Tu Pug Imatuy

TU PUG IMATUY (2017), dir. Arbi Barbarona


Patrick F. Campos

Tu Pug Imatuy has inspired many thoughtful reviews analyzing Arnel Mardoquio’s screenplay, which is informed by the lumad’s historical and ongoing struggle against encroachers, and commending Arbi Barbarona’s feat of working with nonprofessional actors and handling all the technical aspects of the creative process. Instead of writing another review, I wish to contextualize it in the shifting patterns of “national,” “regional,” and “global,” cinema formations. I maintain that theorizing the relational spaces of marginality in polycentric cinemas of the new century can orient our critical intervention to diverse meanings that the previous debate on ‘indie vs. mainstream’ has precluded.

Tu Pug Imatuy, while it portrays a centuries-old way of life, is a truly twenty-first century film, animated by “global” cinema as much as it contributes to “regional” cinema. In both contexts, the film occupies a marginal space, but the significance of these distinct marginalities is different. As a local film in a global context, the time for such a film has inevitable come, but as a regional film in the national context, its arrival has actually come quite late.

Mardoquio and Barbarona’s works, as well as other films beyond Manila, have been the highlight of Cinema Rehiyon, the flagship project of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts since 2009. In fact, however, filmmaking in the regions started earlier and did not result from the protean period of the 2000s, when the meaning of “independence” was being contested in Manila. Rather, film cultures in cities like Bacolod, Iloilo, Cebu, and Davao, developed alongside the one in Manila, in synchronicity with the formation of marginal cinemas all around the world and enabled by innovations in the technologies of film production and dissemination.

In short, what galvanized filmmaking in the regions in the digital period are the same global impulses that energized the indie scene in Manila. Thus, the momentous establishment of Cinema Rehiyon and the growing consciousness of “regional” filmmaking in recent years indicate a lag in the recognition of films beyond Manila as part of national cinema. It is notable, then, that Tu Pug Imatuy, with its urgent call about a besetting national problem, was only made in 2017.

Global cinema’s discursive, cultural, and economic openness to “other” cinemas has encouraged the productivity of marginal films vying for a space in the center or creating niches in the peripheries. Tu Pug Imatuy is one such film, which is currently traveling an alternative international route. It was released in the context of Sinag Maynila, a film festival branded as enabling “sineng lokal, pang-internasyonal,” funded by Solar Entertainment CEO, Wilson Tieng, and selected by Cannes-prizewinner and vocal Duterte-supporter, Brillante Mendoza. The production and circulation of the film alert us to the complexity of the situation where initiatives by the state and private corporations are providing platforms for regional filmmakers to reach domestic and international markets.

The globalization of marginal films is well documented, and the myriad experiences of filmmakers laboring in the peripheries caution us from making sweeping claims about “national” and “global” cinemas and invite us to consider concrete cases. The itinerary of  Tu Pug Imatuy, in particular, is instructive, for it reveals the constraints and predicaments that regional filmmakers as ground-level agents must negotiate in order to be visible and yet continue to harbor the potential for resistance.

“Sine Lokal, Pang-Internasyonal”

We have heard it said that mainstreaming the arts from ethnolinguistic cultures throughout the archipelago can help create a more complete tapestry of Filipino identity. In this sense, Tu Pug Imatuy vividly portrays what regional films contribute best to national cinema. Moviegoers are permitted to see the colors and hear the music of Manobo culture that is peripheral to national consciousness. Moreover, the film, set in an isolated place, tells a story quite distinct from narratives of the town and the city. In this borderland between Davao and Bukidnon, history is understood not as a line moving forward but as space layered in time, building up a place resistant to the fiction of “progress” that renders the lumad “backward.”

