Note: This article was supposed to appear in The Phillippine Star around December 2012, in time for Thy Womb’s MMFF run. I have no idea though if this article ever saw print.
Brillante Mendoza merely laughed when I told him that his film Kinatay, which won him the Best Director award in the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, has become a benchmark in depictions of graphic violence on screen. In Slant Magazine’s review of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, John Semley cited Mendoza’s film in contrast with Bigelow’s violent scenes of torture. “The scenes are disturbing, but by cinema’s post-Kinatay or The Passion of the Christ standards, Zero Dark Thirty‘s graphic incitements are slight,” Semley wrote. Mendoza somehow finds this amusing, seeing how Kinatay has earned him a degree of notoriety in world cinema. Granted, the film had shocking displays of violence but Mendoza has since ventured on films that are less repugnant, particularly in his film Thy Womb.
“Kinatay is perceived to be very violent and Thy Womb is [about] unconditional love,” Mendoza says. “Sa akin naman, nakikita mo yung pagta-tackle natin sa mga istorya, not just because gusto lang natin magpakita ng violence. If there’s an interesting story, yun ang mas tinitignan ko. With Thy Womb, affected ako when I first saw the place. Once kasi na-catch yung attention mo, yun ang gusto kong ikwento. The way I felt during that moment, yun yung gusto kong i-capture sa film.”
Thy Womb premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September and competed in the festival’s main slate against world cinema greats like Terrence Malick, Brian De Palma, and Marco Belocchio. The film has since earned accolades and citations from critics around the world and is currently making rounds of film festivals. This December, Thy Womb is part of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the same festival that rejected it in the first place until another film pulled out of the competition, way after Thy Womb’s success abroad. But Mendoza is more than happy with the film’s selection to the MMFF, seeing this as an opportunity to share his films with Filipinos around the country.
A different perspective
The film also marks the return of Nora Aunor to the big screen. She stars as Shaleha, an infertile midwife who searches for a second wife for her husband so he can have a child. Thy Womb is starkly different from Mendoza’s previous films. Blue skies not only mark a momentary respite for the film but it is actually a reflection of the Tawi-Tawi island that the film is set in. Mendoza used this film as an opportunity to tell a different side of the people of South.
“The first time I went to Tawi-tawi was for me a great discovery of the place. I knew little about Tawi-tawi,” Mendoza recalls. “Like most of us here from Luzon na napaka-minimal lang ng alam natin. Ang alam lang natin diyan, violent yung lugar. We tend to have a lot of misconceptions and we tend to generalize Mindanao as a whole. This is a beautiful island. They Christians and the Muslims coexist peacefully. In the same community, from different tribes pa, you will see mosques and chapels in one street. So sabi ko if I’m gonna make a story here, dapat kasama itong community na ito, dapat ma-capture ito hindi lang yung story na hindi lang nakikita yung lugar. In my films kasi, the place is bigger than the ego. Whenever we tell stories of people, people are just part of the big community and somehow represents the community but this is basically the story of the place.”
Working with the superstar
Inspired by a true story of a woman from Tawi-Tawi, Thy Womb’s harrowing story of self-sacrifice and selflessness needed a mature and experienced actress to tackle the role. Mendoza thought of Aunor right away and the decision was met with a degree of negativity. Aunor is said to be a difficult actress to work with but Mendoza proved otherwise during the filming of Thy Womb.
“With Nora, kahit naman big [star] siya, siguro there’s a reason why she’s [called] the superstar, kung bakit siya nandito sa stature niya ngayon, because alam niya kung kalian siya magluluko-luko, kung kalian siya magpapakatino, kung kalian siya gagwa ng ganito, ng ganyan. She plays everything by heart, by instinct, and alam niya kapag napipinpoint niya yung tao. That’s how I read her. So when I worked with her siguro nakita niya rin yun so wala kaming problema. Kapag nakikita niya na you are really serious with what you’re doing, nakikita rin niya yung commitment ng mga actors, ng mga staff and crew, siguro nadadala na rin siya doon,” Mendoza explains.
A new experience
Filming Thy Womb opened Mendoza to a new experience. He spent months of research and immersion in Tawi-Tawi to somehow tell the story of its people, culture, and environment, through Shaleha’s story. He didn’t want the film to end up as a touristy photoplay or a haphazardly told tale about the South. He took his time in making the film knowing that he is dealing with a culture that is rich and captivating. He even made a cultural event the centerpiece of the film.
With each film that he makes, Mendoza is bent not just on showcasing our culture but also our capabilities as a filmmaking nation. “There’s such a thing as a Filipino filmmaker doing it in a Filipino way na hindi pwedeng gawin sa iba at hindi nagagawa ng iba. Whether we like it or not, iba tayong gumawa ng pelikula, dahil nasa kultura natin yun as Filipinos. People just love to share, they just love to help. Kultura natin yung tumulong. Yung ’Sige wag mo na akong bayaran’, ‘Sige pang-taxi na lang’. You can’t do that abroad. These are the things that I share and I’m proud. I’m proud that I’m a Filipino filmmaker. ”