On Three Films Set in Mindanao
by Patrick F. Campos
Place matters, but scale decides.
At no time in Philippine cinema history has there ever been more active filmmakers nationwide than today. And at no other time have myriad spaces throughout the archipelago been so richly represented onscreen. Thus, there is a need to develop a paradigm that can account for the expansion of cinematic reach and visualization while remaining sensitive to historical context and cinematic place-making politics.
In this essay, I offer a snapshot of contemporary Philippine cinema by looking at three recent films set in the country’s southern islands of Mindanao—Brillante Mendoza’s Mindanao (2019), Lav Diaz’s Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (Season of the Devil, 2019), and Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas (Wailings in the Forest, 2016). I do so to flesh out themes that can guide us in thinking about differentiated Filipino film at present. I locate these filmmakers in the current landscape and reflect on how they scale their cinematic subjects for particular aesthetic effects and ideological ends.
I use the category of scale to highlight these filmmakers’ spatial strategies and the social realities these strategies contain, produce, and seek to transform. I analyze how they use scale from where they are to construct a metaphor of society, how they bind and unbind time, spaces, and subjects to represent Mindanao and its people, and how, from distinct perspectives, they help us conceive a gestalt of scale (i.e., the way various scales fit together to form patterns or wholes) of the national imaginary and, by extension, national cinema.
Mindanao, National Scale, and Mythic Time
“Unrest grips the island of Mindanao for centuries…and the Moro people of today remain unchanged.” So declares the text that opens Brillante Mendoza’s Mindanao, circumscribing an undifferentiated archipelagic space and a changeless people sorrowing across mythic time. The film’s plot itself runs only for a few weeks, and it follows the struggle of a Muslim family—TSgt. Malang Datupalo, a combat medic of the Armed Forces of the Philippines engaged in warfare against Moro rebels in his homeland of Maguindanao; his wife Saima, who is trying to find the best care for their terminally ill child in a war-torn society; and their daughter Aisa whose only relief from physical suffering is her imagination’s escape to the world of Indarapatra and Sulayman, heroes in an old Maguindanaon epic retold to her by her parents.
A short but tender moment intersects two bloody sequences of death and battle in Mindanao. Malang is visibly shaken as he pays his last respects to a slain rebel, a fellow Maguindanaon whose face is mangled beyond recognition. Before his troop proceeds to Mamasapano, where another gunfight unknown to them would erupt, on the shore at dusk, they come across Muslims, mostly women and children, riding colorful vintas (traditional boats native to Mindanao) and waving at them.
A faint smile momentarily visits Malang’s weary face upon seeing them, and we can only surmise what hopes flitted his mind. Did he have an inkling of peace, a time when his people of Muslim Mindanao and the Philippine military he serves would one day lay down their arms? Or was he thinking of Aisa, who, in his fantasy perhaps, has won her battle against cancer? Alas, the moment is his last respite before a violent shootout injures him and claims soldiers’ lives on both sides. Despite the casualties, however, the war is not won but continues. Upon returning home, he reunites with his wife only to learn that his daughter is no more.
The film locates Mindanao and the viewers in a space akin to Malang’s transitory moment of hope, but it can go no further than mourn the dead. Mindanao’sscalar framing vaguely alludes to history. It incorporates folklore inhabited by dragons to give the impression of a tremendous temporal scale. Still, the film cannot envision a future for the place because it relies on a long-standing scalar fix, a reified scale that has come to be naturalized, in this case, by the state. Thus, Mindanao ends as it began, amid war, with soldiers fighting against the odds for an elusive peace.
Mindanao typifies a highly provincial view from the center, unaware of its parochialism because it takes for granted its own scalar categories and speaks in such proximity to the warping vantage point of power. Mendoza executive produced the film through his Center Stage Productions in cooperation with the Presidential Communications Operations Office, the media agency of the government tasked to “raise consciousness,” “enlighten the citizenry,” and “build national consensus.”
