COMMENTARY: Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema as Postcolonial Critique (2)

2nd of three parts 

Aside from the alternative films by Neil Frazer and the film productions established by producers from Mindanao and Sulu in the 1970s and 1980s era, perhaps the presence of the first film from the Island-Region that came into the national imagination was Yuta: The Earth Art of Julie Lluch Dalena, 1991, directed by Iliganon artist and environmentalist Antonio “Jojo” Sescon whose screen name is Hesumaria Sescon. The film’s director Hesumaria Sescon is also credited as the second camera-operator of Nettie Wild’s award-winning controversial documentary A Rustling of Leaves (1990). Yuta: The Earth Art of Julie Lluch Dalena is a 25-minute film that combines the elements of experimental and documentary and is replete with aesthetics, metaphors, and tropes.

Nine years after Yuta: The Earth Art of Julie Lluch Dalena’s triumph in different power-generated institutions in Metro Manila, Maguindanaon writer Gutierrez Mangansakan II’s House Under the Crescent Moon, 2000, put Mindanaw and Sulu again in the national limelight when it won the Gawad CCP’s Best Documentary award. Different Mindanaw and Sulu filmmakers who would be trained by film schools and film workshops in Metro Manila and beyond will follow Mangansakan’s documentary and success.

In the history of Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema, the year 2006 marks an important period in terms of national exposure. Adjani Arumpac, a documentarist whose family came from South Cotabato, produced a UP Film Institute thesis titled Walai (Home). The film traces the memories of the past through the experiences of four Muslim women who happened to live inside the wrecked White House in Cotabato City.

Another landmark film produced in 2006 was Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Huling Balyan ng Buhi: O Ang Sinalirap Nga Asoy Nila (The Last Priestess of Buhi: Or The Woven Stories of the Other), which weaves together a motley of stories in Arakan, North Cotabato. Considered to be the first full-length narrative film by a Mindanaw and Sulu filmmaker, Huling Balyan ng Buhi: O Ang Sinalirap Nga Asoy Nila centers on the four narratives about military soldiers singing in the karaoke machine while waiting for something that is uncertain; rebel groups in the countryside training and studying Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideologies; two children whose characters are hasty and unclear; and a balyan from the fictional ethnolinguistic group Buhi. It is important to note that Buhi, a Sugbuanong Binisaya word for “buhay” (life), is a non-existent group in Mindanaw and Sulu but its representation in the film is akin to the lifeworlds of the Arakan Manobo and its distant relative Matigsalug.

The year 2008 is another fruitful year for Mindanaw and Sulu cinema as several full-length and short films have been produced and awarded major prizes in different local and international festivals. Sheron Dayoc, a native of Zamboanga City, directed the short film Angan-angan (Dreams), 2008, which narrates the story of Satra – a nine-year old Yakan who is caught between following her dream and marrying at an early age. Written by Honeylyn Joy Alipio – who also wrote Brillante Mendoza’s Mindanao, 2019—Angan-angan received a Special Jury citation at the 2008 Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. A year later, Dayoc directed the documentary A Weaver’s Tale, which depicts the hurdles and trajectories of the traditional Yakan weaving cultures.

Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s stature as the foremost filmmaker from the Southern Philippines was cemented with his sophomore film Imburnal, which was a finalist at the 2008 Cinema One Originals Film Festival. Imburnal is a three hour and 30 minute film that merges the classical narrative and experimental approaches of telling a complex story of poverty and squalor in Davao City. It is, perhaps, the first film in Philippine Cinema that dismantles the myth about Davao as being “the most livable city in the whole Philippines.”

Aside from Sanchez, another two Davaoeño filmmakers produced their first full-length films in 2008. Critically acclaimed film editor Charliebebs Gohetia directed his debut The Thank You Girls, which is an ode to Stephan Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Dessert, 1994, but situated in the third world and bucolic Davao-Bukidnon Highway.

Meanwhile, award-winning fiction writer and playwright Arnel Mardoquio wrote and directed his first full-length film Hunghong sa Yuta, which shows the intensity of wars in the Davao Region that has plagued a community of the Tausug, Tagakaolo, and Christian Visayan migrants. Hunghong sa Yuta may have been criticized for its theatrical elements that are not fit for the language of cinema but it still successfully articulated the basic problems in the Island-Region: US imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, and land grabbing. The film was awarded Best Musical Scoring and was nominated in six other categories including Best Picture at the 2009 Gawad Urian of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. These impressive recognitions will be repeated in Mardoquio’s sophomore film Hospital Boat, 2009, a story of two health workers and various characters amidst warlordism at an unnamed coastal area in Mindanaw and Sulu. Hospital Boat received six nominations from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino.

