Reimagining Moroland: A tale of accidental filmmaking
Feature by: Teng Mangansakan
I am an accidental filmmaker.
Intent on becoming a neurosurgeon, I was already halfway through a preparatory course for medicine in a university in Davao–a city an hour and a half away by airplane, south of Manila—when fate introduced me to Fellini and Ozu at a film festival in the capital in 1995. I was so enthralled by their films that by the time I returned to Davao, I shifted courses and became a Communication Arts major.
That same year I went to Tokyo as an exchange artist. In my free time, I would watch Japanese films without the convenience of subtitles. I would tell myself to be grateful for this opportunity: you are in a city where the masters, Ozu and Kurosawa once walked long before you were born. During that time, I was striving to be a writer, still grappling with words, a condition that I described as constipated. Oftentimes I was at a loss for the right words to express my thoughts which was very frustrating. However, I found consolation in the wisdom of French film master Jean-Luc Godard who said “People like to say, ‘What do you exactly mean?’ I would answer, ‘I mean, but not exactly’ ". Maybe it is in visual images that I can express what my heart and mind long to speak.
After college I went to Manila to study filmmaking in 1997, but it took me three more years to make my first film.
While my classmates ventured into commercial movie-making, I found myself traveling back to Mindanao to work as a freelance writer. In 2000–a period which I initially planned to be a sabbatical—I returned to my hometown in Pagalungan, Maguindanao, right at the heart of the Moro homeland. I wanted to rediscover my roots after living more than sixteen years in the city. I lived a very sheltered life. In my childhood, my interaction was limited to family members. Like Siddhartha, injustice, poverty, and repression were alien concepts to me. My mother was the town mayor. I was used to getting what I desired. It was only in college that I learned that the Moro people had been waging a war to reclaim their homeland. I once thought that the armed conflict was just a result of the police foiling an attempt by some cattle rustlers to steal carabaos (a domesticated type of water buffalo –ed.) from the farm. I also discovered that it was actually my grandfather, Datu Udtog Matalam, who founded the Muslim Independence Movement in 1968, which was the precursor of the modern Moro liberation movements.
I grew up in a red house in Pagalungan. It was an imposing structure not only because of its size but because it seemed out of place in an agricultural town that had witnessed more than its share of armed conflict in the last forty years. Built by my grandfather in the late 1960s, it was a two-storey house with an arched roof protruding gracefully at both ends like the heads of herons. Fruit trees lined each side of the house which blossomed at the end of summer except for the barren date tree whose purpose was limited to welcoming visitors into the foyer.
Across the road, in a now partly vacant lot concealed by grasses and shrubs was where Dipatuan Cinema once stood. The building fell in ruins during the height of the war in the 1970s. All that is left of the movie house is a stone white skeleton, standing defiant, still refusing to bow down to the march of time like Sultan Dipatuan Kudarat, the 17th century Maguindanaon ruler and hero whom the cinema was named after. When I asked people to tell me how the cinema was destroyed, nobody could tell me. Was it so painful that they conveniently erased this sequence from memory? I remember a scene from Cinema Paradiso where everybody gathered to see the movie house for the last time before it was torn down. In my people's case, was it a collective forgetting? I am curious where the bulky projector is now, or the prints of the movies that once flickered on the screen. Like Alfredo, I know that the projectionist has his own accounts. But that's another story.
I moved to the city to attend school in 1981. The following year, my grandfather suffered a stroke that left him bedridden for the rest of his life. We would come home every now and then to visit him. It was actually during those long afternoons that I kept watch over him that my dream of becoming a doctor took shape. By December that year, my grandfather passed away.
In April 2000, barely a month since my arrival in my hometown, President Joseph Estrada declared an “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a separatist organization fighting for an independent Muslim state in Mindanao. While recurrent conflict between the Philippine government and Moro groups, including the MILF, has displaced millions of people, nothing could surpass the destructive effects of the war in 2000 when an estimated 900,000 people were forced to leave their homes. The refugees settled in over-crowded evacuation centers, oftentimes in unsanitary conditions. Aside from bullets and bombs, they also had to contend with the threats of disease and famine.
