"Cinema seeks to be eternal": Conversation with Teng Mangansakan

It is rare for Teng Mangansakan these days to enjoy his morning coffee leisurely. He is currently shooting a documentary and has just wrapped up the production of a feature. He is constantly on the move. “I am feeling hopeful,” he said. He just received news that his fifth film Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner has been invited to a European film festival. This comes after winning the Grand Jury Prize at the third edition of World Premieres Film Festival Philippines in July.

Producing the film was difficult, Mangansakan confessed. “We braved a sea of skepticism, animosity and prejudice as a result of the Mamasapano Incident (which killed 44 members of the Special Action Forces of the Philippine National Police and several others from Moro groups) last year. Suddenly we didn't have a right to live. We didn't have a right to dream. We didn't have a right to make films.”

Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner opens in Davao, Mindanao's premier city, during a week-long cultural festivities in August. Mangansakan feels nervous. “It is closer to home,” he noted. I visited him in his apartment in General Santos and chat about his latest film.

Kath Banal: In Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner, the inaugural of the Bangsamoro government is set on September 16, 2015. But the bill in the House of Representatives establishing the Bangsamoro government failed to become law. I understand the film was made early last year in anticipation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law. Do you think the film was too hopeful and anticlimactic?

Teng Mangansakan: It is never wrong to hope. After all, Bangsamoro is a continuing conversation. While I was saddened with the non-passage of the bill this year, I am pleased that the new administration (Note: The Philippines installed a new president in June) is pursuing the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and has promised to craft a more inclusive and responsive bill to address half a century of armed struggle in southern Philippines. I like to believe that Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner is adding to the conversation.

KB: Why did you choose to tell the film through women?

I grew up surrounded by women. My maternal grandmother, for instance, was a central figure in my personal development. She was the matriarch of our family from whom major family decisions emanated. I grew up hearing the sentiments of our servants and tenants too. Some whose servitude and loss of freedom were attributed to traditional society's very strict code of conduct. So I have been gravitated towards the stories of women from the very beginning.  I have explored the spectrum of women from the powerless, vulnerable members of society to independent-minded and strong-willed in my films. By telling the film through women, I am able to navigate the theme from a more varied perspective.

KB: Where did you derive the characters?

TM: Aida (played Fe Ging Ging Hyde) was inspired by the women of my earlier film The Obscured Histories and Silent Longings of Daguluan's Children (2012). In that film, the women in the village pin their hopes on the promise of overseas work as domestic helpers to be able to support their families. This reflects a very common reality as many of our women seek jobs abroad. Unfortunately several of them fall victims to illegal recruiters and human traffickers.

KB: I'm curious why you set the character of Aida in a hotel.

TM: There is something about hotels that I find strangely fascinating. People inhabiting a place for a brief period of time that is not their home, finding a private haven in the confines of a small room. Somehow it strongly speaks about the rituals of coming and going, the transitory nature of what we consider home and what it provides us. It's an apt metaphor for the Bangsamoro's quest to find our homeland, to be secure in that small place to practice our way of life and to dream.

KB: What I find more curious is how you placed the mad Sophia and the transgender Nora in your films. They are outside the house.

TM: Except for a brief moment, yes, Nora is outside the house the entire film. With her shackles, Sophia is prevented to roam around and drift away, making her an inhabitant of the tree, an allusion to Siddharta sitting under the Bodhi tree. Sophia becomes the eye of the story, able to know all secrets. Despite her schizophrenia, she is the keeper of truth and its vocal proponent. Her madness protects her from the strict family code, and through her, truth become myth. On the other hand, Abdulgafur is ostracized by her family and at the wake of her grand nephew she returns to her family as Nora. Asking for her share in the family estate, she is rebuked by her eldest sister as she has lost all privileges in the family when she decided to become an unnatural woman, a freak of nature, an abomination. Truth masked as myth and deviation from norm? Aren't they what society is so scared of?

KB: The mythic element in your films is strong. It is pronounced in Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner as well. Are you not afraid that it leaves the audience with a lot of conjectures, especially in a film about the Bangsamoro that people needs more context?

TM: I don't expect my audience to watch my film and come out of it understanding the Bangsamoro. If that's their objective, Google or attending a forum will be the more appropriate venture. Conjectures are expected. Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner is only the first book of moro2mrw. The second book might be able to provide back stories and some clarity to the characters, or it might produce more conjectures. The mythic element in my film is there not because they are less true and unreal.  To render truth mythical is to unmask it and to imbue it a quality that is not bound by time and contemporary understanding. Cinema seeks to be eternal.

–Kath Banal

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