Film, Film Review, Media Studies

Bagong Buwan, a Marilou Diaz-Abaya film

With the demise of film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya, I am re-posting this film critique I did in Jan. 2002. The film is Bagong Buwan (New Moon). This is a once-in-a blue moon film and as I  wrote then, it would take some time before Filipinos could see another one like it.

Ms. Diaz-Abaya dreamed of a peaceful Mindanao in the future. Her movie was a step in that direction. Filipinos who claim to desire peace for Mindanao (and the whole Philippines) need to watch this extraordinary film.  Bagong Buwan (New Moon) [2001]:

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bagong buwan

The Islamic Moon

The Muslims set their calendar depending on the sighting of the new moon. The months of the Islamic calendar start with the new moon. The crescent is also the symbol the Muslims adopted to represent their religion.
The film Bagong Buwan (New Moon) hopefully harks the coming of a new era in Philippine cinema. It is a milestone in Philippine cinema as it is the first film that questions conventional Philippine nationalist discourse. For the first time, a film portrays the Bangsa Moro (Moro nation) as a nation, an historical people distinct from the majority – the “Christian Filipino nation”– and justifiably seeking self-determination.

Need for “Realism”

A film like Bagong Buwan needs to appear “as natural as life itself” because it has a social message. It needs the audience to identify with the characters and believe in the existence of such possibilities. The spectator must see the screen as a Window to the world and not just a Frame whose boundaries shape the images appearing on it. If the spectators leave the movie house feeling or thinking that “it is just a film”, then the film’s objective, as stated by its director in various fora, may not be achieved.

The “last hurrah of Datu Ali” sequence could have been much improved. Datu Ali was not left alone. He had some people with him who had long arms. He is neither too old nor too weak to use guns. In fact, when an armed group (military or MILF) went through his neighborhood with guns blazing, he came out with an armalite, ready to fire at the intruders.

It would have been so much more dramatic and realistic if the sequence went like this: Datu Ali’s group put up a fight. And when everyone else had been gunned down, Datu Ali, who also wields a long arm, finds himself alone and with no more bullets. He then gets the old kampilan and makes his “last hurrah”.

Aesthetically, the coherence of the narrative is not achieved because of some unanswered questions. The purists would also say that a work of art should show and not tell.  In this film, perhaps because this is the first of its kind and the filmmakers wanted to say so many things, they were constrained to simply tell (as in the narration and in the dialogues) instead of showing them.

The spectators may feel that the director wants to ram through their throats ideas that they may prefer to ponder upon in a more contemplative manner. The director has learned much about Islam and Moros in the last few years. It is but natural for her to want to share this information to her fellow Filipinos. But as Virginia Woolf warned, an artist should avoid being didactic.

However, the over-all direction is well done and the actors’ performances, esp. Cesar Montano’s (Ahmad) and Amy Austria’s (Fatima), were excellent. Even Ronnie Lazaro’s (Datu Ali) acting was good.

In classical narrative, at the end of the story, all dilemmas are resolved, all questions are answered, and there are no loose ends. The popularity of classical narrative films is that the narratives appear “as natural as life itself” (Lapsley and Westlake, 1988, 129). Unfortunately, in Philippine films, narratives can be quite unnatural.

MELODRAMA

Generally speaking, Filipino films are of the melodrama genre. Melodramas and realism do not often go hand in hand, which probably explains the lapses in narrative. Melodramas portray strong action, emotional intensities and rhetorical excesses that can be antithetical to “realism” (Dissanayake 1993). Although at first glance it looks like a war movie, Bagong Buwan is essentially a melodrama.

Dissanayake says that “the concept of suffering is pivotal to the discourse of film melodrama in Asian cultures.”(p.4) He also says that the family as a unit is usually the focus of interest. Bagong Buwan, although it foregrounds the Mindanao war, has all the ingredients of a melodrama – strong actions, emotional intensities, rhetorical excesses, a flood of suffering for the family as a unit. And true to the classical “male weepies” tradition, the lead character, Ahmad cries that he has failed everyone, including his mother, his wife, his son and his nephew.

Melodramas, especially Asian melodramas, usually foreground women’s experiences. The film’s narrator was a woman (Fatima) but the POV is basically omniscient. The filmmakers presumably did not want to take on a woman’s POV because they were not very sure of the subject. In Orientalist thinking, Muslim women are second-class creatures and are regarded by their men as practically chattels. Although the filmmakers saw for themselves the real nature of women in Moro society, they presumably did not dare enter such controversial issues especially since they were already in unchartered territory.

