A House in Pieces: Documentary as piecing-together marginalized narratives of conflict


In 2015, a short documentary called Panicupan by Bagane Fiola and Keith Bacongco, about a small fishing compound in Pikit, North Cotabato was produced as part of short film project depicting the facets and issues of peace and peacebuilding in Mindanao. The film is a brief glimpse of a harmonious community where Lumad, Christian and Muslim residents share the fishing ground. It also shows us that even without state-sanctioned, formal peace agreements, people can co-exist organically. On one hand, the film also informs us of the fragility of this peace that lie at the margins of our communities here in Mindanao. 

Two years after, this fragility was ruptured when ISIS-inspired Maute rebels attacked the Islamic city of Marawi nestled in the heart of Lake Lanao in Mindanao, southern Philippines. The 2017 Marawi Siege drove Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to declare Martial Law covering the whole of Mindanao as a response to the siege heightening the military offensives. There were fears that the incident would derail the transitioning Bangsamoro government after the passage of the the Bangsamoro Basic Law following the peace pact between separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government ending decades of armed conflict and strife. 

But at the ground level, uncertainty and more fear prevailed with the entire city decimated, about 300,000 people fleeing away for safety and shelter. The reconstruction of the city three years after is still ongoing and continue to be mired by inefficiency and controversy. The process of returning to normal for most people remain in shambles. While “tent cities” were installed in adjacent Lanao municipalities, the cry of Marawi residents, predominantly Maranao, is a return to their homes. 



A House in Pieces (2020) by Jean Claire Dy and Manuel Domes, probably one of, if not the first documentary film to tackle the post-siege Marawi, again brings to the fore the subject of internal displacement by focusing on the lives of the those displaced or internally displaced persons (IDPs) by the conflict. Internal displacement was last tackled in Sheron Dayoc’s documentary The Crescent Rising (2015), which looked at the aftermath of the Zamboanga siege that involved another separatist Muslim group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by the popular Muslim leader Nur Misuari. 

When the film was released in 2015, the Bangsamoro law was still pending, which is why in the film there is a sense of a filmmaker familiarizing with the complexities of the political histories surrounding the conflict and thus the tendency to be burdened by the need to look for larger, macro narratives. In A House in Pieces, you would not hear a single talking head considered as an “official source”, in journalistic parlance. There is no space allotted for motherhood statements that try to assuage the severity of the IDPs’ situation. 

Instead, we hear from the couple Yusop and Farhana and their dire conditions living in cramped, makeshift evacuation centers to their transfer to a relatives’ house. We follow Nancy, a social worker who is now living in the temporary shelters in Matungao, just outside Marawi City proper. We are also accompanied by Usman, a businessman who served as driver to the filmmakers, but also comes out as a distinct voice in the film, opening up the thorny but inevitably important discussion on jihad, and challenging our preconceived notions of it in the process. And later, towards the near end of the film, we are introduced to one of the former Maute fighters whose 17-year old son, also a rebel, died in the encounters. 

The lives and stories of the film’s protagonists reflect the realities of inequality and neglect, of migration and separation, that undergird Mindanao’s protracted wars. They all represent the stories of the marginalized that are picked up and constantly highlighted by mainstream media that present an image of a perpetually war-torn region but are usually sidelined once the urgency and the spectacle of conflict, wanes and paves way for the immediacy of the next breaking news. Beyond Mindanao, both at the national and international level, these stories remain as statistics, and the reality of internal displacement appear less urgent than the pressing refugee crises all around the world. 

The image of bullet-riddled walls in the film calls to mind Adjani Arumpac’s War is a Tender Thing (2013), which looked at the reality of the Mindanao conflict on a more personal lens, her parents’ separation. Just like Arumpac, Dy’s perspective as a settler in Mindanao also informs her (as well as German co-director Manuel Domes who has worked in Mindanao for a time) approach, balancing a journalistic lens with attention to detail, that may appear mundane but bring out the agency and resilience of the films’ characters. There are little moments that while brief offers reprieve for them, and even for the audience—Nancy’s singing of the ballad Boulevard, clinging to a salvaged photo album; Farhana’s reflective lullabies and her husband Yusop’s preoccupation with dove training (perhaps an obvious metaphor of homecoming). They fill the space of the documentary like pieces to rebuilding a life. 

There is no doubt that the Marawi siege like the other violent, sporadic conflicts that erupted in parts of Mindanao, has also ruptured our sense of home and belongingness not only with the physical destruction of houses but the fractured sense of being especially in a region and its peoples, whose identity is very much linked with our sense of place and belongingness, to a certain rootedness to culture and history. Perhaps the most striking part in the film is uttered by Farhana, sung in a lullaby—"when will our city come back to us?”—a yearning for a sense of home that the displaced carry with them all the time. 



Zamboanga filmmaker Aedrian Araojo, also made a film about Marawi, a short documentary called Displaced (2020) which premiered online at the Cinemalaya Film Festival. While sometimes hampered by its indulgence to experiment with the form, it nevertheless captures another voice that is missing in prominent narratives—that of the youth, as Araojo compiles conversations with children reflecting on the state of Marawi and their future. With House in Pieces, Dy and Domes, along with the aforementioned filmmakers, continue the documentary practice as piecing-together of marginalized stories to contribute to a sensible whole, a truth-seeking that also aims for justice. But it is an unfinished task. What documentary filmmaking has been doing is to tell these stories, and enjoin us to the collective work of rebuilding. 


Jay Rosas 

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