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Hospital Boat: Revisiting the war in Mindanao

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By Bienvenido Lumbera

DIRECTOR Arnel Mardoquio whose “Hunghong sa Yuta” (Earth’s Whisper) rated an impressive number of nominations from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, has a new film. “Hospital Boat” revisits the war in Mindanao, and this time Mardoquio’s script has broader concerns.

The movie, against the background of war, touches on the Muslim fight for independence, the work of health workers in coastal villages of Mindanao, the plight of evacuees and the evils of warlordism. Such concerns call for epic treatment of the problems that make Mindanao a daily hot topic for the national media.

The boat serving as the pathetic central image of the struggle to bring relief to war victims is whatever available banca that can bring the medical doctor and the nun from village to village. Dr. Sittie and Sister Claire are the principals in the narrative that take the viewer from sequence to sequence depicting scenes of poverty and need and the alleviation that outside help can offer.

The two women health workers come across a lumad boy who lost his mother in a bombardment and left him with an infant brother to care for. They take him along as a guide and helper. In the course of their relief work, they run across a teenage Muslim girl who had been raped by an American soldier, and they take her along hoping to relieve her trauma. In a remote parish, they meet an activist priest who looks after war’s evacuees and they join him in working out some economic help from a villainous Muslim warlord.

“Hospital Boat” confronts the viewer with the multifarious conflicts brought about by war, inducing a sense of guilt that would impel him to respond to the film’s advocacy to end the devastation and the desperation of the people. Mardoquio’s script has assembled the relevant characters and stitched together the pertinent incidents to make his film an effective vehicle for peace advocacy.

As a narrative, however, the diversity of plot lines does not quite cohere. The dramatic promise in the situation of the lumad boy with an infant brother left in his care has been left unexplored. The individual private lives of the medical doctor and the nun are barely sketched out, so that we are left with cardboard figures who fail to move us because we are left hanging by their sketchy characterization. The work of the priest among evacuees is barely depicted. The best realized plot line concerns Muktar the warlord and his hostility to Father Allan and his work.

Along with Dr. Sittie and Sister Claire, Father Allan attempts to pilfer sacks of rice for the consumption of evacuees and such results in a chase through the woods with the trio pursued by Muktar and his henchmen. Muktar’s sister, a congresswoman with liberal leanings, saves the priest and the health workers from Muktar’s fury for a brief spell. A climactic moment occurs when Muktar catches up with Dr. Sittie and Sister Claire as they are preparing to leave the island. Dr. Sittie strikes Muktar with an oar and in a violent encounter Sister Claire shoots Muktar who, in his dying moment, stabs the nun to death.

As a Mindanao peace advocate, Mardoquio displays his ample directorial skills in “Hospital Boat.” His work with his cinematographer and editor endows the film with much professional polish. As a director for activist theater, he easily gets expert film performances from his cast whose previous experience in his stage productions allows them confidence and naturalness in their acting. What Mardoquio would seem to need to develop at this stage is a firm hand in molding the narrative of his screenplay and a steady eye on the characters he deploys in his story.