Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2015, filmmaker Bagane Fiola was working on an experimental documentary in Mindanao when a former rebel commander shared a fable about the Moros. The first part of the fable was about how an ancestral father would wake up every night to witness a beautiful nymph whom he, by and by, fell in love with. For everyone else in the community, however, the nymph just appeared as a pig.
This part of the fable lingered with Fiola that he thought of exploring what the symbolism behind the pig could mean beyond the poetry of the Moros. He later learned that boar hunting continues to be an important part of the indigenous peoples in Mindanao, particularly that of the Matigsalug tribe in the Marilog district of Davao, and so he started to organically create a film that attempted to make a visual language that is similar to the Lumad.
“The Lumad have their own way of saying things which is more connected to nature. They would say ‘…visit us soon when the wheat bows down’ which I understand as an invitation on the month of harvest,” Fiola explains on the kind of language they had to have for the film “Wailings in the Forest.”
Called “Baboy Halas” in Filipino, the film consists of members of the Matigsalug tribe that Fiola insisted on casting. “We cast them simply because ‘Baboy Halas’ is a film about the Matigsalug tribe; their way of survival, culture and spirituality,” he says.
In the film, the main character is Mampog, who struggles to sustain his two wives and his daughter. Hunting and capturing a wild boar becomes increasingly difficult and even sacrifices to spirits no longer help his cause. The story then unfurls with his attempts at trying to survive from the difficulties of a changing environment as well as attacks of neighboring tribes. More than its story, the film demands the viewer to heighten the senses: the lingering shots of the vast forestry encourages you to really see and the subtle sounds (crackling fire, chirping birds, rustling of leaves) innate in nature spurs you to really listen.
Mampog is part of the Matigsalug tribe, a sub-tribe of the indigenous group called the Manobos, that can be found deep in the highlands of Davao and Bukidnon. The name Matigsalug comes from the word “matig,” which means “from” and “salug,” which means river. This is also why their particular tribe is known to be the first inhabitants of the Salug River or what is now known as the Davao River. However, the tribe has since moved upstream of the Davao River because of various forms of harassments that have to do with land grabbing.
Fiola says that this issue on land grabbing is a concern that the Matigsalug tribe and other Indigenous Peoples in Mindanao have commonly endured.
“Land grabbing is not just as simple as the way we think it is and it is the precursor of the numerous abuses they encounter in their daily lives,” he says. “[There are] women and children who leave their villages because of the atrocities of several bribable militaries and armed groups.”
In his quest to elucidate the layers of challenges of the Matigsalug — from the changing environmental landscapes to the human rights violations — Fiola says they had to create a more organic filmmaking process, one that would make the tribe understand what filmmaking was and at the same time make the production team truly understand the Matigsalug’s way of life.
“It became more like a ritual. We introduced filmmaking to the Lumad as an offering to be blessed with the knowledge of their culture and spirituality,” he explains. “We get something from them, we have something to return to them.”
The entire production finished in 2016 and went on to win the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema Jury Prize award and the Best Artistic Achievement award during its world premiere at the 4th QCinema International Film Festival. In 2017, it was selected under the “Bright Future” non-competition section of the 46th International Film Festival Rotterdam and it was also given the Special Newcomer Award at the Internationales Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg in Germany.
Two years on, Fiola has been crowdfunding to pool resources that will enable them to provide projectors and to show the film to the Matigsalug tribe themselves this summer. The team plans to screen the film on May 4, as suggested by the Matigsalug community since that is the “foundation day” of Sitio Maharlika, Barangay Baganihan, Marilog, the setting of the film.
“Though the film has been screened in many places, we always bear the thought that one day [we] will bring the film back to its home, the Marilog forest, and reunite with the crew and the cast — the Lumad themselves — and show the film to their community where the film was realized and shot, and where the rest of the Lumad deserve to see it,” he says.
“It was made not only for the Matigsalug tribe but for all the IPs to see themselves reflected in a cinematic form and for their children to see their vanishing way of life.”
CNN Philippines Life spoke with Fiola to know more about the filmmaking process, the Matigsalug tribe, and the importance of casting the tribe for the film. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
What background study did you have to do in order to make a film that is best representative of how the Matigsalug tribe lives?
The IPs stand in their oral tradition of telling stories. To research and learn directly from them is to be with them, to immerse in their community; experience their practices, and listening fervently to their treasured stories that has been passed on through generations. For the making of “Baboy Halas,” we welcomed them to be involved and to participate in the development and production of the film. After all, it is a representation of themselves for them to see and for us to understand them as Katawhang Lumad or IPs.
For any film at the moment, the need to have the most authentic cast possible is crucial: hire an aboriginal person for an aboriginal role, hire a trans person for a trans role, etc. You hired the IPs themselves. How did you make sure that the vision of the film is not lost in this clamor for authenticity?
