Film Review, History, Media Studies, Mr. and Ms Magazine

Historical Fiction on TV: Tudors & ROME

A couple of months ago, I was quite amazed when two friends, husband and wife, were singing praises on the TV series The Tudors. This was a TV series by Showtime Productions more than ten years ago. It is now being re-shown on cable TV.  My friends were so impressed by the series and thought everything in it was factual. When I told them that many characters in the series were fictitious, they were shocked. They thought that everything in the series was historically accurate, even the very words spoken by the characters! I was amazed that they, who are educated in the best schools in the Philippines, could be so gullible as to believe everything they see on TV.

In 2007, I wrote a review of The Tudors and ROME in Mr. & Ms. magazine. Afterwards, I uploaded it my blog, M-Reality. I had very interesting discussion in the comments section, mostly from British readers. Unfortunately, blogspot removed that blog allegedly due to third-party malware, whatever that means.

Anyway, here it is:

QC Rome smaller

This year (2007), Showtime Productions had its highest TV series debut in three years with the historical fiction The Tudors, starring Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII. Meanwhile, Home Box Office (HBO) with BBC aired Season 2 of Rome, another historical fiction based on the life and times of Julius Caesar.


In its opening credits, the narrator says: “You think you know the story but you only know the end. To get to the heart of the story, you have to go to the beginning.” But whose beginning? The Tudor dynasty began with Henry VII not Henry VIII.

Tudors            The title is a misnomer. The series is about a segment of the life of Henry VIII and not the Tudors. Henry VII, the first of the Tudors, was not even included in the film and so were the other Tudors – Henry VII’s other children – Arthur, Margaret and Mary. It also does not include the reigns of Henry VIII’s children — Mary I (Bloody Mary) and Elizabeth I.

In the third episode, Margaret, Henry VIII’s sister appeared out of nowhere. She is played by Gabrielle Anwar. To my shock, the Margaret character was set to be sent to Portugal to marry the old King of Portugal and to be escorted there by Charles Brandon, the first Duke of Suffolk. There was no such person in history! It was a fictional composite of the real Margaret and Mary Tudor.

Historical inaccuracies kept on compounding as the series developed.


While still in grade school, I saw the film Anne of a Thousand Days. It starred one of my favorite actors, Richard Burton as Henry VIII and Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn.  From then on, I was fascinated by Henry VIII, with his six wives and his split with Catholicism and the Papacy.

Later, I saw Mary, Queen of Scots with two of my favorite actresses playing opposite each other – Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Queen of Scots and Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, Queen of England. The masterful portrayal of the actresses and the riveting story stuck in my mind. I also had a childish crush on Redgrave, who was Guinevere in the musical Camelot.

Young as I was, I pondered upon the fates of Mary and Elizabeth and related it to a question of Karma (Destiny) or Choice (Free Will). Mary, the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor was Queen of Scotland by birth, Queen of France by marriage, and Queen of England by right. On the other hand, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn, was born illegitimate yet ended up ruling England in a long and glorious reign.

In high school, I read one of my mother’s books – a historical novel about Margaret Tudor. I was so taken by the trials and tribulations of Margaret and his fight to insure that her son would be James V, King of Scotland. Margaret’s life had a lot of similarities with her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots.

Through Shakespeare’s play, I learned of the Wars of the Roses (the civil war between the Houses of York and Lancaster). Henry VII ended the Wars of the Roses and started the Tudor dynasty.


With the choice of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry VIII, the producers must have been eyeing a younger audience. If so, why did they start with an already mature Henry VIII? If I were the producer / director, I would have started with a teenaged Henry, hopelessly in love with the elegant Spanish beauty Catherine of Aragon.

Catherine was no ordinary princess. She was a daughter of fiercely ambitious and victorious parents — Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille — who united the Spanish territories and defeated the Moors. Ferdinand and Isabella were the “superstars” of Europe then.

For proper motivation of Henry VIII, the beginning of his marriage must be shown. A 17-year old Henry awed and in love with a regal princess, who was briefly married to his elder brother, who died without consummating the marriage. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers could be made up to look younger while a younger Spanish actress would play Catherine (perhaps Paz Vega).

Their love for each other must be shown because these would determine their future actions. This would also provide the necessary sexy scenes, required by the producers.

Henry’s insistence on divorce was not because of lack of love but because of a lack of male heir to the throne. He did not want to be the second and last Tudor.


Sam Neill (Cardinal Wolsey), Jeremy Northam (Thomas Moore), Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (Katherine) gave good performances. Rhys-Meyers is a good actor. But somehow it seems Henry VIII’s shoes are literally too big for him.


In 2005, HBO with BBC produced a 100 million dollar 12-episode TV series titledROME Rome. The setting of the story was Rome at its grandest, during the rise and fall of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. The main protagonists of the series were Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, fictional characters based on real Centurions Vorenus and Pullo mentioned by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.

The best thing about the series is the magnificent production design. The setting is realistic and the costumes look authentic. The main stars (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson) are “lovable” in their roles as lowly soldiers in the time of great men like Caesar, Anthony, Brutus, Cassius and Cicero. The supporting cast of Ciarán Hinds (Caesar), Polly Walker (Atia), James Purefoy (Antony), Tobias Menzies (Brutus) and Lindsay Duncan (Servilia) gave great performances.

Rome won Emmy Awards, was nominated at the Golden Globe and was quite a hit so HBO and BBC decided to continue the series in 2007.


Rome’s first season focused on the lives of Vorenus and Pullo, which revolved around the fortunes of the political leaders of the time – Ceasar, Anthony, etc. The second season was focused more on the battle between matriarchs – Sevilla of the Junii and Atia of the Julii. Sevilla was the mother of Brutus and mistress of Caesar while Atia was the mother of Octavian and mistress of Anthony. How interesting!

But of course, the stories are fictional and quite far from the truth.


Films are a big part of my life. While still in grade school, I saw two versions of Julius Caesar – the one that starred Marlon Brando as Anthony and the one that starred Charlton Heston as Anthony. I liked the Brando starrer better and I admired the dignity and strength of character of Cassius and Brutus as played by John Gielgud and James Mason respectively. And then of course, there was Cleopatra with Richard Burton, Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Taylor.

In a Westernized society like the Philippines, it would be hard not to be interested in the ancient Greco-Roman world, the wellspring of Western civilization.


Novels, by its very definition, are fiction. Films, however, are not as clearly defined. Many films are claimed to be based on true stories. Some are even filmed using documentary methods like Blair Witch. And of course there are the bioflicks. People watching movies about say, Muhammad Ali, expect to see actual people and events. If the film will have a scene say, of Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Louis, the 1940s champion, the viewers will not like it because it simply did not happen.

