Ati-Atihan in the Diaspora

News & Features Apr 26, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Alcedo with Augusto Diangson and his entourage at the Ati-Atihan festival

A Documentary Review

By Beatrice Paez

One week out of every year, in a town known as a Kalibo, reality suspends disbelief. What could be perceived as a mirage comes into focus: an aging man costumed in loud and embellished garb and a middle-aged woman decked in a Hmong headdress, together with an assortment of characters, parading the streets in celebration of individuality and religion.

The Ati-Atihan festival is an odd combination itself — its origins predate the Spanish-colonial era but it has since morphed into a modern spectacle that narrates historical encounters in Kalibo, Aklan.

The historical elements are still traceable, participants often “soot up” or blacken themselves. In other contexts, what may be construed, as blackface is instead a time-honoured tradition that started when Bornean settlers cemented their trade relationship with the indigenous population, the Atis.

With the locals’ conversion to Catholicism, following the arrival of the Spanish, the festival took on a religious significance to honour Santo Niño, the infant Jesus. Now, every January, thousands of worshippers and curious tourists venture to Kalibo for the pageantry it promises to deliver.

Characters of all stripes get ensnared in the festivities, the din of the drums inescapable, luring everyone out. It’s a surprising sight to behold if you’re not from the Philippines says Patrick Alcedo, a dance ethnographer and professor at York University. Anywhere else cross-dressing while attending a Catholic Church service or following a procession could draw offense.

“The kind of Catholicism we have in the Philippines is very different, it’s a folklorized religion,” he explains. “[Ati-Atihan] is the time of the year where performing one’s individuality is allowed.”

For the last 10 years, Alcedo has been assembling footage of the festival on the side, captured during his field research trips to his hometown, Kalibo. In the resulting documentary, he profiles a cast of characters that are the lifeblood of the festival itself.

The idea of turning his material into a documentary grew out of a desire to transcend the linguistic divide, making his insights and encounters accessible to non-academics and academics and the Diaspora and local communities.

Ati-Atihan is such a central component to the Aklanon identity that communities abroad stage their own version every February. They rent out space at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Scarborough and roughly 500 people participate, says Alcedo.

Patrick Alcedo

What was initially an effort to better understand his heritage, the project outgrew its aim: together with the Aklanon association in Toronto, Alcedo has helped raise funds to send 10 Ati children to school.

“The connection between Filipinos and the Diaspora should be much more than performance and [should] boil down to education,” he asserts.

Intimate peeks into the lives of four devotees in the documentary reveal the disparity in wealth and circumstance. The Atis and non-indigenous Filipinos share the same streets, but the residents live worlds apart.

The difference in experiences is punctuated in their preparatory rituals: the man in drag, Augusto Diangson has a personal groomer to apply his make-up, while Imelda Chavez, an Ati and the Puro Ati tribe rely on one another to polish their costumes.

Cecile Motus, a balikbayan, changes threads often, swapping one ethnic identity for another — dressing up in a Mexican costume one year, the next in a Hmong headdress. In contrast, the participating Ati women are uniformly dressed in plaid-patterned cloths, either arming themselves with spears and shields or carrying babies draped in a sling.

Augusto Diangson with his entourage

Though the teeming streets draw Atis and other locals alike, the two rarely cross each other’s circles. “[The Puro Ati] did not have to interact with the upper class,” Alcedo explains when asked how Atis perceive the displays of pomp and wealth. “What was more important for them was an assertion of their identity…after all the festival is named after them.”

Both groups claim the festival as their own, but the Atis had long been marginalized from the festivities. Imelda’s community was the first to compete in the costume event in 2009, but ironically failed to nab first place in the indigenous category because their “blackness” lacked the exaggerated effect.

He notes that since their participation, there has been an ongoing effort to involve the indigenous groups in the festival. Alcedo looks forward to the day when the Atis are fully integrated into the festivities and exempt from competition. “If they’re competing that means they’re competing for their indigenous identity, [and] that should just be celebrated.”

While the documentary calls attention to these issues of marginalization, it could have gone further to solicit the Atis’ views about the festival’s evolution. The documentary could have also benefited from tighter editing and steadier camera work. Its narrative zigzags and wavers at the beginning taking side trips that make little sense until halfway through the film. What it lacks in these areas, its material is compelling enough.

Alcedo’s all-access pass into the lives of his subjects gives way to an engaging narrative about people’s unconventional expressions of devotion to their faith.

Santo Niño is the source of all blessings to them: He roused Diangson from his deathbed, and in return promised to dance for three days each year; He pulled Henry Villaneuva out of poverty and to reciprocate, Villaneuva vowed to dress and dance like Michael Jackson.

Alcedo with Augusto Diangson, his former ballet teacher and one of the subjects of his documentary

At Ati-Atihan dance is a form of prayer and is central to their faith. “I dance literally from morning to night,” says Alcedo. Though his memories of the festival growing up are just as lively, character impersonations and outrageous costumes are a more recent addition.

That the film probed so deeply in most of its individual profiles is hardly surprising when you learn that out of the three individuals featured, Alcedo shares some sort of ties with them, as fellow neighbours. Diangson was his ballet teacher and Motus was a family friend.

The focus, which unfolds slowly, could have trained the lens better on the Atis.  But it lacked a thorough exploration of Imelda’s perception of the festival’s colourful participants; at best it offered a passing glimpse of the significance of their involvement in the festival — saved for the finale.

The trailer can be viewed here: