very well for stage productions, it is harder to translate these aesthetics on film that needs to be enhanced through details.

However, the truly creative film director can manage to transcend his budgetary limitations by maximizing whatever resources are at hand.  Here is where Bantayan will need to expand his horizons for his next film projects if he is to sustain viewers’ interest in him.  For Mananabang, he could have explored various possibilities.

The film would have been served well with good editing. At 72 minutes, the film is 20 minutes too long.  Consequently, a number of scenes – especially in its first half – dragged. There were far too many shots of characters walking up and down the hills of the film’s location. If tightened further, the film could help sustain the viewer’s intense interest. It is to be assumed that a film director who solely edits his film is bound to face problems.

The film could have worked better if the film’s perspective was more focused. This could have been a rite-of-passage film from the eyes of the boy Joey especially since Marvin Mindog is a very promising young actor. The unfolding events, if viewed from Joey’s eyes, would have made a greater impact.  In its present package, the boy’s dilemma – how to conquer his fears of Manang Soling’s being an ungo and yet be able to respond to the urgent needs of her auntie – is only a part of the story. Joey’s metamorphosis could have rendered a more powerful plot for the film. The film’s ending could have been more hope-filled with Joey embracing Manang Soling as truly his community’s saint rather than demon.

More production features could have enhanced atmosphere, mood and texture. Jepoy’s work as to do hurnal and firewood gatherer could have been integrated. The Kapitan’s abode could have been projected as one where people gather. Joey could have been shown to play with other kids in the neigborhood.  If Manang Soling were truly an indigenous healer, there would have been rituals accompanying her work as midwife. All these would not have involved too much production costs.

One last comment has to do with the writing of the film script and,  consequently, in the speaking of the lines. Mananabang is in Bisaya-Cebuano (with English subtitles for those who cannot understand Mindanao’s main language spoken). Unfortunately, Bantayan as scriptwriter is a city-bred Davawenyo. His Cebuano which is the downtown Cebuano used in Davao City – with a lot of Tagalog and a few English words incorporated – is not the kind of Cebuano in the hinterlands of Mindanao, which is his film’s location. The Lumad Cebuanos immediately are disconcerted by the kind of Cebuano used in Mananabang which gets in the way of “suspended animation” as they know the Cebuano being used is not accurate.

Consequently, the accent in speaking Cebuano is one that does not reflect the accent of the ordinary folks in the far-flung rural areas. Bantayan missed this given his own language reality as a filmmaker. Here is where one admires filmmakers who make sure even the detail of languages and accents are well taken care of.

Still, all in all, Bantayan’s Mananabang is good news for the Mindanawon cineaste who has had enough of Hollywood’s super-blockbusters and Star Cinema’s escapist romantic comedies. And for those who dream of a Mindanawon film industry, Bantayan is one young filmmaker to watch!