Mindanao is unlike the slow-burn, quasi-documentary films Mendoza is known for in the international film festival circuit. It is a melodrama mixed with fantasy and animation, a hybrid form palatable to the entire family, starring Judy Ann Santos as Siama, one of the most popular dramatic actresses from Manila. Selected as part of the nationwide run of the Metro Manila Film Festival, which happens annually from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day when no foreign films can screen locally, it is addressed to the Filipino mass audience and is arguably Mendoza’s most accessible film, to date.
In an interview, Mendoza reveals his thought-process in topographically framing the story the way he did. He states, “Whether we like it or not when we say ‘Mindanao,’ people relate it to the conflict there. Therefore, you cannot just make a film about Mindanao and not mention the conflict.” His assumptions give us insight into his sense of scale, power relationship, and hierarchy.
His statement depends on the myopic view that “people” can only imagine “Mindanao” as a conflict site. This opinion privileges the perspective of non-Mindanaons who are prone to reduce the islands into a manageable scale. The film itself is a patchwork of incongruous cultural references and confusing geography that exhibits the filmmaker’s disconnected sense of place and history. It projects non-Mindanaon audiences who would be unable to distinguish among the various ethnolinguistic symbols from Muslim Mindanao—for instance, that vintas do not ferry passengers on the coast of Maguindanao. And it imagines those who would respond to highly-charged references—for example, to the botched police mission in Mamasapano that claimed 67 lives, including 44 of the government’s Special Action Force in 2015.
Mindanao can also serve as a metaphor for the risky project of scaling national cinema from an aerial view that obfuscates the networked scalar projects on the ground. The braggadocio of the film’s title equates Mindanao with a faction of Moros. It elides the islands’ other inhabitants, a more variegated population of Muslims, the Lumads or indigenous peoples, and the settlers. Mendoza’s statement about the condition and necessity of making Mindanao also ignores or undermines Mindanao cinema’s contribution to Filipino film whose artists have been laboring even before Mendoza began directing in 2005. Not only have Mindanaon filmmakers represented the Moro conflict in more historically informed and culturally sensitiveways. They have also been imagining Mindanao beyond the Moro conflict for many years now.
Mindanao can only allude to hoped-for peace but cannot imagine the place’s future because it peddles the state’s viewpoint and is single-minded in singing its military’s praises. More than once in the film, Moros displaced by war are made to utter how grateful they are that the army is there to protect them. The retold epic’s atrocious dragons are visually associated with Moro rebels, while the state soldiers are problematically associated with the folk heroes. And in one incredible sequence, Malang, wearing a Maguindanaon warrior’s costume over his military uniform (in itself a ridiculous proposition), slays a villainous Moro with a kris! For sure, these are not images of reconciliation and concession.
Meanwhile, the film refuses to historicize the antipathy. It is silent about the Muslims’ systematic disenfranchisement since the American colonial period; the unregulated migration of settlers into the 1960s that marginalized Moros and Lumads; the lack of a just land registration system resulting in violent clashes, land-grabbing, and deprivation; and the persistent and widespread militarization of the islands from the 1970s to the present. Thus, as a melodramatic film, Mindanao can only resolve the conflict on a familial scale; as a fantasy film, it displaces the battle in time beyond history; and as a war film, it is nothing more than one-sided state propaganda.
Ang Panahon ng Halimaw and the Scale of the Individual
Lav Diaz’s Ang Panahon ng Halimaw opens with a narrator’s voice describing the film’s historical milieu and offering an astounding figure that evokes a terrifying scale of terror. “In the year 1977,” she begins, “President Ferdinand Marcos authored Presidential Decree 1016.… More than 70,000 civilians were armed and given the power to quell the so-called rebellion of the Communist Party and the secessionist Moros in Mindanao. This paramilitary force was one of the causes of widespread human rights violations during Martial Law.”
The narrator positions Halimaw in its chronological place but then splits cinematic-historical temporality by locating herself implicitly in the present and dating the story that is yet to unfold “in 1979.” This scalar strategy opens for the viewer an encounter with the film as an artifact of the present that mirrors events 40 years prior. Like the titular devil whose head is halved into two faces, front and back, Halimaw is scaled as if by a mirror, with two parallel spaces—dystopia and heterotopia (that is, an utterly negative social space, on the one hand, and a strangely ordered place that disrupts the familiar with the presence of the “other,” on the other hand)—connected by anachronic time. Like a mirror, the film envisages the Mindanao of the past as an alter-space to the place one occupies and still has agency to change in the present.
