I HAVE always been a firm believer in the political potential of film as an art form. My own awakening to radical politics was ignited not so much by the deliberative theoretical lessons acquired through the classroom and books but by the collective experience of being herded into a dark room where images that tell stories of shared realities are projected onto the screen.
I remember the weekly journey of the imagination that took place at the UP Film Center where the Filipino classics and progressive films were shown to a revolving generation of students. Watching Brocka’s “Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag” became a rite of passage for many of us, made more memorable by the impassioned discussions en route to the dorm, or if the money allowed, the university watering hole at the other end of campus.
I was made wistful about all of these after watching Arbi Barbarona’s “Tu Pug Imatuy” last week in a special screening in Davao before it was viewed for competition during the 2017 Sinag Maynila Film Festival this week.
The fact that the film practically swept all the major awards including the best film, and best director, best music, cinematography, and screenplay as well as best actress for its lead, newbie Malona Sulatan, during the awarding ceremonies last March 12, 2017, are all testaments of the solid effort that made the independent film the critic’s darling. But it is really that strong sense of place as it faithfully spoke about the struggles of Mindanao’s indigenous peoples that distinguished it as a film, in my opinion.
There is something magical that happens when filmmakers, including the directors, actors, and crew, depict a people’s story faithfully such that indigenous men and women can see their own struggles, heartache, and victories retold on celluloid. It is a story told from the margins, bereft of the kind of public attention and indignation that mining and militarization ought to elicit from mainstream media.
When these heart-wrenching narratives were finally allowed expression, through familiar images of their beautiful but remote mountain communities, their story retold through their own Manobo dialect, their sense of anger and cry for retribution finally set free, it feels as if a veil has been lifted.
This was the feeling during that special screening when I watched it together with Lumad men and women from Haran, Davao – they who have been driven away from their communities by the same malignant elements painfully retold by the film. In this instance, the screening of the film became somewhat of a collective catharsis and an invisible yet palpable solidarity among us, viewers, was forged.
Having followed Lumad issues and concerns as a student of Mindanao, I have always been bothered by the tendency to depict the Lumad either as helpless victims of circumstance or pawns exploited by sinister external forces. The #stoplumadkilllings campaign made the necessary step of sounding the alarm regarding the plight of Mindanao’s indigenous communities in the face of mining and militarization. But a more faithful and respectful message which should show the bravery and resilience of the Lumad must also be put across. Through the deft hand of director Arbi Barbarona, the film was also able to deliver the message that the Lumad have also learned to fight back.
This I believe was the powerful message of the film poignantly but directly alluded to by its title, “The Right to Kill.” If the regime of mining and militarization terrorizes and murderously rules over indigenous communities with impunity, it does not take much for them, as a matter of survival, to fight back.
This nugget of wisdom is not handed down to the viewer heavy-handedly. Rather, there are rich visual metaphors that slowly build up this ideological point revealed dramatically in the final sequences of the film. There are breath-taking shots here of the raw and wild beauty of Mindanao’s mountains and forests, the last bastions of indigenous ways of life under threat by mining and militarization, that are worth already the price of admission.
Hidden but eventually revealed visually and within the film’s narrative are the other inhabitants of the forests who have also taken root under the canopy of its trees, the crevices and grasslands, rivers, and streams side-by-side with indigenous communities. As the film unflinchingly retells the true story of the torture and abuse that Lumad woman Obunay experienced when she was forced to be a guide by the military in the hunt for revolutionaries, the sudden appearance of the mystic guardians of the forest was a welcome relief.
It was a heartening albeit difficult revelation that the film elides with a gracious and righteous ease. In the struggle of Mindanao’s Lumad communities against mining and militarization, and their historical fight to achieve self-determination, they are not, and have never been, alone.