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

Sheika: A Woman Named Sheika

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By Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera

Arnel Mardoquio’s investigation of the impact of war in Mindanao began in Hunghong sa Yuta which tells of a young artist from Davao City who volunteers as a teacher in a mountain community where children born at the onset of the war grew up deaf and mute.

Mardoquio’s seond film, Hospital Boat, narrates the story of two women friends, one a doctor and the other a religious sister, who together moves from one coastal community to another to bring medical relief to war refugees in the company of a young lumad boy. The film introduces us to a wider variety of characters—Muslim revolutionary leaders, a priest who runs a relief center for evacuees and war victims, and an abusive Muslim warlord and his sister who, beside him, stands as a counterbalancing figure, a Muslim lawmaker who takes the side of the oppressed.

In his latest film, Mardoquio takes us to the grimmer world of war victims. Sheika tells about a Sulu schoolteacher and her two teenage sons. Having lost her husband in the war, Sheika decides to leave Sulu and takes her sons to Davao City to escape the hazards of the war in the countryside. Before they enter the city, Sheika tells her sons precautions they have to take. She gives them new names, warns them against the practice of their Muslim faith, tells them to give up speaking in Tausog and speak Tagalog instead, and to identify themselves as people from Sorsogon instead of their native Sulu. This is the poignant heart of Sheika as a tale of the war in Mindanao. It is not so much the cost in lives that outrages us but the utter erasure of the identity of non-combatants who only want to survive.

In Davao City, the family is witness to the low regard for Muslims and Sheika’s warning about keeping their identity as a Muslims is sorely tested. Muslims are not supposed to eat or sleep in dirty places, but they have to endure sleeping in untidy surroundings and eat forbidden food. Here, Mardoquio’s condemnation of the war is no longer a case of persons of goodwill getting killed.

In Sheika, he shows us war victims stripped of all dignity, having voluntarily given up their very identity as persons in pursuit of survival. Fleeing from diablos in the form of stern-faced military men, the two boys realize that in the city, the devils are worse than the ones they had fled from. The city had organized death squads out to eliminate youthful drug addicts and slum children, like the two sons of Sheika, who therefore are potential targets. In a heart-rending moment in the latter half of the film, the elder brother foreseeing perhaps his fate in the hands of the death squad, urges Sheika for the three of them to return to Sulu.

Mother and sons do what they can to survive in the Davao slum world. The younger brother, Soysoy, runs errands for a gay storeowner who introduces the Muslim boy to pork. Dindin,the elder, works for a rich man in the drug trade, putting him in the company of addicts. Sheika earns the family’s keep selling vegetables in the market, in the meantime getting complacent that she and her two boys have been able to weather the exigencies of fugitive life.

Fe GingGing Hyde, a comely amateur actress in the role of Sheika, gamely surrenders her good looks to the grime and grimness of her part and wins our heart with a gritty performance that can only be seen perhaps in an independent film. In the role of the janitor Gary who fathers Sheika’s child and seeks to avenge her misfortunes, Perry Dizon delivers a quiet performance that heightens the poignancy of his unspoken relationship with the temporarily deranged woman. Mardoquio’s background in theater as playwright and director shows in the restrained power of his handling of dramatic moments in his screenplay.

The grief of witnessing her two sons gunned down by masked goons unhinges Sheika and in her search for vengeance, she is wounded by her prey and subsequently confined in the city mental hospital. It is as an inmate in the hospital that Sheika’s novelistic narrative unfolds. The hospital janitor had secretly made love to the sedated Sheika, then discovers the journal in which the schoolteacher had related the misfortunes she and her sons went through. Mardoquio has so skillfully shaped his narrative with unobtrusive flashbacks that one is surprised how a two-hour film can accommodate so much complicated content.

Mardoquio delays for too long the denouement of his tale by seeking to ease the discomfort of the audience with an upbeat ending showing Sheika and her daughter at Gary’s graveside. One might also complain about the number of voice-overs that could have been minimized without sacrificing the intelligibility of the screenplay. Sheika, with its structural flaws, will be remembered as a powerful denunciation of the brutal war in Mindanao, a movie that dignifies independent filmmaking as a venue for serious social statements that a mainstream film will hesitate to make.