The Chanters

THE CHANTERS (2017), dir. James Robin Mayo


Gary Devilles

Music is an integral element in film narrative, but in James Robin M. Mayo’s The Chanters, music is the narrative and determinative conflict between popular songs and epic chants, between the seductive urban life’s noise and the calming melody of countryside, and ultimately among the listeners of these varying soundscapes. The Chanters may be a simple domestic story between a grandfather and granddaughter, yet the story reverberates with a compelling truth about our past and our relation to it, about how we get lost yet find our way through the maelstrom of everyday life, how we feel disconnected but still yearn to find ways of engaging the present and thrive in a precarious time and place.

The story is about Sarah Mae (Jally Nae Gilbaliga), who is obsessed with romantic soap opera actress, Danica Reyes, who is scheduled to visit Sarah’s school. Sarah takes care of her grandfather, Ramon (Romulo Caballero), a famous Sugidanon chanter, who also teaches the neighborhood children how to chant every Saturday. Unfortunately, Lolo Ramon is suffering from dementia and as his ailment worsens, we see Sarah Mae trying to balance her time preparing for a welcome program for Danica Reyes and taking care of her grandfather. On the day of the program itself, she lost him on their way to the school. Her frantic search for her Lolo Ramon deferred her from the program, losing her opportunity to sing for her idol. Sarah learns a painful truth, not about her favorite actress but about the things that truly matter in life, about who she is, her bond with her community, her incessant refusal to be forgotten and ignored, and her intangibility of her heritage as stirrings of their community spirit.

Without being pedantic, the story ends with the spectacular scene of Calinog, Iloilo, as Sarah renders her personal and community’s struggles in an ambient aural scape, an auditory world that behooves compassionate listening– compassionate in a sense that recognizes primarily the facticity of everyday life, enabling us to identify with Sarah, who like many teenagers today are the target consumers of popular media, rendered passive spectators, and unable to reconnect with their own genuine feelings. Sarah, like many of us, is very much conditioned by the present market forces of production and global flows. Sarah’s parents work overseas, left in the custody of her grandfather and this familial scene is becoming more and more the norm than exception whether in the city or province, center or periphery.

But compassionate listening doesn’t begin and end with empathy.  Compassionate listening recognizes as well that discordant voices can be threatening and oppressive. Sarah realizes frightfully that her Lolo Ramon’s dementia threatens the oral tradition of her tribe and thus following on his footsteps makes an ethical act of survival. Similarly, we are also enjoined to listen attentively and sensitively to these discordant voices of alterity ad the inarticulate, simply because the soundscape is sutured by power and politics. Hence, compassionate listening is predicted on the notion of care – aware of the precarity of the situation yet open and quick to transform and make use of these situations as possibilities, opportunities or strategic engagements.

Compassionate listening is also about being an artist, who is always constantly responding to his or her milieu, sensitive to the pain of being straitjacketed yet always on the lookout for how one can transform such limitation, transgress boundaries, and move on. The true artist in Sarah Mae is at the crux of losing the opportunity to sing for her idol and yet finding her grandfather and her own way in her protracted engagement with her community. The Philosopher Martin Heidegger would say that the facticity of our existence, our relationships with our parents, media, and other institutions may have a bearing on how we would behave or how thy would want us to behave, yet this can be outweighed by our specific engagement, by tapping our reflexive agency and creativity. Like Sarah Mae – it would seem that she was already resigned to her fate in the beginning of the story, yet in the end, it was her wit, cunning, and imagination that enabled her to see another side of being a chanter, of staying in her own town, of following her ancestors, of setting aside pop music for the fragments of Nagbuhis, Amburokay, and Alayaw – one that she truly finds resounding as the beating of her heart and redolent as the past and the future of her own people.


Tito Genova Valiente

Sarah Mae is a young girl and, like any girl of her age, is preoccupied with her mobile phone. She is also a fam of this actress, Danica Reyes who appears nightly on free TV.

