Wading Through New and Familiar Storms

The reality of the storm as experienced by Filipinos in the Eastern part of the Philippines has not yet fully sunk in the Mindanao psyche, the region beset with its own lingering political turmoil. 

The Mindanao conflict has long been exhausted as a subject matter by academicians, historians and researchers both from domestic and foreign soils, the rigor of which is aimed at probably exhuming whatever missing piece there is towards fully grasping the immensity and complexity of its scope. But for the most part, these researches actually do not form part of the curriculum, much more discussed in history classes. The subject only occupies a space in academic or sponsored forums by development agencies and concerned government agencies once in a while. It has not become part of a wider national discourse, even a Mindanao discourse, which should lead to a better understanding of the core issues beyond the sensationalism portrayed in mainstream media. Interest is sparked only when there are sporadic hostilities, which automatically feeds into this concept of a perpetually war-torn region.

Sheron Dayoc’s documentary The Crescent Rising, which won best documentary prizes in Busan International Film Festival in South Korea recently and in the QCinema International Film Festival last year, hopefully opens up this much-needed discourse on the Mindanao conflict through the documentary platform in a way that helps disentangle its myriad aspects, ranging from the concept of jihad, the legal-political frameworks particularly the pending Bangsamoro Basic Law, to the issue of internal displacement.

Film critic Philip Cheah writes “instead of the media stereotype of religious aggression, the Bangsamoro practice jihad within its spiritual viewpoint of defending the faith.” In the second cut of the film, Dayoc inserts new footage that, in a way, strengthens this viewpoint as well as providing more historical background – from the founding of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to the recent bloody clash in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, when 44 SAF soldiers were killed that eventually led to the current stalemate. This cut understandably is aimed at an international audience (the same cut shown in Busan), with more textual references contextualizing the accounts.

Ultimately, the issue on internal displacement provides the human face to Dayoc’s documentary, shedding light to thousands of families who have long lost the meaning of home, having to transfer to places during outbreaks of hostilities. Some of these families have continuously been caught in war that they have not returned to their original hometowns, with the evacuation centers offering what little semblance of safety and stability there is to grasp. One of the evacuees interviewed narrated how others were born in evacuation centers grew up and also had their families there. One prominent narrative – that of 17-year old Nurhaisa Omar – however, foretells of a growing uncertainty both for the political situation and the lives caught between. Nurhaisa is one of those being rendered psychosocial interventions, clutches a piece of paper with a drawing that is supposed to illustrate her aspirations. But she breaks down in tears with the reality of her sister being wrongfully detained still gnawing at her. These accounts – including women carrying placards declaring support to the BBL – provide an indelible imagery, a battle cry, that makes for a compelling case for a just and equitable solution.

Dayoc’s film is, in a way, spiritually similar to another recent film that tackles the Mindanao conflict – Adjani Arumpac’s War is A Tender Thing. Arumpac’s documentary is more personal, positioning the discourse on the perspective of internal conflicts, particularly through her family. But both films give off this sense of re-familiarization of the subject matter, not just for the viewers but these filmmakers as well. Dayoc and Arumpac, who are now based in Manila, through their films, are also seeking answers. And their films, instead of settling for definitiveness, are full of questions that engages, particularly us Mindanaons, to also not disengage ourselves from our very own narrative, the fabric that gives us our identity and humanity.

As if not burdened by this long-standing conflict, Mindanao, over the course of the last decade has find itself facing a new storm, this time literally, with the reality of climate change already in our midst. Before, it used to pride itself as being typhoon-free, or if there are, these are non-destructive unlike those experienced in the Northern regions. But our nonchalance has been challenged with the onslaught of Typhoon Sendong in 2010, which wrecked havoc in the Northern parts of Mindanao, flooding cities, destroying bridges, taking away scores of lives, with some bodies still missing, other swept to nearby islands. In Jeffrie Po’s one-hour documentary The Soil of Dreams, we get a glimpse of the storm’s impact in the lives of those who live in the margins – from informal settlers living along riverbanks to the “quarry boys” – those who sequester sand from banks – as their main livelihood. Combining elements of performance art and observational cinema, it is an interesting piece of documentary cinema.

Po’s camera is free and unstructured, assuming the role of a surveyor. From mere spectator, it takes on the perspective of the actors themselves, plunging to the murky depths of the waters then looking out on the scorching heat of the sun or swaying to the rhythm of boat as it traverses the river. This observational approach recalls Lav Diaz’s Storm Children: Book 1, which documents the wreckage of Tacloban City after Typhoon Yolanda. Similarly, as with Diaz’s peering eyes, the camera in Soil of Dreams is uncertain of the “right” distance with its subjects, ranging from intimate to spectatorship, but one that resembles a kind of acclimatizing to some new phenomena. After all, the reality of the storm as experienced by Filipinos in the Eastern part of the Philippines has not yet fully sunk in the Mindanao psyche, the region beset with its own lingering political turmoil.

It also tells of the effect the storm has had on the rise of theft in the city, prompting nearby villages to build higher walls or fences. More than the desolation and wreckage, the new reality of the storm also foretells of a socio-economic disconnect, with communities still reeling from the immensity of its impact. The film begins and ends with a performance art by Cagayan De Oro-based artist Nicolas Aca. At the beginning of the film, we see a man waist-deep in mud aimlessly digging the soil that envelops him, and at the end the camera captures him in tracking shots walking and covered in limestone white donning a life vest, a throng of children pulling at him with a rope. He reaches a resting point and lies down face up, the children putting the act into finality, “he’s dead… he died”. It is a coda of uncertainty and one of making-sense. And while the act only recreates the actuality of death, it makes it palpable, conveying a profound grief that is always the imprint of such disasters.

–Jay Rosas

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