Representations of the Bangsa Moro in Philippine Cinema


This paper was presented during the Critical Islands Studies Conference, Ateneo de Manila University (2019). 


Gutierrez Mangansakan II


First, allow me to locate myself. I am a film director and writer as well as a keen observer of Southeast Asian cinema due to my work as a curator and artistic director of Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival. I am also a Moro, of Maguindanaon ethnic descent who was born in Cotabato City and reared in Maguindanao, which are parts of the Bangsa Moro realm.

2019 is an opportune year to talk about Bangsa Moro and Philippine Cinema together for two reasons: Early this year, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region was established following agreements set forth in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ending half a century of armed conflict in the Muslim South. 2019 officially marks the centenary of the birth of Philippine or Tagalog industrial cinema as the country commemorates the premiere of the first Filipino feature film –Jose Nepomuceno's Dalagang Bukid – on September 12, 1919. 

For a span of a hundred years, Filipino filmmakers have been producing films for various reasons – commercial, artistic or educational – exploring various genres as well as themes and subjects including the Bangsa Moro. 

Who Are The Bangsa Moro

The Bangsa Moro refers to the Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao, and the Sulu archipelago, in southern Philippines, as well as parts of Palawan. They comprise thirteen distinct ethnolinguistic groups which possess their own languages and dialects, as well as cultural practices and traditions. 

The word Moro itself is an exonym which had been used before in the 16th century by Spanish colonizers in reference to a Muslim group of "Moors", which originating from "Mauru, a Latin word that referred to the inhabitants of the ancient Roman province of Mauritania in northwest Africa, which today comprises the modern Muslim states of Algeria, Mauritania and Morocco. (Jamail Kamlian, Who Are the Moro People?, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2012)

With the rise of Mauritania as part of the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate, Muslim armies conquered and ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492, for about a total of 781 years in which the term was revived when the Christian-majority Spanish became involved in a war with them and started to call the Muslims "Moors." 

The term was then used again by the Spanish when arriving in Mindanao they found a similar Muslim community who rebelled against them. 

Moro has evolved to become a unitary force that asserts the identity of the Islamic societies in the Philippine south. 

In the 13th century, the arrival of Muslim missionaries, in particular Makhdum Karim, in Tawi-Tawi, initiated the conversion of the native population of Mindanao to Islam. Trade between other sultanates in Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia helped establish and entrench the Islamic religion in the southern Philippines. The introduction of Islam led to the creation of Sultanates as a sociopolitical system. This included the sultanates of Buayan and Maguindanao where I belong, and the Sultanate of Sulu.

During the Spanish conquest from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the Moro fiercely guarded their homeland and fought the colonizers. As a result, with the exception of Zamboanga and parts of Cotabato (specifically Tamontaca), the Moro homeland was largely uncolonized.

An independent bangsa or nation until the 1898 Treaty of Paris when Spanish colonial authority ceded territories including the Bangsa Moro sultanates to the Americans to end the Spanish-American War, the Bangsa Moro suddenly became part of the Philippine territory, and through various laws enacted by the Philippine government, the Bangsa Moro lost dominion and rights over ancestral lands as well as traditional political and economic systems. 

Starting in the 1930s the American colonial government enacted a policy that enticed landless peasants from Luzon and the Visayas to migrate to Mindanao. This resulted in vast tracts of lands by Moro and lumad indigenous peoples to be converted to homesteads for the northern settlers as well as industrial plantation and reserves for American companies.

After gaining independence from the United States, the Moro population, felt more isolated from the mainstream and experienced discrimination by the Philippine government, added to the fact that their ancestral lands had been given away to settlers and corporations by land-tenure Laws, Filipinization as a government policy to assimilate them into the dominant culture started eroding their cultural identity. Because of the influx of settlers, the Moro and lumad became the minorities in Mindanao.

