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Baybayin: Inscribing Love, Land and Loss, and Self via Subversive, Sensual Syllabaries

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By Tito Genova Valiente

In the beginning was chaos. As with all myths, order comes through words or naming. Man and woman give names to things that are unknown to them, and knowledge brings about harmony. Classification restores logic and understanding to the universe.

Syllables create the film, Baybayin. To be precise, the ancient syllabaries called Baybayin initiate the movement of people—characters—in this tale, while the metaphor of Paradise runs amok, losing control at certain points, meandering now, and then, but coming to an end that is rightfully, forcefully in silence, at the heart of any post-colonial discourse. The traveler is always on his or her way, never reaching the destination.

Loss, to follow Eva Hoffman, can magically preserve things.

That is the magical proposal of this film: Loss of language or its vanishing, more than its strong presence, can help people preserve elements of their culture and their identities. That is what happens in this film, when syllables are inked on the body of a boy in a trance.

The story told by the mother to her two children is also about the empowering act of speech. The two animals—the kyaw (mynah) and the amu monkey partake of these binary oppositions. The bird that flies away could talk while the cursed monkey loses its capacity to talk.

That is what happens at the end of the film: The two sisters, Alban and Alba, are seen walking farther and farther away as they cross the whitest of sandbar, the sea around them turning into the green and light blue and gray. At this point, the film does not tell us where they are going. They cannot tell us anything because they are distances away. Even if they turn around, we will never get to know these two young women. Language has no more place in this space.

Here is the big picture: Baybayin is a treasure trove of what bothers us as a nation: Do we speak a new language? Do we learn a new one and try to speak like the native of that language? Do we preserve a language that is not spoken anymore?

But Baybayin has a small story to tell. Or many small stories.

One can tell it from the perspective of an anthropologist who does his fieldwork among the Palaw’an and intermarries with a woman from that community. The anthropologist, a foreigner, documents a healing ritual that involves a boy. When his wife dies, he leaves the community. He takes back with him his younger daughter.

One can also relate the tale from the eyes of the women in the family. The mother assists the father-anthropologist. She tells stories to the two girls, and decides when she is dying that one girl should be with the father and one should be left with the elders in the community. The elder girl left behind is given the task of learning and preserving the language. This is where the contradictions begin.

Alba, the girl who leaves the village with her father, the one who flies away, comes back with a thick book alive with the syllabaries of the community. She shows this to a Palaw’an who does not recognize the baybayin. Alban, the girl who stays, retains her knowledge of the syllabary even without the book.

Alba comes back to a home teeming with military presence and religious evangelists aiming for a place in the soul of the natives. Alba, in her return, is with a woman who is with her husband. This woman has one major plea, and that is for the soldier to take care of her Virgin. Caricatured but engaging, the woman loses her Virgin to the sea because of the recklessness of soldiers. Words in these scenes confuse than clarify.

As these scenes unfold, the shift in codes and spoken languages overtake the settings. Jarring at certain points, the use of many languages, however, enrich the narrative.

The syllabaries manifest their power when a signature on a piece of paper turns out to be forged. The Palaw’an who owns the land does not sign in alphabets but in the ancient baybayin, or the Inaborlan. What cannot be written cannot be stolen.

In land boundaries or love boundaries, words and syllabaries prove efficacious. For between the two women is Bagtik, a young Palaw’an who writes on the back of women modifiers that territorialize ownership or link. The two women fall in love with this man. Again, a myth provides the solution and a ritual involving the inscribing of Inaborlan on bodies forge the love and the relationship. What cannot be written is lost.

Erased, as in that bad dream of the mother, the syllabaries are foreboding of death, physical death. The death of the young man proves this. There is no body to contain the syllables and the women leave.

Two sisters flesh out Alba and Alban—Alessandra de Rossi and Assunta de Rossi. The two actresses are exoticism personified. Blessed with dark looks, the two actresses are sensual artifice in that island. But sincerity on their part brings them out of the display windows into artifacts of pulchritude, the secret desires of anthropologists who extend their fieldworks beyond official time and crosses the line between being participant-observer to participating observer.

Anthropology, its science and its conceit, is a quiet chorus in Auraeus Solito’s Baybayin. In a scene after the other sister has left already, Alban, the older one visits the hut that her family used to live in. She crouches close to the bamboo floor and, at this point, the camera catches and lingers on a book that opens to a page which says “The Raw and the Cooked.” This is the first volume of the book called Mythologiques by Claude Levi-Strauss, considered the founder of French Structuralism.

With the poignancy of a community that is soon fading and a writing tradition threatened by extinction, I would have loved to see Levi-Strauss’s memoir called Tristes Tropiques. Literally meaning The Sad Tropics, the book has been translated into A World on a Wane. This is the world of Alba and Alban as they leave and disappear into the horizon.