Friday, September 11, 2009

Manoro (Brillante Mendoza, 2006)

By now, everyone must be quite familiar with the teachings and tenets of real-time filmmaking, a paradigm of Filipino cinema pioneered by the avuncular Armando Lao. A slew of successes in recent years that includes Jeffrey Jeturian’s Kubrador and Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador has given it a high artistic profile. Manoro, another film by Mendoza, continues to demonstrate the virtues of this school of filmmaking. A film of disarming and deceptive simplicity, Manoro, which means teacher in the Aeta language, chronicles a handful of days in the life of Jonalyn Ablong, a young Aeta tasked to help and teach her fellow Aetas -- illiterates all --to fill out ballot forms.

The year is 2004 and it is the eve of presidential elections. Armed with basic equipment and a makeshift blackboard, young Jonalyn must traverse a dying landscape, past water-lily-strangled streams, across lahar-choked plains and mountains, to instruct her fellow Aetas on how to put their presidential choices into writing. Whether taking pains to write down FPJ, GMA, or Lacson, there seems to be a child-like struggle to do so. Meanwhile, Jonalyn’s grandmother’s mind seems to be elsewhere – before a simple attack of black ants disperses this gathering.

There is also the matter of fetching Jonalyn’s grandfather who has gone hunting for wild boar in the mountains. She and her father must make a long, arduous trek through treacherous trails to look for him if he is to cast his ballot the following day. Jonalyn’s father seems equally fickle about the coming elections, and seems more inclined to find employment at a South Korean project in the vicinity. But that, too, requires filling out forms.

Manoro is as much about a portrait of a young teenage girl (i.e. the disproportion between her ability and her mission), as it is about a portrait of an indigenous people. Ralston Jover’s script offers a quietly burning reproach to the Aetas: depicted as a closely-knit community who share the fruits of the hunt and everything else, there are also less than flattering jabs in their direction. Take their worship of pagan gods to whom much is attributed. Take their flighty and fickle stance towards the election, the allegory of the lowly ants that can scatter them. They seem to be caught unsure at a crucial crossroads, no longer simply hunter-gatherers but not fully absorbed into modern society just yet.

With a cast of characters who play themselves, with a highly suitable use of hand-held cameras and a documentary approach, Manoro evokes a multi-faceted fable – of troubled hope and of a people caught in retreat. There are faint echoes of Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards and Kiarostami’s Where is The Friend's House? and other Iranian films to be found in this film. There are also slight resonances of the mysticism of something like Souleymane Cisse’s Yeelen. But Manoro lays solid and unshakable claim to what it portrays. Filmmakers of the old schools, sit up and take notice!

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