The movie U-571 (2000) which purports to be based on true accounts got the ire of the British. The film claims that the Americans captured the Enigma machines which led the Allies to break the German code and eventually win the Second World War. The British protested and declared that it was a lie. US President Clinton had to make a statement saying the movie was a work of fiction.

Yet when it comes to historical people, filmmakers get away with murder, so to speak. The TV series Rome and The Tudors have very little to do with historical facts.


Filmmakers may invoke dramatic license for their distortion or simple ignorance of historical facts. But dramatic license should be used to enhance the story not destroy it.

In Rome, by its very title, the viewers are forewarned that the city-state is the prime protagonist of the film and not the characters. Thus, the essence of ancient Rome is more important than the historical accuracy of the characters. And since the two leading characters (Pullo and Vorenus) are not well-known historical figures, the viewers are again notified that the story is fictitious. And what is more important, the distortions in historical facts created a more interesting story.

In The Tudors, the viewers get all the wrong signals. First, the series claim to let the viewers know “the beginning”. Yet the series did not start from the beginning of either the Tudor dynasty or the life of Henry VIII. Second, Henry VIII is a well-known historical figure. Several movies were already made about him, not to mention books. Third, Henry was big and fat not slim and fit when he was in his mid-30s. Fourth, the other historical figures in the show are also well-known like Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Moore.

Dramatic license should make a story more interesting not less interesting. The lives of Henry and the people around him were full of passion. The historical facts are much more interesting and relevant to today’s audience than the story contrived by the series’ writers.

If a writer or artist uses dramatic license, s/he expects the audience to acquiesce, tolerate or willingly suspend one’s disbelief. The audience, of course, can reject the work as unworthy.


Published in Mr. & Ms. magazine , Oct. 2007

cinema, Film, Media Studies

Film Studies Notes: MARXISM and FILM

Marxism Marxism has profoundly affected Film Studies and even film-making. Some of the earliest film theorists and filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein were Communists. The Russian formalists like Dziga Vertov and Vsevolod Pudovkin pushed for “innovative forms matching revolutionary content”.

The rise of mass society coupled with advances in technology gave thinkers like Kracauer, Benjamin and Brecht and artists the hope “that new art forms could stimulate new forms of politicized thinking. Georg Lukacs pressed for 19th century realism, Brecht wanted modernist artistic innovation while Benjamin called for an “inherently radical nature to film”. But Frankfurt School philosophers concluded that “fascist and US capitalist media were fundamentally alike in producing a passive public.”

After WWII, “Marxists favoured an aesthetic of progressive realism which stood against the superficiality of entertainment, and allowed for social criticism.” Italian neo-realism became the vogue. Auteurs like Visconti, Renoir, Kubrick and Welles were admired.

19th century Marxism seemed to have been all wrong  – Russia became Communist and not the richer capitalist European nations. The masses flocked to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s fascist leaderships. Thus, the Marxists looked for answers somewhere else – in psychology, for instance. By the 70s, Marxists claimed that Hollywood and European art film were “illusionists” and had ideological effects.

Italian Marxist philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci, Lenin’s contemporary, argued that it was not just a State forcing people. Rather, the people were being manipulated by the hegemonic ruling class to believe that the existing order including social structures are “natural” and should remain untouched.

documentary, Film Review, History, Media Studies

SEEING TREASON: Justifying a State of Emergency in a documentary

In February 2006, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in her pursuit of a “Strong Republic”, proclaimed a State of Emergency through Presidential Proclamation 1017 to give her government Martial Law powers. Malacanang produced a documentary titled Paglaban sa Kataksilan: 1017 (1017: To Fight Treason). The Philippine Journalism Reports’ (PJR’s) editor asked me to write a review of the government’s documentary.

I blogged this article before but for some reasons, my blog vanished from the cyberspace. Fortunately, the article is still in cyberspace — at the site of the Center for Media and Responsibility, the publisher of PJR.

This piece is important for me because it is historically significant. It was done at a time when the government was serious in its attempts to quell any democratic opposition to its policies. It is a good piece to show Media Studies students what a documentary is and is not. It is also a way of reminding people that the seemingly meek and sick ex-president languishing in a government hospital as a prisoner was actually an iron-willed President (“Strong-person”) of her “Strong Republic” who practically declared Martial Law.

PP1017 REVIEW PJRJournalism Review

REVIEW:  Palace Documentary justifies PP1017
POSTED BY || 30 APRIL 2006

REVIEW: Palace Documentary justifies PP 1017

By Datu Jamal Ashley Abbas

The movie Good Night and Good Luck (2005) showcased what many consider as television journalism’s finest moments when American broadcast journalist Edward Murrow and his team took head-on the Terror known as McCarthyism or the Red Scare that gripped America in the early 1950s. On March 9, 1954, Murrow aired in his TV program See It Now, a documentary showing clips of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s speeches. Murrow and his team used McCarthy’s own words against the senator.

The timing of the movie is very opportune for Filipinos in the grip of the 1017 aftermath. While Americans have sur-rendered some of their freedoms in the name of President Bush’s war on terror through the Patriot Act, the proclamation of a State of Emergency (PP 1017) in the Philippines has shown everyone that the freedoms that Filipinos regained in EDSA 1986 could easily be lost again.

To justify Proclamation 1017, Malacañang produced a video documentary titled, Paglaban sa Kataksilan: 1017.  The producers and crew of this documentary did not use Murrow’s techniques. Instead, they followed the tactics of Senator McCarthy.

McCarthy fanned the anti-communist hysteria and led the witch-hunt that destroyed the lives of many freedom-loving Americans. Whoever got the ire of McCarthy was immediately labeled a Communist. In the 1017 documentary, everyone against the Arroyo government is a leftist-rightist extremist.

The video opens to martial music with the camera tilting from the sky to a long shot of Malacañang.  President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo then explains in the vernacular the rationale behind 1017.

Apparently, the director wan-ted to show that the President is a person of authority. Her words and demeanor give the impres-sion of a “strong president”.

The narrator then declares that the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) ordered the groups fronting for them to launch massive protest rallies on Feb. 24, the 20th anniversary of EDSA 1. Images of ordinary Filipinos rallying at the EDSA Shrine were shown.

To support this assertion, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Generoso Senga states that previous to that date, there were lightning rallies by supporters of former President Joseph Estrada and the late presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr.

Strange bedfellows
The voice-over then states that Rep. Satur Ocampo of Bayan Muna declared a union of forces with Erap supporters, the Hyatt 10, and former President Cory Aquino.

