‘Tu Pug Imatuy’ (2017): life and death in ancestral lands

The film’s story and style is strongly reminiscent of certain Hollywood films, but it is firmly grounded in its lumad context and concerns.

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Scene from ‘Tu Pug Imatuy’: a lumad father telling stories to his children under a tree.

Despite running for only 90 minutes, Tu Pug Imatuy (‘The Right to Kill’) delivers the experience of an epic. It manages this partly by alternating between quiet, lingering moments, and thrilling, kinetic sequences. But more importantly, the film exhibits a layered story—it is, at once, an ethnographic documentary, a primer on pressing social issues, and, without glorifying violence, something of a survival adventure.

Note: this film analysis includes details of plot, or ‘spoilers’. It is written primarily for those who have seen the film.

Three groups populate Tu Pug Imatuy: the lumad (the indigenous, non-Christian and non-Muslim peoples of Mindanao), government soldiers, and rebels. (Although the last group barely appears in the movie, they represent a major interest underlying the political setting of the film.) These groups and their ‘costumes’—the colorful textiles of the lumad, the standard fatigues of the soldiers, and the alternative uniforms of the rebels that come complete with Communist insignia—comprise all the people that is seen in the film. It is patently and completely a story about the troubled Philippine South.

The lumad are the protagonists in this film. The first act is an immersion into a Manobo family’s way of life and their world-perspective. The stories that Dawin (played by Jong Monzon) tells his children reveal a deep appreciation for the natural abundance of their people’s ancestral homeland. When, by a stroke of luck, Dawin and his wife Obunay (Malona Sulatan) captures a wild boar, they immediately talk about sharing the bounty with their neighbors and their datu (chieftain)—demonstrating a strong sense of community, despite their apparent poverty. Of course, it appears that material poverty does not worry them much; indigenous peoples have this manner of belief that as long as they are secure in their land, they are confident that nature will always provide for their needs.

Several scenes paint the picture of a family content with the simplicity of their life. The couple, at night in their kitchen, happily recalls the events of the day, bonding over the bounty of the hunt. A tragedy befalls them soon afterwards, however; their youngest child, Awit, is struck with high fever. Dawin rushes the boy to the river to try and relieve his temperature with cool water, but it was not enough. Obunay’s subtle expression of grief at the sight of Dawin returning with their dead child, the tears falling wordlessly from her eyes, provides the film’s first moving moment.

After the family buries Awit on the mountain, they tell themselves that the child is now one with nature—a method of coping with grief that further illustrates their affinity with the environment. The child’s grave is marked not by a cross (of course, they are not Christian), but by rocks and a frond with flowers.

Scene from ‘Tu Pug Imatuy’: a lumad family burying a dead child on the mountains.

What comes next is a greater tragedy. Tu Pug Imatuy turns to the current issues faced by the lumad in Mindanao, the problems one could read about in a broadsheet in Manila without giving much thought to, but which in this film is made present and vivid.

Dawin and his children encounter a squad of soldiers on their way home; needing a local guide on their mission to engage rebels, the soldiers forcibly take Dawin away from his children. (Dawin was carrying a container of mongo seeds then. The soldiers spill these onto the ground, before forcing Dawin to pick them up to be counted one by one, mocking him, “Do you know how to pray the rosary?” It was a quick remark, easy to miss, but it concretizes the social gap between the presumably Christian soldiers and the non-Christian lumad.)

The soldiers find Obunay, and abduct her as well. They subject the couple to tremendous abuse, including stripping before marching them through the forest. The couple is also subjected to servitude, forced to gather food and cook for dinner. The abuse, impunity, and oppression is suffered by all of the tribe, not just by this particular couple: in Dawin’s earlier visit to the datu, he learned that the soldiers confiscated and cooked all of the chieftain’s chickens.

All the cruelties that Dawin and Obunay suffer in the hands of the soldiers are seemingly random, until, at one point in their march, Sgt. Villamor (Jamee Rivera) shoves the couple’s faces onto the mud, mumbling that it was for the deaths of their comrades in an ambush the week prior. It does not absolve them of their atrocities against the innocent natives, but it does complicate their characterization, because until this point in the story, the soldiers were the pure antagonists, the unredeemed evil—but here, they are unveiled as sufferers themselves of the war they are tasked to wage. The pain of losing their brothers is part of the reason driving them to inflict pain on others.

But Tu Pug Imatuy, in portraying the lumad as the story’s protagonists, renders it clear that it is the lumad who suffers the most. Just before Dawin is abducted by the soldiers, he tells his children the story of the ‘Sagasa’, a story that was itself passed onto him from his father. The lands of their forefathers were once rich with strong trees, the story goes, until the loggers came and cut them down. The loss of the trees destroyed their environment and led to a famine. The people, growing desperate, went out to hunt. They saw a giant boar which they immediately attacked and chopped into pieces; it was too late when they realized that what they had killed was one of the loggers.

Dawin shares this cautionary tale to his children as a story to be passed on, a heirloom, a story destined to be part of their people’s identity for generations to come. And this story of senseless, tragic violence is also the prime metaphor for Tu Pug Imatuy itself: the plight of a people and a family, trapped between the interests of outsiders to their land. In this film, the lumad suffer in the crossfire between soldiers and rebels; or, taking a different aspect, between Christians and Muslims, or capitalists/imperialists and communists. In each of these dimensions, the lumad is the original settler, the party with the most rightful claim to the wealth of their lands, and yet they stand to lose the most, victimized by the inhumanities of war or the ravages of irresponsible development.

