Wars Within/Within Wars - Adjani Arumpac's War is A Tender Thing

Adjani Arumpac's War is A Tender Thing (2003) is not only a process of reconnection, it is also one of understanding.

Ako ay Muslim. Ako ay Kristiyano. Kipkip ko ang digmaan. (“I am Muslim. I am Christian. There is restlessness within.”)

Adjani Arumpac begins her documentary War Is A Tender Thing with this confession. While the film opens with news snippets heard over radio – one informative, the other a pronouncement from Philippine president Benigno Aquino Jr. on the recent peace deal, instantly conditioning its audience that this could be a film tackling the Mindanao peace and conflict situation – Arumpac shatters the formality of the introductory sound bytes with the unfolding of a more personal story – hers, her parents and their separation, and her journey to reconnect with her history and the land that she was borne into but has somehow been alienated from.

Studying at the University of the Philippines in the capital city, the time and distance apart from her homeland is enough to warrant this desire for reconnection. At the onset, we learned that her parents are separated. The first interviews quickly establish that the reason is beyond religion, both citing their youth at the time they married. Her father says “individual differences" but there is not a tinge of animosity; it is “a fact of life,” he continues. The Muslim-Christian dichotomy, her father says in a later interview, seems to become a “convenient excuse of not wanting to analyze the problem.” And this bit of insight hits one in the gut – the Moro-Christian relationship has been strained by the convenience of politics and labels. Opinions on and solutions to the conflict are formed and drawn away from the people at the heart of it.

Arumpac also visits the remaining relatives of her two great grandfathers. We learn a history of intercultural marriages and peaceful coexistence between two religions, stories of bravery and humanity. Along with these unexpected reunions, emerge grief, anxiety and tears, a sudden longing for the past, perhaps brought about by the long and deep silences through the years. The lived-in struggles passed and carried on for decades have shaped the family members’ characters. Her interviews with her father reveal to us a sensible and insightful man, while her mother spontaneous and pragmatic.

And her camera seems to function as a metaphorical searching eye – impatient, looking for something to rest itself on. There are moments when it settles on the idyllic images of the province, but mostly it is moving, giving it an unstructured, but more organic feel. Her inclusion of pre-interview footage is canny; it underscores her acclimatizing to her own story and the sense of reconnecting – for while the film is a process of reconnection, it is also one of understanding.

While Arumpac traces her own history, she also deftly touches on the Mindanao problem. In one of her interviews, she mentions that juxtaposing the Mindanao-conflict aspect only became apparent while she was already filming. This sense of exploration reaches an authorial decision, one that shapes the film’s political dimension. For instance, broadcast news and commentaries are strewn throughout along with passages of narrated poetry, like this one: “One is hard to feel the war one has grown up with. Chaos internalized, becomes silent rage. With time, it settles down into melancholia, immoveable.” The lines recall to mind the restlessness set forth in the film’s introduction. The war is also within us, but it begs us to contemplate just like the film does. Whether she arrives at a definite realization, is not made clear. But the film is also a journey for us, Mindanawons (people of Mindanao), a turning point toward a realization and recognition of our own biases and beliefs, an understanding of our own narratives. 

I worked in both government and non-government agencies whose thrust is to contribute to peace and development in Mindanao through socio-economic policies and programs. I realized how little contribution was there in the area of facilitating understanding on the complexities of Mindanao’s peace situation. The socio-cultural dimension of these “peace and development efforts” were barely felt or touched. Sure, the reading public is updated through news reports by the media. But even these are riddled with inaccuracies and prejudices in reportage, compounded now by our inability to distinguish facts from fallacies through a barrage of information in social media. During those times, I and a colleague, who is an economist interested in film, planned to make a documentary on the peace process. There were contacts for possible funding and resource persons who are experts on the subject matter. We even had a title – “dying light”. We both have left our previous office since and we would joke about how the “light has died” on our planned documentary.  

The year Arumpac's documentary was first screened the Philippine government has just reached an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which should have paved the way for the passage of the Bangsamaro Basic Law that will aid the creation of a more autonomous Bangsamoro political entity. The passage of the BBL has been stalled following a recent clash, one that left 44 government soldiers dead. I have since seen War three times, one in a regional film festival and the third when it screened again at the Cinematheque Davao, where I first saw it. It has become more relevant each time, driving at the fragility of peace. And every time, I am struck by the thought of our un-hatched documentary, how it would have taken a long and elaborate route toward an academic approach. Discursive but devoid of the human, intrinsic struggle of the subject matter. Exhaustive but exhausting, bereft of emotions. Possibly a plethora of expert solutions, but not enough stories – personal stories that will emancipate the subject matter from the inescapable rigor of the discourse. But Arumpac has walked me through an impossible task, weaving the personal and historico-political into a narrative that leaves us the more daunting task of completing it. Through her film, she has lit the light. 

– Jay Rosas

War is A Tender Thing is part of the ongoing seventh Cinema Rehiyon Film Festival in Cebu City, Philippines.

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