A SOJOURNER'S VIEW: Sheika: A Film Review. By Karl M. Gaspar, CSsR

Director and Screenplay: Arnel Mardoquio
Cinematography: Willie Apa Jr. and Dax Canedo
Editor: Ian Garcia and Willie Apa Jr.
Musical Director: Popong Landero
Production Design: Buggy Amplayo, Marie Contaoi and Jun Cayas
Production Manager: Lyndee Prieto
Producers:  HYDEout Entertainment, Alchemy of Vision and Light Productions and Sky Weaver Productions
Starring: Fe Gingging Hyde, Mark Anthony Perandos, Dan Lester Albaracin, Perry Dizon, Popong Landero

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/04 July) — “The pen is mightier than the sword!” We are all familiar with this adage which goes back to 1939 when the playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton incorporated these words in his play, Richilieu.

Today the words are a bit archaic given the changes in communications and weapons technology. Perhaps it can be updated to: “The camera is mightier than the nuclear torpedo!”

The pen did have – and perhaps still continues to have – might. Many have believed that its power had greater impact on peoples and nations than a sword, especially as the world  moved more and more towards pacifism. Newspapers with their  news reports, editorials and commentaries and magazines with their articles and essays have been able to dismantle structures and forces of power  by the sheer force of their truth! Books, novels and poetry – through the centuries and across the various continents of the world – have also manifested such power.

But in today’s post-modern landscape, it is the camera that is proving to have the greater might than the pen and can certainly prove to be more lethal than a nuclear torpedo.  As it functions to produce a film, the camera is today’s weapon in terms of asserting truth to set human persons free!

Pen and Sword. Camera and Torpedo. Might and Power. Truth and Setting the People free!  These were in my thoughts while viewing Sheika, Arnel Mardoquio’s third film after 2008’s Hungong sa Yuta (The Earth’s Whisper) and 2009’s Hospital Boat.

Sheika is a powerful film; its power derived from its stance to stand squarely on the side of the powerless, its courage to unmask the hidden realities that the powerful would rather keep under wraps and its rage to speak the truth that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Mardoquio and his film collective are not only putting their talents and investments on the line with Sheika. It is not just their reputation as  filmmakers at stake. They are not out to earn millions and win awards (although that would help to sustain their film production unit). They are putting their lives on the line. Mardoquio et al are true artists; they not only mirror life’s realities for all of us to see but they do so courageously, taking risks where some of us would cow under fear of being harassed. And yet, Sheika is also primarily a work of art; the film’s aesthetics can compare with the best that world cinema is offering now to cinephiles.

One wishes however, that unlike “art films” that find their audience only in art cinemas and film festivals with a limited coverage, Sheika will find a broad audience among the A-B-C-D sectors. Sheika deserves a broad audience; but on its own merits, it has the promise to go popular and be a box-office hit despite having no celebrity star in the cast! For Sheika is most engaging: its story moves the heart with the travails of a Mother Courage, the casting and ensemble acting are most impressive, the cinematography is breath-taking, the production design makes Davao City not just the location but also a character of the film and the whole piece breathes as one. Perhaps, some people might find fault with the editing as a few of the film’s segments move far too slow. Sheika is a big event in this year’s film output; a film critic can only urge film lovers to drop everything if it is showing in the nearest multiplex cinema (or wherever it is being shown).

But being an indie film, Sheika may not be that accessible to the audience that need  and/or wish to see it. Cinema multiplexes tend to favor Hollywood and Pinoy mainstream films especially those who are deemed blockbusters!  Public film showings of indie films come few and far between; they tend to be viewed through an alternative network of schools, NGOs and other  viewing sites. As DVD copies cannot yet be made available – to ensure return of investments by making pirating impossible – Sheika’s producers need all the help it can from interested parties so that the film can be shown to as many groups as possible where the audience are willing to pay for viewing.

Sheika tells the story of Sheika who echoes the lives of Rizal’s Sisa of Noli Me Tangere, Brecht’s Mother Courage (adapted into last year’s Madama Brava) and the Sophia Loren character of de Sica’s Two Women. Her life story in the film is the composite of many mothers’s stories in war-battered Mindanao from Jolo, Sulu to Davao City where,  in Sheika’s words, “the devil lurks”. Since Sheika’s woes interface with the labyrinthian terrain of the Davao Death Squads (DDS), her story is also that of Clarita Alia, the mother who lost four sons to the serial extra-judicial killing spree of the DDS, namely, Richard (18 years old), Cristopher (17), Fernando (15) and Bobby (14) who were killed between 2001 and 2007.

