Charting a new domain: Mindanao and the documentary tradition

Photo credit: Erwin Mascariñas
I was tweny-four years old when I heard and learned in detail the story of Apu Mamalu and Apu Tabunaway, the forefathers of Mindanao. Depending on whose version of the story you heard, it is believed that the latter embraced Islam while the former remained a believer of traditional faith. Those who became Muslims are now the ethnic Moros, and those who kept the traditional beliefs are now the Lumads or the indigenous peoples. Together with the Christian settlers who populated Mindanao in the early 1900s, the demography of Mindanao changed and became what it is today.

Back when I was an aspiring filmmaker, I did not intend to follow the documentary path. But my early career in journalism allowed me to explore Mindanao, and banking on my natural curiosity, the propensity for deviance and professional naiveté, I became drawn to stories revolving around the lumads. The desire to know more about the lumads grew in me after constant encounters with people who hold ridiculous misconceptions toward the true pioneers of Mindanao, the very grassroots of the island. Then I realized that not only do I have the pen to tell my stories, but the camera as well.

I discovered the legendary tale of the two brothers three years ago. Call me fortunate. But how about other people? Must they remain ignorant and oblivious of the rich origins and history of Mindanao?

And now the filmmaking challenges. In a country where majority of the film audience has been conditioned to prefer entertainment and escape  over other values from a cinematic experience, how can I explore a theme that is not popular? And in the documentary medium?

I learned the first lesson on the bitter reality documentary filmmakers in the Philippines face when my first full length documentary, Migkahi e si Amey te, Uli ki Pad (Father Said, Let’s Return Home) was screened in three Manila cinemas in September. It was one of the eleven finalists of the first Cine Totoo Philippine International Documentary Film Festival.

The film premiered to an audience of about ten people, excluding me and my two guests. However, Festival organizers assured me that my case was not unique. Other documentaries in the Festival screened to a near empty crowd as well.

Migkahi tells about a traveling artist and cultural worker, Rhyan Casiño, who was adopted by a lumad family, belonging to the ethnic Manobo-Tigwahanon group in Bukidnon, and later became the forerunner in advocating the preservation of indigenous heritage, culture and identity through performing arts.

This is not the first time the lumads in Mindanao were featured in documentaries, both in film and television. In fact, most of the materials produced concerning the lumads usually have narratives dealing with their culture and tradition treated in some exotic way amid a modern definition of society along with its many issues.

But there is also a consistent voice in showing another narrative in lumad documentaries – the ceaseless struggle of reclaiming their ancestral domain from the people whose prophetic ambitions brought promises of development for Mindanao but ended up exploiting the natural resources and the people of the region.

I explored this in my other documentary film, Tindoga, or the Tribal Indigenous Opressed Group Association. The film was selected in the sixth edition of Pandayang Lino Brocka Film and New Media Festival last August. Tindoga is mainly composed of ethnic Manobo-Pulangihon members in Bukidnon and their attempt to get their ancestral domain from a wealthy businessman who has converted their lands into a sugar cane plantation under the guise of renting them for a meager price.

The struggle of the lumads in Bukidnon is a shared reality among all indigenous groups in Mindanao who face development aggression and violence, land conversion, displacement and loss of their culture and tradition that one should understand are first and foremost rooted in the land that they have the inalienable right to inhabit. The struggle to reclaim the ancestral domain of the lumads is not new anymore, but it is a continuing process. It is only befitting that as a documentary, crude and raw as my cinema is,  I must remain unwavering in giving a voice and an image that is sincere to the lumad narrative.

Yet then again, the obstacles among obstacles: the challenge in making documentary films as a part of the palette for the Mindanao audience and teaching them how to appreciate the form, but more important, to let them recognize the lumad identity and its struggles as part of the ongoing conversation about Mindanao. Pride of place should not just be a fleeting idea for a tourism campaign, but it is also giving an extra effort that everyone, the lumads especially, should occupy a good place. Not only in physical spaces of their ancestral domains but also in our collective imagination.

– Nef Luczon

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