It is impossible for anyone who has even a faint knowledge of the magnitude of human rights violations committed in the Philippines today to miss the connection drawn by the film between the dictator Marcos and current President Rodrigo Duterte. Hence, it is critical to grasp (1) how the film’s representation of scale relates to actual processes that politically and materially construct scale in the social world, and (2) how the film intimates the topological openness and expanding nature of social scale from the level of the individual, the locale, the region, to the nation. Still, it is important not to obscure the particularity of Halimaw‘s historical and geographical referent. Unlike Mendoza, Diaz, who was born and grew up in Maguindanao, draws on facts about the brutalization of Mindanao’s people.
The numbers that figure Mindanao’s military brutalization are staggering, like the “7,000” armed civilians that Diaz’s narrator brings to our mind’s eye. From 1977 to 1985, 1,511 of 2,384 people extrajudicially killed; 445 of 703 forcefully disappeared; and 12,888 of 19,197 illegally detained were from Mindanao. Halimaw fleshes out these numbers by dramatizing how, with his vow to hold no one accountable except the “enemies” of the state and endow some people with power over others’ lives, the charismatic devil turned one’s neighbors into rabid henchmen. They murdered with impunity anyone suspected of being a supporter of communists or secessionists. Halimaw tellingly portrays not only the state military but the state-sanctioned paramilitary forces—which is to say civilians with whom one shared “ordinary” community spaces but whose religious hatred and zealous nationalism were armed with the “extraordinary” force of guns.
When Halimaw was shown in the Philippines, Mindanao had been under martial law for over two years even though the terrorist threat, which gave rise to the islands’ being placed under military rule, was contained within months from its eruption. Duterte, in May 2017, proclaimed that martial law in Mindanao “will not be any different from what President Marcos did.” In a speech, he addressed the armed forces and said, “For this martial law […], I and I alone would be responsible. […] You can arrest any person, search any house, without a warrant. Like before,” further quipping that “if you rape three, that’s on me.”
By December 2019, according to Mindanao-based human rights group Barug Katungod, they have documented 162 extrajudicial killings, 704 cases of trumped-up charges, 284 cases of illegal detention, 1,007 victims of aerial bombardments, and forced evacuations of more than 500,000 people resulting from intense militarization. Tragically, what happens in Mindanao is also happening on the broader national scale, and the casualties of one are not reducible to that of the other.
In Halimaw, as in many other worlds created by Diaz, murderers and victims are no mere numbers but are individuals who pontificate and brood about the meaning and effects of their actions within their scale of influence. We are made witness to how the panorama of characters wrestles with or rationalizes their decision to resist the devil or to give up their lives for him. Despite the apparent largeness of Halimaw‘s concept and form (as a four-hour anti-musical), the film is concerned mainly with the calculus of resistance and survival, of how 1 resists decimation and the doom of being reduced—historically, politically, mortally—to 0. Thus, it is invested in the meaning of the central characters Lorena’s and Hugo’s life choices in the grand scheme of things.
Lorena, a young doctor who could thrive in any place, elects to devote her life serving thanklessly in a rural village, where she would eventually be red-tagged, abducted, raped, and killed. Hugo, a poet and teacher, must struggle with his disillusionment after losing Lorena and live up to his writings’ ideals—that every person must at all costs, even at the expense of one’s life, fight the devil. Halimaw, in this way, is primarily addressing the Lorenas and Hugos of Philippine society, intellectuals and professionals, who are the kinds of audience Diaz’s cinema projects.
Diaz’s sensibility was shaped by a politicized cinema that boldly responded to Marcos’s Martial Law in the 1970s and ’80s. He himself would be an exemplar of the no-compromise ethos in the 1990s and 2000s and would help define digital cinema’s possibilities. We can say that the scalar priorities of Halimaw mirror the auteur’s location in Philippine cinema, a position that champions artistic independence above all else to make bold political statements in the form of one’s choosing over appealing to a mass audience or seeking to define place-rooted cinema.