Sheika (Fe Gingging Hyde) was a teacher in Jolo where she lost her husband owing to the war and raised her two young sons Modin (Mark Anthony Perandos) and Soysoy (Dan Lester Albaracin). Owing to the  escalation of the conflict, Sheika was forced to seek safety for the sake of her two sons. Considering Davao City as a safe place for them, she brought Modin and Soysoy to this city. Still, they have to shake off their identity as Tausog-Muslims and pretend that they came from Sorsogon so that they could live a normal life. Without relatives to help them and unable to find a job, Sheika and her two sons are forced to rely on various shady characters – petty thieves, drug dealers, moneylenders, gay beauticians and assassins –  to survive in the big, harsh city.

Modin eventually finds himself “recruited” by a member of the DDS named Azul (Popong Landero) and is  assigned to take a “posting” job to monitor potential assassination targets. Consequently, he becomes a drug user and finds solace in the company of other young boys who are into drugs. Soysoy manages with the help of a gay beautician who may not have noble intentions. Sheika ends up doing all kinds of odd jobs to put food on the table, from selling “uling” (charcoal) to pushing a “kariton” (pushcart) seen around the Bankerohan market. As the film progresses one sees the inevitability of Modin and Soysoy entering the zone of DDS targets: boys who use drugs. Sheika’s story shifts into that of Clarita Alia. Like Sisa who lost Crispin and Basilio to the Guardia Civil, Sheika loses Mondin and Soysoy  to the DDS.

The tragedy results in her mental breakdown and she finds herself in the Mental Hospital.  As she undergoes treatment, the hospital’s janitor Gary (Perry Dizon) is attracted to her. Gary himself has a shady past and it is from his discovery of Sheika’s diary that the story unfolds. Through the transformation of Gary, Sheika finds redemption.

The story unfolds primarily in the streets of urbanized Davao City. Sheika is Mardoquio’s valentine to his home city and the film lovingly provides exquisite images of this “most livable city in the whole Philippines” through the lens of the camera confidently held by Apa and Canedo. Some of the film’s images are haunting and touches the heart: Sheika and her sons eating durian, as they walk through the Christmas decorations of Rizal Park, the continuing flow of Bangkerohan River, the birds’ flight from Sheika at the park and the two boys sitting on the mosque’s roof. But the film’s Davao City is not that of the Department of Tourism. Through its inspired choice of the city’s labyrinths, Mardoquio and his team of production designers allow us a glimpse of what is Davao City’s subaltern: the world under the Bangkerohan River, the squatter areas by the river and the sea with houses-on-stilts, the market and the various passageways.

Sheika joins a growing number of global award-winning films with the urban jungle populated by shady characters as its location, where life is as cheap as Chinese goods including Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night (early 1970s, Manila),  Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s City of God (2002, Rio de Janeiro), Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s Amores Perros (2000, Mexico), Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Mumbai) and  Pepe Diokno’s Enkwentro (2009) which also dealt with extra-judicial killings.  These are not Woody Allen’s New York City or that of Sex and the City where the rich and famous flaunt their wealth and whose angst revolves around personal problems.

In the film, Davao City is as much a character as Sheika, Modin, Azul, Gary et al. Sheika presents her in her various faces, moods and temperaments. She is welcoming to people from different parts of the country who seek comfort zones that are no longer spaces available to them back home. However, she too is the abode of the devil; death’s trap awaits anyone through its iskinitas (passageways).  She embraces peoples of different ethnicities, faith traditions and geographical origins. However, she can be harsh to those who are of the subalterns.

As theorized by the post-colonialist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the subaltern refers not only to those who are oppressed which the Marxist theoretican Antonio Gramsci refers to – in a non-military sense –  as the proletariat. Sheika’s world in Davao City are those rendered having no agency as they have no access to society’s wealth and positions of power. In the public hospitals, there is no money to provide them medicine. In the prisons, they have no money to pay for the bail. In the marketplace they can borrow money but at such exorbitant interests. They are not getting any piece of the pie being an oppressed minority whose presence allows us to recognize that there is a world dominated by those with hegemonic power and their allies among the middle class. They are the marginalized who are made absent and, so, they find themselves literally pushed to live down the bridge. Everyday the majority cross the bridge – over troubled waters? –  but cannot see those below.

