Filipino movie on Visayan fisher folks resisting intruders wins Ireland’s best international feature film

Stage director Anton Juan’s movie, “Amon Banwa sa Lawud (Our Island of the Mangrove Moons)” just won the best international feature film at Ireland’s Louth International Film Festival.

“It is very moving for me (to receive this award) because the island (in central Philippines) where I shot this film is endangered of annihilation. So many other islands that face the West Philippine Sea (are endangered),” Juan said when he received the award at Louth’s An Tain Arts Centre on October 1. He referred to the Philippines’ western seaboard which has exclusive economic zones 250 nautical miles from the shore, in the South China Sea.

In an interview, Juan said his film shows the ugliness of old and “imagined” colonials – and ways to avoid them – “poetically,” with choreographed gestures (of a mute narrator), archived photos and videos, awesome nature scenes, mesmerizing poetry, and talkative ghosts. Ethical and pro-community film making and the use of the language of the villagers in Negros are part of the creative process, said Juan. The outgoing tenured professor of the University of Notre Dame off Chicago will soon teach at the University of the Philippines in February 2024. 

“Amon Banwa sa Lawud (Our Island of the Mangrove Moons),” a movie about a mangrove and a fishing community, calls for remembrance of things past as antidote against intruders.

The following is an excerpt from the interview with Juan.

What is “Amon Banwa” all about, why and where was it made?

The film is about a fishing community in a 1.4 hectare Suyac island. It is surrounded by  4 hectares of mangroves, one of the 10 eco-park destinations in Sagay City, northern Negros.  

The film resurrects the peoples’ culture, resilience, struggles, simple joys, tradition, connection with the environment and the sea, and their arduous protection of the mangroves. In this paradise, they confront a global problem: the erasure of their historical existence by dominant power structures, by neo-colonials on the high seas with secret dealings. 

The villagers have great stories at a time of historical negation. It is the narrative of a people resisting oblivion. This film is about not forgetting the histories of small folks; that no island nor people should ever be forgotten. So they own their stories even if the (final) structure (of the stories in the film) is an adaptation of Onofre Pagsanghan’s ‘Duon Po Sa Amin,’ Philippines’  1966 translation of Thornton Wilder’s three-act play, ‘Our Town’ (- of people in Grover’s Corner, Hamphsire, circa 1901 and 1913).

What is the ‘global problem faced by the villagers? How is it depicted in the film?

Gabo (Suyac resident Rafael Amit) a mute boatman, the film’s narrator, dives and finds a floater inscribed with ‘Yuemaobinyu 42212’. (This refers to the ship that rammed and sank a Philippine fishing vessel in Recto (Reed) Bank in the South China Sea in 2019).

But the villagers identify the intruders as ‘pirates’ every time the mute narrator acts with big gestures – about foreign sounds from the sea, and blinding lights at night. Residents vow that  text messages come from unknown senders. The ‘pirates’ are felt, not seen.

What is the initial response of the villagers to the ‘pirates’?

The first response is communal. It fits the island’s ‘Bayanihan’ culture. In a meeting of elders, Violeta (tourism official Helen Cutillar), widow of a sea captain, one of the island’s influential women, says Suyac needs more lights to ward off ‘pirates’. She gets money at the back of the picture frame of her husband’s photo. She shares what she has so the villagers can buy a generator.

The film has images of old colonial era and its effects (up to now) in Negros and Bacolod. Do they help identify the ‘imagined’ (or new) colonials at the sea of Suyac? Can remembrance of old colonials prevent the coming of new colonials (like the ‘pirates’ off Suyac)? 

History should not repeat itself – that is the subtext of remembrance in this film. 

With four images, the film depicts Philippines’ long history of colonialism and its presence up to now. There is a photo and a documentary video of the Insular Lumber Company’s train in Plaza Sagay – a reminder of deforestation in Negros during the American Colonial Period. Modern-day school children visit a museum in Negros which features ‘white Christmas’ in western countries. Migrant sacada workers are in a sugar baron’s partially mechanized farm. In a medium-sized farm, Delfin Duran (Suyac resident Kent John Desamparado) tells his girl-friend Celia Mendez (Suyac resident Apple Ablanque), ‘No matter how hard you try in raising your livestock and sugarcane (in this farm), you would lose against the sugar moguls.’”

