FILM REVIEW: Crossfire

Direction/Screenplay: Arnel Mardoquio

Cinematography/Editing: Arnel Barbarona

Musical Score:  Popong Landero

Sound Design:  Maki Serapio

Production Design: Bagwani Amplayo

Art Direction: Perry Dizon
Production Management: Roland Fortun
Produced by: NCCA, Sine’ Mindanaw, Skyweaver Productions, Red Motion Media
In cooperation with: Hydeout Entertainment, Alchemy of Vision and Light, Misamis Oriental State College of Agriculture and Technology (MOSCAT) and LGU of Claveria, Misamis Oriental


DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/12 June) — Arnel Mardoquio, one of Mindanao’s rising indie filmmakers, strikes gold once again with his latest film – Crossfire!

Perhaps Mardoquio is one of the very few Filipino filmmakers whose films have all been nominated for the Urian  Best Picture award by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the most distinguished award-giving body for films in the country today.  Mardoquio’s first three films – Hunghong sa Yuta, Hospital Boat and Sheika – all competed for Urian’s Best Picture.

There is no question that Crossfire will find itself again listed in the nominees of Best Picture for the next Urian awards. It is a stunning film, truly the work of a young filmmaker on the way to being recognized as a film master if he continues to sustain his artistic output characterized with a deep passion for independent filmmaking that never compromises in terms of mirroring the stark realities of our people’s lives while illuminating the viewers’ minds as to how we should interpret contemporary events towards being challenged to take part in seeking solutions to our societal problems.

Mardoquio’s films – and Crossfire cements this reputation –  invite us to enter into his  interpretation of the current lifeworld of the disenfranchised segment of Filipino society.  This is clearly the landscape of Mindanao; but it might as well be any other place in the country or any Third World nation where its original inhabitants have been reduced to a tragic situation owing to the colonization of their lifeworld by elements of a system that creates dysfunctionality among families, neighborhoods,  clans, tribes and societies.

When this colonization leads to dirty wars which are played out in a broader national and  global settings owing to the impact of globalization and  geopolitical considerations, these dysfunctionalities lead to the dehumanization even among the most gentle among us, namely, the indigenous peoples.

Bae Magdas (Betya Villarojo) and her daughter Bitoon (AC Macheca) are bakwits who left their homes within the Higaonon ancestral territory to relocate along with other kinsfolk to the safer grounds within the land owned by Datu Mantukaw (Perry Dizon). Owing to the continuing armed encounters between the government’s armed forces and the rebels in the countryside which also happen to be  the Lumad’s (Mindanao’s indigenous peoples) abode, the Higaonons are forced to evacuate their homes and farms  to live in hamlets.

But there is no guarantee for full security in these hamlets which is why the homes have foxholes; in the event of a crossfire, the people seek shelter in these hiding places. At the center of this hamlet stands the big house of Datu Mantukaw where his kin – two wives and a number of children and other relatives – live. He is no longer the benevolent patriarch of this tribe. Forced by the conflict-ridden circumstances that have long pestered their war-torn community, he has given up on being an authentic tribal leader. He had become a tribal dealer.

He deals in various schemes to make money.  With his cow and a balsa, he operates a transport system for hire. He negotiates with all parties who need favors from him. And he lends money.  Hoping that their family might be liberated from poverty, Bae Magdas aims to have her daughter become an OFW. She borrows P20,000 from Datu Mantukaw to pay for the expenses involved in securing a passport and a job placement for Bitoon.  Alas, in the end, Bae Magdas discovers that they were dealing with an illegal recruiter and Bitoon gets stuck in the conflict-affected area.

Pushed to the wall, Bae Magdas is pressured to conspire with Datu Mantukaw’s lecherous plans over Bitoon. The elder Datu has been enamored of the young Bitoon and with the unpaid debt, he asserts his claim over Bitoon. Bitoon resists as she loves  Lingig (Alexis Solon Gacayan), an orphan who also lives in the hamlet.

Lingig is the constant companion of Bae Magdas as they scavenge the territory for the spoils of war. Dislocated from their ancestral domain, Lingig and Bae Magdas look for whatever they could find in places where encounters take place – arms, bullets and even folding beds used to carry wounded soldiers or rebels.

Despite the risk of being killed in the crossfire, Bae Magdas and Lingig earn their living as scavengers. Soldiers and rebels are killed in encounters and civilians are killed in crossfire.

Interfacing with the lowlanders, Bae Magdas finds herself caught in the ideological conflict and both sides try to take advantage of her movement in the interior to serve as communications courier. Caught between her need to survive and to appease the Datu since  Bitoon refuses to serve as a  payment for the debt, Bae Magdas devices a plan that ends in tragedy as all armed forces – not just the AFP and the NPA, but even  terrorist groups who also operate in the countryside as they hide those they have kidnapped – converge for a bloody show of force in what was once an idyllic spot in a Lumad ancestral home!