Sheika reverses the picture so to speak and reveals what is under the bridge. The sight is not pretty and tragedy is its constant visitor, very much like the image of Death with its long knife. Like it or not, there will be more films about this landscape as urbanization has become a fast-expanding world-wide phenomenon.  In the 1950s, only 20% of the world’s population lived in cities. It increased to 36% in 1965 and is now 50%; in the year 2025, almost 70% of humanithy will be urban dwellers. In the Philippines today, more than 50% are already living in urban places. The Urban Geography Reader refers to the phenomenon of the rise of the contemporary city as a “variegated and multiplex entity” and the “multiplex(c)ity” of urban life will make cities “porous” and “spatially open and cross cut by many different kinds of mobilities, from flows of people to commodities to information, a recognition that urban life is the irreducible product of mixture”.  In this landscape, people find themselves, in the words of social theorist Michel de Certeau, as “placeless”.

Mardoquio’s Sheika is a character that moves about in the city’s multiplex entity where she experiences life as “broken up into countless tiny deportations” owing to the various displacements she faces. Having been displaced from Jolo, she finds herself and her sons in the tiny hut of a relative previously displaced from Davao City to seek greener pasture in the more urbanized Manila. Only by the pity of the girlfriend of their relative that they are able to share this tiny dwelling place. But once out of Jolo, Sheika and her sons are totally displaced in terms of their ethnic and religious identity.  In a way, they’ve been deported both from Jolo and even in Davao City, they are “deported” from an abode that would provide them dignity.

Her life is akin to an “urban fabric with intersections of various exoduses”. Moving from one location to the other, they hope to survive. In the city, all characters of the film move all over the place across the Foucauldian lanscapes of the prison, the room of a moneylender, the mental hospital and the killing fields. Their various exoduses bring them to wherever they can make a buck and defy hunger no matter what the moral costs are involved. The poor cannot have the luxury of moralizing for theirs is the ethic of survival. In the end,  Sheika’s Exodus is a tragedy as her life and those of her sons interface with Davao City’s own tragic contemporary history.

For all that has been trumpeted regarding Davao City as being the most livable city in the country, where criminality  has been kept to a minimum and thus, attracting a lot of investments and tourism, such a city is the one imagined by those who hold the city’s hegemonic power: the key people at City Hall, the businessmen, the rich from adjacent areas who have made Davao as their home (banana growers, loggers, those engaged in gold mining, the likes of the Ampatuans and others) and the middle class benefited by Davao City’s robust economy.

The “placeless” city that is populated by the subaltern is where one is hidden under the city’s shadows. This is Sheika‘s locale and the films characters are those who find themselves carving out their destiny in what can be a most depressing location. This is also where the DDS is the devil that Sheika encounters. As the serial extra-judicial killings began to attract news reportage with the first victims in August of 1998, radio commentators and the general public could easily justify the killings as a necessary evil if Davao City was to continuously be progressive. Such a mindset was dominant until the numbers of killings increased through the years with actual documented cases reaching 814 in February 2009, a few months before Leila de Lima, as Chair of the Commission on Human Rights held public hearings on the DDS cases in March 2009. (The Amnesty International or AI claims that  over 3,000 to include all other extra-judicial killings in the whole country under PGMA).

From out of this landscape arose Clarita Alia with the story of her four sons.  Now with Sheika, Mardoquio made sure that no one will forget that many of us in Davao City were accomplices to the killings of hundreds of our own children if we were and continue to be indifferent to the evil of DDS. For many of us did take the stance that the killings are justified if Davao City is to be our imagined city of progress and development.  Mardoquio has taken the advocacy of the Coalition Against Summary Execution (CASE) to a level where no one could doubt the lunacy and bankruptcy of a local government policy that would allow guns-for-hire to kill our young people just because they are deemed a threat to an imagined city of prosperity.