Diaz’s location sets him apart from Mindanaon filmmakers. The scale of his artistic practice, whose outputs have rarely been positioned to recoup investment, has through the years necessitated immense but devoted support from commercial producers who would buy into his national politics and underwrite his continuing global influence. It was the savvy risk-takers from the production company, Epicmedia, in cooperation with the Malaysian company, Da Huang Pictures, which shares Diaz’s ethos, and the resources of Globe Studios, the giant telecommunication corporation’s content-creation arm, that made it possible for Halimaw to be completed and seen by cinephiles in and beyond the Philippines.
The film’s making and narrative illustrate how scales are produced by the conceptual and practical labor of social actors like politicians, soldiers, activists, and artists who reproduce their imagined scales onto the material world by their resources and actions. The film’s emphasis is on the scale of networks and relationships, which though uncertain in its ultimate effects, cannot be reified and co-opted wholly and for all time and can always potentially grow in number and influence. Thus, Halimaw‘s tragic ending is not attributed to the untenability of resisting the devil but to the lack of a critical mass composed of willful individuals that can tip the scale.
Baboy Halas in Trans/Local Space and Deep Time
Nothing—a black screen—opens Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas. And then, faintly at first, we hear the jungle’s nocturnal chorus crescendo: birds chirping, insects night-calling, leaves rustling. The first image we see is cinematic, no doubt. A drone trails a human figure running through a field of trees and entering an old-growth forest. Unlike Mindanao and Halimaw,the film does not tell the viewer where or when this, now, is. Soon after, we learn that the human figure in an unadorned loincloth is Mampog, an agile hunter who lives in a treehouse in the woodland with his two wives and a daughter. Their family lives in isolation and survives in tension with other tribespeople wearing more intricate clothing, bearing better-crafted arms, and dwelling in communities in the forest’s flatland.
Baboy Halas shows with ethnographic urge the sociospatial dynamics of these distinct indigenous groups—what causes conflicts between them, how they resolve disputes, when they are expected to make sacrifices, and why they plead for deities to intervene in human affairs. The film insinuates that when Mampog was unable to fulfill his obligation to his family and harmoniously cohabit the land with communities beyond his immediate social space, nature transformed him into a wild boar to restore equilibrium. In this way, the story embodies anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s well-known axiom that today rings as a warning against tribalism, that “humanity is confined to the borders of the tribe, the linguistic group, or even, in some instances, the village.”
The film can be thought of as a nested set of highly localized and interlocking scales populated by kinfolk and close-knit communities. In the world of Baboy Halas, the object is not to determine which borders cannot be crossed by outsiders. On the contrary, the project is akin to how geographer Erik Swyngedouw describes the tactic of mobilizing scale politics: that is, to “define the arena of struggle, where conflict is mediated and regulated and compromises settled.”
Tellingly, Baboy Halas leaves no visual or narrative marks of modern temporality. There are no cities, no cars, no clocks. In our valorization of modern time—which is rooted in the violence of colonial and settler time—we might view Mampog and his neighbors in non-native terms as primitives, trapped in the past, unable to progress. However, Fiola refuses the notion of universal chronology and foregrounds the validity and the vitality of the indigenous peoples’ alternative mode of temporality. Apart from being a vehicle for universal wisdom, Baboy Halas offers a perspective on nature and social processes in heterochronic time. It gives the audience a novel view of ancient lifeways, which have evolved into various cultural traditions but have continued not to move linearly but to layer across time.
What is remarkable is that the native cultures represented in the film in actuality survive today in varying degrees. Fiola pictures the startling proximity between his urban residence and Mampog’s jungle dwelling as a two-hour trek along a forest trail. Fiola’s process of conceiving and producing the film also partakes of heterochronicity. He tells of first hearing a fable passed down for many generations from a former Moro rebel commander while shooting a documentary in North Cotabato, a province in Mindanao. Smitten with the tale, he cradled this folk story of a native Moro clan’s origins until he began immersing, on and off, for months, in the ancestral land of the Matigsalug tribe in Davao, another region in Mindanao.