Ocampo’s plan, according to the documentary, was to march with 20,000 people on Feb. 22 to convene at the People Power Monument on Feb. 23 and to march to Mendiola on the 24th.

Do the video-makers believe that the people would cower in fear because the leftist congressman had joined forces with supporters of former Presidents Aquino and Estrada and the so-called Hyatt 10? Are Aquino and Estrada rightists? If they are rightists, what does that make of the generals?

What about the Hyatt 10, a strange mix of government functionaries and politicians? Are they of the Left or of the Right?

Viewers would certainly be led to ask if it is against the law to march in the streets to celebrate the 20th anniversary of EDSA.

Marching in protest during the anniversary of EDSA 1 is well within the rights of citizens as enshrined in the Constitution. What then is so ominous about it?

The armed opposition
The video then segues to the armed opposition. The narrator explains that the NPA attacks against the military had inten-sified. Footage shows soldiers waging war against an unseen enemy.

The narrator then boasts that the NPA terrorists failed and that many of their members have in fact surrendered.

This micro segment begs the question, “So what’s the problem?” If the NPAs were defeated, then bravo for the AFP! So why is there need for 1017?

General Senga says that meanwhile, military components are moving against the govern-ment. Their alleged activities include recruitment of junior officers as well as spreading black propaganda to sow disunity in the AFP.

A newspaper headline announcing the escape of four Magdalo officers flashes on-screen. The narrator says that NPA spokesman Ka Roger Rosal has announced his offer to give sanctuary to the Magdalo officers.

Lt. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon then explains that there was a Memorandum of Agreement between the CPP and the Magdalo or the Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan.

As further proof of the supposed alliance between disgruntled military officers and the CPP, the narrator states that on Feb. 21, Lt. Lawrence San Juan, one of the escapees, was recaptured together with two NPA members. One of them was lawyer Cristopher Belmonte who, according to the video, had been arrested in 1997 together with the Alex Boncayao Brigade leader Nilo de la Cruz.

Raising a Hackle
Viewers are bound to ask: If Belmonte, a supposed top leader of the CPP-NPA, had already been arrested before, then why was he out of jail? Was he freed? Or did he escape? Or is the military simply doing what McCarthy used to do—labeling perceived enemies as “communist”?

The only item in the video that could lead viewers to suspect an alliance between disgruntled military officers and leftists is the presence of lawyers Argee Guevarra and JV Bautista, both of Sanlakas, a leftist group. Senga pointed out that both were constantly beside Col. Querubin during the Fort Bonifacio stand-off.

Of course, the two lawyers could just be offering their legal services or they simply wanted to be on TV.

The video then went on to say that a document among Lt. San Juan’s papers indicated a supposed attempt to overthrow the government through Oplan Hackle.

But the viewers never get to see that document.

Oplan Hackle is allegedly a complex plan to overthrow the government by attacking various government institutions and media facilities. It comes complete with sub-plans carrying cinematic titles like “The Main Event,” “Sister Act 1” and “Sister Act 2.”

According to the documentary, the NPAs have failed in their attacks against the military and many have surrendered. Why then would disgruntled military officers with top-notch skills and high-tech weapons forge ties with an emaciated group whose ideology opposes theirs? It just doesn’t make sense.

What a documentary is
Throughout its history, the term documentary has always referred to facts, clues, proofs, or giving evidence about something. It refers to reality or something that is real. The 1017 documentary is really more like a Power Point presentation than a film documentary. Yet with its varied and numerous assertions, not a single document—whether written or filmed—was shown.

For example, the ringleaders of the military would-be rebels were supposed to be Gen. Danilo Lim and Col. Querubin. According to the video documentary, Gen. Lim was the “over-all ground commander of the mili-tary component” of the alleged coup attempt and was arrested before the scheduled rallies.

Col. Querubin even had a very public tantrum when he protested the removal of his superior, Maj. Gen. Renato Miranda.  But the five-hour or so “stand-off” at Fort Bonifacio certainly did not give the impression that Querubin was a man under arrest.

According to the video, PP 1017 was issued to prevent a coup d’etat. Using PP 1017 as the “enabling law,” police dispersed rallies, arrested citizens, and threatened the media. Yet the alleged leading coup plotters Lim and Querubin were not arrested and formally charged imme-diately. Gen. Esperon recom-mended that Gen. Lim be brought before a court martial almost one month after the issuance of PP 1017.

Again, it doesn’t make sense.

Curiously, while PP 1017 states: “Whereas, the claims of these elements have been recklessly magnified by certain segments of the national media”, the 1017 documentary is quite silent on the role of the mass media in the alleged coup attempt.

Yet one of the first things that the government did after Proclamation 1017 was to harass the media and instruct them to follow government guidelines.

Kataksilan: Fact or fiction?

Stanford University’s Henry Breitrose, in his essay “There Is Nothing More Practical Than a Good Film Theory,” argues that “one of the functions of the documentary is to truthfully represent how things are in the world by ensuring that statements correspond to facts.” He further notes that “the normative assumption is that the film maker tells the truth, and bias or untruth is open to determination by colleagues and critics in the public forum.”

Critical thinking viewers can easily determine the bias and untruth of Malacañang’s video documentary. Murrow’s docu-mentary used McCarthy’s own words against the senator. The 1017 documentary might end up indicting the very people it is supposed to serve.

Datu Jamal Ashley Abbas is a Media and Film Studies scholar, a documentarian and author of an award-winning article for journalism.  He writes a monthly column, “Quantum Cinema,” for Mr. & Ms magazine.


Media Studies, Newspaper article, TV

Demonizing the ‘enemy’

I was browsing the ‘net and found an old article I wrote for the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility’s (CMFR) Philippine Journalism Reports. It was an analysis of the BBC and CNN coverage of the Lebanon-Israel War of 2006.

As a teacher of Media Studies / Mass Communication, I know that my students and any student of Media Studies or Mass Communication can learn a lot from this article even if it was written almost a decade ago. I stayed up late several nights watching the coverage of CNN and BBC during that time.

This analysis is quite important in many ways. First and foremost, I think this is the only critique of the international TV coverage of the Lebanon-Israel war done in the Philippines.  As I mentioned in the Korina Sanchez show at ANC when I was invited there, the Philippine coverage of that war was quite parochial — focusing primarily on the dangers/safety of the Philippine overseas workers in the vicinity.

I was told that some UP academics claim that it is difficult to validate any analysis of TV coverage because they are not recorded and thus cannot be verified. Obviously, the person or persons who said that did not know that CNN and BBC post transcripts of their news segments on their websites. (At least they did at that time.)

I am posting this article here for posterity. It is still available at the CMFR website.


