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

Sheika: The New Land: A Place of Promise or Peril

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By Mike Rapatan

Arnel Mardoquio’s Sheika recounts the harrowing story of Sheika (Fe Gingging Hyde), a Tausug mother who, together with her sons Mudin (Mark Anthony Perandes) and Alfad (Dan Lester Albarracin), flees the bombings in her war-torn village in Jolo for the urban comforts of Davao City. Her decision to move to Davao, a place she regards as a safe haven for Muslims like her family, is not merely a geographic relocation. At a deeper level, Shieka’s agenda for migrating is psychological. Her family’s transfer to Davao is a quest for catharsis from the traumas she has experienced. It is also a deliberate attempt on her part to escape the ruthless violence targeted at people of her kind by the diablo, her allusion to the military who, as implied, claimed the life of her husband in some bloody military operation. Hoping to prevent a similar fate, Sheika on the boat trip to Davao instructs her sons to avoid speaking in their dialect and abandon their Muslim garb and religious practices and assume new names in order to appear no different from the other city folk. Sheika becomes Shie while Mudin and Alfad respectively take the names of Dindin and Soysoy.

Unfortunately, for Shie, Davao as the land of promise becomes the land of peril. Her strategy of eluding the diablo runs afoul as she meets new diablos in the guise of the Davao Death Squad or DDS. She realizes in a series of galling ordeals that unlike her village where devastation and occupation by force were routinely visible, the city often touted as a “perfect tourist destination” is a shadowy stronghold for renegade insurgents-turned-terrorists and assassins for hire as personified in the character of Asul (Popoy Landico). In spite of her honest efforts to eke out a living packing charcoal and hauling a vegetable cart all day and after hurdling obstacles affecting her and her children and thrown in her way by a colorful roguish gallery of characters (the dyke Gigi, the usurer Boyax, the gay beautician Hobart), Shie runs into violence once more with the merciless DDS. Her son, Dindin, initially recruited as an informant for the DDS, witnesses a murder set-up. One night as he with his brother and mother cross the bridge, a pair of masked men on a motorcycle shoot him pointblank and also hurt Soysoy, much to Shie’s shock and grief. True to her vow of protecting her children from the diablo, Shie throws a gasping Soysoy into the river, preferring to see him drown rather than die without dignity and appear defenseless before the diablos. She takes her sons’ slippers, clutches them and tries to wash and scrub off the thick blood.

One morning, Shie recovers Dindin’s bag and on his cell phone, sees pictures of Asul and other DDS members. With the help of other murderous vagrants, she plots her revenge and tracks down and eliminates her sons’ killers until she finds Asul in his hideout. She fails to stab him and instead, is shot in the head. She survives but her head wounds take a toll on her sanity and she slowly becomes catatonic and ends up in the mental hospital.

At the hospital, Gary (Perry Dizon), a deceptively quiet janitor, notices her and one night, plays with her breasts. The next day, the head nurse calls him in and Gary thinks she will fire him for his sexual advances. Instead, the nurse requests Gary to locate Shie’s relatives in the Bankerohan area. In the next days, Gary uncovers Shie’s diary and learns about her personal disasters. Seeking to alleviate her pain albeit in a perverse way, Gary takes advantage of Shie and gets her pregnant. He is convicted for raping Shie and in prison, writes a letter to Shie. He explains his actions and tells her he regards her as his redemption. He asks forgiveness for raping her. He dies and his letter is sent to Shie.

At the end of the film, Shie visits his grave with his daughter. She picks up his photo from the ground and her daughter asks who he is. Instead of saying that he is her father, Shie merely replies that he is a friend. She places the white roses on his grave and mother and daughter walk away in the cemetery ground abloom with wild flowers.

In Shieka, Mardoquio continues his thematic concerns and advances his directorial style. Like his two previous films, Hunghong sa Yuta and Hospital Boat, Mardoquio discourses on the peace and order situation in Mindanao that he is evidently familiar with. For sure, Mardoquio’s Mindanao, specifically on the plight of displaced Tausugs, is a subject that urban audiences hardly see or know about. But for those who find the problems of Mindanao remote and isolated, Mardoquio pulls them in and immerses them in a visceral and gut-wrenching experience that jolts them into anger and empathy.