Fiola is a homegrown Mindanaon artist who has been active in filmmaking since the early 2000s and has never moved to Manila, the center of the Filipino mainstream film industry. However, he admits that making Baboy Halas was his most profound education in indigenous Mindanao culture. When he received a grant from the Metro Manila-based QCinema International Film Festival, he decided to work with a Lumad cast. For 17 days, he and his lean seven-person crew were welcomed to the Lumads’ social world, and in turn, they allowed the natives to actively co-create the film world with them. Fiola characterized their collaboration as a ritual—his team “introduced filmmaking to the Lumad as an offering, [and in return, the team was] blessed with the knowledge of Lumad culture and spirituality.”
After its premiere in QCinema in 2016, the film traveled to numerous film festivals in the Philippines and abroad, receiving prestigious prizes along the way. However, arguably Fiola’s most important exhibition came three years later when he held screenings for the Matigsalug community before an audience of natives, most of whom have never watched a film. The cost and logistical resources of bringing Baboy Halas “back home” to the mountains were sourced through crowdfunding and carried by his production crew and Pasalidahay, a film collective co-founded by Fiola, whose goal is to develop an audience for Mindanao cinema.
Even while it is highly localized, Baboy Halas opens to a vast translocal space, a worldwide social network, anywhere where ancestral domains are threatened to be erased by global capital and everywhere where people continue to defend them. Fiola’s work, especially by virtue of his process-oriented collaboration with the Matigsalug tribe, can be located alongside indigenous filmmaking internationally, a mode of production that shares similar historical struggles while animated by cultural specificity and is in solidarity with first peoples around the world.
Thus, the film demonstrates a mode of representation that is not burdened by the category of the nation (the social order depicted in the story appears to either precede or exceed the nation), a film in which locality is not subordinated in a scalar hierarchy to the state but is oriented horizontally, capable of crossing geopolitical boundaries internationally. At the same time, it reveals how the local and the global—scales conventionally imagined as discrete and separate, polar opposites, or hierarchical—are paradoxically connected.
The local and the global are coiled in the Anthropocene—Earth’s current geologic age, which, based on overwhelming scientific evidence, is characterized by humanity’s menacing alteration of the planet’s course. The term Anthropocene has been used to name a range of our human behavior’s disastrous effects on life and to scale the proximity of our human acts and their dire consequences that generations will have to suffer over millennia. Of the films discussed in this essay, it is Baboy Halas that exhibits the Anthropocene aesthetics. In particular, because of its apparent temporal depth, the film can be understood as moving beyond horizontal geographical scale and diving into the fathoms of geological scale.
Through its parabolic storytelling, naturalistic performance, unerring use of wild sound, and observational camerawork, the film involves the viewers in a strange temporality that feels at once distant and immediate. The scale of the dense forest where Mampog appears to be but a speck and his kin-making entanglements with animals (the white pig that enchants him and that he alone sees and the hunted wild boar that he would become to his family) can awe us with a sense of a deep and atavistic past. Moreover, the knowledge both that indigenous peoples coexist with modernity in noncoeval or noncontemporaneous time and that their impending disappearance coincides with humanity’s irreversible destruction of nature gives us a proper perspective of a deep and exigent future. Hence, while Baboy Halas begins and ends with Mampog, the film’s scale orients us toward considering the timeless process of being, interrupted.
 From “Neither global nor local: ‘Glocalization’ and the politics of scale,” Spaces of Globalization: Reasserting the Power of the Local, ed. Kevin R. Cox (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 144.
 Neil Smith, who first offered the notion of the gestalt of scale, offers an extended definition of “scale” in The Dictionary of Human Geography, eds. Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, and Michael Watts (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 724–27.
 On the politics of scalar fixes, see Neil Brenner, “The limits to scale? Methodological reflections on scalar structuration,” Progress in Human Geography, 25.4 (2001).
 See pcoo.gov.ph/about.
