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

Limbunan: Enigmatic movie of quiet strength

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By Lito B. Zulueta

In Limbunan, a young Maguindanao girl engaged to be married undertakes an elaborate pre-nuptial ritual of cleansing and preparation. Betrothed to a man she hardly knows, 16-year-old Ayesah (Jea Lyka Cinco) tries to remain faithful to her culture and tradition. But her fidelity comes under quiet assault as she struggles with her feelings for a soldier, who may or may not be in love with her but who’s bound by the same strictures of Maguindanao culture. Since she has been betrothed to another man, he can only watch as she goes through the rigors of the rituals. He cannot reveal his feelings because such would only disturb the age-old tradition of a people so set on its old ways as a matter of survival and self-perpetuation.

Directed by Davao-based filmmaker Gutierrez Mangansakan II, himself a Maguindanao, Limbunan is a striking movie on a little-known people and their little-known culture. Just about the only idea of most people about it came rather shockingly—as a result of the massacre in November 2009 of 59 people, many of them journalists, as political clans gird for war in connection with the 2010 national and local elections. The massacre took place as Mangansakan’s movie had already been approved for filming by the screening committee of the Cinemalaya indie cinema festival for the festival’s July 2010 run. It seems ironic then that as Maguindanao was bathed in blood, Mangansakan was making a highly poetic movie that seems to ignore the region’s tortuous history of bloodshed and carnage.

But Mangansakan is no fence-sitter; he’s not apolitical; he’s not wont to gloss over issues or sugarcoat them. He knows the politics of Maguindanao and of Muslim Mindanao; he knows the issues are not black and white. And if ever solutions are needed, they would have to come from the values and strengths of the people themselves, their identity and their notion of the place of their community in the larger world. There won’t be shortcuts.

As a ritual, the Maguindanao pre-nuptial preparations are enigmatic and revealing, colorful and touching. But Mangansakan does not simplify: he would have been content in depicting the minutes of the preparations, much like a wedding coordinator would obsessively pore over the details of a wedding with the intention of making it the grandest in town or at least, to prevent the slightest lapse or accident. And to some extent, Mangansakan shows us all of this. The Maguindanao tradition is lovingly detailed, evocatively portrayed; its quiet dignity is all too engrossing.

But Mangansakan knows that more complex issues are involved, and he does not romanticize these. When Ayesah meets her husband-to-be, she finds her not repugnant or alien; he does not appear to her as harsh or aloof; he’s someone she could raise a family with, someone to help the community perpetuate itself amid the vicissitudes of war and annihilation. And what about her soldier-friend? Despite his attractiveness, his quiet demeanor, doesn’t he represent destruction and hate, the false peace that threatens to spill over to war and mayhem?

The audience doesn’t really know for sure. Mangansakan is content on inducing poetic images and sounds that, while cohering into a tapestry of serenity and quiet confidence, may really be the calm before the storm, the pause before the assault. Or is it really the slow but cumulative build-up toward a people’s gentle self-esteem, its subtle advance toward bedrock values amid uncertainty?

In lyrically detailing the curious pre-nuptial rituals that a very young Maguindanao woman undergoes in Mindanao in southern Philippines, Limbunan lays the pros and the cons of tradition and change that any society in transition confronts. There’s no hard sell here: only images and stirrings of wisdom that fill the viewer’s heart and mind in one meditative flow of humanity and empowerment. Limbunan is that rarity: a poetic movie with a gadding edge.