Women of the Weeping River

WOMEN OF THE WEEPING RIVER (2016), dir. Sheron Dayoc


Gigi Javier Alfonso

Sheron Dayoc, the director and writer of Women of the Weeping River brings up the rido issue, the clashing of two families, the unending cyclical conflict and despair that is no strange experience in numerous areas of Mindanao. Generations of family feuds have escalated into a gnawing national crisis. This film brings the disourse to the big screen and contributes to the explanations and rise of more question to the deeply rooted generational issue.

This brave film starts with a montage of a dying butterfly being consumed by an army of ants and the image of an old woman wrinkled and deep in thought. She is Farida, the wise woman of the town effectively performed by Sharifa Pearlsia Ali-Dans, who tries to silently keep the balance of power, rational voice and traditional common sense justice in the town. She is an image of strength, stability and survival. Many come to her for advice and help. She is a picture of a woman who has an abundance of material wealth but has lost all those whom she has loved. But her compassion and inclusivity can only do so much for those who ask help and wisdom from her. And there is a dead body being dragged by two women in silent distraught surrounding the scene, somehow showing that this is a usual happening in this town.

The patriarchal town is absorbed in making decisions over life and death, fairness and justice with the father of the clan and family defining vengeance and retribution for his aggrieved family.

Women of the Weeping River is a slow, quiet film punctuated by sparse bullets fired and breaking the silence. It is a film that forecasts an all-out war… a prequel as one of the many narratives that play in the complex interweaving of the fight for land, the right to move freely, the grounds to raise their families and worship their God. Dayoc’s direction and Rommel Sales’ cinematography mindfully bring these gripping issues with the specificity of the Tausug experiences into a speculative, magnified tapestry of the real.

Its quietness and slowness together with the minimalist acting of Laila Putli Ulao as Satra, the widowed woman, go as well with the anti-melodramatic surface of deeply rooted wounds and gangrenous sores of grievance. The irony of the stillness of her unfeeling face when tears drop, create questions gasping for answers. Are women asked not to cry in hysteria? Are they asked to be brave and face the consequences of being left behind by their loved ones with grim nonchalance?

It is Satra’s story and that of the many women who are caught in the relentless struggle and resistance in their lives. These women seek rest from the unending washing of blood from the bodies of their husbands and sons. Satra is seen as she walks among the many women in the crowd, rallying for the passing of the Bangsamoro Basic law. The scene shifts to a bleak Satra, seated, as she does her chores, overhearing her father Mustafa (performed well by Taha Daranda), and exchanging her last savings and heirloom of gold bracelets for guns to use in preparation for a possible all-out war that we all hope will not have to happen.

Satra, after talking to her mother asking for a possible reconciliation between their family and Ismael’s family that she seems willing to lead is cautioned by her mother. She has kept her subservience to her husband, her father who has always been obeyed by his sons and wife, vowing to continue to seek his revenge, with not a peep of dissent from any of them.

Satra silently questions and leaves. She finds in the forest Shadiya, aptly performed by Mariam Zimadar Caranay-Raper, the woman who has suffered the same losses as she… the deaths of their husbands and sons in this unending strife full of deep hatred that has festered for generations between the two families.

Like a set of book ends for a story without a foreseen resolution, the film starts and closes with a montage of images. And at the close of the film we see: Two women figures in black standing in the stillness of the forest, both waiting for each other’s move; children seemingly playing on a mountainside; one child battering another with rocks until the other lies limp and covered with blood… lifeless; the river with its sounds likened to weeping with streaks of blood red swarming the rocks, men in uniform with dead broken bodies.

Dayoc’s superior visual story telling, with the river as a strong metaphor, narrates the story of conflict and despair loudly shrieking of a horrible reality.


Nicanor G. Tiongson

In Mindanao, clan feuding is known by the Maranao term “rido.” While rido has been the subject of numerous articles and books by Mindanao scholars in the past two decades, no feature film has depicted it with the depth and breadth, clarity and sensitivity that characterize Sheron Dayoc’s Women of the Weeping River.