Even with the gains in the work done by CASE, the AI, the media people who have taken risks, the  courageous moves of Chair de Lima (now the Justice Secretary) to hold the public hearings and Diokno’s earlier film, there continues to be a need to reinforce the work to dismantle whatever are the remaining discourses held sacred by those holding influence in the city. Here is where the power of Sheika comes in; here is where Mardoquio’s advocacy through film needs popular support. With Sheika, Mardoquio is our new Rizal; if Noli Me Tangere is required reading in school,  students should be made to  watch Sheika as required film viewing. The more than a million city residents of Davao above 15 should see the film. (Even  younger kids should be allowed to watch it with the guidance of their parents and teachers). Then, the rest of the country should see Sheika, if they are to heed the lessons of what could arise with setting up the likes of the DDS.

But go see Sheika also because you care about Philippine movies. No tears are shed for the collapse of the mainstream Filipino movie industry. Part of the reason is because many producers came up with movies that insulted the Pinoy moviegoers’ intelligence. Whether action, drama or comedy, many movies failed to engage the interest of the Pinoy audience. There were so few good, quality films. The more discriminating Filipino film audience turned their backs against the run-of-the-mill films. And for a long while, no Pinoy filmmaker made waves in international film festivals.

Then came the advent of the indie films and the Philippine film industry is now back on track, made possible owing to the lowering costs of digital technology. There is an alternative film industry arising, though mostly producing indie films. Pinoy filmmakers are winning awards from Cannes to Venice to other film festivals. There is supposedly the rise of the Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema as it enters its 90th year of existence. This time, this is truly a nation-wide Philippine Cinema, and not just films produced in Manila with Tagalog as its lingua franca. With Arnel Mardoquio leading the pack, Mindanao has produced filmmakers who are making waves across the country, including, Teng Mangansakan, Sheron Dayoc and Sherad Sanchez. Even Lav Diaz and Paul Morales could also be considered Mindanawons.

Mardoquio can definitely keep his head up high with Sheika even as his two films have been cited by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. His direction of his cast is top notch; the ensemble acting is very remarkable. Fe Gingging Hyde’s Sheika is a tour de force in terms of performance; she is a young Lolita Rodriquez. Hyde’s Sheika in the mental hospital reminds the viewer of Rodriquez’ Koala in Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang.  Casting is perfect; each member of the cast down to those who play what would be seen as very minor supporting roles has the right look for the particular roles. The cast’s non-acting style provides a film a documentary “reality” feel. The film’s script astutely captures the “verbal sounds” of multi-cultural Davao City; Mardoquio as screenwriter takes full advantage of the  the raw language of the streets, complete with our own equivalents of  four-letter words. The production designers knew exactly where to position each of the film’s scene and what to include in each frame. The contradictions in images are most striking: the moneylender Boyax making an attempt to rape Sheika while the Divine Mercy image is prominent on the walls of the room.  Gary and later on Sheika living on the second floor of a house where the Robin Padilla ad in tarpaulin with the words – Think Positive – hangs. Landero’s music will surely win praises as Landero once more integrates his songs and music into the scenes in a manner that does not distract the viewer’s engagement with the scenes’ emotions.

For all these and more, the film  has been chosen as an official entry to the Network to Promote Asian Cinema (NETPAK)  film festival at the CCP in July 2010. Sheika was meant to be part of the 2010 Cinemalaya Film Festival in July 2010 if not for the top honcho’s insistence that a named movie star be recruited to play the lead role. It is Cinemalaya’s loss that Sheika will not be part of the festival. However, Sheika is meant far beyond Cinemalaya.  A fearless forecast: Mardoquio will win an Urian in 2011. And Cannes 2011, Sheika is coming!

Bulwer-Lytonn crafted these words: “Beneath the rule of men entirely great/ The pen is mightier than the sword./ Behold the arch-enchanters wand!? – itself a nothing – / But taking sorcery from the master-hand/ To paralyze the Caesars/ and to strike the loud earth breathless!/ – take away the sword – / States can be saved without it!

The sword and the torpedoes? Set them aside. The arch-enchanter-sorcerer-filmmaker Mordoquio and his camera defy the rule of great men with their hegemonic power. His film Sheika – which will make you breathless as you watch it – will eventually help to paralyze the Caesars of our midst. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. 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].)