I had an error of judgement. No one can ever tell the story of Mindanao than a Mindanawon. However, I commit that error once more. No one can ever tell the story of Mindanao than an artist who is bold and willing.
When they first announced that Brillante Mendoza’s new production was entitled “Mindanao,” as a Mindanawon myself, I was thrilled. I thought to my self; finally, this film might hit the bullseye in describing the second largest region in the country, which has always eluded its northern sisters. Since it’s coming from one of the most awarded filmmakers in the country and beyond, I discarded the fact that Mendoza is not Mindanawon. Almost every film of his is well-researched and heart-wrenching, so I guessed there’s a way that he would be able to make this release a masterpiece. He did not.
The film starts when Aisa, a cancer-stricken 4-yr-old girl asks her mother Saima (played by the divine Judy Ann Santos) to tell the story of the Magindanawon folktale of two princes Raja and Sulayman, and their kingdom’s fight against two evil dragons who, after making a deal with the king to sacrifice his daughter in exchange for peace in their land, was already set to get what they’ve been promised. The whole storytelling of the folktale continues through the entire film, as an allusion to the characters’ lives.
Saima’s dilemma is her daughter’s worsening condition while being away from her husband Malang (played by Allen Dizon), who was serving as a military medic. It was no secret that their daughter had only a few days to live and Saima remains strong and calm despite their situation. In that regard, the main protagonist Saima represents Mindanao as a resilient region despite its infliction of wars or even the wrong judgment or “racism” of fellow Filipinos.
It wasn’t until around 20-30 minutes into the film that the war-laden side of the story and Malang, as a war medic, were introduced. I was stunned to see that the soldiers’ enemies were rebels, which is not different from the encounters in Luzon and Visayas. However, there was a non-Muslim character (a soldier played by Epy Quizon) who was judgemental and untrusting of Malang because he is Muslim. In the end, however, he realizes that Malang is a faithful ally. This part of the story, although already banal, might still be useful, especially since at some point, a lot of people from the north have their own judgments on Islam.
Unworthy of its title
The film deserves the Metro Manila Film Festival’s Best Picture award, but it is not worthy of its title, Mindanao. Yes, they depicted Muslim culture in the film, but it doesn’t make it a good representation of Mindanao’s turmoils. By using the folktale of Raja and Sulayman, Mendoza has the greater responsibility of telling Mindanao’s story, which is a far cry from Luzon’s and the Visayas’.
Religion has long been an issue of Mindanao. In its early years, a massive percentage of Mindanao (and even the whole Philippines) was Islam, until many of its regions were Christianized. Although it’s of lesser concern than it once was, many leaders and some groups are still distracted by this division and Christianity’s domination. Aside from that, there are a lot of political wars that are unique to the region (they are very striking).
Another legitimate concern is the marginalized Indigenous Peoples who deserve our attention. Given the fact that Mindanao is now very diverse, despite the other turmoils, whether local or international, many people like me are more aware of what’s happening in Hollywood than in the region. Mendoza could’ve banked on these issues.
Recent Filipino films have been so bold, like Erik Matti’s On the Job or Buybuyst, Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake, Treb Monteras’ Respeto, and the recently-released Dead Kids by Mikhail Red to name a few. These films (except On the Job and Respeto) don’t deserve an award, filmmaking, and technicality-wise, but they tell stories that are of great significance to our society. The filmmakers have bravely laid out their cries through their art to awaken the Filipino audience. Their films are “a must-watch.”
Mendoza, however, has wasted the title Mindanao and settled on a melodrama that could be just another MMK or Magpakailanman episode (but a great one, indeed). Yes, there are a lot of complications to the problems of Mindanao and no filmmaker (especially from Luzon or Visayas) is worthy of telling it from their view, or even a Minandawon like me, who is less aware. However, Mendoza, as brilliant as he is, could’ve tried.
Art by Jim Morada