In 1968, as a consequence of the Jabidah Massacre on Corregidor Island that saw the murder of about 68 Moro soldiers being trained by the Marcos government to infiltrate Sabah which the Philippines lay claim by virtue of a Spanish era treaty between the Sulu Sultanate and the leaders of Borneo and Brunei and the prevailing sociopolitical climate, it revived the seccessionist ideas of the Moro. My grandfather, Datu Udtog Matalam, then Governor of the Empire Province of Cotabato founded the Muslim Independence Movement (later Mindanao Independence Movement) as a launchpad for the battle for Moro independence. While MIM did not sustain itself, it was the precursor of the Moro National Liberation Front which initiated the armed struggle against the Philippine government from the late 1960s. 

Cinema in the Philippines

Film production remains to be an hegemonic enterprise. First it advanced Tagalog as a national language, and since film studios were established in the capital, Manila, it also became part of the state institution that articulated and regulated the official and the national line. 

Because the studios were some 300 miles from Mindanao, the construction of images of the Moro in mainstream cinema has been marred by misrepresentation rooted on ignorance of cultural traditions, as well as religious prejudice and discrimination that mirror the prevailing political, historical, and social climate. This, in the context of colonial production, as Gayatri Spivak posited, rendered the Moro as a subaltern unable to speak, voiceless.

The Bangsa Moro as object of colonial conquest 

One of the earliest films on the Bangsa Moro was Zamboanga, made in 1936 by the American Marvin Gardner (alias Eduardo de Castro). It utilized the narrative convention prevalent that time in Hollywood to tell a story of the ethnolingustic groups of the Sulu archipelago. In the film, the ruler Datu Tanbuong betrothes his granddaughter Minda to a loyal and young pearl diver Danao. However, a chieftain named Hadji Razul who is a guest at the wedding celebration is revealed to have feelings for Minda. He solicits the help of a renegade American captain to abduct Minda. As a consequence of the abduction, a tribal war ensues. Danao eventually kills Hadji Razul, and the film ends with Minda and Danao sailing into the sunset.

The Philippines was a U.S. colony from 1898 to 1945 when Zamboanga was produced. Since 1914, film as an art form with an industrial base that served the colonialist agenda was utilized by the occupying authority through the Philippine Commission to propagate its values. It became a tool to integrate the Bangsa Moro into a larger Philippine body politik that was already under its political and economic control. The Bangsa Moro, like the pearls of the Orient and the aromatic spices of its tropical jungles, became the last frontier of American colonial fascination. But when the Bangsa Moro resisted the gazing of this foreign presence, cinema was utilized to represent them as the ‘other’.

The Bangsa Moro as the perennial other 

After the Second World War, the U.S. granted the independence of the Philippines on July 4, 1946. By this time the Philippines has become so reliant on the U.S. with its economy, politics, culture, and education closely tied to its colonial master. Moreover, the influence of cinema (especially of Hollywood narrativity and image-construction) on Filipino producers and audience has been deeply established for decades by then. In fact U.S. film companies have capitalized on Filipino labor to produce cheap flicks that roused the curiosity of the American audience.

In 1964, the U.S. company Twentieth Century Fox released a film directed by the Filipino director Eddie Romero. The film, Moro Witch Doctor, features a Moro native raping an American woman. the film’s poster features a burly man, a member of a Moro tribe, wielding a machete on a murderous rampage. the film was marketed using the promotional tag: “In the wilds of Mindanao they hunted the deadliest killer of all!” 

This saw the Filipino, an erstwhile subject of the U.S. colonial gaze like the Moro, now capable of harnessing the artistic and political potential of the cinema apparatus, fulfilling the U.S. conquest of the Bangsa Moro by proxy.

With Hollywood narrative and politics having completely influenced Philippine moviemaking, the Moro have been rendered as the ‘other’, the ‘peripheral’, the ‘uncouth’ –the muklo – due to their religion and cultural tradition, as well as their rejection of national hegemony and the imposed artificial identity. The Moro is the antagonist; or if in the rare instance, the protagonist, conflict is attributed to being an outsider in a dominant (Christian) culture or a colonizing presence. 

From the 1970s to 1980s, this trend continued as films with Moro characters and milieu were produced by the studios in Manila. Notable of these films, owing to its wide popularity and, therefore, a strong capacity to form public perception, is Muslim Magnum .357. Produced in 1986, the popular Fernando Poe, Jr. worked as the film’s actor and director.

