Beautiful shots make me sick. – Roberto Rossellini
Filmmaker Gutierrez Mangansakan must be under the mistaken notion that it is enough to illuminate a social problem and withhold comment in order to maintain a semblance of judicious and solomonic position. That is the fallacy he commits with his latest film, Limbunan. False, because there is no such thing as an objective cinema, not even that supposedly most objective of cinematic practices, the documentary. Each frame committed to film contains the seeds of politics and position.
Whether he intended it or not, Mangansakan has forwarded sociocultural conservatism through his latest film. Limbunan may on the surface be a picture about one forced betrothal of a 16-year-old Maguindanaoan girl named Ayesah, but it is unequivocally a film about resignation and reconciliation to traditions, ultimately redounding to the practice of arranged marriages. Mangansakan has revealed at the gala for this film at Cinemalaya 2010 that the film was partly occasioned by the Maguindanao massacre. It is a reaction to the inflicted violence that must have weighed on creating a pacifist film, which Limbunan seems to be.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with a pacifist film except that it protects the status quo. It describes a flawed culture in Maguindanao, but it prescribes, by default, by a compliant ending, the continuation of the current state of things. It glosses over the very problems it raises. Gloss, that’s what it is, and to appraise the film at face value is to disguise the reactionary values conveyed at its core. Limbunan gingerly broaches the issues inherent in arranged marriages, fettered women’s rights and other corollary problems, but, ultimately, they are given the short shrift. They are all conveniently swept under the rug of supposedly bigger and vaster considerations.
Limbunan is not without its virtues. It is quite admirable in its unconventionality, stripped down and almost bereft of story, unlike the routinary run of traditional narratives. It is a visual film more than anything, its lush, poetic imagery borders on superfluity, but it may help explain the dilemmatic passage of time within the film. It is a tonal poem with deceptive moods.
It is a tonal poem that charts a month of confinement for Ayesah, a month of solitude during which all her needs are attended to. But she is almost inconsolable; her betrothal is against her will. Her sense of inequity is evident as she questions her elders about the wisdom of this looming marriage. However, she is prevailed upon to stay the course by her sagely aunt, Farida, whose wisdom is painfully earned and learned. She comes from a long line of women who have had the same nuptial experience. She knows her niece’s hurts, but there are bigger relevancies, according to her, than personal happiness. There are vaster sociopolitical repercussions linked with this impending union – perhaps peace and progress in Maguindanao?
Limbunan is no humanist document in spite of Mangansakan’s intentions. Long after the arranged marriage that is hinted to have taken place at film’s end, what will have become of Ayesah? Essentially a sacrificial lamb, a human pawn, she must forever stay mute, as mute as her place of domestic exile – the limbunan we get glimpses of and experience with her. But again, to believe the entrenched practices, there are more pertinent things than personal happiness, the fate of entire territories perhaps, though Ayesah loves another man.
Instead of chipping away at the ossified values and unprogressive traditions in Maguindanaoan culture, Limbunan devotes its time lulling us with pretty pictorialism. Bound in the immediate vicinity of Ayesah’s home, the camera follows Ayesah’s playful sister, Saripa, who examines the natural minutiae of their backyard (hints of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood come to mind). However, the kind of imagery we see bears little contributory value – not tension; not emblem – except perhaps as an index to the long wait that Ayesah must suffer until the moment of inescapable reckoning. Her aunt may assuage her griefs, her own mother assume Ayesah’s everyday chores, but this anticipation of the enforced marriage, the sense of self-sacrifice, is so much like a death sentence – so aestheticized as if this inequity were not so cruel and inhuman.