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Riddles of my Homecoming (Ang mga Tigmo sa akong Pagpauli): There are no Guesses Allowed in Mardoquio’s Riddles

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By Tito Genova Valiente

Arnel Mardoquio’s Riddles of My Homecoming/An Mga Tigmo sa Akon Pagpauli opens with a person on a boat paddling. Is he out of the mouth of the river? Is he going back inside the mangroves? Is that the sunset behind him or is it a young sun rising?

As with all of the other films of Mardoquio, time is not a crucial factor in his narrative. The so-called ethnographic present – the bane of field reports – persists and works in Mardoquio’s stories: the Mindanao that we do not know seems to swim in politics and crime that are always there and will be always there. Only men and women move in and out of the landscape, roaming the horizon that is not open to shifts. Men and women shall leave if they want to survive. Men and women shall die if they do not travel or if they do not move at all.

That is not, however, the story of Riddles… There is no recognizable story in this film by Mardoquio. There are only images and images that run after each other, producing permutations that produce and reproduce more images. The duty—if we can call it such—is to look at the images and then add them to other images. Sensory attacks and sensations provide stories that swell up from exhilarating and intoxicating figures and events that transform the screen from empty canvas to something overflowing with scenes, only for the canvas to be drained again to allow more images, more actions, more disturbing figures that tell stories only to be interrupted by some more stories.

Thus, after the man on the boat, the scene does no more than shift then bleed into another man struggling underneath the water. Ropes are tied around this man’s body. Again, we perceive the process and try to make sense of what he is doing. Is he trying to untie himself or is he natural under the water? There is no threat of death in this scene. There is, however, a mysticism that is blatantly metaphorical and yet insidious in its absurdity.

At the beginning of the film, Mardoquio concedes to accessibility. He tells us about a belief that when a Lumad dies, his soul comes back to where he lives so he could protect his land and its territories.

The native returns. But what he sees are riddles. We know what riddles are: they are questions that, however tricky, can be answered. If we follow this logic, a word which should be critically used for the film, then the film is what we wonder upon when we do come back to our land. If and when we are given the chance to assess our land, we do not get answers easily; rather we are tricked into answering riddles. At the end of the riddles, we look to settling things and, perhaps, when we do make sense of the order of things, then we can leave again and go into the land where peace prevails.

The landscape revisited by the soul of the lumad has no peace. His return can be eternal because the world needs guarding forever.

Mardoquio peoples the world of the lumad with cult leaders and a woman with male organs. To call this woman a hermaphrodite is to diminish the mysticism of the individual. As when we start to force reason out of scenes where a sun-like orb descends upon a man who has swum to safety by clinging on to a boat. Behind the man a fisherman gathers the trap that he has placed into the water.

Violence and shock are never missing in the films of Mardoquio. A man pushes into the mouth of a woman some bleeding parts; men try to violate the Baylan. A man and a young girl walk across the land and view tableaux of destruction and chaos. These parts of the film are sources of dissonance, but the discrepant energies these elements exude are vital signs that life abounds in this land. It does not matter that Death is alive and kicking in the land: Death and Life are two sides of the mystical coin.

Surreal and absurd, the film Riddles of my Homecoming plays around with the logic and language of cinema, subverting realities for magic, inserting magic when the destruction is too much, and when the ruins are crumbling even the hardest heart, creating a world where things are dreamlike. We wish that we would wake up but the story in this film is one that will task us to answer questions before we could wake up.

Stories about cult leaders are narrated in the film but their conclusions are as demented as their origin in a land that is owned by a few and utilized by a few. Thus, when a leader of a religious movement sets out for the shallow side of the sea, we expect a suicide by drowning. Instead, we see the man throwing money out for the fish to eat? This is not surprising. Early on, a woman has sex with another woman. When the woman stands out, her male genitalia stand out erect, demonstrating the most physical of genders.

Not all is drab and disturbing and dross in the film of Mardoquio. There is a poetry caught in the chiaroscuro of a cinematography that softens the realities of the land. Are all these dreams? August Strindberg’s prefatory remarks in A Dream Play about characters doubling, splitting, multiplying, evaporating, condensing, work only up to a point. There is something missing in Mardoquio’s dream film: the consciousness of the dreamer. There is no dreamer in fact in this film. The dreamer is unnecessary in a film where narrators are not really asleep, in a film where no dominant perspective matters. Mardoquio has allowed many perspectives, disjointed as they are and multivalent. The film subsists on these many ways of seeing and listening. The riddles are in good company. The riddles are in bad company as well.

Riddles of My Homecoming has many stagy moments. Some of these scenes work; some do not. When it works, the effect is horrifying. It is as if a journalist is allowed by some divine force to witness the death of, to take an example, boys recruited to be warriors. A heap of these young boys form a mountain of death, welcoming those who come to this land called Mindanao. It can be even this republic of ours with dreams and memories of death, disappearances, and more deaths.

The great narrator of dark tales, Edgar Allan Poe, talks of men who “find themselves upon the brink of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember.

Arnel Mardoquio, the director and writer of Riddles of My Homecoming, proves once more he remains the unheralded critical chronicler of the Mindanao we barely know. With its deceptively dreamy cinematography, the film about riddles takes all of us to the many brinks of remembrance and allows us, in the end, to confront multiple memories about battles fought for interests not for those who die for them, of politics and religion that serve dominant ideologies, of a hegemony from the center that strangles the peripheral.