Last January 31, despite the students of Holy Angel University celebrating their annual U-Days, many of them—about a thousand—were required to attend the screening of two of Brillante Mendoza’s alternative films, the first of which was ‘Manoro’ (The Aeta Teacher). I believe it is the first ever film that featured the aborigines of the Philippines and the first film to get Aytas as the main cast. Plus, the language is 95% in Ayta language (that type which is spoken in Sapang Bato, Angeles City, where the setting of the film is), 3% in Kapampangan, and 2% in English.
The story is set during the presidential election time which pitted Gloria Macapagal Arroyo against Fernando Poe, Jr. and Ping Lacson. Having graduated from elementary, a young Ayta girl named Jonalyn Ablong took the initiative to teach the elders of her tribe how to basically write the possible ballot entries—GMA, FPJ, or LACSON—to allow her people to participate in the democratic process.
In the end though, Jonalyn learned that it ain't as easy as it seems, as many of her tribesmen prefer to gather food than to “waste their time” voting. Enthusiastic ones didn’t find voting easy as well, as some of them are not in the list of registered voters, and some couldn’t recall properly how to write their ballot entries during the election itself.
I have first watched this film in Quezon City back when I was a college student year 2006. Checking out the cinemas to see what movie to watch, I came across the poster containing an Ayta girl holding out a blackboard like a teacher with elder Aytas surrounding her, listening intently like obedient grade school students. Upon seeing that it was a co-production with Holy Angel University and that it was part of the Digital Lokal competition of the Cinemanila Film Festival, I bought a ticket.
Oh, and let’s not forget that it was a Brillante Mendoza film after all, and knowing his excellence in filmmaking and impressive cultural detailing in his movies, it was impossible for me not to watch. Later on, ‘Manoro’ would win the Digital Lokal competition and the film, like Mendoza’s other films, would impress film fest audiences from around the world—from Rome to Torino.
Almost Empty Seats
There weren’t many of us inside the cinema at SM when I watched ‘Manoro,’ and we can expect this from alternative films, especially those which do not possess well-known actors in them. In my observation, the only films that can draw a relatively big audience in spite of casting unknown characters are films that have enough nudity in them—mostly male; films that objectify young and sexy studs to the delight of a rowdy gay and bisexual viewers.
The second time I watched ‘Manoro’ was in Robinson’s Indie Sine, a sanctuary for alternative film, with two friends whom I often speak with regarding culture and film as tool in empowering the marginalized. Also watching were Kidlat Tahimik—the Father of Philippine Independent Cinema—and his equally long-haired son, whom we are facially familiar with because he is an alumnus of our organization in the UP College of Mass Communication.
Even though Kidlat Tahimik was very impressed with the film like my friends, I couldn’t help notice the pitiful number of viewers inside a cinema which can cater to about 300 to 500 pairs of eyes. Evidently, Filipinos are not ready for these kind of films, especially because ‘Manoro’ is shot in neorealist treatment, making it seem like a documentary even though the whole thing is scripted. In one festival abroad, Mendoza even claimed that the organizers categorized ‘Manoro’ under the documentary category, not knowing that the film was actually a fictitious narrative but strongly based on actual research.
This is no surprise even for Mendoza. Before the film was screened at the auditorium of HAU, the director admitted that he was expecting the film to probably bore the students. Robby Tantingco, Director of the school’s Kapampangan Center, had the same fear. Alas, both of their expectations were right, as the viewers began sinking in their seats like siesta-taking folks, as the film proceeded to the parts that showed Jonalyn and his father taking long treks in the mountains in search for Grandpa who went out to Apo-Namalyari-knows-where to hunt.
I was even hearing the students seated close to me asking, “Maluat ya pa kaya?” Being average students, I assume, they were not interested to follow the story at all and were just waiting for the film to end. After all, they were there as captive audience, a term which I heard from Jim Libiran, director of Cinemalaya 2007’s ‘Tribu,’ who was a panelist in Marilou Diaz Abaya Film Institute’s “Mainstream Loves Indie” at Antipolo.
In harsher words, they were forced to pay fifty pesos, watch the movie, and perhaps whip up a decent reaction paper that would fulfill their partial requirements in their respective classes.
Who’s at Fault?
In such situations, who is at fault? The audience, whom intellectual snobs would brand as people who need to be smarter in order to comprehend such wonderful pieces of art like ‘Manoro,’ or the director and/or producer, who is so eager to explore his neorealist style, forgetting the psychographics of the mainstream-dazed audience?
As a director, Mendoza stands by his artwork. Even though he expects a lot of people to not understand the point of his films, he believes that as long as he can touch one or two people from his audience and cause them to think and act upon going out from the theater house, he has already achieved something. But if he shifts to producer mentality, of course, the filmmaker can be blamed, because of his failure to communicate the idea interestingly to their target viewers. The producer then is also at fault because he allowed that to happen.
But who are the target viewers of ‘Manoro’ anyway? Is it the Filipinos? Is it the cinephiles of other countries? Is it the people with the same concept of art or film as the director? The success of the producer really depends on the answer to this question.
Don’t get me wrong, however. ‘Manoro’ is one of the best Philippine films for me, as one can see in the Favorite Movies section of my Friendster account. But things become dimmer upon taking into account the reaction of the masses, the opinion of whom I value so much in the film industry. After all, that's one of the subject matters of the Ayta film—democracy.