Sarah Mae lives with her grandfather, Ramon, a chanter of epic common to the many ethnic communities singly called Panay Bukidnon or “Suludnon,” a diverse group of people living on the mountainous area of Panay. Given our notion of cultures as othering, these people are often described as the only indigenous cultural group in the Visayas, a predisposition to a label that renders the other inhabitants in that area as not indigenous. This makes them an ideal subject matter for a nation of cultures always bidding its time to identify and embrace an identity that is singular.

An inferior filmmaker would hitch his or her cinematic stars to the power of the indigene – the act being an anthropological trick that renders them inferior to the non-indigene. It is, upon closer inspection and the discovery of a different politics, the discourse of the exotic, the allure of the tribal, and the default significance of something that is gloriously offering itself as the model for the authentic, when authenticity is at best a problematic rather than a redemptive solution to cultures and identities.

Fortunately, and with much curiosity, we apprehended this film from a director – James Robin Mayo – and its writers – Andrian Legaspi and John Bedia – who do not think of cultures in terms of preservation, heritage, and tourism. There is true originality and an ideological freshness in a work that would not exploit nostalgia for the vanished cultures, for that is an urban middle-class naiveté. What we have is a narrative of what occurs in communities all over the world, where the definitions of cultures have moved from the composite of elements that form societies to those that are affected by forces outside, by imperatives of the non-lovely factors of globalization and hegemonic forces. These are forces not contended by societies out to preserve homes and parks. These are dynamic subjectivities that are not seen by commissions of cultures and by centers of cultures where cultures, are sincerely and at best, possess no and are not in need of pantheons or temples to Art by the sea.

Witness therefore the absence of nostalgia in a story that is ever present and, the heritage freaks be warned, forever changing.

Sarah Mae as an indigene is portrayed by Jally Nae Gilbaliga, a name that is not a pretend native name. She is a young girl whose mother is out there in the world of overseas foreign workers, like other families in poverty in this country. She lives with the grandfather who chants the Sugidanon or tales of the clan. For someone tasked to remember, the grandfather is afflicted with the disease of the mind that is rapidly forgetting details and stories. The granddaughter is, as expected, not interested in the chanting. In sessions with the grandfather, she is seen as uninterested. Whether she is close to her grandfather, it is because of kinship and not because of a mind raring for knowledge.

But here is the romance of the narrative: the day came when Sarah Mae’s idol arrives for a personal appearance. For several days, she has been rehearsing a dance, which she could not master. Eased out of the group, she decides to put up a chanters’ group. By exposure, perhaps, she proves to be a better chanter than a hip-hop dancer. An incident, which keeps repeating, of the grandfather disappearing, happens again. They young girl misses the performance and the appearance of Danica, her much admired singing sensation behind “Kiss me Heart Heart.”

Here is hidden the voice of the makers: Sarah Mae runs back to her grandfather, who is unable to move because he is tied to a beam in a sari-sari store. The girl cries as she runs out of disappointment over what is missed and she weeps some more upon the sight of her grandfather.

The Chanters is not an ethnography in the classical sense of the word, if one thinks of the description as a one-way street. But the film can be ethnographic in the postmodern sense of it, when we appraise how the filmmakers proceed to show the present, not an eternal present for that is the crisis of the so-called ethnographic present, but as an empirical moment in the life of a community. Whether the chants or the epics are vanishing is no more important than the sentimental fact of a young girl coping with her subsistence and the burden of a caregiver.

The film ends with Sarah Mae chanting and walking to the edge of the land overlooking the distant mountains. In that brief eternity, we see a girl who could be the bearer of the chant or the person who will move to the city, or walk to the embrace of an absentee mother with economic surplus. As for the audience, they are left contemplate the sadness of the mountains and the tenderness of the future, and the brittle joys left for those who feel the nation is grander and more national because it has indigenous tribes kept isolated and ignorant up in the mountains, with poems and songs  about men of long ago arranging marriages with the help of a hawk and a wild dove. And, mobile phones and love their grandfathers chanting or not.

Such wealth of questions and elegant obfuscations make this small film called The Chanters more massive than the civilization a false nation will expect to prop up, or with longing lose.


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