FILM REVIEW – IISA (AS ONE) An Entry to the Quezon City International Film Festival 2015 (QCinema)

Director: Chuck Gutierrez

Screenwriter: Arnel Mardoquio
Director of Photography: Dexter Dela Peña
Production Designer: Perry Dizon
Editor: Chuck Gutierrez
Art Director:   Buggy Amplayo
Assistant Director:  Yam Palma
Musical score:   Emerzon Texon
Sound Design:  Alex Tomboc
Colorist:    Marilen Magsaysay
Producers:  Baby Ruth Villarama, Arnel Mardoquio,  Chuck Gutierez, EA Rocha,  Nando Ortigas, Karen Malaki, Nabunturan Independent Film Exhibition (NABIFILMEX).
Cast: Angeli Bayani, Rio Locsin, Jess Mendoza, Mon Confiado, Perry Dizon, Mitch Valdes, Rocky Salumbides, Christine Lim

Iisa’s opening scene immediately assaults the viewers’ senses.  Shot from the sky, the camera mercilessly records the tragic aftermath of a cataclysmic event; human bodies – some dead and others struggling to remain alive – are littered in the mud as heavy rains pour without end.  From the very start, the viewers know that Iisa is a film that will disturb and raise critical questions to ponder long after the film showing.  The viewers intuit that this film experience will end with a heavy heart but will also uplift their spirit as it provides a glimpse of how human beings redeem themselves despite their flaws and frailties.

Art imitates life as Iisa returns to the scene of the aftermath of Pablo, the super-typhoon that ravaged Davao Oriental and Compostela Valley three years ago.  The film’s locale is Andap in New Bataan, where thousands perished with the landslides and floods. No better location could be found for this kind of film; in fact, the landscape becomes a character in the film itself continuously reminding the viewer what could transpire when nature and humanity collide in the scenario where human greed is both the cause of a mega-disaster but which also further rears its ugly head in the aftermath of a dehumanizing calamity.

Iisa is Chuck Gutierrez’s first film as director. A veteran film editor of independent films, Gutierrez directs this film with a clear vision, confidently guiding cast and crew to create a film that will have a long-term relevance and value to cineastes passionate about independent films, film aficionados, academicians interested in Mindanao history and people’s struggles, film critics and archivists and grassroots communities in close contact with Iisa’s grim realities.  Working closely with the film’s award-winning screenwriter – Arnel Marodoquio (screenwriter and director of Honghong sa Yuta, Sheika, Crossfire, Riddles of my Homecoming, Alienasyon) – Gutierrez brings together all elements constitutive of a film – cinematography, music, production design and performances – into an integral whole that makes Iisa a truly satisfying film to watch despite its gut-wrenching heaviness.

The film’s social media PR machinery label this film as “a thriller about a never-ending war, a town ravaged by a devastating storm and the woman caught in between.”  But of course, it is a lot more. The film’s narrative focuses on what took place in a Lumad community hit by a super-typhoon.  Ross, “the woman caught in-between” (as brilliantly played by Angeli Bayani), teaches in a school deep in the heart of the NPA territory. Married to an NPA foot soldier Lance (Jess Mendoza in a role that transforms him into a serious actor), Ross commits a grievous sin against the Party.  The revolutionary justice system she needs to face holds the issue in abeyance owing to the occurrence of the disaster which demanded an urgent response to provide food relief to the survivors and the reconstruction of the totally ravaged community.

As a consequence of personal, political and ecological devastation, Ross has to maneuver through the complications of being wife and mother (whose son is separated from her), her being a comrade to those who have lost confidence in her in the midst of a situation where corpses need to be identified and buried, children needing food, politicians hoarding relief goods as well as being careful about their security as they inter-act with the military and intelligence agents in the white areas. As with tragic tales, Ross will find relief at the film’s end when rains – as in the opening scene – cascades from the heavens!

It has often been said that one key element to a film’s success lies in the casting of actors.  Gutierrez wisely chose and directed an ensemble of actors whose performances are truly impressive, both individually and collectively.  There is no hint of melodramatic acting throughout the film; the actors’ sense of truth in playing their roles is so palpably evident from frame to frame.  Angeli Bayani cements her reputation as one of Philippine independent cinema’s most accomplished actors. Rio Locsin (as the sympathetic Sr. Jo, a latter-day Sister Stella L who is not just sympathetic to the underground movement but is a Party member) has totally transformed herself from the days when she competed with the likes of Lorna Tolentino as sexy star. In Iisa, she is the film’s spiritual center.  When she is “ordained” a priest to officiate at a funeral service with a big cross as backdrop, faith and ideology merged to form a liberation theology better expressed in symbols.

And indeed, there are no small roles in films where ensemble acting is a must. Mon Confiado, Perry Dizon, Rocky Salumbides and Christine Lim all played their parts well. The big surprise is Mitch Valdes’ rare film presence. Playing Lance’s burgis mother, Valdes has only two scenes in the film; but those brief moments were more than enough for the viewer to understand where her character was coming from.

Dexter Dela Peña’s cinematography and Emerzon Texon’s musical score are also outstanding.  Dela Peña’s challenge was how to deal with the difficulties of location shooting and the vagaries of weather, as well as limited budget.  However, he manages to shoot the film in a manner that captures nature’s powerful images and the subtle nuances of a landscape’s beauty despite the devastation.  Texon’s music is haunting; echoing musical scores of the post-war Italian neo-realist films.  The music provides relief when the pain in viewing the film becomes acute.

Iisa is a brave film; it points an accusing finger at structures, systems, institutions, organizations and persons – politicians, aid agencies, government bureaus, the State’s military machinery, mining companies, the country’s burgis – who have brought this kind of devastation to our poor communities or continue to oppress the poor.  No one is spared, including the underground movement itself.  The film puts forward the discourse of revolutionary justice. One wonders how the film is thus critiqued by those in the underground in its attempt not to romanticize the movement.

One expects that Iisa is not a perfect film considering its limitations, for, indeed, it has flaws. While the filmmakers did their best to come up with the film’s unity as the relationships within the film are made clear and economically interwoven, nonetheless it is not so tight as to leave no ends dangling. There is only one brief scene showing the extent of the devastation of ComVal; one suspects there is a dearth of footage accessible to the film’s producers. While one can understand that there are practical explanations for the mixed use of Cebuano and Tagalog in the dialogue of the characters, this is a bit jarring for those who know better the dynamics of languages at the grassroots. One is left to guess why Lance got killed on his way to meet his parents to seek help (and what happened to the two other companions who accompanied him). While tapping local talents to play minor roles is necessary for various reasons – some of them hardly look like emaciated Lumad; some of the children look quite well-nourished. The Lumad elements of the community are a bit understated; there are no references at all to residues of their indigenous culture that make them a little different from descendants of lowland migrant settlers.

But these are minor quibbles. In the end, Iisa succeeds in its intention to be a film that matters. For this reason, congratulations are to be offered to all those who collaborated so that Iisa can be shown in the cinemas.  How did they manage to do this? Perhaps Confucius’ wise words can help explain:  “The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” (Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute [SATMI] in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. He was author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations.” He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw]).