In Filipino melodrama, according to Herrera and Dissanayake, “women are represented as either objects of patriarchal desire or as icons of social disruption that threaten the stability of the social order.” (Dissayanake, p.219) This is exemplified in the other well-made films of the Film Festival –Tatarin and Hubog. Obviously, such representations would be anathema to Bagong Buwan.

Another daring aspect of the movie is the concept of villainy. In melodramas, villains are necessarily central to the story. Although the filmmakers repeated time and again that they were not taking sides and were instead promoting the “culture of peace”, it is inevitable that the viewers would look for villains in the story. Philip Co-Unjieng (2001) says “… we can never escape the reality that the ‘enemy’ is us. That’s some leap that the filmmakers are asking us to take.” For him, Bagong Buwan is “an exercise in courageous filmmaking.”

A melodrama is the best vehicle for the filmmakers to promote their message of peace. The Filipino masses love melodrama.

SOCIO-CULTURAL ASPECT

Cultural studies have indicated one more reason to study films, i.e., to study a society’s way of life and value systems as revealed through the medium of film.

Graeme Turner (1993) says that “implicit in every culture is a ‘theory of reality’ which motivates its ordering of that reality into good and bad, right and wrong, them and us, and so on.”(p.133) The belief system produced by this ‘theory of reality’ is called ideology.

The film starts with a narration, which was also written on the screen, that says: “Sa loob ng maraming siglo, naging mailap ang kapayapaan sa pagitan ng mga Kristiyano at Muslim. Sa Pilipinas, kung saan nakakarami at namamayani ang mga Kristiyano, matagal ng ipinaglalaban ng mga Muslim ang karapatang itaguyod ang kanilang natatanging kultura at pamahalaan ang kanilang sarili.” From the very start, the film tells the viewers that this is a story about the Muslims’ (Moros’) fight to preserve their culture and regain self-determination.

The film Bagong Buwan is indeed an original in Philippine cinema because it challenges the Filipino ‘theory of reality’. The film portrays the clash of two cultures, and it does not cater to the prevailing ideology that the Moro culture and people are generally bad or wrong while the Christian Filipino culture and people are good or right. It shows that there is indeed a clash of cultures yet neither culture is good nor bad nor right nor wrong. However, in this war, people die. And this is not a war of equals but of a State (as represented by the military) and a sector of Moro society (as represented by the MILF). And in this unequal war, many innocent Moro civilians die in the process.

The Moro in Philippine Media

The Filipino majority considers the word Moro as practically synonymous with Muslim. Whether Arab or Persian or Malay, most Filipinos regard them as one and the same. Quite often, Moros are asked by their countrymen if they speak “the Muslim language”.

In zarzuelas, moro-moro, lyric poems like Florante at Laura, and films from the American Occupation to the 1960’s, the Muslim or Moro is portrayed basically in Orientalist terms. There is also no distinction between Moros and Muslims.

Generally speaking, the Christian Filipinos fully subscribe to the picture of Muslims painted by Orientalists, the so-called experts who presented to the West the Middle Eastern culture in terms of their (Orientalists’) own system of signification. Most of Orientalist writing has already been debunked yet many Filipinos still cling to Orientalist stereotypes.

Although Muslims and Christians both live in Mindanao, their paths hardly meet. It is common to find Christians who live in Lanao del Norte who have never visited Muslim-dominated Lanao del Sur. In fact, there are Christians in the Christian-dominated municipality of Wao, Lanao del Sur who have practically no contact with their Moro province mates. A great majority of Christians who settled in Mindanao maintain very little contact with Moros. Most of these Christians’ ideas about Moros came from stories and books propagating Orientalist stereotypes.

Bagong Buwan has debunked many of these stereotypes. When one speaks of Moro or Muslim, the Christian male immediately thinks of the harem or at least four wives. Many Christian Filipino males say in jest that they are “Christians from waist up but Muslims from waist down.” In this film, Ahmad has only one wife. He and Musa do not have half-brothers or sisters, which imply that Bae Farida (Caridad Sanchez) was also the only wife. In fact, no character in the film was shown to have more than one wife.

Nationalism

In the era of nation-states, the dominant groups use the concept of nationalism to maintain hegemony. Hegemony is defined by Turner (1993, p.132) as “the process by which members of society are persuaded to acquiesce in their own subordination, to abdicate cultural leadership in favor of sets of interests which are represented as identical, but may actually be antithetical to their own.”

Films like Magnum .357 have Moro heroes. But they are within the framework of the Philippine government and nation. The Moro protagonist may be a policeman fighting syndicates or a soldier fighting renegades. Although these protagonists acknowledge the fact that they are Moros and are even proud of it, they nevertheless consider themselves as Filipinos.

