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

Halaw: Voyage of the Damned

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By Mario A. Hernando

Sheron R. Dayoc’s Halaw Ways of the Sea, which he wrote and directed, isn’t so much about the sea but about the experience a group of contemporary boat people fleeing their homeland go through. The journey is from Tawi-Tawi in Mindanao to Malaysia, and on board are a motley set of characters who are seduced by unknown prospects in a strange land that is presumed to be more promising than home. The movie begins and ends with these travelers besieged by security forces in the country of their destination, warned and maybe shot at by the guards to drive them away. It is the dead of night.

When the movie begins, there is only wide anticipation among the sea travelers. It looks like a bright morning. From their port of departure, it is clear that this trip isn’t going to be a breeze. This, after all, is an illegal voyage. No valid papers, only loose change in their pockets, and they have to toe the line drawn by the recruiter. The folk are exploited, they have to pay an exorbitant boat ride (a big percentage goes to recruiters) and other expenses. They often have to borrow, thus the vicious cycle sees them seriously in debt for a long, long time. Then they contend with pangs of hunger, and the pain of separation from loved ones.

Hernand (John Arcilla), the recruiter and “leader” of the group, is aghast that he isn’t getting his quota of paying passengers. Two sisters are backing out at the last minute and no amount of cajoling or hint of threat will persuade them to join the journey. For P2,500 each, the passengers will travel the sea. These folk being poor, they have barely enough to afford the fare, so the “conductor” coerces one girl and her brother, to let go of her earrings to afford the ticket. Reluctantly, they give in. Even a prostitute (Ma. Isabel Lopez) pays her passenger fare with much hesitance. Others have their own gripes.

The voyage is one physical, emotional and psychological ordeal, full of uncertainties, indignities, and terror. And it continues to take its toll on everyone. Hernand gets edgy and quarrelsome, and in one violent fit, hurls obscenities at an associate. One girl, Lydia (Ross-Ann Dalkis) is unaware that the prostitute is being nice to her, seducing her with jewels and perfume, so she could join her in the flesh biz. Lydia is too frail to match the spunk and stamina of her fellow travelers. The fragile one, invariably, she has a silent nervous breakdown. That may have saved her from the prospect of being traded in the sex trafficking business.

Only the girl Daying (Arnalyn Ismael), seems blissfully clueless about the dangers that lie ahead. She goes through the challenges as though the trip is just child’s play. Her brother Jahid (Aljomar Hajijol) shares her positive disposition. Ismael is an amazing wisp of a girl who has ample natural talent. Though the gamin looks a little unkempt, wearing oversized tee, she is the one sunny presence in this stressed-out company. She even dances gracefully. The prostitute is another passenger who’s used to the surprises and perils that await them, and Ms. Lopez invests her character with appropriate toughness and resiliency.

Let it be said that the camera handled by Arnel Barbarona captures these ill-starred people as though he’s one of them. There is a documentary quality to his work and Dayoc sees to that. Early on, Dayoc and Barbarona takes us to the village where sunlit cheer seems to soften the ugliness of poverty (crudely constructed Badjao dwellings), and after hours in the sea, their vessel and the folk are photographed in more menacing tones, punctuated by the chug-chugging of the motor, breaking out in the dark night.

The movie does not categorically reveal their fate when their trip is concluded. It’s either they are arrested, shot at and maybe killed, or find the green pasture they are seeking. The latter prospect is unlikely.