The Lebanon-Israeli war through the eyes of CNN and BBC
Demonizing the ‘enemy’

By Jamal Ashley Abbas


IN MANY WAYS, the just-concluded Israel-Lebanon war was unique.

It was the first war directly covered by different TV networks on the ground. While the combatants—the Israeli armed forces and the Lebanese resistance corps, Hezbollah—imposed restrictions, international journalists had access to the bombed sites, the affected civilians, and all sectors of local society. The opportunity to give more first-hand, in-depth information to the viewers was greater than ever.

Because of the advances in communications technology—cell phones, digital cameras, internet, blogging, etc.—the issue for the protagonists was not how to control or refuse access, but more on how to manage information in order to mold public opinion.

The United States and United Kingdom are very much allied to Israel. During the month-long war, US President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair echoed whatever pronouncements the Israelis made. They also blocked the first United Nations (UN) draft resolution and adamantly refused any unconditional ceasefire.

Just as Bush claimed to save the Iraqis from the clutches of Saddam the Dictator, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and his officials claimed they were coming to Lebanon to liberate the Lebanese people from “Hezbollah terrorist domination.”

According to scholars Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in Propaganda Model, media “serve and propagandize on behalf of the powerful societal interests that control and finance them.” In this model, dissent and oppositional voices are welcome but must be “kept within bounds and at the margins.”

Thus, the UK-based BBC and US-based CNN could not be expected to be as fair and objective as the French or Spanish media. Their counterpart would be the Arab Al Jazeera network. But CNN and BBC are the only 24-hour news channels available in most countries, including the Philippines.

Israel’s target audience
The Israeli media’s target audience is the Western, non-Arab and non-Muslim peoples (especially the American and British masses) who do not know much about the Arab-Israeli conflict. For example, Israeli spokespersons call the abduction of the Israeli soldiers as the root cause of the war. But for the Arabs and Muslims, the root cause is the occupation of Palestine.

When Israelis spoke to the media, it was as if the Lebanese-Israeli conflict had just started on July 12, 2006. It was only when Arabs were interviewed that viewers learned about Israel’s invasions of Lebanon twice in the past and its occupation of Lebanese territory from 1982 to 2000. Israel’s media strategy played on the ignorance of Western media personnel and audience.

Fortunately, correspondents with knowledge of the region’s culture and politics like CNN’s Brent Sadler and Ben Wedeman and the BBC’s Jim Muir greatly helped not only the viewers but also the presenters in the studios to understand the whys and wherefores of the conflict. Even the parachute journalists got a better, though often shallow, understanding of what was going on by simply being there on the ground and witnessing the events for themselves.

In a “post-mortem” analysis of the CNN coverage, Lawrence Pintak of the American University in Cairo attributed the apparently biased coverage to the reporters’ lack of “depth of knowledge” of the politics in the area.

News subsidy
On the 17th day of the war, CNN’s International Correspondents program interviewed reporters covering the conflict. According to these reporters, Israelis were “easy sources” and tours were provided for journalists to visit bombed sites by Hezbollah rockets. The reporters also admitted that the Israeli media bureau beeped them for the latest announce-ments.

According to one Asian correspondent, 90 percent of her news reports came from Israeli sources simply because it was more convenient for her.

In one news segment, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer showed the contents of a video tape about “threats from the sea” given to him by the Israeli army. The tape was edited and not thoroughly explained. Such Israel-provided tapes were shown several times on CNN and BBC.

CNN and BBC news about the conflict usually came in one batch of reports anchored by presenters. To discriminating viewers, the way the reports were framed would show the bias of the networks. For example, on July 18, one BBC sequence of reports was anchored by Jake Lynch. The first two segments were filed by James Reynolds and Gavin Hewitt, respectively. They were about the exchange of rockets and missiles by the warring parties.

The third segment by Jeremy Bowen focused on the flight of the foreigners. Bowen said, “Hezbollah is in a war it did not ask for.” He added that foreigners were fleeing from “Israel’s murderous rage.”

In the last segment, Ben Brown talked about Hezbollah weapons supplied by Iran which he said was actually fighting a proxy war.

An interview with Jeremy Bowen followed where Bowen asserted that Iran seemed to be doing a proxy war. Asked about Bush’s allegation that Syria was pulling Hezbollah’s strings, Bowen replied that the Iranian president recently talked to the Syrian president and that Syria used to “rule” Lebanon.

Pro-Israel coverage
From this batch of reports, it is clear that Israel viewpoints were well represented. The first two segments equalized the strength of both parties as if World War II-vintage Katyusha rockets were anywhere near the power and capability of Israel’s satellite-guided missiles, tons of bunker-breaking bombs, cluster bombs, and continuous fire from tanks and mortars. The second segment seemed to blame Hezbollah’s rockets for Israel’s missiles devastating Lebanon.

The third segment was more anti-Israel to give a seeming balance to the coverage. But in a later interview, Bowen agreed with Brown’s report that Hezbollah was doing a proxy war for Iran and even Syria. BBC was obviously contextualizing, putting the conflict within the context of Iranian regional hegemony instead of the more relevant and historical one—the Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

In CNN’s daily program Larry King Live, for every three or four pro-Israeli or Jewish guests, there was one Arab or pro-Arab guest.

A sanitized version of war
It was only after the bombing of Qanaa when CNN and BBC viewers realized that they were seeing a sanitized version of the war. To explain the uproar in the Arab world, the correspondents had to say that what the Western/non-Arab world was seeing was nothing compared to what they were witnessing on the ground, which was what the Arab networks were broadcasting—uncut.

In an interview with CNN’s Michael Holmes, Tom Fenton, former CBS correspondent said, “It’s not good that we’re sanitizing the news” because viewers don’t get a sense of what’s really going on.

In Muslim demonstrations from Morocco to the Philippines that supported Lebanon, the objects of the crowd’s anger were Israel and United States. Yet media never sufficiently explained the US role in the Middle East conflict. The fact that there were American citizens fighting and dying as soldiers in the Israeli army was not considered unusual by the media.

At CNN and BBC, there was constant mention of Hezbollah’s war materiel as coming from Syria and Iran. But there was no mention of America supplying Israel with military arms until Day 15 of the war when the British foreign minister announced that a US plane carrying missiles bound for Israel did not declare its cargo when it landed in the UK. This was apparently against British laws.

Israeli, American, and British officials repeatedly cited UN Resolution 1559 which stipulates that armed militias be disbanded. But the resolution also demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops, including Israeli troops in Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms. Many UN resolutions demand that Israel leave Arab lands like Syria’s Golan Heights but these were excised from any war reports or features.