Historical films such as Jikiri portray Moro freedom fighters as merely fighting for their own individual reasons. At the end of the day, the brave Moro outlaw and his band of loyal followers is defeated and the Filipino nation-state is saved from “subversive elements.”

Even Griggers and Dalena’s Memories of a Forgotten War, a documentary on the Philippine-American war of 1899 portray, the Moros as part of the Philippine nation-state during that time. Half of the film was about the Battle of Bud Dajo in Sulu. But how could that event be called Philippine-American War when in reality, the Filipinos were fighting side by side with the Americans against the Moros?

In Bagong Buwan, Lt. Rosales echoes government’s nationalistic refrain. He says: “Lahat ho tayo Pilipino, iisa ang ating watawat, iisa ang ating kinabukasan kaya magtulungan tayo, magkaisa tayo sa kapayapaan. Para ho ito sa ikauunlad ng bayan.”

But the Moro protagonists believe themselves to be different from Filipinos. The young rebel, Rashid, is quite emphatic when he said that he is a Moro and not a Filipino. The elders, as represented by Datu Ali and Bai Farida, are mindful of Moro traditions and very suspicious of Filipinos (as represented by the military). The lead protagonist, Ahmad, even ends up killing Filipino soldiers.

Moro and Western culture

Joel David (1998) noted that “no other Asian country has put up less resistance to the influx of Western culture than the Philippines did…”(p.82) This however could not be said of all the people of the Philippines. But in most Philippine discourse, the non-Christian groups like the Bangsa Moro are either ignored or denied. The Filipinos are fond of saying, for example, that the Philippines is “the only Christian nation in Asia”.

The film portrays the fact that unlike the Filipino majority, the Moros continue to resist Western culture. Most of the film’s characters wear traditional clothes. Even the Manila-educated Ahmad uses a traditional Muslim cap or an Arab headgear. Dress is a form of language as it communicates a person’s way of life. Datu Ali lives in a traditional Moro house. And the language of the Moros is interspersed with Arabic phrases and the local language. This again reminds the audience that the characters are actually non-Tagalog speaking people. The Moro motif pervades the movie.

The “Moro-ness or “Muslim-ness” of the film would inevitably offend many Filipinos as it is contrary to the prevailing nationalistic ideology – one nation, one flag, one culture. Cu-Unjieng (2001), who belongs to the Philippine economic elite, writes: “It’s a gutsy move to persist and make this film a Metro Manila Film Festival entry in these times…the film has Muslims as all its main protagonists and takes an unflinching Moro / Muslim point of view. Then, this point of view is used searingly to debunk a lot of the preconceptions and vague generalities that may abound about the conflict in Mindanao…this Muslim POV is not one that a lot of people may be very sympathetic to right now.”

Metz (1982) and other film theorists say that the cinema inclines the spectators to identify with the images. If true, then the film Bagong Buwan will indeed revolutionize the Christian spectators’ consciousness. If the Christian Filipinos can, even for just the duration of the film, put themselves in the Moro characters’ shoes, then perhaps there will be hope for peace in Mindanao.

But theories are only theories. Philip Co-Unjieng, in the same article mentioned above, wrote: “It will not be that facile a matter to have people identify and sympathize with the main characters of this film.”

The film cannot help but irk the top brass in the military, too. According to reports (Phil. Daily Inquirer, 30 Dec 2001), the Defense Secretary, Gen. Angelo Reyes, was “dismayed” because the film “might further stoke the fires of conflict in Mindanao”.

Bagong Buwan lost to an evidently inferior film, Yamashita, for the Festival’s Best Picture Awards despite having been given the rare distinction of an “A” rating by the Film Ratings Board. This may be an indication that many people are not happy that their ‘theory of reality’ has just been turned askew.

Perhaps for the first time, the Christian Filipinos have the opportunity to see the Bangsa Moro –“the Other” in Filipino society– in a way that they are not accustomed to. Many therefore would be uneasy about it.

Moro details

The director, Marilou Diaz-Abaya said in several interviews, that a Muslim / Moro would be in a better position to write a Moro story but since they (the Moros) do not have the resources, she took the initiative to do it. It is indeed remarkable that such a film is produced in the Philippines by Christian Filipinos.

