Jude Thaddeus L. Bautista
Shaleha (Nora Aunor) and two other older women bathe Ayesha (Mercedes Cabral) as part of a cleansing ceremony before her wedding. Outside hundreds of red, orange and yellow banderitas (small flags) flutter in the wind. Soon her groom Nurjay arrives by boat. Clansmen carry him like a sultan to the threshold; one of them is Bangas-An (Bembol Roco). Nurjay makes his vows, in front of Ayesha’s father. He eventually sees his bride and they emerge from the house to dancing and revelry until sundown. Ayesha moves to the traditional Badjao wedding dance with Nurjay sending the guests into fever pitch excitement. Out of nowhere gun shots are fired. Guests flee for safety, disrupting the joyful and peaceful occasion.
Award winning Brillante Mendoza has an ability of capturing reality and having it intrude in his films. THY WOMB is no exception. He won Best Director at the Metro Manila Film fest Awards night. The film won a total of seven awards: Best Actress (Nora Aunor), Best Director (Brillante Mendoza), Best Original Story (Henry Burgos), Best Cinematography (Odyssey Flores), Best Production Design (Brillante Mendoza) and the special prizes Gat Puno Antonio Villegas Cultural Award and Most Gender-Sensitive Film.
Mendoza is not really making any grand statements or pontificating, he just captures life the way it is. That’s his trademark style coming from the ‘found story’ philosophy of his mentor Armando Lao who was a creative consultant for this film as well. Lao also had his own film AD IGNORANTIAM with Ina Feleo at the New Wave section also in the MMFF which won the Special Jury Prize. They share the school of thought where stories come from real life incidents with little or no dramatic license, emphasizing gritty realism.
In spite of that THY WOMB has to be the most visually arresting among Mendoza’s work. The pomp and pageantry of a Muslim / Badjao wedding is very colorful and interesting. There are a lot of ceremonies from the engagement to the wedding itself. In one of them, the family of the groom prays for a successful married life by the shores releasing replicas of their vinta or boat.
The location itself provides a picturesque subject. It’s not just a background of the story but is part of it. The seascapes, the Muslim architecture and wildlife are very enticing reasons for tourism. The placid butanding or whale shark swims by the boat of Shaleha and Bangas-An as they travel from one island to the other. Shaleha witnesses a pawikan (sea turtle) laying eggs on the sandy beach.
Nora Aunor’s performance is made real as she completes a lot of the day-to-day tasks very naturally. She helps her husband Bangas-An even in his work fishing in twilight hours. The two are silhouetted against a golden sunset on calm waters. Tawi-tawi although impoverished is paradise like having untouched natural splendor.
THY WOMB doesn’t have the multimillion-dollar budget for visual effects like LIFE OF PI. That’s why you know the whale shark you see is not computer generated but is an actual whale shark. A real rainbow became a good omen for Shaleha and Bangas-An in their trip to find a new wife. Cinematographer Odyssey Flores not only put to screen the wonders of nature in that very remote area but also successfully pulled off underwater shots. The Best Cinematography award from the MMFF was very well deserved.
Former Senator Rasul recently talked about how THY WOMB touches on the issues of indigenous people like the Badjao. In truth the film deals with a whole gamut of issues from the peace and order situation in Mindanao, religious conflict between Catholics and Muslims, the glaring need for Reproductive Health care to environmental and tourism issues.
Mendoza never pulled any punches showing the truth of what goes on in the Badjao community. Early on the military or armed forces are portrayed as insensitive to the people whose lives they intrude on. Shaleha seeks shelter from the rain in a structure only to find broken images and bullet-ridden altar of an abandoned Catholic church.
Mendoza is not being simplistic about it but these are the places and things that he has seen and observed in real life. Being able to write and combine all of those elements was the job of Henry Burgos who was also honored with Best Original story.
Mercedes Cabral as Ayesha has a close relationship with Shaleha. Ayesha’s elaborate wedding becomes a counterpoint to the Shaleha’s inability to have children with Bangas An. Cabral’s bronze skin and curves makes her very sexually appealing even wrapped up in conservative Muslim attire. She has that understated style in acting that has made her a favorite of Mendoza having also starred in CAPTIVE, KINATAY and SERVICE.
Lovi Poe has limited screen time, as Mersila but has a very important role. Poe demonstrated her growing acting abilities even with the short appearance. Lovi may not have a longer list of indie films as Cabral but has already won a Cinemalaya Best Actress award for MAYOHAN some years back.
Audiences will no doubt be moved by the many sacrifices that Shaleha (Nora Aunor) makes for her husband. The banig or woven mat is a metaphor for Shaleha’s own life. She carefully interweaves straws to create magnificent patterns only to have other people use them. The legendary Nora Aunor plays it as real as it gets. Often her character hides her tears preferring to weep privately and silently unlike soap opera queens or on overly dramatic blockbusters that is the norm in MMFF. She makes us believe that it’s not a feminist or indigenous issue, but a human plight. She becomes the personification of every person’s need to be loved.