The film uses ghosts that advocate for remembrance of things past. to ward off Suyac’s ‘pirates’ ? How powerful is this approach to resolve a dilemma?  

In stage or in film, ghosts have the authority and power to lecture on and influence people. 

Before and beyong Shakespeare, ghosts have been used as perfect spokesmen. The spectres of history (like ghosts with wisdom) become one with the eyes of God –  they have a three-fold presence.”

Please describe the film’s depiction of ghosts.

The ghost story is also part of ‘Our Town.’ The genre is part of Philippine culture. Ghosts are dramatic onscreen. Celia dies of premature child birth (on the sand) as fellow villagers scamper out in the dark following sounds of gunshots and alarm, presumably about the entry of the ‘pirates’ in Suyac. Her husband Delfin is inconsolable. Celia, in a wedding gown, becomes a spirit. She meets choirmaster Loding (Suyac resident Alfonso Macam). He had died earlier when he was drunk and swam into the sea. She tells him she wants to return to Suyac. 

In her home, Celia’s ghost hears her father, history teacher Rafael Mendez (Suyac resident Nonilon Torpez) complaining to her mother, ‘They (my colleagues in school) want to remove history as a subject. They want to erase the memories of our past. They want to change the history of our lives.’ In the other world, Celia tells Loding, ‘I ended in a time (in Suyac) when history is long forgotten and the future is on the verge of fading.’ In reaction, Loding asks Celia: ‘How can they (the living) see the stars when they can’t see their histories?’

The film also uses the mangroves, the moon, and the sea to urge people to remember and not forget the past. Is there politics in nature?

Nature offers supernatural communication. This part of the film is inspired by the island itself. I learned many things from the villagers. They say the roots of the mangroves, shaped like our Baybayin script, can tell stories. Mangroves tell their stories to the moon. They follow the moon as they grow. During full moon, fishes rise from the sea, with stories, too. The islanders tell their stories to the moon. The dialogue continues. The moon shines on the sea, on islands, and on fisher folks, with stories. The ocean has memories of stories from mangroves, fishes, and fisher folks. They are carried by the waves and crests that try to reach the sky; that touch Suyac island, other lands, and villagers. 

The film has shown beautifully this link between man and nature. Thus, Loding’s ghost says, ‘The roots of the mangroves carve our histories on the surface of the moon.’ Nature warns us of threats. But other people try to make us forget our islands and our islanders. This is the essence of island-culture.”

At the end of the film is a dedication: ‘For my nation, lest histories be erased.’ Did the ‘pirates’ invade Suyac’s paradise?

I hope this never happens (although, in the film, I have intensified fear of island invasion). It is a form of self-preservation.

You are now with 17 other filmmakers who have explored, since 2004, the use of Philippine languages other than Filipino. How important is this development?

Starting 2004, telling the stories of people in far-flung islands became an urgent task for film makers. There was a conscious return to the ‘naif,’ or the ‘savage.’ not in the sense of the wild or the pagan, but in the sense of the innocent or child-like. Thus, more Philippine languages were used in films. Even earlier, from 1973 to 1975, 31 Cebuano films were produced. In 1974 alone, 17 Cebuano feature films were made. Gloria Sevilla and her son Matt Ranillo were at the forefront of Cebuano films.”

Juan has made two other films. “Taong Grasa,” 1982, shot in 8mm, is a scavenger’s monologue, based on Juan’s 1982 Palanca Award-winning play. It received the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ Eagle Award. “Woven Wings of our Children,” 2016, is about abused street children, adapted from Juan’s play “Hinabing Pakpak ng Ating mga Anak.” It was shown in South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival in 2016.

“Amon Banwa” will be shown at Cinematheques managed by the Film Development Center of the Philippines (FDCP) in various places. 

The film is produced by Erehwon Center for the Arts, Kellogg Institute for International Studies (Indiana’s University of Notre Dame), The Negros Museum, Negros Cultural Foundation, Performance Laboratory, Sagay City, and Green Pelican Studios.

— LA, GMA Integrated News



Leave a Comment