A Mindanaoan filmmaker tells martial law's 'forbidden memory'

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Filmmaker Gutierrez "Teng" Mangansakan II was born in Cotabato and raised in Maguindanao to a political family. His grandfather was Datu Udtug Matalam, founder of the Mindanao Independence Movement, which was formed in response to the Jabidah massacre in 1968. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When President Rodrigo Duterte remarked that there were no studies nor movies about martial law, in light of the uproar brought by the sudden burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, filmmaker Gutierrez “Teng” Mangansakan II was among those to invite him to view his new documentary, “Forbidden Memory.”

The film, which won Best Documentary at the Cinema One Originals film festival, is tagged the “greatest Marcos horror story never told,” and recalls the memories of the survivors of a massacre perpetrated by armed soldiers sent by the government (then led by former president Marcos) to keep the peace between Christians and rebels in Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat, in September 1974.

Martial law was in effect, and so was the holy month of Ramadan, when the soldiers rounded up around a thousand men and around 3,000 women in the coastal village of Malisbong, ostensibly to extract information about rebel movements. What followed, as witnessed by the survivors, was a calculated genocide of around 1,500 men, women, and children.

The men were kept like sheep for slaughter in a nearby mosque, says one of the witnesses in the documentary, who also witnessed eight of these men running towards the beach as they were shot by soldiers. Other men were ordered to dig their own graves, while others were moved to another place, never to return. The women were separated from their brothers and husbands in the barrio hall, and thereafter shepherded into naval ships, where they experienced horrors unspeakable.

The narration in “Forbidden Memory” is simple and starkly clear, connected by consistent accounts of the survivors and punctuated by calming images of sky and sea. In the beginning, the audience is told the film is not historical fact, but rather a retelling of memory. It opens with an elderly woman with glimmering eyes — Babu Ligaya, as Mangansakan calls her — saying these memories are still too difficult to bear. It cuts into a silently horrifying black and white footage of a woman, being forced by a man to stand in the middle of a screen for a few agonizing seconds, her fate uncertain. There is an anecdote by a middle-aged man recalling how they were thrown one-inch slices of coconuts — as chickens are fed grain — after days of starvation inside the mosque. He recalls able-bodied men being summoned outside to carry sacks of rice, then the sound of gunshots.

As depicted in the film, imprints of bloodied hands remain in the mosque, as do cracks and circular holes that fit bullets. Two survivors, both women, condemn the Marcoses: one of them the father, and the other, the son.

Even as the AFP denies the existence of the massacre, according to Mangansakan, the survivors still await reparation from the Commission on Human Rights for the loss of lives and property suffered by the villagers, now 42 years to this day. CNN Philippines Life sits down with Mangansakan after one of the film’s screenings to ask him about the making of this documentary, the value of collective memory, and how to tell “a truth” — as relayed by the massacre’s survivors — in a post-truth era. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

teng mangansakan1.jpg Mangansakan directed "Forbidden Memory," a documentary film about a massacre of villagers — around 1,500 men, women, and children — in Malisbong, Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat. Photo by JL JAVIER

At the end of the film, the interviewees said that if it wasn’t you doing the documentary, they wouldn’t share their story. Why is this so?

Before I did this documentary, I was commissioned by an office to do a documentary on historical injustices and the legitimate grievances of the Bangsamoro, in fulfilment of the GPH-MILF Peace Agreement, [where] a third party was created to propose transitional justice mechanisms. So pumunta ako ng Malisbong last year, met these people, talked to them. And then sabi ko nga, ang limitation ng documentary, since it’s a 20-minute documentary, is ang dami-daming sites na ifi-feature. Sinabi ko sa sarili ko, this is an unfinished business, ‘di ko nabigyan ng hustisya ‘yung mga tao na sana marinig yung boses nila. If there’s a chance for me to make a documentary, I’m going to make a documentary about Malisbong. Then Cinema One announced they were opening the slots for three documentaries, I thought this was my chance, nag-submit ako. Then I got one of the slots.

So I went [to Malisbong]. Pero ‘di pa pagtanggap ‘yung natanggap ko. Kung baga, skepticism, number one. Sabi nila sa akin, all these years, people have gone to them, talked to them, feeling nila pinaglalaruan sila. Maraming NGOs, pumupunta doon, sinasabi na, “Hey talk to us, tell us your story, maghahanap kami ng NGO para meron kayong livelihood....” and then afterward they don’t come back. So feeling nila nagagago sila.

‘Nung dumating ako, I told them I want to make this documentary, parang may [skepticism] pa. I had to talk to their elders, their leaders. I even had to talk to the MILF chairman sa area na ‘yun. And I really had to convince them that I don’t have any other purpose, or pagkakitaan sila, it’s just that I want to know their story so the world can hear their stories. And it’s also good that I am also from Mindanao, I am also Maguindanaon, and somehow they were able to trust me with their stories.

I think when these people entrusted me with their stories, I had to be very careful with their stories. I want to be as simple and as sincere as possible when I tell the stories in the documentary form na hindi ko siya masyadong i-e-embellish. The rawness of the documentary is its power. Nilahad ko lang siya as they were narrated to me.

When these people entrusted me with their stories, I had to be very careful with their stories. I want to be as simple and as sincere as possible when I tell the stories in the documentary form ... The rawness of the documentary is its power.

You were born and raised in Mindanao?