The Mustaphas and the Ishmaels, both Tausug and Muslim families, had lived peacefully with each other on continguous territories dissected by a free-flowing river, until the Ishmaels grabbed lands belonging to the Mustaphas. Volence has erupted between the two families for some time now, the latest victim being Hasmullah, the husband of Satra and son-in-law of the Mustapha patriarch. To prevent retaliation from the Mustaphas, the elderly and well-respected Farida, herself a victim of rido, tries to convince Mustapha to accept blood money as compensation for Harmullah’s death, but Mustapha will only accept compensation after after the Ishmaels return the land they grabbed from his family. Soon after Mustapha kills one of the Ishmael sons. Expecting retaliation, Mustapha builds a foxhole inside his house. Satra asks if it might be better for her and her son Hassim to go away but her father and brothers swear they would protect the boy with their lives. Satra’s brother then kills an Ishmael adolescent boy, the son of Shadiya, whose husband had already been killed by the Mustaphas. In return, the Ishmaels burn the copra barn of the Mustaphas. To beef up their security, Mustapha teaches his two sons how to handle an armalite. Once, while Mustapha is showing his grandson Hassim the land that he and his brother cleared, he is shot in the leg. The next night, the Ishmaels attack the Mustapha house, but succeed only in killing their cow. Wanting to acquire another weapon, Mustapha asks Satra to sell the gold jewelry that she and her husband had saved for the building of a house. Satra agrees but Farida will not buy the jewelry, suspecting the money will be used to buy arms. Then, the boy Hassim wanders one evening into Ishmael territory and is found lifeless by the Mustaphas. Satra is filled with anger and despair. But Farida advises her not to allow herself to be consumed by rage, and to remember that her enemy Shadiya is suffering exactly the same pain right now. Satra begins to see the evil that rido has brought on both the Mustaphas and the Ishmaels. While her father buys yet another armalite and her brothers, carrying weapons, patrol their lands, Satra and her mother agree that rido must stop before all their loved ones end up in graves.

The film effectively clarifies the causes, workings, and results of rido. Like many others, rido here erupts because of an economic reason – landgrabbing, and becomes exacerbated by the “need” to save or clean the “honor” of the family which has been “shamed” by the enemy’s aggression, the need to reaffirm the manliness, bravery, and pride of its patriarch and male members, and the need to reciprocate the “debt of a soul” incurred by the enemy. The film also shows how rido is not peculiar to Muslims, although jihad is used as a rationalization for revenge, and that in fact, rido is exactly what has been happening between families today who are political and/or economic rivals in the Ilocos, Cavite, Laguna, Bicol, and Masbte, among others. Finally, the film illustrates how rido is implicated in the separatist movement in Mindanao, in the scene where Mustapha is given a high-powered armalite for his rido, in exchange for Satra’s gold jewelry and the promise that he and his clan will join the rebel forces if and when the central government goes on an all-out war against the Muslim separatists.

But the film’s greater achievement is in its ability to make us understand how rido destroys people as human beings, how it dismisses tenderness as weakness and replaces compassion with hatred. In this the film succeeds because both conflict and character are simultaneously developed in the scenes that show the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings. Particularly moving are: the scene where after Hassim’s pet cow is killed in the Ishmael attack, Satra surprises the boy with the coloring book that he had been looking at in a store in town, even as the white butterfly (his slain father’s soul) flutters over them under the mosquito net; the scene where, after Hassim’s death, Satra with a crayon colors the parts of a train that Hassim had not finished coloring, as tears rush down her cheeks and Mustapha sharpens his barong in the background the scene where three boys are playing on a field, seemingly in all innocence, until one of them beats the other child with a huge stone to death; the scene where, after Hassim’s death, a fully-clothed Satra swims in the part of the river where her husband’s body was found, then climbs onto a boulder and lies on top of it, as the frantic screaming of birds evoke the turmoil ranging in her soul; and the scene where Satra, with a white butterfly (Hassim’s soul) perched unmovingly on her index finger, wonders aloud to her father whether Hassim would approve of the violent revenge that Mustapha is planning in order to put Hassim’s soul in peace. But mmost striking of all is the penultimate and climactic scene, where, having both come to the realization that rido must end before it is too late, Satra of the Mustaphas and Shadiya of the Ishmaels, now both bereft of husbands and children, walk anxiously through the forest adjoining their territories in search of each other, the pace and sounds of their footsteps overlapping with each other until in the half-darkness, they stand in their widows’ weeds, meters apart, silently looking at each other in anguished grief, but now free from the rage that had made them confront each other earlier, and desperately wanting to reach out to each other in an embrace of peace. This moving scene of reconciliation contrasts with last scene which depicts yet another bloody ambush that leaves all uniformed soldiers dead.

With a well-crafted and highly visual screenplay, imaginative and masterful direction, riveting cinematography, and a powerhouse cast of unknown actors led byb a hauntingly beautiful Laila Ulao as the tragic but resilient Satra, Taha Daranda as the gentle grandfather and indefatigable warrior Mustapha, and Sharifa Pearlsia Ali-Dans as the wise and compassionate Farida, Women of the Weeping River is not only a powerful indictment of rido but a thought-provoking affirmation of the truth that peace can only come if it flows from within the hearts of both the perpetrators and the victims of rido.


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