Demonizing the ‘enemy’
At the start of the conflict, CNN followed the lead of the Israeli and US governments and called Hezbollah a “terrorist group.” While the Lebanese and other Arab governments referred to Hezbollah as a “resistance movement,” the networks refused to call them as such.

On Day 24, CNN’s Matthew Chance in Haifa talked about “malicious Hezbollah strikes that kill.” His counterpart in Beirut described Israeli action as simply “intense Israeli air strikes.”

The following day, Paula Hancocks described the effects of Hezbollah rockets as “carnage in Israel.” For her counterpart in Lebanon, Israeli bombardment only resulted in having “civilian victims in Lebanon.” On Day 29, another CNN report mentioned “malicious Hezbollah rockets that are a threat to Israel.”

Stephen Sackur of BBC’s Hardtalk even wanted his guests to demonize Israel’s enemies. He pressed the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Rt. Rev. Riah Abu El-Assal, to condemn Hezbollah. The Christian bishop refused and answered that for 1,400 years the Muslims and Christians lived in Palestine harmoniously. He said when the Jews escaped from Europe, they even found a haven among the Arabs in Palestine.

But the hard-hitting Sackur needs to be commended for engaging his guests in a no-holds-barred debate that can only result in a more enlightened audience.

Herman and Chomsky’s theory explains that there are five general categories of “filters” that determine the kind of news presented in Western media. These are ownership, funding, sourcing, flak (or the unfavorable reaction of a network’s big bosses), and the anti-terror ideology, which recently replaced the anti-communist ideology. These filters ensure that Western media cannot be truly fair and objective in its news reporting.

But competition from Arab and Asian networks and especially the Internet is fast challenging international news channels like CNN and BBC. The two giant networks will then have to create mechanisms that would negate Herman and Chomsky’s filters and improve their credibility while allowing them to remain profitable.



Film, Film Review, Media Studies

Mila (2001) -The Invisible Hand of Hegemony

I’m uploading this critique for my Film Theory and Criticism classes to read.

 Mila (2001)

by  ©Jamal Ashley Abbas




(The movie is based on the life of Anita Pamintuan, a schoolteacher who was found dead in the street during the height of the Public School Teachers’ strike)

The film opens with credits and close-ups of various class pictures. After the credits, the lead character, Mila (played by Maricel Soriano) is shown in the school grounds conducting her pupils in singing Billy Joel’s “The Greatest Love of All” (“I believe the children are our future…”). This is the theme song of the movie. Mila is then shown conducting her class. She appears to enjoy teaching the children.

Next scene is a teachers’ meeting where the Principal (Caridad Sanchez) tells a teacher to leave his live-in boyfriend and marry a woman if he wants to remain a teacher in that school. The Principal also mentions her amazement that Mila, although married, does not use her husband’s surname.

Mila soon leaves her wife-beating husband and returns to her uncle’s house. She soon meets and falls in love with a younger (or younger-looking) man. She then lives with him. He turns out to be a shabu (crack) addict. She soon leaves him.

Meanwhile, the Manila Public School Teachers go on strike. Mila and her co-teachers, with a few exceptions, go on strike, too. The end to the strike is nowhere in sight. Some teachers go on a hunger strike.

Mila, feeling very depressed because of the loss of her lover, her pupils and her other disappointments – her husband and her mother — is completely at a loss. She walks around Manila. While drinking coffee from her thermos, a jeepney (jitney) driver, thinking that she was a coffee vendor, stops and orders coffee from her. This gives Mila the idea to sell coffee by the sidewalk.

From a petit bourgeois schoolmarm, she transforms herself into a homeless indigent stalking the streets of Ermita. She soon befriends the characters of that netherworld – prostitutes and street children – and teaches them how to read and write.

She refuses to go back to her past – to her uncle, her mother or her co-teachers. She decides to stay in Ermita to “save” the life of her new friends – Winona (Kaye Abad), the prostitute, the still virgin daughter of another prostitute (Cherry Pie Picache) and the street children.

One day, she’s found dead in her sleep out in the street. The teachers’ movement gives a huge funeral for her. Her friends from the streets and from the school deliver their respective eulogies.


In “Mila”, the invisible hand of hegemony is quite apparent. Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony questions culture, power and ideology. Gramsci suggests that power is wielded in the arena of “culture, in the realm of everyday life – where people essentially agree to current social arrangements.” “Media helps the powerful exercise this cultural leadership since they (the media) are the sites where we produce and reproduce ways of thinking about society”[1]

Ideology, for the Marxists, “often means the belief systems that help justify the actions of those in power by distorting and misrepresenting reality.” It is the “basic ways in which the world is defined.”[2] Hegemony is the shaping of “commonsense” assumptions.

The old Kennedy refrain “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” resonates (“invisibly yet tangibly”} all throughout the film. Despite the very low wages of public school teachers and the growing number of victims of society among the poor – the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the street children, the homeless, etc.—the film does not put the blame on the Government.

The film’s theme song declares that “the children are our future” but it is not clear on who is to be responsible for them. It even seems to say that the teachers must sacrifice and accept low wages for the sake of the children. In fact, the idea that one gets from the film is that public school teachers should follow the example of Mila. She taught the Ermita kids for no fee at all.

The Classic Christian doctrine of “the meek shall inherit the earth” resounds throughout the film. Mila even renounces one of the most basic needs of (wo)man; namely, shelter. Like Mother Teresa who gave up society to live among the slums of Calcutta, Mila gave up a petit bourgeois lifestyle to live among the denizens of the Ermita underworld. The Voice of the Church and the Government, the vanguards of the Philippine Establishment, is heard loud and clear:  Sacrifice! Do Not Petition for Wage Increase! Do Not Ask the Government to Care for the Poor and Children! You Do It Yourself!  Forget Materiality! Sacrifice and You Will Find Redemption – Not In This Life But In The Hereafter!

The film tries to impress the “commonsense” idea that education is the path to growth and prosperity. According to the advertisements for this film, Mila “empowered” the denizens of Ermita. This “empowerment” was done through teaching the street children and the prostitutes how to read and write. But the story itself contradicts this premise. Mila was educated and was even an educator, yet she did not prosper and she died absolutely penniless.

The film tries to deviate viewer’s attention from the government as the immediate cause of Mila’s (and her colleagues’) miseries, by implying that Mila’s problems with her husband and later, her lover were the immediate causes of her decision to leave everything behind. But it was the government who refused to give in to the demands of Mila and her co-teachers for a pay hike. The government’s refusal led to the strike and the unemployment of Mila and her colleagues, which led to the deterioration of the teachers’ lives, especially that of Mila’s.