He brings to vivid life with sharp dramatic intensity the travails of Muslims uprooted from their homes and religion by strife, greed and power. He fills his film with a deep humanitarian compassion for his characters who are largely composite figures of numerous real-life people who have been either criminals or victims such as Clarita Alia, a mother who lost her four sons in brutal encounters with the Davao Death Squad from 2001-2007. By grounding his screenplay in actual documented cases where justice has yet to be obtained, Mardoquio imbues his film with a palpable sense of moral gravitas that makes the story compelling and authentic.

Given the serious issues raised by the film, the challenge remains on how to present these problems in an engaging manner without forcing them down the viewers’ throats. In his first two films, Mardoquio approached the problem by using the characters as mouthpieces for his advocacy agenda. By the end of these films, the viewers left the theater with anti-violence messages loudly ringing in their ears but having little heart for the characters ensnared by gruesome conflicts.

In Shieka, Mardoquio’s clutched fist wears a velvet glove. Although there are certain parts in the story that one can quibble about (i.e., the stock depiction of gays as parlorista and tomboy, the self-serving subtext of Gary’s confession, the plausibility of Shie finding the time to write a diary given her daily grind), Mardoquio consciously steers the narrative away from the didacticism that permeated his previous films and unravels the complexity of his characters and the dilemmas they face.

Consequently, Mardoquio achieves a stylistic breakthrough in this film. He develops for his lead roles three-dimensional and sympathetic characters that concretize the Muslim plight. For instance, he distills from Shie’s anguish and steely resolve the fortitude of the human spirit thereby giving Shie’s role a gamut of expressions ranging from stupor to angst, outrage and tenderness. He consistently foregrounds the emotional truth of her resilience and unwavering love for her children and relegates to the background the overarching ideologies of a post-9/11 world.

By focusing on Shie’s tragic flaw of forgetting her faith and heritage, Mardoquio eloquently argues against the global politics of homogenization conducted in the name of national security. His gradual exposition of Shie’s plan for invisibility which leads to her existential dislocation illustrates the defense mechanism many Muslims use in reaction to subtle and overt methods of discrimination. Shie’s case is emblematic of the threat of annihilation pointed out by Dr. Wolfram Richter who said: “I am afraid we have not learned from our history. My main fear is that what we did to Jews we may now do to Muslims. The next holocaust would be against Muslims.”

In the hands of a neophyte director, the film’s various conflicts could have lapsed into a series of maudlin episodes. Fortunately, Mardoquio maintains control of his material and crafts a compact film thanks to its brisk editing (by Willie Apa Jr. and Arthur Ian Garcia) which skillfully unifies the different sub-stories and moves the scenes with increasing momentum to its pivotal dramatic highlights. The music by Popong Landero aptly captures the shifting moods of the story and its pegs for different characters project their consciousness and intentions.

In terms of performances, Mardoquio coaxes out of Fe Gingging Hyde an instinctive and absorbing portrayal that marvelously blends restraint with sentiment and determination with sorrow, a tightrope balancing act that very few beginning actresses can do. Similar to his work with children in his previous films, Mardoquio elicits fine natural performances from Shie’s sons (Perandes and Albarracin) who articulate the film’s premise of memory and identity without affectation or histrionics.

Aside from these nuanced performances, Mardoquio conveys his themes through arresting imagery (supported by the deft cinematography of Willie Apa Jr. and Dax Cañedo) rather than utilize preachy platitudes. The use of the bridge in several scenes as wide passageway on the top and crowded habitat below for countless denizens living on a hand-to-mouth existence underscores the seedy and filthy backside of progress in an expanding metropolis consumed by the rhetoric of becoming a world-class convention city. A shot showing a flock of birds flying away from Shie prior to hunting down Asul reveals her disdain for peace and descent into hatred. A scene of Soysoy secretly visiting a madrasah school and exchanging clothes with a friend touchingly expresses solidarity beyond borders.

This last image is especially poignant and striking. The image transports the polemic into the poetic realm. It proposes in figurative terms a reconfiguration or reversal of the status quo. The joy and smile on Soysoy’s face comes off as a desirable balm and relief from the tensions of pretense. The calm and acceptance he feels in school and at the mosque evokes a new world order where young people like him complete their education and mobilize their lives to a productive future free from the hostility and paranoia shown to them by various sectors. It is a world that characters like Shie ardently dream of for their children. It is a world that continues to be a promise to fulfill.