(On that last thought: there are passing references to the effects of mining on ancestral lands. Dawin and Obunay, on their way home from the boar hunt, pause on a vantage point to view the encroachment of destructive mining operations into their lands. In another scene, Dawin and his children come across a parked backhoe. The datu tells them that even if he refuses the exploitation of the lands by mining corporations, it amounts to nothing because the destructive companies are protected by the military.)

Another theme that Tu Pug Imatuy manages to weave into the layered fabric of its story is education. When the soldiers spill the seeds for Dawin to count, he is unable to do so; his daughter Ilyan (Jillian Khayle Barbarona) had to tell the soldiers he is unable to count, to their atrocious amusement. It hearkens back to an earlier scene at their home, where Obunay sees Ilyan learning to read and comments, with a wishful tone, that she might become a teacher someday. Education, therefore, is clearly a common dream of the natives, recognized as a path to upliftment.

It is ironic then, that the leader of the squad that abused Dawin’s family, Lt. Olivar (Luis Banaag III), is an educated man. It is implied that this education is what tempers his cruelty; indeed he is the least abusive of the soldiers, making him the most conflicted and interesting character among them. He is mocked by Sgt. Villamor for this education: when the lieutenant cuts short one of the sergeant’s countless maltreatments of Dawin, Villamor leans onto the lieutenant (as his menacing mannerism goes), sniffs him, and taunts, “You’re still naïve in this war…I can still smell the ink from your diploma.”

The schoolhouse, which the soldiers suspect to have been built by the rebels, further characterizes the role of education in the part of society explored by the film. There, Lt. Olivar inspects the books used by the teacher, and finds material about U.S. imperialism. This, and the suspicious situation of a government teacher electing to serve in a remote, war-torn area, convinces him that the teacher is in fact a rebel on a mission to indoctrinate the locals—despite the teacher’s defense that she is lumad herself, serving her own people, and that the U.S. imperialism phenomenon is historical fact. For all his education, the lieutenant is still blinded by his state-military perspective; what the lumad views as a source of hope and upliftment for their people is to him the source and root of rebellion and conflict.

Scene from ‘Tu Pug Imatuy’: a soldier interrogating a teacher in a remote schoolhouse in Mindanao.

(The film, as it sides with the lumad, also comments on the failures of government. Sgt. Villamor, learning of the existence of the schoolhouse in such a remote place, mockingly tells Obunay that the government still cares after all, that they still bother to provide education in these far-flung regions—until the couple’s silence makes him question if it was indeed built by the state, or by their enemy. Going back earlier in the story, Awit’s death can also be framed as the failure of government health services to reach and benefit all of the state’s supposed citizens.)

On the look and feel of Tu Pug Imatuy: the first shot, a wide view of a serene, mountainous landscape, accompanied by Dawin’s voice as he tells his children about the abundance of their land, followed by a long take, also static, showing Dawin and Obunay leaving their home for the hunt, is almost reminiscent of Lav Diaz. But the film does not keep a contemplative pace for long—its cinematography turns kinetic, exemplified in the boar hunt where the camera nimbly follows Dawin and Obunay as they stalk the animal up a stream in the forest. (This scene, and the numerous shots throughout the film of various natural objects, reinforcing the environmental theme, recall Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant.)

The quality, unfortunately, is inconsistent. The changes in color grading is jarring; sometimes it is subdued and sometimes it is saturated. Picture quality is also unreliable; night scenes are noisy, and the camera’s focus and clarity is occasionally inaccurate.

Killing, justifications, and justice

The titular killing takes many forms in Tu Pug Imatuy‘s story: the killing of wildlife, for sustenance; the killing of innocent people, as oppression; the killing of oppressors, as revenge and escape; and the killing of soldiers and rebels, in the name of ideology. The question is, which of these killings are truly rightful? The answer is not explicit, of course, but it is nevertheless implied by the film’s choice to take the perspective of the lumad. If there is a sense of justice in its story’s ending, it is because, in the grander scheme of things, this is what the film aspires for: to educate all Filipinos about the injustices still being suffered by our brothers and sisters in the war in the South, and thereby, even if only indirectly, contribute to the attainment of long-awaited peace.

As a creative work, however, Tu Pug Imatuy clearly already has its achievements. The various forms of killing in its story are arranged and assimilated into a tale that is essentially an adventure—all without being exploitative nor unnecessarily violent. It is reminiscent of another Hollywood movie, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, in that it makes a compelling ‘there and back again’ adventure profound by infusing it with a complete range of themes: from the personal to the political, from concerns of family to concerns of the nation.

Scene from ‘Tu Pug Imatuy’: a lumad woman walking on the slopes of a mountain.

Tu Pug Imatuy won six awards in the Sinag Maynila 2017 film festival, the most among the five entries in the full-length category: best film, best actress for Malona Sulatan, best director for Arbi Barbarona, best screenplay for Arnel Mardoquio, best cinematography for Bryan Jimenez and Arbi Barbarona, and best music, also for Arbi Barbarona.

The author of this review recognizes the importance of sensitivity and accuracy when discussing cultural minorities, especially because the author does not represent these groups. In this spirit, the reader is welcome to call out any objectionable claims or inaccuracies in this review.

All the images in this article are screen captures from the film’s trailer on YouTube, courtesy of Arnel Barbarona.

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