Regional films enrich Philippine cinema, yes but more significantly, some of them reactivate the radical potential of the margins that the proliferation of “indie” films have tamed. This reactivation allows for a new interrogation of the constitution not only of a national cinema but also of the national itself. Here again, Tu Pug Imatuy, as a particular case, is instructive, because it aimed (and in my opinion, succeeded) in revealing how global forces have been relentless in their drive to erase societies in the peripheries in collusion with the state that is acting in the name of progress. For this reason, the production of such a film from the margins is necessary, to emend the dominant national narrative that sees indigenous people merely as enriching Filipino identity and to address a wider public about the actual plight of the lumad.

Notably, Tu Pug Imatuy also resonates with the concept of Fourth Cinema, coined by Maori filmmaker Barry Barclay to distinguish indigenous films produced in settler colonial nations like New Zealand and to connote how the older categories of First (industrial), Second (art), and Third (political) Cinemas have actually functioned as “invader cinemas.” This idea captures well the experience of the lumad (which translates to “natives of the land”), who have been subjected to oppression by colonizers, settlers, and land—grabbers. Barbarona’s process of working with the lumad to make a film that speaks of the native’s tragic experiences instantiates community, collaboration, and reciprocity in the spirit of Fourth Cinema. Such resonance points to new peripheral networks and translocal affinities. But even here, Tu Pug Imatuy, intimates that it is not, like other Fourth Cinema films, merely an indigenous expression for an indigenous audience.

On the level of the national, we have frequently seen the plight of the lumad discussed in media framed as a question of political instrumentalization. Tu Pug Imatuy, indeed, shows the lumad caught in the crossfires, their places of refuge militarized, as rebels blend with them while the government military utilizes them in their counter-insurgency efforts. But the logic of the appalling threats made by the president, of bombing lumad schools because they have taken sides, misses the bottom line – whose birthright is the land?

And why are lumad places being militarized? Ultimately, this question cannot be addressed without reference to an international situation. The valiant “lumad of the world” have for centuries fought and today continue to resist encroachers, which is why the richest natural reserves that transnational business are greedy to extract can still be found in indigenous lands. The strategy of progress by dispossession and militarizing indigenous territories so that extractive industries could rapaciously pillage is a global threat which have resulted to environmental degradation and human rights abuses, such as those shown in the film, like displacement, persecution, humiliation, coercion, torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings. In this light, Tu Pug Imatuy, a little film from an outpost of national cinema, is calling the world’s powers that be to account.


Mike Rapatan

Arbi Barbarona’s Tu Pug Imatuy (translated from the Manobo as “the right to kill”) centers on the travails of lumad couple Obunay (Malona Sulatan) and Dawin (Jong Monzon) in the hands of a craven and ruthless band of soldiers tasked with protecting the operations and interests of a plunderous mining company and patrolling and scouring the nearby hills for NPA rebels who purportedly killed their comrades in a previous torturous encounter. Sensing the opportunity to use them as pawns in their search-and-destroy mission, Sgt. Villamor (Jamee Rivera) with his fellow brutish soldiers hold Obunay and Dawin as hostages and order them to lead them to the rebel’s hideout. Obunay and Dawin are separated from Ilyan (Jillian Khayle Barbarona) and Langit (Henyo Ehem), their children who in turn are left to fend for themselves.

In the course of their trek, the soldiers amuse themselves by taunting and cajoling the couple to make love in their presence. Lt. Olivar (Luis Georlin Banaag III) cautions the rest to take it easy on the couple so that the couple can cooperate and bring them to their target. The contingent eventually reaches a makeshift school on a hill in an interior upland area and the soldiers grill the lumad teacher Kadong Bunta (Nona Ruth Sarmiento) on her motivation for discussing imperialism to a group of nursing mothers. Unconvinced of her explanation, the soldiers detain the teacher and mothers with their children and ask Obunay to gather root crops and prepare dinner for the soldiers. Obunay hatches a plan to poison the soldiers but things go awry and she watches her husband gorged to death.

Next day, Obunay is dragged into the woods but her group runs into a rebel squad. In the melee, Obunay escapes but is pursued by some of the soldiers. Remembering the pit trap for wild boars that Dawin had set up (a hunting sequence early into the film establishes this), Obunay deliberately shows herself as bait to the soldiers and leads them to their death. The officers shoot and kill each other. The rebel squad arrives, collects the firepower from the corpses in the pit, and escorts Obunay out of the forest so that she can reunite with her children.        

