THE FOREST TAKES OVER AND MAN VANISHES
Tito Genova Valiente
Geographies imagined and deterritorialized forests are bountiful in Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas. Where the density of the forest in any cinema is a preparation for a didactic discourse on how they will soon be destroyed by man, in this film, the forests are there, nonconfrontational, the wildness and wilderness given equations in a measure of a Nature we have always wanted to localize and yet never succeed to do. As the title suggests, the lack of domestication is not necessarily an absence of beauty because in Baboy Halas; there is only this eternal swath of green forests that fills the horizon. And I, believe, given the death of wooded areas on this earth that realization can border on the spiritual.
Let me stretch my metaphor: the forest is a piece on heaven on earth in Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas. The film is an attempt not to exoticize the communities we endear to call “tribes.”
Using people from the community of “lumads,” the film chronicles the ordinary life of the forest people. We have seen this kind of exercise from documentarians. In fact, National Geographic comes to mind. But, Bagane Fiola has a different take on the geographic and the national. The geography is particular to a group called “Matigsalog,” a term that refers to the settlement by the river. The filmmaker does not give any hint of integration. “The “tribe” or community is out there, and this cinema of appearances makes it appear tat our privileged position stood there. We observe; we do not integrate. Government does not have any place in this territory.
The film has a camera trained on the forest. The feeling is one is looking into the lives of people in a location, a setting that we are familiar with but are now looking at, in a different way, for the first time.
The forest community, first of all, is not the stereotype form we have gotten used to. We can also put it this way: there is a radically different stereotyping happening in the film.
The filmmaker follows individuals as they negotiate the forest areas. As the walk through dense foliage and some clearings. It is as if the filmmaker is showing how things are in the forests. No commentary, however, about how arduous life in that setting can be. What happens is that we, the audience, are prodded to ask the question: How indeed can one find his way through the forest?
Indeed, how can one live in the hut set up on the canopy of trees? Indeed how can one go through life almost bare?
If there is one great lesson we learn from the wilderness of Baboy Halas is that we, in the lowland or those not from the forest community, can never live there again.
Some critics praise the film Baboy Halas for allowing us access to the forest or to the culture of people we have no knowledge about. And yet, the lesson of the film and its forest can be found not in the understanding of the people in the plot but in the wonderment that their ways of life engage us to think about their survival. The hostility of the forest is the precious gift of the film, Baboy Halas and not in any epiphany of the woods and primeval trees.
One scene in the film shows one of the “lead characters” going deep into the forest and staying there till nightfall. The sound of nocturnal animals and the gurgling of the stream are pure terror. The enchantment for the audience, of course, is that we are the only ones terrified. After all, what the film offers, not by insight, but by observation is how the camera always moves away from any series of human activities. Then the screen is filled with the verdant hue of the forest, the humans banished, unseen in the bigness and power of Nature. That banishment, I assume, is felt keenly by us, the people of the non-forest. It is once more the affliction of the supreme outsider, gentrifying the naturally untamed. The audience is the de facto ethnocentric observevr alluding to characters viewed their own angst, fear and neurosis.
There are actors in the film but they do not fulfill the stock character of the lovely apparitions peopling this other territory called showbusiness. We are satisfied to marvel at these “Gentle savages” and pronounce this film as pure cinema. Such purity happens only because in Baboy Halas, the scenario consistently reminds us that for all the conflicts men create among each other, there is the forest taking over with the splendor of Nature conquering the puny, trivial human groups.
Baboy Halas was one of the entries to the 2016 Quezon City International Film Festival. Bagane Fiola, the director, is one of the newest discoveries of the film festival, proof that there are good filmmakers outside the dark forest called Manila showbiz.
THE FOREST GIVES, THE FOREST TAKES AWAY
Set deep within the lush tropical forests of Sitio Maharlika in the Marilog District of Davao City, director Bagane Fiola’s Baboy Halas (subtitled as Wailings in the Forest) presents an absorbing account of the Matigsalog lumad tribe’s daily life in the highlands. If Robert Flaherty was edified by the adventures of the Eskimo Nanook and his family in Nanook of the North, Fiola is similarly inspired to follow the skillful maneuvers of Mampog, forest dweller and hunter, and his fellow lumads in their various mundane problems. However, unlike Flahery who portrayed Nanook’s hunting skills as heroic acts in the face of adverse Arctic conditions thus upholding the West’s grand narrative of man’s dominance over nature. Fiola limns Mampog’s world in terms of man’s harmony and purposeful co-existence with and even strategic subservience to the omnipresent forest spirits. Through Mampog’s engrossing encounters, Fiola depicts the lumad’s forest not simply as a topographic site but as a guardian of dynamic equilibrium where transgressions against nature are self-corrected and the balance of nature is justly restored.