I believe the individual storytelling is not lost if you surround yourself with passionate people who are sincere to their work in recreating their experiences or other’s experiences and who are true to their characters. All these positive energies pull everyone together to work for the realization of one common story. For what I’ve been learning, which eventually became my process, this is how filmmakers share the same vision in recreating different worlds limited in a frame.
You can film a real taxi driver who can perform honestly well into who he really is and would convince the viewers, who would only see a frame of his being a taxi driver, about the character he plays. But that’s not always the case. There are so many elements in a film. A moth visiting a house could mean death, but it could also mean hope to others.
Authenticity contributes to the quality and value of the film, but authenticity can mean several different things depending on the culture of the subject in relation to the viewers and vice versa. It is like a poem that dies from the hearts of the poets to relive in the souls of the readers.
One of the biggest challenges of telling the stories of indigenous people is that it may romanticize or exoticize their way of living. Did you think about how this film may exoticize the Matigsalug tribe? How did you navigate around this concern?
In filming “Wailings in the Forest,” I think I concentrated more on my vision which I believe was shared with the cast and crew, especially with the IP community. I am aware though that anything can be exoticized and that it is a very important issue. Exotizication can mean several different things also depending on the perspective. Even filmmaking itself can be a medium impressionable enough to exoticize people’s way of living to begin with.
There have been continuous claims of human rights abuses towards indigenous people in the Philippines. Are there some stories that you’ve encountered while filming with the Matigsalug? What have you learned from these?
I’ve been in only two communities of Matigsalug in Davao for just a short period of time and it was only during my research and filming of “Baboy Halas” in 2016.
I went back to one of the communities [just a few weeks ago] to reconnect with my Lumad brothers and gave them updates about the film. One child actor of the film is now already about 10 years old. I met him on the road on his motorbike. He said he was running late on his way to Lorega to work as a machine operator.
Another actor who played emissary in the film said they were waiting for their foreman so they can continue working on the road. I was wondering why he was speaking to me in Tagalog. So in respect, I spoke to him in Tagalog. He told me that after several months of vigorous attempts to get his monetary share as DENR’s forest guard for seven years, including forcing himself to go to Manila, he had failed and finally found out that his manager already passed away.
So he went back to his community. His lack of proof and records as a forest guard made him realize that no matter who he works for, he will always be responsible to protect the forest, because after all, they live in and rely on the forest. The forest trail where we used to spend one to two hours of trekking just to get to the filmmaking location is now a concrete road, about three kilometers from the national highway up until the point where we talked …
The Matigsalug tribe share common abuses and harassment with other Indigenous Peoples in Mindanao, especially on the issue of land grabbing … I think about the Lumad who have been exploited through propaganda or advocacies to fight for their self-determinations, only for the bigger interest of politicians, businesses, institutions and organizations.
I think about our education system that has been ever since brainwashing the IP children in the most precious and important time of their lives to learn the modern and materialistic way of living and become part of our patriarchal and bureaucratic government system. I think about the tribal leaders who have embraced the industrialized way of government for the “development of their communities,” only to involve their people to our form of government, which is susceptible to corruption. I think about the trail that is now being turned to concrete, only to give way to large companies and businesses who will take advantage of the community and the natural resources.
These are just some of the many things that will only lead the IPs to be participating in our system that we adopted from the West. They will eventually lose their way of life, a life that is more sustainable and always connected to nature, their spirituality and culture and even their way of saying things, their expressive language will eventually turn into the imperial form of communication.
What would you say is the biggest difficulty of the tribe and how do you think can the rest of the Philippines reach out?
Remembering what Datu Dagsil — the chieftain in one of the two Matigsalug communities who participated in the film “Baboy Halas” — told me during one of the breaks in our shoot, he said “…if a deer has left the forest, the forest is already in danger.” A deer would move deeper into the forest or towards the source of water and the IPs would usually resettle where there’s sustainable food and more drinkable water.
The Lumad ways of expression always leave me in awe and always make me wonder: it doesn’t mean just what it seems. What Datu Dagsil told me could mean a lot of things. For me, it means a warning that people from a more “advanced society” have already occupied the forest. If they would be in peril because of whatever circumstances our modern system may impute on them and to the forest, they would usually move to a greener pasture, as what they have been accustomed to do to survive or have been used to evacuating from one place to another as a result of being abused or harassed.
Unfortunately, because of the enticement of our development to modernity and the scarcity of our natural resources, the result of humanity’s irrepressible greed, most instances they would eventually adapt to our more sedentary, modern way of living. However they may adapt or evolve to whatever society, it will always be them, the IPs, with their own way of resistance to any form of foreign influences or authorities, who can define and achieve their self-determination and self-governance.