However, it would be interesting to see a Moro film done by Moros. A Moro would know the nuances of the culture including history, language and gestures that the non-Moro would not know. For example, the house of Datu Ali is actually a torogan (a Maranao royal house.) There are notorogans in Maguindanao. The proper postures during prayer rituals can be tricky (Rashid made one prostration too many). Datu Ali told Ahmad that Sultan Qudarat was the first to fight the Spaniards.  The Moros fought the Spaniards, or even the Portuguese before them, way before the reign of Qudarat. Even among the Maguindanaons, Qudarat’s uncle (Dimasankay) and father (Datu Buisan) fought the Spaniards before Qudarat did so. Also, the Maguindanaons use the title Bai while the Maranaos use Ba-e. In the film, Farida is addressed as Ba-e.

In addition, in the Moro society, especially among the datus, an army lieutenant is considered way down the totem pole and therefore not feared.

Another thing that the Muslims might want to clarify is the concept of God. The characters in the movie keep on saying si Allah ni Allah. The proper way to say it is ang Allah.  Allah means God. It is not a proper name like Jesus or Muhammad or Juana. The Arab Christians (yes, there are Arab Christians) also call their God, Allah.

Films in Moro culture

While films were shown in Luzon since the 1890s, the Moros in Muslim Mindanao were busy fighting the Spanish and later the Americans to bother about this new form of art. The great majority of Moros were introduced to films only after independence from America in 1946. And only 25 or so years later, the Moros resumed their fight. While films have embedded themselves in the Filipino (non-Moro) psyche, the Moros did not really have opportunity to include films in their culture.

But even if Moros can produce a Moro film, the problem would be in its distribution and even public acceptance. And almost certainly, it would not be included in a Metro Manila Film Festival.

Moro and Arab cultures

The director, Ms. Diaz-Abaya, took up Islamic Studies for two years. She is therefore the most qualified, among Filipino directors, to make BagongBuwan. From her TV and print interviews, it appears that she has quite a good grasp of the Islamic religion. She is also broad-minded.

However, it must be noted that the Moro culture is not all Islamic. The Bangsa Moro culture is enhanced tremendously by Islam, but it is basically a Malay culture. In the film, there is too much Arabization. The men all wear Arabian caps or kerchiefs. I saw only one extra who wears the traditional Moro tubao and nobody wears the traditional Malay cap, gura or kupya. Everybody also mutters insha-allah after every other sentence. That is very Arabic, and not Moro.

There is much more to being a Moro than being Muslim. We have our poetry, our songs, dances, epics, genealogy, pageantry in weddings and royal occasions, sense of history, and our sense of what is right and wrong. In fact there are occasions when Moro adat (customs and traditions) clashes with Islamic fundamentalist teachings.

The Arabization of the Moros may be a good thing because it shows the Moro consciousness of belonging not just to the Moro nation, but also to the larger Islamic Nation or “Ummah”. Datu Ali’s remarks about the attacks on the Islamic world by the enemies reflect this “Ummah” consciousness.

If anything, this film is the first Filipino film where actors were able to pronounce the words Allah, subhanallah, insha-Allah, astaghfirullah, etc.correctly. The actors underwent training on Islam and a bit of Arabic. (As Amy Austria said on TV, they had to study “the Arabic dialect”.)

Historical roots

The Mindanao conflict is not only religious but also historical. In Bagong Buwan’s “preamble”, it declares (or the character Fatima narrates): “Sa kasaysayan nakatala ang kanilang pakikibaka laban sa pangangamkam ng Espanya, Estados Unidos at Hapon sa lupain ng kanilang mga ninino…”Also, Datu Ali mentioned (quite erroneously) that the Moros were fighting the enemies of Islam since the time of Sultan Qudarat. Datu Ali also tells Lt. Rosales not to touch the age-old kampilan because it is sacred and was used by his ancestors to fight the enemy. And of course, the superimposition of the images of ancient Moro warriors in the dying scenes of Datu Ali and Ahmad further emphasized the historical aspect of the Moro conflict.

Director’s intentions

Ms. Diaz-Abaya, in an interview with the Journal Group said: “The film is for integration. Most of the time, Muslims are portrayed in films in a negative manner, like they’re running amok. ‘Bagong Buwan’ tries to go deeper than that in presenting the Muslim psyche”

Unfortunately, Pres. Marcos had already tried the integration path, as exemplified by his Commission for National Integration (CNI). “Integration for the sake of the nation” was a failure. In the late 60’s/ early 70’s, the words “assimilation” and integration” were anathema to Moro intellectuals just as “communism” was to rightists and “capitalism” to leftists.

As for running amok, it appears that the director further strengthened the idea of the stereotypical Moro – violent, religious fanatics whose idols are the juramentados of the past. In the film, the very sensible, calm, cool and collected Datu Ali suddenly refuses to leave his ancestral house and decides to fight the army single-handedly, with his ancestral kampilan. Isn’t this running amok?

