Stories told with courage

Marilou Diaz-Abaya goes against the grain of her culture in almost her films.  She questions the truisms of common sense not by marshalling logical arguments against them but by telling stories of people who are victims of these truisms.  She invites her viewers to suspend the imperatives of their beliefs even only for a moment, so they can imagine themselves in the skin of her characters. Her new film, Bagong Buwan, uses this rhetorical strategy in a powerful way.

This is what makes Diaz-Abaya films dangerous, and I mean that in a positive way.  They are not consciously political or philosophical, although undoubtedly they can be appropriated by various causes. They disturb but they do not explicitly argue for a new or “better” way of living or seeing the world.  They bear witness to the pain of being human, but they do not proselytize for any religion or ideology.  They challenge our deepest biases, but we are left alone to find our own way out of them.

What Marilou offers are stories that make us question the things that we conventionally associate with the true, the good, the right and the moral.  She compels us to be aware of the limited and accidental nature of our personal beliefs.  She lets us see that instead of the universal values we assume to be, these are just products of the peculiar way we were brought up in a specific time and place.  She makes us realize that other people growing up in other cultures would find it equally natural and reasonable to act and live in a totally different way.

For two years, Marilou immersed herself in Islamic studies and sought to understand the beliefs and stories through which generations of Mindanao Muslims become part of an ancient way of life.  As a Filipino woman bred in Catholic convent schools, she came back from this experience filled with awe and respect for a culture that has been so profoundly misunderstood and misrepresented. She started conceptualizing the film at the height of the Sipadan hostage taking.  Halfway into the making of the film, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. happened.  How does one tell a hopeful story about Muslims anywhere especially against the backdrop of September 11?

Bagong Buwan  (New Moon) is the story of two Moro brothers – one, a doctor who works long hours in a Manila hospital, and the other, a commander in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front who fights for the cause of an independent Islamic nation in Mindanao.  A new Philippine president is elected, and the war enters another episode of renewed hostilities.

A tragedy in the family brings the young doctor back to the land of his ancestors.  He grieves over the senseless death of a loved one, but he cannot bring himself to return hatred with hatred.  He persuades his family to relocate to Manila with him.  His brother, the warrior, scoffs at his indifference to the plight of his own people.  Their mother, a wise woman who has lived through countless wars and evacuations, tells them to stop arguing.  She loves both sons, and she does not feel torn by their conflicting visions.

The film progresses in the context of a community’s forced evacuation.  Many people die in the course of this exodus.  The young doctor at one point picks up a gun on impulse and, against the rational sensibility of his secular education at the State University, rains fire upon a militia urinating on the wall of a mosque.  His anger frightens him, and he cries like a child over his own confusion.

This is the main story, but it is only one among many.  A young lieutenant, fresh from the Philippine Military Academy, searches for terrorists among evacuees who have sought refuge in the farm of a village datu.  He too has his own story to tell.  The datu, who traces his lineage to all the Islamic warriors who resisted Spanish and American colonizers, looks up at the sacred icons of the Moro struggle in his house and replays in his imagination the tales of heroism of ancestors long gone.  A Catholic NGO worker brings relief goods to Moro evacuees and finds himself moving with them in quest of a safe place.  His uncle, a priest in Mindanao, had been murdered just a few years back.  A young Christian boy becomes part of this community of Muslim evacuees by accident, and his simple view of the world is shattered by the events he witnesses and the stories he hears.

The film tells these stories with such unerring compassion that all the questions that people endlessly debate in innumerable talkshows – who is to blame? what is the root of this violence? etc. – suddenly become pointless and irrelevant.  Marilou Diaz-Abaya is also interested in these questions, but she has seen enough and read enough to know that even the most persuasive answers are often encrusted in unexamined prejudices.

Many Filipino viewers may not like Bagong Buwan; some may even feel offended by it and attempt to come up with logical arguments to counter its premises.  They would be missing the point. The whole purpose of the film is to challenge us to loosen our beliefs and attitudes, and to encourage us to reweave our moral vocabularies, by inviting us to an imaginative identification with the suffering of people different from us.

Many of us will resist the attempt to redescribe a culture we have long been taught to demonize.  I think that is okay with Marilou.  Her goal is not so much to propose a reason to care about suffering, but to sharpen our sensitivity to suffering wherever it occurs.  This type of work increasingly can no longer be done by philosophers and politicians.  It is best done by storytellers.