Forest Tales or the Lives of Others


“And we tired of wandering through the forest and along the banks of rivers. And we began settling. We invented villages and community life… Left far behind were the times when we drifted without home or destination. The results of civilization were surprising: our lives became more secure but less free…” 

~ Eduardo Galeano, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone

The synopsis of Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas, Wailings in the Forest hints at a story about people from the margins, one that resurfaces every now and then in the news in a country whose rich indigenous origins are constantly threatened by the pull of modernity and ill effects of civilization. But what unfolds in the film’s 105-minute running time is a different storytelling, one that is not totally burdened by the weight of exposition, but instead explores the rigors of observational cinema and visual anthropology, alluding to the rhythms and detours of the film’s setting – a real-life forest in the hinterlands of Davao in Southern Philippines, still home to the Matigsalug (people from the river) indigenous tribes. 

The surge of regional-cinema consciousness in recent Philippine cinema has surfaced stories of indigenous peoples, toward which filmmakers may instinctively take on a documentary approach, as in Nef Luczon’s Father Said, “Let’s Go Home", about the reunion of an IP family in Bukidnon, and Lester Valle’s Walang Rape sa Bontoc, an exploration of the “rape-less” communities of IPs in Bontoc, both products of the first Sine Totoo, the first documentary film festival in the country two years ago. When stories of IPs do figure in narrative fiction, a certain sense of complexity and urgency is somehow lost in favor of a more colorful depiction and the burden to tell a compelling story in the traditional narrative sense, as in Anita del Mundo’s K’na The Dreamweaver, which features the T’boli community in South Cotabato, particularly the women who weave the t’nalak cloth as keepers of cultural heritage.

With what could have been another narrative,  Baboy Halas treads on the fringes of documentary filmmaking as Fiola navigates in unhurried fashion the film’s forest, together with the story’s protagonist, Mampog, a skilled hunter and head of an indigenous family who still relies heavily on hunting forest animals for food. This exploration of an uncharted territory is signaled at the opening of the film, where we see a drone shot of our hunter protagonist about to enter the thickness of the forest. Most of the film shows Mampog masterfully track the forest floor, climbing trees, crossing rivers and going down caves in search of food – the favored meat of the wild boar – and then, midway through the film, get inexplicably lost. He returns to his abode (a wonderfully rendered tree-house) never to be the same anymore. Driven mad, he is lost forever to the forest’s mystical manipulations. The forest suddenly becomes an unfamiliar realm. Though getting lost may seem an unlikely occurrence for forest dwellers, the mysticism that plays a role in the film is something inherently attuned to their way of living as indigenous folktales speak of deities and of various ways of appeasement to these unseen forces. 

The film’s synopsis also mentions “unusual changes” in the tribe’s environment, and these are hinted at rather than exposed. As Mampog does to remember his path, Fiola scatters clues in the narrative like tree marks. There is a scene of what appears to be an eclipse, or that shot of Mampog sitting on the ladder rungs lost in thought while the sunlight shifts in the background as if depicting abrupt changes in season and in his environment. While it is not totally fleshed out, the film does give us a view of the differences in the tribes’ sociability (tree-dwellers and hunters versus plains people) and the possibilities of tribal conflicts that arise in what is called pangayaw (tribal war). In the film, conflict ensues on the coveting of a wife from a different tribe. 

Then there is the mysterious appearance of a “white pig” (much like the variety of popular livestock used for meat consumption in urban areas), a stark contrast to the wild boar, and several forest creatures like the civet and deer, whose populations have decreased drastically due to pollution and deforestation in the same forest area where the film was shot. One of the tribal chieftains exclaims, “It’s been a while since I’ve had a taste of civet.” Mampog’s wife complains about the scarcity of meat, as if hinting at the “scourging” to come. The sudden appearance of the pig, accompanied by an ominous score, seems to suggest this drastic change, bringing about fevered nightmares of white creatures in the dark and the pervasiveness of getting lost in what was once a navigable terrain. The forest suddenly becomes a foe to the hunter-inhabitant, assuming the role of an omnipotent trickster (similar to the jungle in Sherad Sanchez’s Jungle Love) instead of being the reliable provider. 

In a sense, the presence of the white pig disrupted the natural languor in the forest and its characters. But on a symbolic level, it points to a sort of foreign presence, or eye, that while seemingly innocent and inconsequential can be disastrous in the forest’s ecological balance. One can surmise that this presence reflects a kind of voyeurism, foreign even, as is reflected by several movements of the camera in the film, to an unknown place. Even us, living in the periphery of the forest, in the cusp of civilization, are considered foreign from its territories. 

Some have noted how the hazy narrative hold of the film seems to affect its impact. But it is an interesting diversion, rather than an outright failure. As if editing them together, Fiola negotiates with both documentary and narrative discipline (his first full-length Sonata Maria is wholly different and arguably more accessible). The narrative detours of Baboy Halas, while confusing, do not take away the beauty of the documentary-like aesthetics of its cinematography but provide a discursive contrast. The camerawork, which consists of long takes, zooming in and out on the dwellers, and striking freeze frames that bookend the film, allows us to become immersed in the mechanics and rhythm of the forest and to reflect on how these contrast with the abrupt shifts of the modernity that lies outside the frame of the film and outside the realm of the forest. There is a standout scene of Mampog in a cave starting a fire that is captured in a six-minute take. The audience witnesses in real time the hunter’s negotiation with the cave’s unknown force, as if with a fire deity (in a later scene one of the wives seeks counsel with an elder using smoke). When the fire reveals its flames, the scene achieves a kind of intimacy, a consummation of a seemingly sacred act, the spirituality of which is threatened by the haste of civilization. 

Writer-filmmaker Archie Del Mundo in his review of the film probes: “Why in the forest world would food be lacking? The forestland (including the wild animals) apparently are raped and depleted. The indigenous folks are deprived of the supposed abundance their ancestral lands provide.” This insight does not come easy especially for urban dwellers who are oblivious to the struggles of these people. And however elusive the narrative aspects of Baboy Halas may be, there is a certain control to its subtlety, offering us a powerful look at what might be the end of our indigenous ancestry. While the satisfaction in its story may be inadequate--what constitutes as a story may also be a form of disruption--the final shot gives it a certain kind of completion as if coming to a dangerous realization: that changes in the lives of the forest people of old may have long been irreversible, like the nightmarish darkness that, as the brave Mampog says, “creeps up on us”. In the natural cycles of the forest in Baboy Halas, the hunter has become the hunted.

–Jay Rosas


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