 Qtd. in Cruz, Marinel Cruz, “Brillante Ma Mendoza: You can’t make a film about Mindanao and not mention the conflict,” Philippine Daily Inquirer, Nov. 6, 2019, entertainment.inquirer.net/350553/brillante-ma-mendoza-you-cant-make-a-film-about-mindanao-and-not-mention-the-conflict
 Nicai de Guzman, Remembering #Fallen44 of the Special Action Forces, Esquire, Jan. 28, 2019, www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/features/remembering-fallen44-of-the-special-action-forces-a1729-20190128-lfrm3
 B.R. Rodil provides a historical contextualization of the Moro struggle in The minoritization of the indigenous communities of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago (Davao City: Alternative Forum for Research in Mindanao, 1994).
 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (1984): 46-49.
 Ana P. Santos, “Duterte’s four years in power — extrajudicial killings, rights abuses and terror,” Deutsche Welle, July 7, 2020, www.dw.com/en/dutertes-four-years-in-power-extrajudicial-killings-rights-abuses-and-terror/a-54082293; and “World Report 2019: Philippines,” Human Rights Watch, 2019, www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/philippines.
 The data is from Chapter 5 of Leonard Davis’s The Philippines: People, Poverty, and Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987).
 Carolyn O. Arguilla, “Duterte: Martial Law “would not be any different from what President Marcos did,” Mindanews, May 24, 2017, www.mindanews.com/top-stories/2017/05/duterte-martial-law-would-not-be-any-different-from-what-president-marcos-did.
 “Philippines’ Duterte jokes about rape amid concern over martial law abuses,” Reuters, May 27, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-duterte-idUSKBN18N05D.
 Joe Torres, “Mindanao rights group welcomes lifting of martial law,” Preda Foundation, Dec. 19, 2019, https://www.preda.org/2019/mindanao-rights-group-welcomes-lifting-of-martial-law/.
 Race and History (Paris: UNESCO, 1952), 12.
 Erik Swyngedouw, “Globalisation or ‘glocalisation’? Networks, territories and rescaling,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 17:1 (2004), 42.
 The documentary would later be released as “Panicupan” (Catching Peace, 2015), co-directed by Fiola with Keith Bacongco. Apropos of Mendoza’s obtuse views on Mindanao, “Panicupan” spotlights a fishing village in North Cotabato where Moros, Lumads, and settlers live peacefully together and whose leaders and residents initiated the establishment of their barangay as a “space for peace” and negotiated with the state army and the rebel forces to respect their community-initiated peace-building process. See “Panicupan,” Origane Films, n.d.,origanefilms.com/panicupan.
 “Baboy Halas,” Origane Films, n.d., origanefilms.com/wailingsintheforest.
 Fiola, in an interview with the author, June 11, 2020.
 “Baboy Halas.”
 “Film Screening in the Forest: A Homecoming of an Indigenous Film,” The Spark Project, n.d., www.thesparkproject.com/project/film-screening-in-the-forest-a-homecoming-of-an-indigenous-film.
 I discuss the concept of Lumad cinema in “Small Film, Global Connections,” Plaridel 17:2 (forthcoming), plarideljournal.org.
 Swyngedouw makes the same argument about the politics of scaling in “Neither Global nor Local.”
 To understand the term further and appreciate the debates surrounding its meaning, see Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A 369 (2011); and Clive Hamilton, “The Anthropocene as Rupture,” The Anthropocene Review 3:2 (2016).
 The idea of human and non-human “kin-making” in a framework that moves beyond the Anthropocene is explored by Donna J. Haraway in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
About the Author
An Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines Film Institute where he recently served as Director, Patrick F. Campos is a film scholar, programmer, and critic. He is the author of The End of National Cinema: Filipino Film at the Turn of the Century (2016), co-author of Scenes Reclaimed (2020), and editor of Pelikula: A Journal of Philippine Cinema. He has edited several journal special issues, including “Southeast Asian Horror Cinemas” for Plaridel, “The Politics of Religion in Southeast Asian Cinemas” for Situations, and “Philippine Contemporary Film” for Art Archive.Along with regional cinema specialists, he co-organizes the roving biennial Association of Southeast Asian Cinemas Conference. He has programmed for Guanajuato International Film Festival, Image Forum in Tokyo, and Cinema Rehiyon, among others, and he curates Tingin ASEAN Film Festival in Manila. He was a member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino and currently a member of NETPAC.