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

Tsardyer: Technology Transfer and Negotiations, Batteries not Included

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By Tito Genova Valiente

Tsardyer is a film that illustrates how Information Technology connects all our islands and all their people. If mobility between and among classes and ethnic groups cannot be brought to reality by education, then another more mobile structure, that of mobile phones can do so. The narrative of Tsardyer, as cinema, is so compelling I wait for the next ad man to use and fuse the stories so his firm could tell the story of technologies and territorialization and deterretorialization. In between such narrative, we could perhaps have a glimpse into what troubles some political groups in Southern Philippines and how we never can really understand what those brothers and sisters of ours there want from our national government that serves only a few.

In other words, however central the mobile phone in Tsardyer, we will never see this cinema put to work by mobile companies based in our country and anywhere else.

The film Tsardyer, according to the program notes in the Cinema One Originals 2010 where it first competed, is “loosely based on an article” in a daily broadsheet and is a film about ‘a 10-year old Tausug boy used by the Abu Sayyaf group to charge the cellphones they use in their hostage negotiations.

The problem of Shihab, the young boy, is to negotiate the distance between the camp of the bandits/rebels and the source of electricity before the battery of the next cellphone runs out. It is no ordinary task because the phone is the one that sets true deadlines, cut-off markers before heads are cut off.

Shihab has other problems other than making it in time for the negotiations to continue. The boy is caught between his father who is not keen about battling it out and his uncle, actually the sister of Shihab’s mother, who is the head of the group out there in the jungle. Shihab’s mother has passed away but the death was not a natural one; she died during a skirmish. Shihab’s father is tired of fighting and has practically given up the ideologies of the “rebels.” Giving up or being quiet about the conflicts has become his ideology.

Shihab has to contend also with the sympathy gained from one of the hostages, a female journalist. Viewed from outside, this unusual friendship seems to tell us that this warrior child is affected by the presence of a mother figure. The point is the boy misses so much her mother that the scent and touch of someone who resembles a mother could awaken the real and natural boy in him. The message: children are alike and no amount of wars and violence could alter that.

The film Tsardyer is at its weakest when it focuses its lens on the boy. Strangely, that is also the compelling point—an outstanding contribution—of the film, when its vision looks at the boy with the self-reflexivity that is organic to film viewers.

The simplistic and the simple, the reductionist and the complex find their spaces in this film. At the roots of this ambiguity and polarization in the audience is the fact that we do not know really much about the details of hostage-taking. What we get are the reports from media practitioners who are bound, because of the issues of rating and survival, to disclose details that would serve them. Of course, they would cite ethics of journalism which are really amorphous instruments in a landscape whose shapes and shadows are caused by armed conflicts and not merely by polemics and disagreement. This position becomes real because in Tsardyer we have the characters of the media persons done in broad strokes, caricatured sometimes to a point. Just a question: why is it we really never seem to get right the depiction of journalists? In this film, the network chief is vastly emotional, sweeping away the files on her table out of frustration.

Across the drawing board, we have to grapple with the black-and-white characterization of the head of the “bandits” and the good father. Who do we side with: the arrogant leader or the gentle father? The comparison is odious because the father is not actively fighting for any cause. Then we have to contend with the journalists: are they always for the good side?

This is an ancient battle: the written is always respected over the oral. The journalists will write about their experience in the jungle but the words of those who stay behind and killed will be sacred, non-scribed, obscured. The dichotomy is also odious and horrible.

This is an old strife: the lowland goes into the jungle and brings boon; the men who hide in the darkest of forests are origins of bane and need salvation.

In the end, the film settles for clean characters, in the sense of fine delineations of motives. Those who hold hostage journalists are freely branded as “bandits.” Women even in hostage situations are mothers and little boys have to be mothered.

There is, however, the good news: the boy, Shihab, escapes our mothering perspectives and runs away with the film. He is not the boy we want: he charges mobile phones used to maintain the protocol of kidnapping. Shihab nurtures in him belligerence but we expect that animosity to be touched easily by the kindness of lowlanders/outsiders. We want our little boys to want mothering. When a film has little boys in conditions that do not warrant the warmth of home, we are disturbed. This is the disturbance that I like, the questions that I want posed with a bit of bravery. The character of Shihab does that and turns the film around, from a film with bandits to one that should teach us to be more circumspect in labeling groups that do not fit our politics and expectations.

The title Tsardyer is a corruption of the English word “charger.” The power of the film Tsardyer is when we pause and not describe the coming of age of Shihab as a corruption of innocence in children. Out there in the jungles are boys whose participation in wars, in life, and in death we shall never comprehend.