Ode to suppressed historical upheavals

Community News & Features Jan 11, 2019 at 4:56 pm

Almaata movie posterFILM REVIEW: Alma-ata (2018)

By Ysh Cabana

The Philippine Reporter

Alma-ata is auteur Arnel Mardoquio’s bravura ode to suppressed historical upheavals that mirror domestic struggle for social equity in his native island of Mindanao.
The end credits state Mardoquio’s latest feature is dedicated to the people, who “have graciously died in serving the Filipino revolution.” Somehow it is reminiscent of his 2013 silent film “Riddles of My Homecoming” telling a story of returning home and enduring grief.

Julia Cuevas (Sue Prado) is a Melbourne-based medical practitioner whose parents are both Filipino martyrs. She sets out on a mission to try to weave together answers for their untimely death in the Philippine countryside and retrieve their bodies to bring back to Australia after the progressive movement’s international chapter delivers her the news.

In the thick of the tropical island interiors, Julia meets her parents’ comrade in arms Ka Joel (James Rivera). Here, silencing as a linguistic device can be made a distinction between non-intentional — Julia’s psychological inability to answer after being informed about the torture her parents experienced — and intentional — armed freedom fighters who chose to hide themselves with their noms de guerre Liyab and Bidlisiw (Alison Landeras and Hecate Andres). Through them she learns how her doctors-to-the-barrio parents were killed by the terrorist Alamara, a paramilitary group comprised of Lumad members used as “pawns of the reactionary government.”

The decision to depict these body-painted indigenous people as not just yielding weapons but as avid flesh-eaters is fictitious. But the director at least does this consciously. What the gaping wounds, lacerated extremities and pickled intestines suggest is the inhumane and monstrous tendencies of the bloodthirsty paramilitary group in a brutal war inflicted by State security forces against the progressive Lumad. If that’s a spoiler alert, it’s better you know now what you’re walking into, or more likely out of, until the fate of our protagonist.

In the film, silencing is used to remind the viewer that forced displacement is not an event, so much as it is a process in which interlocutors negotiate their relations to each other. An element of (internationalist) solidarity can be found in these interrelations as implied in Julia’s character as a second generation immigrant displaced from the motherland vis-a-vis the guerrilla fighters who were born into impoverished families displaced from their ancestral lands.

“How do you do it?” Julia inquires in Aussie accent about the enigmatic New People’s Army. To which, the revolutionary leader responds in a didactic fireside conversation. “We start by having a dialogue with the capitalists and landlords,” he says. “We let them know of the rights of the workers that they should treat them right and pay them well.”

Since when was political dissent portrayed in the moving image supposed to be polite? Alma-ata may be unpalatable to the mainstream audiences for it doesn’t submit to self-gratifying anti-communist denunciation and shaming. But then again, it spells of conviction. It is a defiant statement of non-regret for identifying “Reds” with their implicit sense of self as agents for change, ones who desire to build a better world, and carry out five-year plans into collective action; and in this case, a national health service program. Thus the title, which alludes to the 1978 Alma Ata Declaration, reaffirming health as a right that the government proved unable to implement appropriate policies for.

The allegory is extended as our protagonist doctor breaks her silence to Ka Joel’s partner Ata, who is a transgender warrior-healer, and tells her alias. No one could accuse Julia aka Alma of lacking guts – as she has found the solution to the ills of society and the necessity of revolution beginning at home.

Alma-ata is the first installment in a movie trilogy that will explore the lives of people deemed as “subversives” in society.


Director/screenplay: Arnel Mardoquio; cinematographer: Cyprus Lilim; production designer: Ares Allegra; editor: Japong Oraculo; sound: Will Atmos Gener; music: Apple Mabini; executive producers: Steven Garcia, Christine Stegen, Shaw Taylor; producers: Andriy Isagani, Chris del Rojo; line producers: Anna Santos, Kath Georg. Not rated. In Bisaya and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 133 mins.

Starring: Sue Prado, Jamee Rivera, Alison Landeras, Hecate Andres, Frida Calderon, Francisco Hervacio, Ann Van Ludwig, Ryce Duan, Bert Martines