‘Women of the Weeping River’: harmony and conflict, grief and forgiveness

A woman observes a butterfly perched on her finger, in ‘Women of the Weeping River’.

Rivers are the arteries of nature, coursing through the flesh of landscapes with life-giving water. But in war-torn lands, they carry a further burden: they run with tears and blood, and like veins they drain scarred countries of mournful spirits.

In Women of the Weeping River, such a river is the meeting place between lands disputed by two clans. The anguished Satra Mustafa (Laila Ulao)—daughter, sister, mother, and widow—once comes to this river seeking refuge, immersing herself in its waters as if to cleanse herself of grief.

The river cuts through the middle of the conflicted lands, evoking dualities of life and death, war and peace, past and present. Indeed, the geography of the film mirrors that word we hear many times from the lips of its characters—harmony. The land that gives and takes, the country that is both the spring of wealth and the source of struggle for its people, is rendered here with reverence, the camera capturing the mystic and mythic images of sacred grounds. There is harmony in the blend between the countryside setting of most of the film (in the forests, rivers, plains and mountains of the Philippine south), and the intervening scenes set in the city (with a focus on the bustle and density of urban life).

Harmony, however, is a product of balance as much as of tension. In Women of the Weeping River, this is already explicit in the struggle between the feuding clans, but a deeper tension comes from the conflict between an individual and her society.

As its title promises, the film takes the perspective of women; men are once shown worshiping while Satra watches, from the outside, only her eyes seen, a woman gazing into an exclusive male world. Women of the Weeping River particularly centers on the contrasting characters of Satra and Farida. Its story opens shortly after the death of Satra’s husband in the hands of their rivals, the Ismael family. An opportunity to settle the dispute and make peace is rejected by the Mustafa patriarch and the grieving Satra, who is not yet prepared to forgive. Though she is consulted, the decision is ultimately the patriarch’s; this conflict is largely a theater of men, men seemingly hungry for glory, full of pride, and basking in agency. But the choice to seek vengeance rather than make sacrifices for peace has bloody consequences, and in this war the grief is borne most by the women.

Farida (Sharifa Ali-Dans) has the aura of an older Satra, a gracious woman who has persisted through sorrows not unlike Satra’s present sufferings; from these past experiences she came out stronger, but also weaker. Her continued but fading presence is a testament to what she has won, and what she has lost. She lives in the city, but ironically it is her character’s solitude that provides a sense of mystery, even an air of fantasy, in this story. (Such is the immersive impact of the film’s artistry that the city radiates an atmosphere of alien and oppressive mystery, while it is the countryside that provides a comforting environment, in spite of the ever-present specter of violence.) Farida gives Satra a vital word of wisdom late in the film: that in her grief, she should not let herself nurture rage.

Laila Ulao’s portrayal of Satra is the anchor of Women of the Weeping River. Her quiet and steely performance is the face of grief and vulnerability, but also of determination. Satra is a woman whose desire for vengeance conflicts with her growing understanding of what is necessary for peace in her world; her individual resolve clashes with the restraints imposed by her role in society, restraints traditionally respected for the sake of harmony. She faces the question of whether to make the high sacrifice of forgiveness, and the moment of her decision is this film’s subtly moving climax.

As the film navigates these two characters’ stories—Farida’s ethereal existence, contrasted with Satra’s immediate struggles and internal turmoil—it conjures a heavy atmosphere of dread, emanating from the constant threat of violence. This remarkably tense mood is another highlight of Women of the Weeping River: it delivers a dark sense of excitement, giving the film the feeling of a subdued epic, achieved without exalting violence. The men often talk of bravery, and all this talk, mixed with their patriarchal pride, makes violent conflict inevitable, but we never quite see the men in the glory of battle. It is often the burning aftermath of a raid or the terrified faces of the women and children that we see. The only killing seen on-screen depicts a young Mustafa son in the final moments of chasing one of the Ismaels, and the actual slaughter is obscured by the tall grass. Despite this act, lauded by his family, he is the only one to confess feeling fear of the enemy.

Of the Ismaels, only the matriarch and her young son are seen; we see none of the fighting men’s faces. The Ismaels are the Mustafas’ enemies, but they are not ours; they are not the demonized other. This is not a heroic story where we wish for one side to decimate the other; this is the tale of the proverbial war that leaves no winners, only widows.

At the very end of Women of the Weeping River there are images, foreshadowed in passing scenes earlier in the film, that connects the small-scale clan war with a much larger war, one that encompasses the Philippine Muslim south. This film could leave the dangerous impression that violent conflict is intrinsic to the culture of its characters; the ending imagery, however, suggests that all conflicts are related, that all wars shed the same blood.

As a spring grows into a river, feeds into lakes and flows out to be one with the sea, conflicts can escalate from internal struggles to national revolutions. If harmony means that a grieving heart, seeking vengeance, is sympathetic to a divided country, then perhaps harmony also promises that it is the individual resolution to forgive that is the key to lasting national peace.

Film still screen-captured from the official film trailer.


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