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

Tsardyer: Banditry, Kidnapping in Mindanao

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By Butch Francisco

Any hardcore journalist will kill – or will even risk getting killed – for a scoop. In news programs today, it’s all about having stories that are exclusive, exclusive, exclusive! That’s what all their headlines scream.

Only very few of today’s journalists, however, can still do undercover work because everyone has become a celebrity. Those who are not on TV are on Facebook. The production staff who join the raids on sex joints are often green, their journalistic instincts yet to be sharpened. They can flush out all the sex workers from those seedy establishments week after week, but has anyone bothered to look into the operations of those powerful people running and/or protecting these prostitution joints? It’s back to business after some palms have been greased.

Public affairs shows favor such raids because they believe that sex truly sells and translates into better ratings. No wonder, most TV reports today get to scratch only the surface of social issues. Everything begins and ends with the survey sheets. There’s no more real reportage as in the old days. But a real journalist should be able to dig deeper into the root of every story—and should be there in the scene. And so, news reporters are compelled to do anything for a story—at whatever cost.

I have no idea what was running in Ces Orena Drilon’s head when she negotiated for that interview with an Abu Sayyaf leader in June 2008 and eventually became hostage. But clearly that was for a scoop. It’s easy to dismiss that move as bravado, but a journalist will always find a way to get a big story. She simply wasn’t lucky that time when she—literally—got more than what she bargained for. To make matters worse for her, her self-impolsed mission did not have the blessings of her network.

The synopsis of Tsardyer in the glossy brochure released during the 2010 Cinema One Originals competition says that it was loosely based on a story written by Remly Natividad, which appeared in The Philippine Daily Inquirer in June 2008.

The article is titled No Way to Lobat! Kidnappers Used Hostage’s SIM card. As presented on film by Sigfreid Barros-Sanchez, it shows how a band of Abu Sayyaf men kidnap a TV news team and send a 10-year-old Tausug boy (Martin de los Santos) to charge the battery of the cell phone that they use in negotiating with studio boss for ransom.

The Inquirer article may not have been an exact account of Ces Drilon’s experience with the Abu Sayyaf, but the broadcaster was consulted during the making of Tsardyer and was asked to share details of what happened to her in the hands of her kidnappers. The creators of Tsardyer must have talked to other former Abu Sayyaf victims and I imagine the result is a composite of the horror stories of these victims.

Tsardyer is significant in that it tackles one of the biggest, unsolvable problems in this country especially in the south—kidnap-for-ransom, which has become an industry in the Philippines. It has given tourism a big blackeye. The Abu Sayyaf has also made miserable beyond imagination the lives of their kidnap victims and their kin. They are hoodlums and they should burn in hell.

Tsardyer’s director, who shares credit for the screenplay, is careful to point out that not all Muslims are bad. In fact, there is a character (played by Neil Ryan Sese), who wishes for nothing else in this world, but for the war in Mindanao to end. Through him, the viewers get the message that Muslims are not the war freaks that most other people in this archipelago picture them to be. All of them are victims of this still unresolved conflict in the south.

Ironically, it is his young son who ends up as the Abu Sayyaf’s errand boy—the one tasked by the notorious group to charge their mobile phones.

Suspense is achieved when the kid runs through the jungles—from a house with electricity that allows battery recharge to the bandits’ lair in the thick forest. Since the phones are the only means of communication between the abductors and the Manila-based studio, the kid’s speed is crucial because a minute’s delay could lead to a beheading.

Thanks to Barros-Sanchez’s highly competent orchestration of the film’s technical elements, Tsardyer makes for exciting viewing. Malay Javier’s photography captures, particularly in the jungles, all the scenes in the most realistic manner and not once is he tempted to prettify not even a single image – unlike most other cinematographers, who sometimes fall in love with their shots at the expense of the film’s integrity.

Tsardyer reveals to us the real world, especially in that part of the country, and the scenario can be both frightening and ugly. And it’s not only the rebels who paint a bad picture of that side of the Philippines, but even the military. Tsardyer exposes how some high-ranking officials can be overly concerned with media exposure and their promotion even in the middle of a crisis situation like rescuing kidnap victims.

The film also depicts the agony of the abductees and in the case of the media group, the difficult life-or-death decisions they have to make for their employees.

The director displays true discipline. He can never be accused of exploitation. No black-and-white characters here either. Sure, the Abu Sayyaf are shown to be bad (because they really are!), but they, too, have their soft side—like when the leader shows affection for the errand boy, actually his nephew. Showing real people in a true situation in some far-flung territory in the Philippines makes Tsardyer an engrossing—and ultimately scary—film.