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

Thy Womb: Birthing Cultures In Misunderstood Time/Spaces

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By Tito Genova Valiente

THE wide expanse of the sea and the constant rain, and the vision of Brillante Ma. Mendoza—these are all that is needed for great cinema to be formed. Then there is the presence of Nora Aunor, natural and artifactual, filling the spaces with her silences and silencing the spaces of doubts, pains, understanding and misunderstanding, historical and individual, with a performance that will go down in history as the ultimate in the aesthetics of reality. Or realities.

The film Thy Womb has a story that is terribly cinematic but also rare, as in ordinary. The story begins with a woman, Shaleha, a midwife, who collects the umbilical cords of the children she delivers. After each birthing, she brings the inch-long snippet from the cord now wrapped in gauze or cloth and hangs it on a wall, along with other umbilical cords of earlier births. The rope from which those birth cords hang is a tiny history of population in her community. The collection of cords is an almost hyperbolic sign of fertility against the incapacity of Shaleha to have a child.

Shaleha has a fruitful relationship with her husband, Bangas-an. Too bountiful is the love between them that she agrees when Bangas-an suggests that they find a woman who could give them a child they could call their own. In between the quest for a wife/mother, Bangas-an and Shaleha go about their daily routine of fishing and selling what they catch. There are days when they are not able to catch any fish. There are days when Bangas-an has enough money to buy his wife a colorful shawl. Otherwise, it is a remarkably ordinary union, with the occurrence of rains and the festivities breaking the regularity of their life and the life in the island.

As with any art, portraying the stillness is as difficult as the roar, the former singular because it is the less trodden path. Mendoza’s triumphs in Thy Womb are found in the quiet, the life energies not dramatized but narrated in the majesty of their unremarkableness. The power of the film is in the tremor, barely felt but disturbing: in these geographically isolated islands, a different kind of social rules exist. How are we to like this film then?

For the Sama di laut, or Badjau (this label is more problematic when explored), nature and culture conspire to provide them an existence that is circumscribed differently than those in Luzon or the Visayas. This is the daring that we should acknowledge in the decision of Mendoza to travel to the far-flung village. Where production outfits shoot their “Mindanao” on the hills of Tanay or some beachfronts of the Visayan islands, Thy Womb, like its title, travels back to trace its umbilicus to where they were buried. And yet, this is also the challenge of the film: how an outsider illustrates the culture that is so different from his.

Here lies the significance of this film, Thy Womb: in its journey to a place of those we love to call sea gypsies, the filmmakers revisit the ethos of the place. Gone is the ethnocentric mysticism of Lamberto Avellana’s Badjao. Recall that scene in the Avellana film where a newly born infant is thrown into the sea to test if he indeed is the child of the sea. There are no scenes of those kinds in Thy Womb. What we have is the beauty of the southern seas and also the poverty of the communities. These do not make up a National Geographic vision, as some critics put it. Mendoza’s work thrives in the simple, the unglorified horizon. There are no excesses in the film. The wedding scenes are grounded in the economic realities of the land and not choreographed to satisfy a country’s tourism program. Irony and an acute feel for life’s contradictions fuel this work by Mendoza that does not rely on the facile tricks of exoticism.

Nora Aunor, it seems, has found the film to capture the maturity of her skills in a film that is multi-layered, uncompromisingly difficult, and unobtrusively political. Her Shaleha does not rise to a level that should satisfy the mob who believe that performances should be loud and then quiet and raging again for it to be called dramatic. Rather, Aunor relies on the majesty of the quotidian, the secret allure of the prosaic. As admirers of the great actor, we cannot avoid noticing the legendary intensity. Away from a major screen performance for a long time, the actor reminds us that no one in this film industry can ever portray the difficult poetry of the every day. The Tagalog/Pilipino sounds jarring at first but Nora Aunor works her magic of effacement and soon we blend with her in the populace of the communities.

These we learn from the film: Reality is not sequential, not given to harmony and partakes of drama only because some viewers recognize certain scenes. The artifice of cinema has weaned us to expect musical scores to prepare us for sad scenes, for grand orchestral notes to climb up for monumental events.

Mendoza is reminding us that there is a side to realities that we have not explored yet. Thy Womb tells us truths even if they come only from one group of people we may never get to know. The film takes us to those small islands that we are convinced comprise this nation and yet we never really care about.

Out there in Tawi-Tawi is a land that is open to understanding and misunderstanding. Those territories have been forgotten for what they are in their day-to-day existence, and are remembered only for the “crimes” that are perceived to have been committed against the make-believe notion that we are a nation of people under a banner of one ideology. Thy Womb is an attempt to recover that territory not for ownership, for that is colonial-minded, but for knowledge. That is, if we allow ourselves to go out of our cities and our false sense of the central, and travel to a place where cinema can be a teaching tool, an instrument from which we can learn once more that there are other Filipinos for whom the label “Filipino” may not make sense at all.

I say this because audiences feel there should be something much more in the film. Perhaps some warrant that the violence of the military and those fighting them should be articulated, explained in the context of the wars that this nation has been fighting for. Instead, what we have in Thy Womb are outbursts of gunfire amid a celebration or even an ordinary day in the marketplace. The sounds, like the rains that come perfunctorily, need not be explained. The cultural—or, if you wish, the political—happens as part of the tapestry of reality in the southern Philippines.

At the center of this tapestry are the two individuals, Bangas-an as portrayed by Bembol Roco and Shaleha in the person of Aunor. They are not leading characters but pivots in the narrative of a village where the “ought” is beyond our empathies. Would a Shaleha in that community be given to long speeches about the rights of women? Where would the rights of women reside in that place where the men hold sway over children and women?

I do not have an answer. I am thankful enough that Mendoza attempted to celebrate the integrity and candor of the people of Tawi-Tawi, or a portion of the communities there, without making them look like effigies in museums of natural history. Gratitude and awe also for Nora Aunor for leaving us with spaces with which we could work out interpretations of what happens to women who are not able to reproduce by nature but are still caught in the web of cultures in their place.

Unfortunately for the Nora Aunor aficionado, Thy Womb offers no so-called “moments,” those conjured lessons about acting regular actors are proud of. Fortunately for those who love Aunor, the film provides momentary scenes that up the ante of performances for all actors in the land—female or male, transsexual or bisexual, young or old. Already much commented upon are the shots of the face looking up the crescent moon, pain the only potency in her being. I call attention to two scenes: the one in the Catholic chapel and the other toward the end of the film.

Caught in the rain, Shaleha and Bangas-an find shelter in the eaves of an old chapel. Aunor as Shaleha turns around, walks in and inspects the artifacts of faith inside. She goes out again and holds on to the arms of her husband. In those few cautious seconds are revealed the conflicts of beliefs and the naïve helplessness of those who are caught in between religions. There is only one word for that: genius. At the end of the film, when Lovi Poe, as the second wife of Bangas-an, gives birth to their child, Aunor as the midwife lingers on holding the baby. Bangas-an calls her name to signal that she gives the baby to the mother. From Aunor then comes the ephemeron of gestures and expressions so limited they become like gasps of sadness and timidity and bravery before a camera that has by this time turned invasive and relentless. I cannot tell you what happens after that except to say that reality is the only truth of this film called Thy Womb. Nora Aunor is its avatar.