In any social history, however, there are critical junctures and structures that would best demonstrate the given period. The year 2010 can be described as the period of “assimilation and synthesis” in Mindanaw and Sulu cinema vis-à-vis the Philippine national cinema. In 2010, three projects by Mindanao and Sulu filmmakers Arnel Mardoquio, Gutierrez Mangansakan II, and Sheron Dayoc were awarded seed grants by the Cinemalaya Film Foundation and were accepted to compete at the sixth edition of its film festival. Although Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s first two films were also awarded grants by a Metro Manila production in 2006 and 2008, the year 2010 signaled an important phase in assimilating and integrating Mindanaw and Sulu Cinema in the national imagination through its seemingly perplex support. However, the ominous point of contention in 2010 happened when Mardoquio’s Sheika was pulled out of the festival competition due to artistic differences between the director and Cinemalaya organizers. The Cinemalaya organizers wanted a mainstream actor to play the titular role in Mardoquio’s film but the latter wanted to cast a Davaoeña actress who is more aware of what’s happening on the ground.

Sheika tells the story of a Tausug woman named Sheika who escapes the war in Jolo to find urban comfort and peace in Davao City. In the city, Sheika and her two sons – Modin and Soysoy – are forced to rely on various kinds of characters: petty thieves, drug dealers, moneylenders, gay beauticians, and the harsh city. While Davao City is being heralded as the safest and most livable city in the Philippines – where criminality has been kept to a minimum and thus becoming more citified and urbanized with investors and tourists getting attracted – Sheika is the second Mindanaw and Sulu film to tell otherwise. Despite the previous disagreements and the film’s somewhat theatrical direction, Sheika emerges victorious when it bagged various recognitions such as the NETPAC award (which was a side tilt award during the 2010 Cinemalaya Film Festival awards night) and the Gawad Urian for Best Editing, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress for Fe GingGing Hyde. The last award was a sweet vengeance and vindication for both Mardoquio and Hyde, especially that an unknown thespian from the Island-Region of Mindanaw and Sulu eventually emerged as the Filipino film critics’ choice for Best Actress.

In the course of the 2010 Cinemalaya Film Festival, the crux happened when two Mindanao and Sulu films were screened and competed for the most coveted Balanghai trophy. Gutierrez Mangansakan II’s first full-length narrative film Limbunan made raves at the competition for paving the way as the first Muslim film to thoughtfully interrogate the ruling Muslim patriarchal traditions. It sketches the stories of four generations of Maguindanaon women who find themselves grappling with the traditional customs and faith. Set in 1989, three years after the EDSA People Power Revolt when the first woman president Corazon Aquino assumed the highest office in the government, Limbunan reveals a treasure of a film full of discourses about sexuality, identity, and politics. It is flourished of sensitive direction, austere cinematography, and poignant sound design. Immersed in these schemes of cinematic elements, it garnered Best Picture and five other nominations from Gawad Urian, in which it won the Best Sound Design award for Dempster Samarista.

The festive revelry energized by regional films at the 2010 Cinemalaya Film Festival continued when Sheron Dayoc’s competing film Halaw bagged the Balanghai trophy for Best Festival Film. Halaw documents human trafficking through the stories of a motley mix of characters in the forgotten part of Southern Philippines. Each of the character has a narrative of hopelessness in the Sulu archipelago that justifies their dreams for a better life in Sabah, Malaysia. Dayoc’s one hour and 15 minute film evidently follows the found story school of writing, which according to its primary proponent Armando “Bing” Lao, is “commuted, converted and derived from real life, based on real events, real people, and real phenomena.”

Fresh from the controversies and triumphs at the Cinemalaya Film Festival, Mardoquio and Mangansakan II produced another full-length films the following year. Mardoquio directed Crossfire, 2011, the story of the Higaonon people caught in the socio-cultural and political mêlée within the Lumad abode. Mangansakan II made Cartas de la Soledad, the poetic Rizalian tale of Rashid, a Maguindanaon who returns to his hometown after spending 25 years of living in Barcelona, Spain. In the film, Rashid is haunted by the synchronic and diachronic conjugation of tenses past, present, and future.

Zurich Chan, another remarkable filmmaker from the Island-Region, produced his debut film Teoriya in 2011. Chan was the director of Boca, an impressive Chavacano short film about urban intimacies and desires in Zamboanga, which competed in various national and international film festivals including the Cinemalaya Film Festival 2010. Chan was also Sheron Dayoc’s assistant director in Halaw. In Teoriya, Chan dramatizes Jimmuel Apostol II’s journey of coming back to his hometown in Zamboanga peninsula after hearing the news about his father’s demise.

(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. Jay Jomar F. Quintos is associate professor of Philippine studies and literature at the University of the Philippines)

(Last part tomorrow)