In the film, Lieutenant Jamal played by Poe is a Muslim undercover police officer who is sent to Manila to help curb the rising crime rate. Convinced of his abilities as an undercover agent, his superior Colonel Castro summons him to assist in investigating the head of a crime syndicate. He penetrates the syndicate but is eventually discovered to be an undercover cop. The syndicate attempts to silence him but failing to do so, they turn their ire on the two kids who helped him with his investigation. They kill the two boys. This act angers Jamal. The Muslim in him surfaces and vows revenge on all remaining members of the gang. In the film, Muslim-ness is portrayed as a sinister power you can summon like the Incredible Hulk whose transformation is borne out of anger and desperation.

Muslim Magnum .357 was remade in 2014 by George Estregan Jr., the nephew of Poe’s best friend, former President Joseph Estrada, who is himself an actor.

The Bangsa Moro in the New World Order

In Clash of Civilizations (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Samuel P. Huntington posited that cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-cold War era, and that future wars will be fought between cultures. The aftermath of the bombing of the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001 resulted in the U.S. and the Western World radically shifting their social, cultural, and geopolitical attitude. Suddenly it was no longer the Russian who was the enemy. It is now the Muslim.

In 2001 Marilou Diaz-Abaya released her film, Bagong Buwan (New Moon), produced by ABS-CBN, the largest television network in the Philippines. The film tells of the Bangsa Moro rebellion in Mindanao, evidently a Muslim uprising in Diaz-Abaya's lens, told through the eyes of the doctor Ahmad.

Ahmad works as a doctor in Manila, while his family remains in a village in Mindanao. When his son is killed by a stray bullet due to vigilantes firing indiscriminately at their village, Ahmad returns to his birthplace. Despite his son’s death, Ahmad continues to live a peaceful life. This unsettles his brother Musa who has taken the path to armed struggle. Musa believes in waging a religious war against the kafir or the infidels who are hindrance to the Moro goal of independence. 

Ahmad is Moro but from which exact ethnolinguistic group we do not know. The geography of the film is vague. Clarity is not the strongest quality of Bagong Buwan’s screenplay in terms of its expression of the specificity of the culture and tradition of the Bangsa Moro. In one scene, a character speaks in the Tausug language. In a succeeding scene, he talks in Maguindanaon. Again, there are thirteen distinct Moro ethnolinguistic groups in Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan.

What the film exploited to drive its narrative is the unifying quality of the Bangsa Moro – their Muslim identity – from which marginalization, peripherality, other-ness, subalternity, and the claim of nationhood (bangsa) are asserted. Diaz- Abaya dwelled on this and in so doing committed the fatal mistake that made Bagong Buwan an exercise in flawed logic. The core of the film is a simplistic view that the decades-old Bangsa Moro conflict is mainly rooted on religion, devoid of a profound understanding of political history that will surface issues of political disenfranchisement, land dispossession, and historical injustices committed by the Philippine State against the Bangsa Moro. 

Moreover, the film is told with an overt tone that stems from an older colonizing gaze that predated U.S. colonization – Roman Catholicism– that is, by historical tradition in the Philippines, is viewed as incompatible with other religions (the Spaniards conquered the islands with their sword and cross with Catholicism supplanting indigenous faith traditions). 

Bagong Buwan ends with an epilogue that dangerously tried to build a connection between legitimate nationalist struggle of the Bangsa Moro for self-autonomy to Al Qaeda’s acts of terrorism.

The Roman Catholic gaze continues in Across The Crescent Moon, directed by Baby Nebrida. The image of Karim diving for pearls in this 2017 film reincarnates the pearl diver Danao in the 1936 film Zamboanga, bridging an 80-year history of the outsider’s representation of the Bangsa moro in Philippine cinema.