The psychological effects of an irresponsible and unloving mother, a sadist husband, a whimpering shabu addict for a lover, were aggravated by the loss of a job, nay, a vocation. They are enough to give anyone a nervous breakdown.

But the director did not want to show the slow and agonizing descent of Mila into poverty and desperation – that would be subversive. Instead, he showed a Mother Teresa clone among the streetwalkers and street children of Ermita – a Saint among the Sinners. The Hierarchy – the rightists and the Church, would surely approve that.

Hegemonic ideas were neatly tucked in the various scenes of the movie. For example, the Principal accused a male teacher of homosexuality and talked about being role models for their pupils. Yet the adulterous affair of Mila was not commented upon by anyone. Although the director and writer are probably gay, the film seems to portray the dominant ideology’s preference for heterosexuality, even if illegal (i.e., adulterous), over homosexuality.

In Filipino films, the characters, esp. the lead ones, necessarily look for the light at the end of the tunnel. But what if there is no light at the end of the tunnel? Mila’s character was a continuing slide into hell. She couldn’t possibly have found redemption from the streets of Ermita. On the contrary, it was hell itself. If she simply needed to “save” lost souls, she didn’t have far to look. There was her mother, her husband, her lover and even her co-teachers, not to mention her pupils. She didn’t have to go to Ermita for that. At any rate, the fact that she was found dead in her sleep out in the street proves that there was no light at the end of the tunnel, except the light of Death.

Yet, in the film, Mila found the light; her “mission” was to save the street children and prostitutes of Ermita. This “looking for the light” is symptomatic of the tight rein of the Establishment on the mass media. Films like “Orapronobis”, where the characters see no redemption in the Justice system, the Church or in Heaven and the only way out is to Fight the whole System or Die in the process, are simply banned. They would rock the boat. In “Mila”, in spite of the list of traumas the lead character and everybody else undergo, no blame is put in the hands of the Government. The moral justification for the teachers’ hunger strike is even put into question by Mila’s own abandonment of the cause.

Films like “Mila” reinforce the idea that fighting for a political / material cause, like the teachers’ right to higher pay, is detrimental to society. But a “spiritual cause” is commendable, such as helping the street children and prostitutes. The film reinforces the belief that one must help oneself and not depend on the government. The film subtly urges the audience to help the less privileged and to render their services for free so that when they die, people will give orations on how noble and selfless they were.

The modernists, post modernists and semiologists, among others, denounce the so-called realism in films. Be that as it may, in Philippine cinema, realism is very well entrenched. In fact, even horror and fantasy films (with encantos, encantas, diwatas, duwendes, etc.) are considered actual representations of reality. And as Andrew stated, “When a culture consistently pictures in some medium its version of reality, and when these pictures are generally swallowed by members of that culture as reality, we are in the midst of the workings of ideology.”[3]

The film Mila is patently an ideological film. It presents the European Dark Ages’ Roman Catholic idea of sacrifice and martyrdom, the renunciation of the “City of Man” to gain entry to the “City of God.” This is a clear example of film used wittingly or unwittingly as a tool for hegemony and control over sections of the populace.

I lived through this particular historical episode. I remember that my friends and I were aghast and horrified that a schoolteacher could actually die homeless because of the strike. The public school teachers were already in the fringes of Middle Class society. This event could have only signified that the public school teachers had slid down further in the economic ladder. And the proposition that education is the best tool in the climb to socio-economic betterment was shown to be a myth. Public school teachers not only have education but also are educators themselves.

In making films, Filipino producers and directors always point out the fact that the most important factor is the potential box office returns. Generally speaking, stories are allegedly not chosen because of their themes and subtexts.

“MILA” was produced by STAR Cinema, the movie arm of ABS-CBN, which is the country’s biggest gatekeeper. However, we cannot presume that the movie’s themes and subtexts were deliberately chosen and imposed upon the director and writer. The director, Joel Lamangan, and the writer, Ricky Lee, are both known to be “social realists”, i.e., they try to portray the “real situation” of the masses.

This being the case, perhaps it can be said that the film “MILA” proves that some hegemonic ideas are already so well entrenched that even social realist writers and directors do not notice them. These ideas have become “common sense”, “natural” and “invisible”. Thus, a potentially explosive / subversive story was turned into a tool of the powers that be. A (potentially Marxist) heroine of the working class was turned into an apolitical saint by the ruling class.


The excess in Philippine melodramas could probably be measured in terms of volume of tears produced by the actors. In Philippine movies, children are expected to produce as much tears as possible. This movie is no exception. Perhaps Filipino kids really are crybabies.

The character Mila said that she doesn’t want to show her emotions. But almost from the very beginning, she (Maricel Soriano) was full of emotions, bursting to cry or shout at any time.

Ricky Lee’s screenplay seems to have some missing parts. What was Mila’s relationship with her mother? She tells her co-teacher Linda (Princess Punzalan), “Mula nang nawala ang nanay ko…” Yet much later her uncle (Berting Labra) tells her that her mother is sick. She however did not visit her until much later. She asks her mother (Eva Darren), “Bakit ‘nyo ako ipinamigay?” The mother answers, “Hindi ko alam.” What was that all about?

And what was the deal with her photo on the wall of her uncle’s and mother’s house? She seemed to be surprised to see her old graduation photo at her uncle’s house. She lived there, surely she must have seen it a hundred times. And when she saw the same picture at her mother’s house, the mother said that the uncle gave it.  Was it given a long time ago, or just recently?

When Mila left her husband and returned to her uncle’s house, her uncle’s family did not even greet her! That is rather unrealistic. She was supposed to be friendly, especially to kids. Even if her aunt and cousins did not like her, they would have at least greeted her.

She was supposed to have made friends in the streets. Why didn’t her friends offer her at least a space in their rooms to sleep in? She taught them how to read and write; she read and wrote letters for them. She made some money from vending, too. Why couldn’t she afford a bed space among friends? Did she ever take a bath? How about her toilet?

What was her motivation in living in the streets of Ermita? She complained that with her mother, her husband and her lover, she gave “one hundred percent” but did not receive as much. But the Ermita folks did not give her as much either. They didn’t even give her a space to sleep in.

There doesn’t seem to be any realization or growth for the lead character. She died as lonely and as confused as ever.

In the US and Europe, it is not rare to find professionals, even doctors, among the homeless and indigents. But these people usually had given up on life. They just drink themselves to oblivion. But Mila had not given up on life. Maybe she had given up on her life, but she was still concerned about other people’s lives – the street children and the streetwalkers.

In the film, Mila’s education and her grasp of the English language did not give her any financial edge over the other characters. Her boyfriend is uneducated, works as a waiter and belongs to the same social class as hers. The prostitutes are uneducated but they at least can afford to have roofs over their heads.

