A still from Arnel Barbarona's Tu Pug Imatuy (The Right To Kill, 2017)

The most harrowing film I’ve seen in recent memory that details the life of natives in the Philippines as mere slaves is from the 1914 documentary by Dean C. Worcester, with camera-work done by Charles Martin entitled Native Life in the Philippines. The footage shows Igorot men and women being paraded as mere specimens of an unknown country that is yet to be ravaged by Americans and whose colonial occupation by the Spaniards for more than three-hundred years came to an end in 1898. The footage is both cunning and disgusting: it spectacles our native life, for historical and anthropological appreciation, but clearly it is not.

It is engraved in our textbooks that our country was largely uncolonized demographically especially in areas occupied by indigenous peoples, and yet through time the nature of our ancestors' lives and traditions have ultimately been erased and replaced by facsimile influenced by Western and European traditions. Departure from what has become normative and hegemonic standards has been considered taboo, as well as remnants of paganistic rituals that seem outdated in Filipino contemporary life.

But the thing is, indigenous life is still present. To this day, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples records that there are 134 ethnic groups in the country. On film, they have been portrayed and represented numerous times mirroring societies’ view and treatment of indigenous peoples. Therefore, it is important to review the scenarios depicted, along with the rituals presented on film are done with requisite sensibility, accuracy and respect to the tribes. 

Film and television have a way of shaping the lives of an audience. Nearly a quarter of our population have access to media these days and what they see, hear and read can ultimately shape an opinion, an ideal, and a perspective. Representation is important. There are a few films in my opinion that have represented the tribes in the manner that extends beyond exoticizing and romanticizing certain aspect of their cultures, but also discuss the socio-economic state they encounter. Most of these films are made by non-IP’s (neither full-blooded or of mixed parentage) as indigenous filmmakers have yet to claim their stake in the national imagination. 

The lesser romantization of IP in TOKWIFI

Surprisingly, many would say that they are not fond of Carla Pulido Ocampo’s award-winning short film Tokwifi (2019). I am not one of them but we do need to look at the two films that have shaped Pulido-Ocampo’s oeuvre thus far. In Walang Rape sa Bontok (Bontok Rapeless, 2014), in which she co-wrote alongside a fellow rape survivor in the hopes of giving us insight of a rape-less society, the documentary film encourages to look at the history and traditions of the Bontoc tribe, a holistic society in which rape is absent in their vocabulary, a concept that was introduced by colonizers. The systemic change of colonization takes effect mid-film, and we see that evolution right before our eyes with rage. Meanwhile, Lauren Sevilla Faustino's Ang Babae sa Likod ng Mambabatok (The Woman Behind The Tattoo Artist, 2012) puts the spotlight on Apo Whang-Od from the tribe of Butbut in Buscalan, Kalinga, providing an intimate look at the legend’s passion to persist in this ever-changing world.

Ocampo-Pulido admits in her interviews that she is a cultural outsider. The rawness of how she explicitly questions the audience on their view of the woman is always the focal point of her films. She once relayed in an interview that Manileńo viewers did not get the humor in Tokwifi, but the response was different when they played it to Bontoc viewers. The short story about a Bontoc man and a young starlet trapped in a 1950’s television is perhaps the most accurate of all depictions of how misrepresentation is, well, represented in both independent and mainstream media. The Bontoc man discovers technology and the modern woman all at the same time, while the young starlet struggles to pursue a career in show business, a career that during those times is new and favors again Western standards of beauty, thus, eschewing her identity as a Filipina. In the rising trend of romanticizing indigenous people, Tokwifi rings the essence of a love story, without romanticizing the nature of the tribes. It is trivial in terms of when two worlds collide, told without the formula enthused by Western-European romances. The characters do not touch, and yet they flirt with the naivete of their situation. There’s a distance between them – those that live in the city lost in their own identity versus those that are filled by it but are slowly consumed caused by colonialism. And that distance is a familiar universe for Ocampo-Pulido, and what she has learned as an outsider is to view the culture of our indigenous with care.

The Historical Inaccuracies in K’na: The Dreamweaver

I feel indifferent towards Ida Anita del Mundo’s K’na: The Dreamweaver (2014). To say that it is a bad film is a wholesale indictment of the film's shortcomings, but to say it represents an accurate depiction of the T'boli tribe is also a huge blunder to assume. T’nalak dreamweavers have been known the world over for the intricate designs of their woven cloth, each design is unique and is handed over by means of an Abaca deity named Fu Dalu. The dreamweavers are trained from their youth and are selected from respectable families. The act of weaving is spiritual in nature, and a talent that requires utmost focus and patience. To have K’na (which literally means to weave), played by the effervescent Mara Lopez, weave and fall in love with a neighbor and not be bothered that she has trouble weaving is unfortunately a concept that does not exist in the tribe. Not all dreamweavers, or tribeswomen, for that matter, dread remaining single, unable to marry the ones they love. There is beauty in the story of weaving that does not solely need to focus on a love story, and that is where this film dies.

Dream weaving is an intimate process that includes men not being allowed to enter the room. One cannot step on the fabric, and one cannot barge into the room during the weaving process. The  need to present just any story is where misrepresentation comes in. That dream weaving is a mere occupation. It is not. The T’boli people are more than just a complicated love story, and more than just two nations fighting against providence. A dream weaver under stress would leave a fabric worthless. I wish they had more respect on telling the story of the Dreamweaver, than this complicated narrative they had to invent, especially now that in order for them to survive they have to mass produce these fabrics. To tell their true story, that is the best way to keep their spirit and traditions alive.

The “noble savage” in Bwaya 

The Manobo living in the lush marshes of Agusan del Sur is the indigenous tribe featured in Francis Xavier Pasion’s Bwaya (2014). When news broke that a 13-year old girl named Rowena had been viciously attacked by a saltwater crocodile while on her way to school, we see Pasion open the film featuring Divina weeping at the body of her daughter. He then asks if it is okay to retell the story of Rowena’s life, but to what expense, and for what purpose?

Pasion succeeds in showcasing the harsh injustices faced by these people, but in so doing, he has equated indigeneity with indigence. Why do non-IP filmmakers view indigenous people as indigent? Despite being threatened by land conversation and militarization, nature is bountiful. For the tribes, they are not impoverished. They have chosen to live close to nature, providing them access to food and potable water. Their tangible heritage is rooted on land and water, even if its means continually struggling to keep their traditions and beliefs alive.

Now more than ever, the need for indigenous cinema is urgent.  Indigenous life is threatened. The loss of indigenous life is akin to the melting of the ice caps in the Arctic. It is imperative that indigenous filmmakers rise from the ranks to create films that can reshape the landscape of our cinema, to provide a better understanding and representation of their way of life which is just as important as living life. 

- Princess Kinoc