If film is primarily story-telling, Crossfire‘s plot is very engaging especially for those who refuse to waste their time seeing escapist films marketed purely for commercial purposes. Mardoquio’s screenplay is lean and tight, its poetic resonance – especially at the film’s beginning and end  – enhances the flow of the story. But there is more to Crossfire than this plot.  Following in the tradition of anti-war films, Mardoquio makes a statement for peace by telling a story that helps us to understand why there is need to end all kinds of dirty wars raging in a place like Mindanao. In the process, he also helps us to view our history as a nation; in Crossfire is a case study as to how our nation-state remains in a state of underdevelopment. For as long as the ordinary citizens like the Lumad are only seen as pawns to be used by those whose agenda is to hold on or to grab power – rather than as human beings whose rights are to be protected and whose needs are to be responded to – then we could never advance towards a society where there is fullness of life for everyone.

But Mardoquio’s art is not didactic; so there is no moralizing as the film unfolds. Viewers can construct their own grasp of meanings through the film’s language which is in itself quite powerful. Mardoquio is served well by his cast and crew in crafting a film that will be regarded as a gem in Mindanawon film industry in the decades to come.

More than Mardoquio’s three previous films, Crossfire‘s ensemble acting is truly impressive. Casting the actors for a film’s roles is very crucial; it is said that once a film has the right cast in the choice of actors, close to two-thirds of the film is already in the can. The four main actors manifest powerful performances.

Perry Dizon and  Betya Villarojo do justice to their anti-hero roles. Both reveal in very nuanced performances how they deal with their inner demons even as they show that dehumanization has not totally claimed their souls. When Datu Mantukaw blurts to Lingig his lamentation as a father who had lost sons whom he offered  to both sides of the camp, the viewer gets to have a glimpse of the inner torments. Very few actors have the gift to show such raw emotions.

Villarojo’s Bae Magdas is of the Mother Courage (translated as Madonna Brava in a recent Tanghalan Pilipino production directed by Nestor Horfilla) archetype. Villarojo grapples with the role with a deep passion in the tradition of the best actresses in Filipino cinema, and runs away with it. In scene after scene – from facing the dangers of scavenging to sharing a meal in the Datu’s house to intuiting the inevitable consequence of her betrayal – Villarojo proves that she is the actress to watch for in coming film productions.

Gacayan and Macheta – the film’s young protagonists – are able to live up to the challenge of acting along with seasoned performers.  Along with the rest of the cast – and for an independent film, Crossfire has a sizable cast given the need to show a whole village with farmers, bakwits, townspeople, armed groups including a terrorist group holding captives – they all respond positively to the director’s adage that less is more. The film’s achievement in acting is that there is hardly any room for melodramatic acting.

Mardoquio’s technical crew is top-notch. Arnel Barbarona’s cinematography is stunning; his camera captures the magnificent beauty of Mindanao’s uplands with its lush greenery especially of forests bathed in mystical mist, the undulating hills washed by torrential rains and the silhouette of tall trees standing still with fiery sunsets at the background. The underwater scenes are also very striking, along with the quick movements of the camera covering war scenes.

Serapio’s sound recordings, Dizon’s art direction and Amplayo’s production design all contribute immensely to the film’s outstanding over-all sound and look. Despite constraints in budget (always a challenge for independent filmmakers) as well as the weather realities (shooting time coincided with the unpredicted rains)  the crew somehow was able to transcend the limitations and did a  lot of improvisations.

Perhaps, it is in editing that viewers may have differences in opinions. Those preferring “real-time” pacing in films, would welcome Crossfire‘s occasional slow pace to experience how characters in the film exhaust their patience while waiting (as in the scene of Bae Magdas,  Bitoon and Lingig waiting for the habal-habal to  arrive). But others might find these scenes too slow and would prefer a tighter editing. It remains a challenge for the Director and Editor to deal with this problematic in a manner that does not compromise the film’s over-all aesthetics.

Popong Landero’s music has suited very well Mardoquio’s film style and in Crossfire their collaboration reaches a higher level.  The incorporation of his songs into a few key scenes of the film – including the love song to accompany the young lovers’ tryst and the lamentation song that serves as backdrop while Lingig contemplates the memory of his dead relatives) highlight the emotions erupting in these scenes.

Unlike  other struggling filmmakers, Mardoquio has had the advantage of finding the right people and groups to finance his filmmaking career. Four groups are credited as producers with four others providing the much needed additional assistance in the filming and completion of Crossfire. Filmmaking has not made Mardoquio rich and there is still the possibility that he could not raise enough funds of his next film.

Which brings us to the major difficulty of sustaining Mindanao’s nascent film industry. And in particular, to making sure that Mardoquio’s films are both seen by as many Filipinos as possible and earn a margin of profit in the process.  What good is a gem of a film if only a few could see it and is not able to recoup its costs?

Having shown through his four films that he  is truly a film artist that we in Mindanao could be very proud of – with Crossfire as his best film so far – the cineaste hopes to view more of his films in the future.  So it is imperative to develop a film audience who would patronize Mardoquio’s films.

If Crossfire hits any local cinema in the near future, drop everything and go see it. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, is author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” “The Masses are Messiah: Contemplating the Filipino Soul,” and the recently-launched“Manobo Dreams in Arakan.” He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)