This perspective informs the film’s narrative arc which traces Mampog’s existential deformation from man to animal. At the beginning of the film, we see Mampog expertly foraging the forest floor and rivers for food for his family. A good da for Mampog would mean killing a pig for the ample meat that it provides. He limbs a towering tree to ensure a boar but fails. He returns home and hears his wife warn him about “unpleasant things” to come. Mampog leaves then spots a white pig and kills I only to learn later on in a disturbing dream that he may have unwittingly attacked an important spirit. Upon waking up from his nightmare, Mampog cleanses himself of his offense by diving into a pool by a waterfall. He emerges from the water as a black pig and roams around the forest. His wife searches for him and picking up fragments of his clothing realizes he has disappeared. On her way back, she sees a black pig and prepares to shoot and kill it. As she aims the crashing of the waterfalls in the background accompanied by the forest creatures’ ominous hooting and howling rises in volume and the frame freezes. It is a signification of nature coming full circle, a visual counterpoint to the opening shot before the film’s title where the frame also freezes at the time when Mampog is about to spear another boar. In either case, one person stands to gain food while the other’s spirit is released from its animal state. For the Matigsalogs, the forest gives life, the forest takes away life.
Interestingly, Fiola shoots this mythic narrative with a documentary sensibility. Like an explorer’s journal, Fiola’s mise-en-scene is rich in ethnographic detail and the raw authenticity of this milieu is validated by the lumad cast who play the various roles. Ably supported by his intrepid cinematographs (Raphael Meting and Mark Limbaga), Fiola in handheld shots and long takes positions the camera as an astute participant-observer of the lumad’s traversals with the complex terrain of the forest and the bartering code of their tribe. Camera work in several scenes favors the long shot to enable the viewer to survey the frame and savor striking images of forest creatures and the lumad’s resilience, e.g., a mini-gallery of animal skulls hanging from the side of Mampog’s house, an offering of civets playfully dangling on a hunting rod by a villager to a local shaman, the burst of flame in a dark cave during an invocation to the cave spirit, a high angle shot of Mampog and his family cooking and feasting. In another scene, the camera follows Mampog in a tight reverse tracking shot as he wends his way through the thick vegetation. The camera then pans and pulls away to a long shot of Mampog with his catch arriving at his home up in the tree tops as his wives descend a makeshift staircase to welcome him. The soft diffused morning light that bathes the scene evokes a number of issues. Given the looming threat of mining brought about by global market forces, how much longer can such a scene prevail? How safe are the lumads and their ancestral forest from the intrusions of state-supported corporate capitalist ventures? Is this scene an elegiac tribute to a vanishing heritage? Or is it a contemporary lowlander urbanite’s fantasy of nature in its pristine and primeval condition?
Fiola provides no easy answers to these questions. By employing long shots, Fiola puts the viewer at a distance from the lumads. He resists rendering the lumads as exotic or idyllic indigenous peoples and leaves it up to the viewer to contemplate on the lumad’s future life. Whatever fate befalls them, Fiola’s intermittent aerial shots for the dense forest coverage with the cacophony of resident forest creatures suggests that the forest and the lumads with their wisdom of the natural world live a fragile and endangered existence.ba
BABOY HALAS (2016) Direction BAGANE FIOLA; Screenplay BAGANE FIOLA, BEM DI LERA, JANINA MOYA; Production Design JOEL GEOLAMEN; Cinematography MARK LIMBAGA, RAPHAEL METING; Editing WILLY APA JR., BAGANE FIOLA; Sound WILLY APA JR, CHARLIE DACLAN; Cast: Forest Dwellers – OMELES LAGLAGAN, AILYN LAGLAGAN, VANGELYN PANIHAO, JHEA MAE LAGLAGAN, Pangayao Warriors – DANILO CASIG, SADAM DAGSIL, ROLLY PANIHAO, HENYO PANIHAO, ERNESTO CAPAL, IMELDA LASCUNA, JASMEN FLORES, JESSA JAIME, MERLIE LANTONG SHERYL ARENDAIN, Tribal Leaders – DANIEL DAGSIL, ARAIZ PANIHAO; Produced by QCINEMA, COOLAB STUDIOS, OYA FILMS, TIMERAP PRODUCTIONS; Color/ Running Time 1:44
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