It seemed that the most natural thing for the family to do was open my grandfather’s house to refugees. A few years after the death of my grandfather, family members gradually moved to the city. The house had been abandoned and converted into a storage house. It took only a few hours for the number of refugees to swell, reaching tens of thousands. Armed with a borrowed video camera, I took footages of the daily lives of the refugees in my grandfather's house. This I did religiously for three months, with no idea what to do with the tapes, only to preserve the digital images as memory.
It was at the height of the war that I shot my first film House Under the Crescent Moon.
House Under the Crescent Moon is a personal reflection on the Moro people’s struggle for their homeland, using my grandfather's house as metaphor. I juxtaposed my personal experience in the house with historical events to weave a lyrical portrait of our collective dream for lasting peace. Made in a very crude fashion, the film contrasted my childhood memories in the house with its state as an evacuation center.
I collaborated with poet Danton Remoto for the script of what I consider up to now as an accidental documentary. A house of memory became a house of history. The stories of the refugees’ lives had now been interwoven with mine. Together, we have a shared history.
In 2001, it won the grand prize for video documentary for the Cultural Center of the Philippines Prize for Independent Film and Video. To receive an honor from a government institution like the CCP was not only a validation of creative talent but more importantly an admission that the war the government waged in Mindanao was immoral and wrong.
My hometown has since become fertile ground for inspiration in coming up with ideas for my succeeding films, work which I believe transcend the personal and acquire a universal resonance.
In 2002, I made A Boat in Deep Waters. It delves into the stories of women in my family for the last 100 years as told through the lens of memory of my grandmother. When my grandfather passed away, my grandmother became the central figure in our lives when she assumed the role of grand matriarch. I used old family photographs interspersed with interviews and footages of the recent wars in Mindanao. Because wars take a heavier toll on women and children, this documentary also dealt with their painful experiences.
Just when everybody was assuming that the situation was starting to normalize, a war erupted between the Philippine government and the MILF on February 2003. This time it was in Barangay Buliok, some ten kilometers away from my grandfather's house. Among those greatly affected by this war were the children of the neighboring village of Inug-ug who were attending school. As a result of the war, the school was burned down. Classes were disrupted. Graduation that year had to be postponed until it was safe for the children to return to school.
I began filming the children of Inug-ug when the school reopened in June that year resulting in my third documentary Arrows in the Wind.
Looking back, I could see a pattern of change in the trilogy. House Under the Crescent Moon had an innocence, perhaps, a questioning of my Moro identity. It was an honest contemplation of my roots which had acquired a different character altogether in my virtual exile. On the other hand, A Boat in Deep Waterscame with a deeper understanding of my identity which I accepted as a vital factor in achieving our people’s dreams in Arrows in the Wind.
Now, I am shooting Amir, a documentary on the legacy of MILF founding chair Salamat Hashim. I admit that making this documentary is a very difficult job. The challenges are enormous. I can not even begin to count them. In a note relayed to me by a longtime friend, the present MILF chair cautioned me to be very careful with this project because Hashim wanted to be remembered as a very simple man. I understand the chair's position perfectly.
In her article “Idol, Bestiary and Revolutionary: Images of the Filipino Woman in Film (1976-1986)”, Benilda Santos writes that "Cinema is a very powerful medium. It has been vested with the task of amplifying, flattening, lengthening, deepening, coloring or even blackening out or eclipsing a piece or portion of reality being acted out before it".
I remember seeing a 1964 movie poster featuring a burly, shirtless man wielding a machete, his head shaven, and his eyes full of terror. At his feet were dead people soaked in their own blood, a product of his murderous rampage. Splashed across the poster was the title: Moro Witch Doctor. That image leaves an indelible mark in people's imagination, constructing a representative reality of Moros through its creator’s seeming ignorance and bias.
Santos's opinion is not only applicable to the representation of women in film but also of the Moro people. For years, cinema and media in general have painted and reinforced a negative image of the Moro people. Thus, it is filmmaking and writing that afford me the chance to create an honest representation of my people, imbued with the right sensibility and character.
In the end, I hope that my films become the bittersweet pill that will heal the unreasonable hatred, fear, and prejudice against my people. If I can achieve this, my filmmaking will cease to become a product of accident. I will become the healer that I once dreamt of in my childhood.