The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Ang Paglalakbay Ng Mga Bituin Sa Gabing Madilim: Romancing and Realizing Mindanao

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By Tito Genova Valiente

The film, Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim is not about travels than it is about travails. For all the romance in the title—stars and darkness and the promise of limpid light at the end of the night – this film by Arnel Mardoquio is about weariness, discontent, and the in-between shades of ideologies. And yet the film is political.

The story is about a boy who lost his parents to war or whatever it is that does not stop from harming the communities in Mindanao. Faisal inherits a bag full of American dollars after the boy’s parents turned to kidnapping with ransom. In the narrative, no one dwells on this. In fact, the storytelling of Mardoquio does not stop and dwell on anything. Very much like the individuals we see filling the screen with their presence so haunting because it is terrifically ordinary.

Faisal is now escaping and he is with his aunt Amrayda and another woman named Fatima. The three are trying to reach a destination that even if they know it seems far and unreachable. They seek the help of another man who is as disillusioned as the two women. Disillusionment cannot be attributed to the boy. He is lost in his anger. While he is with the two grown-ups, there is much about them that he does not know and will never know.

There is fear always in the faces of these three persons. There are also the blank stares. Then, whether we like it or not, there is the respite and the shaming smiles they exhibit. They are not fugitive but the land makes fugitives of them all.

As they escape, we are afforded pastoral scenes that belie what is happening to these people. The realities of low-intensity conflict rise again and, for the first and rare time, the American soldiers look scary. These are the soldiers that go to Mindanao because the government has allowed them under an agreement to be there, to help a side. In the discourse of the film, we are not sure on what side these American soldiers are on. If Faisal and the two women are travelling, or escaping, these soldiers are on a dangerous stopover, a layover that is permitted by a family of nations against those who remain as individuals in a band, in a small group that is easily labeled “rebels.”

These soldiers mean business. These are not the soldiers that suffer from the guerilla tactics in the bleached hills of Afghanistan; these are the soldiers that are harming the people of Mindanao. And these are our people, the citizens of our own nation.

Yet, as the boy and the two women run, we do not feel for them in the sense of empathizing with the leads of an adventure movie. We are watching at the framed action, audience to a conflict and combat. We are also voyeurs to a horizon that has a farmer walking and some workers. Then from another angle, caught by the camera that seems to be on standby, soldiers materialize. They seem to be anywhere and everywhere, blending with the landscape, diminishing the domains of those who till the land. Romance is still the mode here, with grasses eternal and insects flying about in a Nature that is both pristine and politicized. But we know something is wrong with these hills, with the knolls. When we scan the horizon, we are not appraising the beauty of the territory; we are measuring the occupants of this space. Who will win? Who will dominate? Who will conquer this turf?

Arnel Mardoquio (Hunghong sa Yuta, Sheka) has been exploring Mindanao for succession he has, in a sense as a painter, developed a wide range of palette. The tones and textures, the grids and grits surpass filmmakers who also are seduced by the dangerous charm of Mindanao. Most filmmakers appear to stand outside the frame of what this region has been to us, natives of Luzon and the Visayas. Mardoquio squats and stays long, long enough for us to feel the humidity of the air, the limits of life in this vital stretch.

This is not Mindanao, the last frontier, but the beginning of social and political troubles. This is not the Mindanao of exotic villages but the Mindanao made exotic because ongoing struggles have turned everyone into outsiders and unwelcome strangers.

The “paglalakbay” as metaphor runs like an alarming theme, repeating itself in the leavings and goings that go on and on. Who will stay, we ask. The potency of this metaphor is that it contains the seeds of not travelling and hiding. The meadows have pits in which one can burrow; there are caves where one can find respite.

Then there are the pauses. In the movement of the three persons, there is a pause. In one rest, the boy strips and runs to swim. As if the world is perfect and a watering hole is childhood once more. But Mardoquio has some more tales to tell. The camera catches the two women on the embankment. One woman sidles up, rests her head against the hollow of the neck of the other woman. Then they kiss, the mouths open and, if you wish, tenderly and later passionately with tongues.

If his previous works incite us to remember the war-weary region, this film called Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin Gabing Madilim traipses and tumbles and rumbles on a landscape that is not ours anymore, as it is not for the Mindanaons. It is a pungent proposition that is like the land, with its trees and mountains that are quite sad to look at because we know the secrets of their terrible allure.

Ditoy Aguila, the sound engineer, works well with Arnel Barbarona, the sound designer, in creating silence as a tool to relate the tale. The actors, virtually unknown, (even with Gingging Hyde, Gawad Urian Best Actress for Sheka) contribute to the fear that accompanies this trip.