Across The Crescent Moon succeeds in the enumeration of all the cinematic stereotypes of the Moro through the decades, narrated through the uneasy marriage of Abbas, a Muslim SAF agent, and the Catholic Emma. The parents of Emma are devout Catholics who are vehemently against their daughter’s marriage to an outsider of their religion. As a result, Abbas embarks on dangerous missions to prove his worth as a human being who is Muslim, a prerequisite to earn the trust of his wife’s profoundly prejudiced parents. 

The digital revolution in the regions

With the advent of digital technology, however, it enabled film production to take place in various regions and provinces in the Philippines, including Mindanao. The once prohibitive nature of filmmaking is no longer an exclusive monopoly of Manila the center. Philippine cinema today has become archipelagic even peripheral with film production happening in all parts of the country. The Singaporean critic Philip Cheah calls it the 'Regional New Wave' in the Philippines becoming a force that expands the notion of a national cinema rooted in a cinematic heterodoxy that articulates the complexity of peoples, cultures, and identities in films that are independent of the old studio apparatus, challenging earlier representations in cinema. This is also happening in other parts of SEA like Makassar, Palu and Jogja in Indonesia; Kota Kinabalu, Sarawak, Malacca in Malaysia. 

With digital technology replacing the old, expensive mode of cinematic production in the early 2000s, new filmmakers started to explore the new medium to tell their stories. Filmmaking became a decentralized enterprise as filmmakers in Cebu, Pampanga, Iloilo, Bacolod, and Mindanao started to make their own films. The Moro filmmaker, utilizing the new medium, now finds himself in the position to change earlier representation in cinema. But like his Filipino brother, after centuries of resistance, he too has been colonized by intellectual and aesthetic. 

But while these advances are major for the regions, it doesn’t mean that the industrial hegemony of Manila has evaporated or gladly made room for these newly emerged cinemas.

In Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (Manchester University Press, 1994), he expounds on postcolonialism and identity: “All the colonialized nations of the world have a subaltern identity. it is only in the post-colonial context that they do realize their past-subordination. It is a herculean task for the people of the subaltern nations to reclaim their own past. To their great chagrin, the subalterns recognize the fact that their minds are colonized and it is very difficult to erode the colonialist ideology.”

In 2010, I, a Moro, of Maguindanaon descent, directed my feature debut, Limbunan (the Bridal Quarter). The film tells of a 16-year-old woman named Ayesah who is betrothed to a man she does not know. In accordance to tradition, she is to be kept in a small room (limbunan) where she will be prepared for her wedding day. The film explores her confinement, ruminations, and self-examination on the role of women in traditional Moro society. 

The film opens with the image of Ayesah in front of a mirror. The scene cuts to her little sister Saripa playing in the woods, then returns to Ayesah applying powder on her face still in front of the mirror, then back to her sister observing a spider in its web. The intercut is interrupted when Ayesah’s aunt Farida calls her. This opening sequence is a metaphor for the arrival of the Moro as the owner of an authentic gaze whose image-construction he preps in front of his audience (in the mirror). The images he constructs are summoned from the jungle that holds memories and dreams, revealed slowly so that they linger, and putting an end to a historical continuity (of Moro misrepresentation). 

Now, the Moro subaltern can speak.

Another Moro, Fyrsed Alfad III of Sulu, co-directed In Banka Ha Ut Sin Duwah Sapah (the Boat Between Two Rivers, 2012). The film is significant with its predominant utilization of the Tausug language, creating characters with the requisite orang suluk psyche that navigate the complex historical, political, and cultural currents of Sulu. Like image, language is a landmark of identity. it is through the vernacular nature of words that the specificity of thoughts, feelings, and ideas are processed or expressed. Language, therefore, cannot be undermined in framing a national cinema that challenges the supremacy of Tagalog, the language of the national hegemony, through which the entire weight of the center’s political and economic clout has been imposed on the entire nation.

In 2016 I made a film called moro2mrw that talks about our hopes and skepticism. The first part Daughters of the Three tailed Banner juxtaposes the story of women – women mourning the death of the last male member of the family and a victim of illegal recruitment. It is set on the eve of the inaugural of the Bangsamoro juridical entity.