And supposedly veteran rebel commander Musa cries “Jihad fi-l-sabilillah” (Struggle in the way of God!), unmindful of military strategies (it merely gives away his location), in the night, in the jungle, in rebel territory. The Moros in the 1890s and 1900s who were called juramentados by the enemies were commonly called fil sabilullah or sabil for short (Majul 1973). The MILF commander is now likened, wittingly or unwittingly, to thejuramentados of old, whom many non-Moros consider as simply Moros running amok.

The makers of the film knew that they were treading on thin ice. Ms. Diaz-Abaya admitted that she promised the military that they would not portray the military in a negative manner and would not glorify violence. Perhaps it is for this reason that the vigilantes, not the military, carried out the attack that killed Ahmad’s son.

But if the vigilantes were responsible for the raid, why were the military running after the MILF and not the vigilantes? In Mindanao, vigilantes refer to Christian armed groups.

Perhaps it would be wise for the director to refrain from speaking about the film. She does not need to justify the movie. Whatever she’ll say, she will merely be criticized.  She has done a pro-Moro film that counters the prevailing ideologies long held sacred by the economic, political and intellectual elites of the country.

Conclusion

Despite its shortcomings, I believe Bagong Buwan ranks as one of the best Filipino films. It is even better than Ms. Diaz-Abaya’s much acclaimed “Muro-Ami” in terms of over-all direction, actors’ performances and social impact.

Perhaps it will take some time before the Filipinos can see another movie like Bagong Buwan. The process of identification with the protagonists of the film may be traumatic for many. A well made film can suture the spectators to the spectacle and its enunciations. As Dudley (2000) wrote; “In order to have access to the plenitude that is the basis for identity, the subject must give up something of its own in order to be ‘hooked up’ with the Other, the visual field…”(p.168) The average Christian Filipino would have to give up, even for a moment, centuries of collective memory of anti-Moro / Muslim indoctrination, while being bombarded with shifting positions in order for him/her to obtain coherent meaning.

The Moros therefore should thank Ms. Marilou Diaz-Abaya for making a film that could make people think twice about supporting the low-intensity warfare in Mindanao. As the oppressed minority, the Moro does not have a voice in Philippine media. Bagong Buwan’s director, producers and writers have given an opposing view to the prevailing ideology about the Mindanao conflict.

But as Ms. Diaz-Abaya said, nobody “can tell the Muslim story better than the Muslims themselves”(Sicam, 2001). Inhsa-Allah, the time will soon come when Moros can make films that can further enlighten everyone and can bring us all closer to lasting peace.

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BAGONG BUWAN (2001)

Direction: Marilou Diaz-Abaya

Screenplay: Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Ricky Lee, Jun Lana

Actors: Cesar Montano,  Caridad Sanchez, Amy Austria

Producer: STAR Cinema

 REFERENCES:

Andrew, Dudley (1984), Concepts in Film Theory (New York: Oxford University Press)

Boggs, Joseph, (1985)  The Art of Watching Films (Palo Alto: Mayfield Publishing Co.)

Bordwell, David and  Kristin Thompson (1993) Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill)

Co-Unjieng, Philip (2001) Film Review: Bagong Buwan   An exercise in courageous filmmaking (The Philippine Star, 22 Dec.)

Cook, Pam (ed.) (1985) The Cinema Book (London: British Film Institute)

David, Joel (1998) Wages of Cinema: Film in Philippine Perspective (Quezon City: UP Press)

Dissanayake, Wimal (1993) Melodrama and Asian Cinema (New York: Cambridge University Press)

Heath, Stephen (1981) Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press)

Metz, Christian (1971) Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema , trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford Univ. Press)

Prince, Stephen (1997) Movies and Meaning: An Introduction  (Boston: Allyn and Bacon)

Majul, Cesar Adib (1973) Muslims in the Philippines (Quezon City: UP Press)

Monaco, James (1981) How to Read a Film (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press)

Said, Edaward (1978) Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul)

Shohat, Elia and Robert Stam (1994), Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge)

Sicam, Edmund (2001), Marilou Diaz-Abaya on the making of ‘Bagong Buwan’, (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Dec.22)

Tan, Samuel (1973), The Muslim Armed Struggle in the Philippines, 1900-1941 (PhD dissertation, Graduate School of Syracuse Univ, NY)

Thomas. R. (1971) Muslim But Filipino, The Integration of Philippine Muslims 1917-1946, (PhD dissertation, Univ. of Pennsylvania )

Turner, Graeme (1993) Film as Social Practice (London: Routledge)

Walter, Richard (1988) Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing (New York: Penguin)

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