//Women's stories and films for peace: A Filipino film director's experience

Women's stories and films for peace: A Filipino film director's experience

by Marilou Diaz-Abaya
Copyright © 2006 Marilou Diaz-Abaya. All rights reserved.

Marilou Diaz AbayaFilm is a director’s medium, a creative expression of a personal vision of human life. For me, that vision is shaped by the plurality, the richness of human diversity. No two persons are exactly the same; every human being is special and specific; every nation prides itself in a particular culture, race and creed. These differences hone our ability to co-exist in dignity, solidarity and peace.

My films probe human experiences drawn from social conflicts among characters of contradictory beliefs and value systems.  I believe that conflict can be as divisive as it can be unifying. The mystery and paradoxes of human life beg to be sensed and revered, if not completely understood.     

Some critics classify my body of works into two phases. In the eighties, I produced the feminist trilogy of Brutal, Moral and Karnal, while in the nineties, I shifted to masculine themes in Sa Pusod Ng Dagat (In the Navel of the Sea), Jose Rizal, Muro-Am (Reef Hunters), and Bagong Buwan (New Moon). Without deliberate intent, I journeyed from the feminist agenda of social and economic equity to the human quest for peace of mind and spiritual liberation.

Bagong Buwan greeted the new millennium by returning to the family, the centrifugal force that anchors our fears and hopes. I started researching this subject in January 2000, before an all-out war was declared by then President Joseph Estrada against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. My immersion took me to libraries, mosques, madrasahs and Muslim communities in Metro Manila, Cotabato and Lanao del Sur, where I gathered stories of survival of body and soul amidst the horrors of war, especially from evacuees encamped in Pikit, Cotabato.

Bagong Buwan formed in step with the Mindanao war’s escalation, although I could not have anticipated the eruption of the Christian-Muslim equation at the Twin Towers of New York in September 2001, after the filming was complete.

The film’s exhibition at the Metro Manila Film Festival in December 2001 could not have been more auspicious. The Holy Seasons of Ramadan for  Muslims and Advent for Christians were observed successesively, generating a spirit of thanksgiving, love, reconciliation and a thirst for world peace. I attribute the box-office success of Bagong Buwan to this yearning and to the Filipino audiences’ readiness to understand and appreciate the plurality of our culture.  Audiences disproved the Philippine movie industry’s forecast of doom for Bagong Buwan based on its miscalculation that most Christian Filipinos are closed to anything Muslim or “ethnic.” Filipino audiences are more discriminating today about movies. They are also better educated, socially conscious and sensitive to current issues affecting the quality of their lives. I believe movie producers will soon respond to the demand for more meaningful, hopeful Filipino films.

I owe a debt of gratitude to our Muslim sisters in for their hospitality in receiving me, a Roman Catholic, with warm hospitality, entrusting me with their deepest personal experiences.  The characters of Babu Farida played by Caridad Sanchez and Fatima played by Amy Austria in Bagong Buwan were inspired by real women I came to know and love. They represent women, especially those in evacuation camps, who served Allah by preserving the dignity of family and heritage, oftentimes at the cost of their own personal happiness, even their lives. In the crossfires of war, women sustain the will to survive by feeding family stories and folktales to their children and elders when there is no food to eat. They offer their families prayers and hugs where no roof exists to shelter them from rain. They demonstrate grace and equanimity in the face of brutalities and death.

Babu Farida and Fatima embody the interior qualities of women that enable them to prevail over protracted adversities. Their native intelligence, intuition and spiritual strength override their handicaps in literacy and in political and military power.  They endure, and with them their history and the legacy of a proud race. I was humbled by Babu and Fatima, awed by their courage in battlefields and their generosity in evacuation camps. From them I rediscovered the value of faith, and in studying Islam, the Roman Catholic religion was re-kindled in me.

Women have a natural gift for communicating peace. We start by talking peace to the baby in our womb, by raising gender-free and gun-free children, and by treating with respect and fairness our closest family and friends, co-workers, even adversaries.  As we break glass ceiling limitations, let us anchor ourselves in advocacy for human dignity. In an age of globalization and technology, investments in the human spirit ought to be at least of equal value. Since September 11, 2001, it has become imperative for every human being to believe that not only is the human race redeemable, but that we are worthy of redemption.

Oftentimes, though, peacemaking can be daunting, even frustrating.  When even the power of cinema fails to evoke the mysteries of human suffering and salvation, I seek hope in prayer, journaling and poetry. A few years ago, when violence erupted again in Mindanao, I wrote down what I could not film.  I needed to remember what I witnessed in Pikit, where more than 90,000 civilian evacuees sought shelter from military bombing raids. My journal records images of suffering and hope:    

In Pikit, many bodies were buried, many prayers were offered, songs sung, stories told. All this while the majestic Full Moon was violated by OV-10’s hovering above us, more tanks drove up and an entire battalion passed by. As always, there were two wars being waged — one over "sovereign" territory, the other over the Human Spirit. In one battlefield, armed men were fighting to defend ancestral land; in the other battlefield, women, children and the elderly were fighting to preserve Hope.

But the profoundest event which prevailed over everything I witnessed was a young woman who gave birth to a healthy baby girl right in the middle of an evacuation center cramped with more than 3,400 victims of war, 70% of them little children. In a matter of hours, both mother and child were cleaned, breastfeeding and smiling.

I’m never very sure what God has in mind, but now I am even more acutely aware of the complexity and power of His Grace.

Filipino film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya explores the realities of women’s lives and challenged social mores and rigid expectations on women. “Storytelling is not just an act of entertainment but also of peacemaking, healing, and conflict resolution,” says Diaz-Abaya who has spent 25 years creating films for audiences at home and abroad.

Submitted by Holly Stevens