Ancient Palawan traditions come to Toronto through Solito film
By Dyan Ruiz
The struggles and traditions of the Palawan tribe of the Philippines was brought to a Toronto audience through the international premiere of the film, Baybayin (The Script) by acclaimed indigenous writer and director, Auraeus Solito, at the imagineNATIVE Film Festival.
Solito, who also goes by his tribal name, Kanakan Balintagos – a name dreamt by his uncle who was a shaman– was present at the screening on Thursday (Oct. 17). Baybayin played at the Bell TIFF Lightbox on King St. West as part the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival, a five-day Toronto event that features works by indigenous filmmakers and artists.
“It’s an important film for the Filipino Diaspora because this proves that we had an alphabet. Before these colonizers, we had a complete culture. We don’t need them,” he said to the clapping and cheering audience after the screening.
The film is set in the stunning tropical land and seascapes of Palawan in the 1970s just as foreigners are discovering the area’s pristine beauty. It tells the story of two sisters who are separated upon their mother’s death. One sister is taken to Canada, while the other grows up within the Palawan tribal traditions. When they’re reunited, they must reconcile loving the same man, whose only way of communicating is the Baybayin, an ancient Palawanon script.
In an interview with The Philippine Reporter, Solito recounts how it wasn’t until relatively late in his life, when he was 25-years old, that he discovered his tribal ancestry. His mother was one of the first minority scholars of the Philippines and part of a program in the 1960’s that “mis-educated” her on culture, like the residential school system did to First Nations in Canada.
“They told her that tribal people are primitive, uncivilized so she was ashamed but ironically the only stories she knows is the tribe stories. That’s why it’s as if I grew up in a different universe. Nobody knew these stories so I became a story teller,” Solito said recalling the stories he told to his classmates growing up.
He credits his mom in giving him a great education and his tribe’s myths, “She really made it a point that I would survive this modern world and somehow thanks to that I became a filmmaker,” he said. “My cinema is my tultul,” which are Palawan chants, “This is my chant to the world.”
Baybayin is the second in what he calls his “Palawan trilogy,” his first being Busong (Palawan Fate). Busong was selected for the prestigious Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2011.
His inspiration for Baybayin came when he was tracing his family tree, “It was “not a family tree, it was a family bush,” he told a laughing audience. “In our tribe, they’re allowed to have two wives,” so the chart of his ancestry kept growing sideways. “Until I had a grandmother,” he said, “who breaks the tradition and has two husbands at the same time!” He told the audience this will be the basis of his next film. When he asked an elder about this tradition of having two wives, he was told the story that becomes an anchor in Baybayin.
The film was nearly not made and the script sat at the bottom of his closet for many years as he pursued other films. When he initially pitched it to a commercial movie house, they wanted it filmed in Laguna instead of Palawan to save money, but Solito refused. Many in the audience, like Camille Cendana, agreed with Solito that it could not be filmed anywhere else.
Another audience member, Manuel Luis Veneracion said, ‘There’s something that happens to me when I watch Filipino art, especially stuff that takes place back home. I get it in my heart.”
Jo Simalya Alcampo, Christine Balmes, Jen Maramba and Kristen Jordan introduced the film. They are members of the Kapwa Collective, a group of artists, who work towards “bridging narratives between the Indigenous and the Diasporic, and the Filipino and the Canadian.”
Solito said to the audience, “I’m just so happy that the Kapwa Collective is here because I believe that the Filipinos in the Diaspora is the hope of the Philippines.” He was encouraged by group’s love and respect of indigenous culture because he thinks the Filipino Diaspora’s interest could serve to counter the colonial mentality of those in Manila. “There will be a fire that will ignite what we truly are,” he said.
Solito has a long relationship with imagineNATIVE, which showed his first feature documentary, Basal Banar (The Sacred Ritual of Truth) in 2004. “I think it’s the best film festival in the world. I get the most touching reactions from the Native Americans and the indigenous audience,” he said. “They get the struggle that I’m talking about,” he continued. “I feel like home here.”