In a Latin American film, “Central Station”, the female lead character earns her living by typing / writing letters for illiterate clients in the capital’s central train station. Her “office” consists of a chair and a table. Yet she lives a decent life, with a flat of her own. It would appear that in that country, “education is power”. But in “Mila”, education is shown to be very important to kids and prostitutes, yet it was useless for Mila except as a vehicle for Sainthood.

As for the acting, it was generally OK. Since the role of Mila did not have a clear progression of emotional trauma, Maricel Soriano had to maintain the same amount of emotional tension throughout the film. Princess Punzalan’s acting was good while the children’s were melodramatic. The actor who played the husband needs lessons in acting while the actor who played the lover should have chosen a less demanding role. Berting Labra’s acting was quite contained, not his usual over-acting.


If I were the director, I would have focused on the poverty of the teachers, which is actually not far removed from the poverty of the Ermita streetwalkers and street children. (Linda’s well-furnished house could not be typical.) With the long-drawn strike, the poverty of the teachers would really have been of great concern. The film would be a strong push for the upliftment of the well being of teachers, i.e, their pay should be increased, at the very least.

Instead of the film’s theme of children needing good selfless teachers and the seeming martyrdom of Mila, I would have made it into a psychological drama – the descent into hell of an ordinary woman caught powerless in the maelstrom of life. I would have focused on the personal suffering of Mila – her abandonment as a child by her mother; her perseverance in acquiring an education and having a profession; her suffering at the hands of her sadist husband; her helplessness in the family affairs of her pupils and colleagues; her aloneness and alienation from the world at large. (The existence of a caring extended family exemplified by her uncle must be explained away or eliminated.)

And then emphasis would be given to the episode where she meets a young lover who adores her. He gives her hope and reawakens her sexuality and self-confidence, especially after the experience with her husband. She finds meaning in life after all. Paradise regained.

But then comes another setback – the strike and her loss of job. While still reeling from the loss of income due to the strike, the potential danger to the lives of some of her colleagues who goes on hunger strike, and her separation from her pupils, she learns of the loss of job and the vice (drug addiction) of her lover. Paradise lost. This triggers her nervous breakdown.

She then finds herself in the streets of Ermita. But instead of a Mother Teresa clone, she is just an observer. Instead of being a Saint among Sinners, she is a disinterested traveler in Hades. She tries to save the virgin child of a prostitute from being abused. But this eventually results in the murder (“salvaging”) of Winona, another prostitute. This is the last straw and she goes berserk, raging against the Powers amidst stormy winds, rain, thunder and lightning until she collapses and dies.

The teacher’s movement then uses her death as a symbol of their struggle and the Press catches on. Eulogies, whether true or not, would then be said extolling her virtues.

A combined Realist/Surrealist approach to this film would be a great idea. While the world around Mila would be shown with sheer realism, how she views this world would be shown in a surrealistic mode. Thus Mila’s inner world could be better portrayed. As writers and scholars have often remarked, surrealist films do not portray an imaginary world but a real one where the fantastic is an integral part.[4] The film could then touch on the dialectics of the inner and the outer, the objective and the subjective and the macro (what’s happening to the country) and the micro (what’s happening to her.)

That would have been a better treatment, but then, it would be another film altogether. This would show that “reality” could even be better presented using techniques like surrealism than using a purely social realist approach. Such a treatment would also rid the film of the hegemonic ideas of martyrdom and not fighting for one’s rights. On the other hand, it would not go against the hegemonic idea that education is desirable as it is a means to prosperity.

See video clip: MILA


Direction: Joel Lamangan

Screenplay: Ricky Lee

Production: STAR Cinema

Cast:  Maricel Soriano, Cherry Pie Picache, Princess Punzalan, Piolo Pascual

[1] Croteau, David and William Hoynes (2000), Media/Society: Industries, Images and Audiences, 2nd ed., (Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press) p.163

[2] Ibid., pp.157-158

[3] Andrew, Dudley (1984)  Concepts in Film Theory, (London: Oxford University Press) p.63

[4]Everett, W. (1998). Screen as threshold: The disorienting topographies of  Surrealist film. Screen, 39 (2), 141-152.

Film Review, Media Studies

Bakhtinian carnivalesque in a Pinoy film

Since I am teaching Film Criticism and Film Theory, I am uploading some of my old film criticism essays so my students can easily access it.  This is my critique of Jon Red’s film Utang ni Tatang (2002). I gave Jon a copy and he quite liked it.


The film starts with a lighted white bulb. Then the contorted (“uglified”) face of Kado (Jeffrey Quizon) comes in, quizzically looking at the very low-angled camera. Boyong’s face comes in afterwards and tells him not to bother with it (represented by the camera) and instead sit down and talk with him. Boyong then tells this story about a man fascinated by a red hat (pulang sombrero). It is a long and boring story (Quizon yawns to make sure that the audience realize it’s a boring story). Just when Boyong was about to say the point of the whole story, i.e., why the man in the story likes a red hat, another guy (sitting on the floor, wounded) shoots him (Boyong). When Quizon realizes what happened, he screams “Bakit pulang sombrero?” (Why a red hat?)

The very first film sequence tells the viewers that this film, although it involves deaths and violence, and may appear to be “serious” at times, is after all, only a farcical comedy. Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque can describe the atmosphere of Utang ni Tatang. Bakhtin’s “concept of anticlassical aesthetic (such as the close-up of the distorted face of Quizon) emphasizing not harmonious beauty and formal unity but rather asymmetry, heterogeneity, the oxymoron, and the mesalliance” (Stam, 1969)[i] can be found everywhere in the film. Bakhtin’s apparent disrespect for life and death is stated right at the very start of the film. The Quizon character was more concerned about the point of the story than the death of the storyteller.

The first sequence is immediately followed by the credits accompanied by photographs of the actors as a “barkada” enjoying their stuff. The photographs evoke a carnivalesque atmosphere where the viewers can perceive a “locus of oceanic feelings of union” within the “barkada”, i.e., the characters of the film.

In lieu of a site or a place for the carnival, the movie has a jeepney. It becomes a road movie. As the film’s cinematographer Larry Manda confirmed in an interview, the director Jon Red’s theme is the journey itself. The jeepney, as the mobile stage of the story, evokes the carnival spirit of the Filipinos. The now ubiquitous jeepney was created out of US surplus jeeps, painted colorfully, and decorated with all kinds of objects – from Virgin Mary mini statues to posters of sexy women to stickers with slogans like “God knows HUDAS not pay.”

