Women of the Weeping River (Philippines, 2016) [Reel Asian 2017]
Young Philippine filmmaker and visual artist Sheron Dayoc’s filmography encompasses a mix of documentary and fiction films. It also largely encompasses the southern region of the Philippines from which he hails, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, and the socio-political/cultural issues that surround that region. Ways of the Sea (2010) is a drama that centers on human trafficking between Mindanao and Malaysia. The documentary A Weaver’s Tale (2009) and the short fiction film Dreams (2008) both focus on the Yakans, one of the many indigenous Moro communities local to the region (inhabiting the northernmost islands of the Sulu archipelago, in western Mindanao).
For his latest film Women of the Weeping River, Dayoc continues his documentary-fiction trajectory and examination of the region’s culture, landscape, and emotional bonds. The film is set in Jolo (constituting the central islands of the Sulu archipelago) and a portrait of one family’s experience of the inter-ethnic violence among Moro communities for which Mindanao is (in)famously known. This time, Dayoc focuses on the Tausug community, which dictated his casting of local non-professional actors fluent in the dialect. In many ways, the film is a fictional counterpart to his 2015 documentary The Crescent Rising, which addresses different aspects of the lives of the Mindanaoans. From his documentary, Dayoc takes the two segments on men whose lives are sworn to jihad and women who are caught in the resulting violence in order to sensitively explore the interlocking subject(ivitie)s of patriarchy, family, identity, and retribution from the perspective of women.
The family of Satra (Laila Putli Ulao) has been embroiled in a generations-spanning rido, or feud, with the neighbouring Ismael family/clan in the countryside. At the film’s beginning, Satra’s husband Hasmullah has been killed as part of the ongoing bloodshed between the two families. Complicating matters is the fact that Hasmullah was an Ismael. Nevertheless, in a meeting with the community’s matriarch-mediator Farida (Sharifa Pearlsia Ali-Dans), Satra’s father and brothers reject the option of reconciling with the Ismaels and instead vow violent, eye-for-an-eye vengeance. Though during this meeting she becomes preoccupied with making tea, Satra shares in her family’s desire to avenge her husband’s killing and expresses it. The film, then, can be described as following Satra’s family as they maintain this commitment towards fueling the rido as opposed to putting an end to it.
While such a scenario easily lends itself to (over-the-top) drama, suspense, and shock, Dayoc resists this stereotypical and reductive route often found in other media representations of Mindanao and instead opts for a more sombre tone that neither spectacularises nor glamourises this scenario and the people involved in it. Violence does come to encroach more and more on Satra and her family’s everyday lives, but the retaliatory acts of brutality between the two families are hardly, if ever, shown. If they are, the acts are shown very briefly and/or from a distance. Or the acts have already been committed and what is shown is the end result of such physical violence: a dead body, face down in a puddle; a burning house; a cow whose head peeks from the earth while being buried. Such a limited, non-exploitative approach, in fact, makes such acts all the more disturbing, especially when set against the film’s parallel focus on Satra and her family’s quiet daily lives set in the lush landscape that surrounds them.
In actuality, the film charts not only the rido’s development but also the rhythms of quotidian life, work, and traditions that exist in this space – for instance, working the land, going to the big city for trading/buying goods, Satra spending time with her son Hassim. In this way, the film avoids defining these characters simply in terms of violence. Moreover, both the violence and the ordinary are often presented in an oblique manner that sometimes leaves the relationship between certain scenes a bit ambiguous or through unexpected imagery that makes them emotionally memorable (e.g. overhead shots of Satra in the river, what looks to be a dead dragonfly with ants swarming around it on a table) while creating an unsettling tone.
Through Satra finding the space between the violent and the ordinary ever more suffocating and disappearing, the focus is ultimately the senselessness of the violence itself as a mode of (patriarchal) thinking and (masculinist) identity formation, cyclical and always devastating, not only for both families but also everyone else in the area.
Dayoc gradually reveals this focus through Satra’s emotional growth with regards to violence through the cutting and framing of her, often in close-up, vis-à-vis her father Mustafa (Taha Daranda) and her brothers. During the aforementioned family meeting with Farida, Dayoc makes the interesting choice to show Satra on the image-track preparing tea while the soundtrack is dominated by her father and brothers’ voices about their grievances over the rido and their plan of (violent) action in retaliation. And a similar editing pattern recurs several more times in the film: close-ups of Satra are intercut with scenes of the men praying and discussing/buying arms, establishing Satra as outside peeking in, outside of the discussion – yet so deeply inside the violence.
By constantly intercutting such scenes of the men with close-ups of Satra, the film asks the spectator to rethink the ethics and motivation that underwrite the men’s actions/choices from her point of view. If, perhaps, the equation of men = violence/bloodshed and women = peace/reconciliation sounds too basic and/or naïve, put another way, by privileging Satra’s perspective, the violence and vengeance (on behalf of lives lost) to which she subscribes during the first half of the film loses its ethical allure – or rather, is emptied of meaning. This ‘violent’ way of thinking understood as masculine identity is passed from one generation to another in both families, thereby enabling a boy killing another boy to be permissible while Satra’s younger brother’s own feeling of not wanting to participate in such armed conflict is not. Violence becomes the ordinary and no one questions or acts against it.
Satra becomes poised, visually and narratively, as an outsider-insider, to question and/or act, leading to the film’s concluding, most visceral sequence of ethical intercutting.
Women of the Weeping River is showing on November 14 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.