I was born in Cotabato. I was raised in Maguindanao. My mother was mayor during the martial law regime. And nakwento nga mga tao sa amin, ‘’Yung nanay mo, ang tapang-tapang. Siya yung kaya makipag-argue sa military leadership.” My family rin kasi was entrenched in the politics of Mindanao. My grandfather was Datu Udtug Matalam.  He founded the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM) in 1968 as a response to the Jabidah massacre. And the MIM was actually the precursor of the MNLF and MILF. People would agree my grandfather was the father of the Moro liberation movement. So kumbaga maliit pa ako, open and exposed na ako sa politics.

But I really wanted to make romantic narrative films. Napasok ako sa documentary in 2000 when [former President] Erap Estrada declared an all-out war against MILF, 'yung bahay namin, bahay ng lolo ko sa Pagalungan, Maguindanao was transformed into a refugee camp. Very fond ang memories ko sa bahay na ‘yun kasi lumaki ako dun. When I saw evacuees in the area, I shot footages of their plight. ‘Yun ‘yung first documentary ko, “House under the Crescent Moon.” From then on I explored different facets of the armed conflict. Pero when I graduated to feature narrative films, ‘yung armed conflict naging part pa rin siya ng themes ko, pero very subtle. Mas nagiging brave and blatant ako sa documentaries, pero subtle in my narrative films.

When people ask me, would you consider making a film that is not about Mindanao? I would say I don’t think I can make a film that is not Mindanao. It would feel like I’m a fish out of water.

What were you going through while you were listening to all the stories?

It was difficult to process. Sa team ko, ako lang ‘yung Maguindanaon. During the interviews, ako lang ‘yung nakakaintindi. Pero alam mo? ‘Yung emotions ng mga ini-interview ko transcend the barrier of language. ‘Yung mga kasama ko umiiyak habang pinapakinggan ‘yung mga interviews. Not because they understood what the people were saying, but because they felt everything and what they went through. So tuwing umuuwi ako sa Gen San, tuwing hapon, nagtataka ‘yung mga kasama ko kasi nakatulala lang ako. Oh my God, these stories. Uuwi ako ng Gen San na very negative 'yung vibe.

It took me a while to listen to the files. Nagpahinga ako ng tatlong linggo kasi ‘di ko talaga kaya. ‘Nung pinakinggan ko, ganoon pa rin 'yung effect until now, and tuwing pinapanood ko, naiiyak pa rin ako sa mga footages. Tsaka 'yung mga backstories na ako lang ang nakakaalam. So it was a difficult, difficult story to make.

babu amina.jpg One of the survivors of the Malisbong massacre in Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat, in "Forbidden Memory," recounts asking the soldiers over and over: "Why are you doing this to us?" Photo from TENG MANGANSAKAN/FACEBOOK

I was struck by that eerily serene and black and white footage of a woman, being pushed by a military man to the center of a small screen, at the beginning of the film. What were you thinking of when you included this, along with the interviews?

The AFP, until this moment, denies the massacre, that it never happened. [They say] of course there was a military operation there to help the civilians, we were protecting the civilians against the rebels. That was the official line: of course there was no massacre. The documentary team of CHR interviewed [retired Major General] Fortunato Abat — ang sabi ni Fortunato Abat, what massacre?

So isa sa mga in-imagine ko, what if merong photos or film footage sa archives ng AFP na nakatago diyan? Evidence of what happened? As a filmmaker, I recreated what I imagined to be the found footage so that I can place the military in the massacre in Malisbong. That’s why it didn’t look like just a re-enactment. It looked like found footage. Lahat noon, basically re-enactments in the form of found footage. Things that I imagined the military intelligence saw, captured, but are now contained deep in the archives of the AFP.

They say we’re in a post-truth society, in light of fake news circulating in social media and the widespread belief in them. What value does the truth have — as contained in the stories told in your film — in an era of post-truth?

Itong issue na ito, especially 'yung kay Marcos, has become a very divisive issue. I remember two days ago someone accused me of lying [online], people should not see this film because it’s peddling lies. When you see the film, it’s based on memory, and maraming historical inaccuracies sa kwento. Some people remember it was September 21, some September 24, and I told myself it wasn’t important to establish these data or information. I was more concerned with the collective recollection of a people, and that for me was already a truth. Not necessarily the truth, but a truth. ‘Yung ‘a truth’ na ‘yun is ‘yung gusto kong malaman ng mga tao, and I think based on what I’ve been reading on Twitter, mas maraming naniniwala sa pelikula at kwento ng mga tao sa pelikula. I think that’s the post-truth that I want, the post-truth I want people to remember the film by, to remember the lessons of the film. Of the dark years of martial law.

teng mangansakan2.jpg "I was more concerned with the collective recollection of a people, and that for me was already a truth. Not necessarily the truth, but a truth," says Mangansakan. Photo by JL JAVIER

The interviewees were not identified in the documentary. Was this intentional on your part, consistently with your goal to record a “collective recollection” of a people?

It was a decision [made] a day before mag-out kami. If these people are just representatives of larger communities, maybe if you don’t name them and just put them on the end credits, they’re not just talking to one person, but they’re also talking to an entire community, nameless members of the community who suffered. Maraming ‘di na-account eh, na nag-suffer. That was a conscious effort not to put in names.

Are you still in touch with the survivors?

Not only with the survivors, but with the young people na alam kong related to the survivors. Nung kinakausap ako ng survivors, ang natatanong ko diyan is, “How do you ensure this truth is going to the young generation?” … So sinasabi nila na kinukuwento nila.

I need to do that. Ayoko sabihin nila na after entrusting me with their stories, I’m just one of those people who did that para pagkakitaan sila, para mapakinabangan sila. That’s why every now and then pumupunta ako doon, sa Malisbong. Or sa Gen San.