The juxtaposition of Joel Torre’s domestic scenes with Joel Torre’s barkada / jeepney scenes emphasize the difference between ordinary life and carnival life. The domestic scenes are slow-paced with melancholy music that matches Torre’s melancholy face. On the other hand, the barkada / jeepney scenes have an allegro / staccato tempo with lots of laughter and fast music.

“The processes of understanding any ideological phenomenon at all (be it a picture, a piece of music, a ritual or an act of human conduct) cannot operate without the participation of inner speech”.(Stam, p.64) Jon Red portrayed inner speech through close-ups of Mike’s melancholy face, slow panning of the camera and non-diegetic music. He also used voice-over to indicate Mike’s thoughts about his family.

On “Day Zero” when the barkada embarks on their journey to Tatang, Mike (Joel Torre) comes out of his house in slow motion. He runs his fingers through his hair and lets out a big angry sigh, almost like a war cry.  He leaves the domesticity of his life for an adventure. It was a cry for liberation.

Meanwhile, another member of the barkada — a pastor, prays in his church for guidance. Although he had previously told the group that he had already changed since he “found God”, he suddenly has a change of heart. The call of the barkada is hard to dismiss. Unfortunately for him, he misses the bus, or in this case, the jeepney. Perhaps this is his punishment for hesitation.

According to Bakhtin, one of the lures of the carnival is “the foregrounding of social overturning and the counter hegemonic subversion of established power via the ‘world upside down’.” In the film, most of the members of the group leave their everyday life (at least temporarily) to join this carnival of a journey. Mike (Torre), appears to be a contented man with a wife, a kid and a job that enables him to live a decent petit-bourgeois life. Boyong and his sidekick immediately resign from their jobs in a carinderia – happy for the opportunity to resign from their overbearing boss. Kado, the jeepney driver/owner immediately agrees to the use of his jeepney, forsaking a day or two worth of income in the process. And the pastor – “a man of God”, decides to join the group even it can mean committing a grievous sin – murder. For the characters, joining the hunt for Tatang will inevitably turn their world upside down. Yet they embrace the opportunity. The Day of Reckoning has come.

Religion is not sacred in carnivals. In this film, the pastor was willing to forsake the Church. There are also sequences inside the Catholic Church. Al refuses to go inside. Boyong goes inside for the very first time in his life. While inside the church, he wants to flirt with a female parishioner. Kado prays fervently, but his religiosity is degraded by the supposedly funny contortions of his eyes and face – an example of carnivalesque irreverence. Then a man (Sol Cruz) comes to him and asks him if he (Kado) has seen the man’s lost sons. The sons were not lost in the church but at the plaza during a concert the night before. Mike follows the priest with his gaze. The priest goes inside a confessional only to reappear a second later to utter the words “ikumpisal mo na kay Tatang” (Confess to Tatang!).

Like in carnivals, the group’s get-together gives them the chance to reject “social decorum entailing a release from oppressive etiquette, politeness and good manners”. Boyong and his sidekick, Mokyo, are only too happy to tell off their patroness. Mike does not have to act stiffly and politely and can even loosen his tie and roll up his sleeves.

There are also cameo roles of carnivalesque characters like the man who lost his sons, a very dark retard in a carinderia, a shirtless guy who apparently sleeps with a hat and sunglasses, and a fat male homosexual who owns a carinderia with three “sons” who are all fat and imbecilic.

Another concept of Bakhtin is the “perspective on language which valorizes the obscene, the nonsensical and the ‘marketplace speech’ as expressive of the linguistic creativity of the common people. Utang ni Tatang is full of “obscene, nonsensical and marketplace” speech.

On the way back, Mike tells Al (Ronnie Lazaro), “Sayang ‘yung buong biyahe, pare-pareho tayong aatras.” Al answers, “Hindi importante ang pupuntahan, ang importante ay yung biyahe.” The quasi-religious idea of carnival as the “space of the sacred” and “time in parentheses” of a mystical union with the cosmos is adopted here.

The destination is not important, the journey is. There is no geographical or temporal setting. It is in a dimension of sacred space and parenthetical time.

Bakhtin associates the carnival with the vulgar comic genres and favors “the people.” “Utang ni Tatang” is vulgar comedy, which is disconcerting to some critics because Jon Red is supposed to be an “artistic director”. Raymond Red won the Cannes Film Festival for “Anino”. Many expected Jon Red’s film to be “pang-award”, too.  To the critics’ chagrin, Jon Red’s film is just another vulgar comedy. The critics seem to forget that the reason for the durability of comedians like Dolphy, the late Chiquito, Tito, Vic, Joey and others, may be because the vulgar comic genre is close to the hearts of many Filipino filmgoers.

While the film disappointed the critics, it also did not attract the masses. Perhaps the reason for this is that the film was perceived by the masses as an “art film” which made them shy away from it. The film was touted as an “independent film”. Also, the director (Jon Red) and the cast (Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro) are all associated with “artsy” films.

It is interesting to note that while Woody Allen, Jim Carrey and other American comic actors / directors win awards, in the Philippines, comic actors / directors like Dolphy can win awards only if s/he makes non-comedy films.

Bakhtin says, “language and the word are almost everything in human life.” And “all the diverse areas of human activity involve the use of language” “The word is the exclusive medium of consciousness and functions as essential ingredient accompanying all ideological creativity.” Speech diversity, according to Bakhtin, “achieves its fully creative consciousness only under conditions of active polyglossia, i.e., the simultaneous world-wide existence of mutually incomprehensible tongues. (Stam, p. 59)

In Utang ni Tatang, Mike is not able to tell his wife anything about his barkada. It seems like no words in his wife’s “language” or more precisely, “parole” can make her understand about his own experience with his barkada. Even a new member of the barkada, Mokyo, is not allowed to know about the group’s past experience. Mokyo kept on asking, “Ano ang utang ni Tatang?” (What is the debt of Tatang?) But nobody in the group would answer him, not even his friend, Boyong. The phrase utang ni Tatang belongs to the secret language of the original barkada. Mike, Al, Boyong, Kado and the pastor have their own language incomprehensible to everyone else. The words utang ni Tatang  belong to this special language of the barkada. Not even the viewers themselves can be made privy to the real meaning of this secret code.


Director/Writer:    Jon Red

Cinematographer: Larry Manda

Cast: Joel Torre, Jeffrey Quizon, Ronnie Lazaro,

Maricar de Mesa, Jaime Fabregas

Producer: World Arts Cinema

[i] Stam, Robert (1989) Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism and Film Maryland: John Hopkins University Press

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]:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Direction: Marilou Diaz-Abaya

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

Actors: Cesar Montano,  Caridad Sanchez, Amy Austria

Producer: STAR Cinema


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