Arnel Mardoquio (who wrote and directed other films about Mindanao like Sheka, Crossfire, and the award-winning Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim) is credited with writing the screenplay based on a story that inspired director Barbarona (who are previously worked with Mardoquio in a number of his films as cinematographer and sound designer). Both are stalwarts of Mindanao regional cinema and they consciously permeate within their films the sensibilities of minority and indigenous people struggling in a land of shattered promises. They also feature actors from such groups and this stylistic approach makes the conflicts they dramatize more heartfelt and authentic.

In this film, they collaboratively dig deep into a true-to-life account narrated by the real Ubunay Botod Manlaon of Sitio Bagang shown in a clip prior to the credits where she describes her actual ordeal at the hands of military. The screenplay may seem to be an adapted account of a local incident, but it becomes more than that. It is regional in its geography but global in its politics. In one particular scene, Dawin’s children ask him what a parked backhoe is doing on the road. Dawin replies that it is a beast from the nearby mining company. Dawin next visits his chief (Datu Mintroso Malibato) and asks him about the backhoe. The datu complains about the soldiers forcing the equipment into their domain without his consent. Through these scenes, Barbarona pointedly underscores the disenfranchisement of indigenous people from their ancestral domain by multinational corporate interests supported by military might. His film presents a blistering critique of the industrial-military machinery that continues to ravage ancestral lands and lifeways in Mindanao. In a number of long shots of remaining patches of forest cover and stripped farmlands, Barbarona ominously surveys the slow and silent extinction of indigenous culture.

Barbarona tries to steer the film away from a didactic treatment of the screenplay’s theme by anchoring much of the film on Obunay’s empathetic struggle to flee her captors. Malona Sulatan’s raw portrayal of Obunay makes Obunay’s distress palpable and compelling. Barbarona’s close-up of her muted anguish while helplessly witnessing her husband’s death confirms the depth of her internalization of Obunay’s pain. Her sorrow effectively draws out our understanding of her vengeance mentioned by the film’s title.

Obunay’s restlessness is effectively captured by Barbarona’s mobile and agile camera work. Barbarona adroitly keeps pace with Obunay as she roams the forest. But for all the energy that the camera displays, the film somehow ends up skimming the surface of its interesting premise. For one, Obunay’s ploy to lure the soldiers to the pit may signify agency on her part (her persona is reminiscent of Laisan, the mythical horse praised in an indigenous song for outwitting several opponents). But Obunay’s action is a temporary move. The real enemy for her to dislodge is the invisible specter of the industrial-military machinery legitimized by globalization forces which assume for themselves the right to exploit and in several cases, the right to kill those that stand in their way. Hence, when Obunay leaves the forest, she is in a sense in a state of false consciousness about her ability for self0determination. She returns to a world where the tentacles of globalization continue to stretch and squeeze. In Obunay’s case, the insidious structures remain and it is easy for one to imagine the company that hired the soldiers sending another troop to inflict its own retaliation on Obunay and her children.

The film then could have explored in more nuanced ways the complexity of this industrial-military machinery as well as the personal contradictions and dilemmas of the various characters involved. There are several instances in the film when the relationships between the soldiers, rebels and lumads are rendered in starks contrasting terms rather than in subtle gradations. The soldiers are rendered as one-dimensional emblems of power and because there is not much investigation into their motives or character, the actors do not have much to work with except to shame, shout and shoot. Similarly, the rebel squad pops up as the obligatory counterforce and appears blameless of any vested agenda. On the other side, Obunay and Dawin’s datu is represented as a cipher of authority who is unable to wield any influence or mobilize his tribe. Perhaps in future films tackling a similar subject the intricacies of the intersecting lives of key characters affected by this conflict are equitably and strategically parceled out leading to unexpected collisions and riveting insights.


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