Non-Moro directors from Mindanao also mined the vast narrative landscape of the region for rich themes in their films. Ang Paglalakbay Ng Mga Bituin Sa Gabing Madilim (The Journey of the Stars in A Dark Night, 2012) by Arnel Mardoquio is a film about a young boy whose parents (Moro rebels involved in kidnap for ransom) are killed in an armed encounter. Upon his mother’s death, a backpack full of dollars is passed on to the boy. A joint team of American and local troops trail him. In his great escape, he ends up in the company of his aunt and her lover who decide to help assure the boy’s passage to safe grounds.

In the film we observe the changing landscape, an ambivalent topography with its lush forest and verdant rice paddies (no cassava fields), as well as barren hills: an imagined Sulu that holds a promise but also holds a curse. We see the unraveling of characters who are scarred by decades of conflict, eager to escape a labyrinth of despair and longing. 

In 2016, Sheron Dayoc made Women of the Weeping River, a film about an escalating blood feud that has held generations hostage to an seemingly unending cycle of violence. from a director whose process starts with building images before constructing narrative, Women of the Weeping River achieves the union of image and symbol by choosing the location away from the poblacion or center, situating the Moro further into the peripheral terrain. Dayoc employed locals in Zamboanga and Sulu archipelago for the film’s many characters achieving a verisimilitude that is required to create an elaborate story of gritty realism and quiet charm. 

The authentic image as a political construct 

For its many qualities that have been validated by the critical establishment, it can be argued that the Women of the Weeping River succeeded in locating the Bangsa Moro, after all these years, in front of the camera. In a divergent stream, critics of cultural appropriation argue that the film remains inauthentic in its appropriation of Tausug culture as the real image of the Bangsa Moro can only be produced by no less than a unique and authentic Moro imagination. Dayoc is a Christian, a non-Tausug, from Zamboanga. 

However, this assertion can be problematic because, accessible as film technology is now, there are only a handful of Moro filmmakers today. Moreover, film grants remain the purview of economic interests in Manila. Critical practice, a hegemonic project similar to nation-building, also dictates the dominant image, including that of the Bangsa Moro, through narratives, forms, and aesthetics that adhere to normative standards. As the fascination on the Bangsa Moro as a subject in film persists, the claim of authenticity and rejection of exoticism, demonization, and unfair representation of the Moro will be plagued with questions and challenges. 

We must situate ourselves in the real world. The narratives of the Bangsa Moro and their struggle can be narrated by anybody – and that is the reality. Narratives and images can be contextualized, re-imagined, retold and appropriated. We must be conscious of the power structure that appropriate our images and narratives by asking these questions: What is the intention? For whom it is being narrated or told? How is it being told? How is the narrator accountable for the position he takes? These are relevant questions in the new film by Brillante Mendoza entitled Mindanao (2019). 

Luiz Costa Lima, discussing his concept of representation in the book Control of the Imaginary: Reason and Imagination in Modern Times (University of Minnesota Press, 1988), posits absence (of the Moro filmmaker) as an essential condition for a wider cinematic interpretation by non-Moro directors of what they imagine the Moro to be. In the process, the Moro ceases to be a ‘reality’ because he turns into ‘fiction.’ The author of fiction (in this case, the filmmaker) conjures an evocation of signs to copy which is original. However, no matter how close a copy or imitation may get to the original; it will always maintain its distinct identity as a copy. 

The representation of the Bangsa Moro in Philippine cinema, whether the original or a copy, necessitates the understanding of what causes their subalternity, and how cinema is being used to either subvert or maintain this subaltern identity. The adulting of a cinematic consciousness must also recognize the inherent political nature of image: a construction from the perspective of where power emanates, the hegemonic annihilation of those that do not conform to norms, and the expropriation of historical, social, creative, cultural, and aesthetic resource to reinforce an artificial identity – a single Filipino identity – only concerned with its own political and economic preservation, rejecting the distinct trajectories of the many bangsa under its flag. 

The crafting of a national cinema that truly represents the bangsa must also acknowledge the political rights of the Bangsa Moro, including the primacy of their right to self-determination of their imagination in the production of their own original image. 



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