Manoro (Brillante Mendoza, 2006)
English Title: The Teacher
Against the stylized eroticism of Masahista (The Masseur, 2005), and the glossy artfulness of Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006), Brillante Mendoza's third feature Manoro (The Teacher) feels out of place. Shot in cinema verite style, opening with the confused madness of an elementary school graduation where mothers try to silence their crying babies as little children march towards the principal to get their diplomas, Manoro looks and feels definitively all over the place. The paradox of both cinematic restraint and excesses that dominated Mendoza's last two features is absent from this delightfully heartfelt piece, something I hardly expected from a director who pushes artistic style over human emotions.
The opening titles summarize the premise of the plot: The mountain-dwelling Aetas have been forced to settle in the lowlands by the sudden eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. With their settlements being closer to the government-funded schools of the Kapampangan townships, the Aeta children now have the opportunity to study. Jonalyn, one of the elementary school graduates of the ceremony depicted in the confused introduction and an Aeta, seeks to teach her elders to read and write a day before the National Elections. With Jonalyn's effort, the Aetas, for the very first time, have participated in the democratic process that has existed in the Philippines since the early part of the 20th century.
From the graduation, Jonalyn proceeds to the Aeta settlement to begin her mission of literacy. She brings sample ballots to aid her task. However, upon reaching the settlement, she notices that her grandfather is missing. Along with her father, she treks towards the forest to look for her grandfather. Half of the film details the father and the daughter's hike up the mountain. It gives Mendoza an opportunity to visualize the untouched natural vistas of the Aeta settlement. Up the mountain, Jonalyn begins to review some of the elders how to write the names of the presidential candidates (GMA - FPJ - Lacson) by showing the older Aetas the geometric designs of the alphabet rather than actually educating her tribes members the rigors of reading and writing. Jonalyn's efforts are certainly skin-deep; her purpose is only to train the Aetas for the election day tomorrow, rather than the long term benefits of actual literacy. Nevertheless, the story is indeed heroic, something that, if handled by a more opportunistic director, might turn out to be a tearjerking tale of exaggerated realism. In Mendoza's hand, with the help of Ralston Jover's appropriately detached screenplay, the heroic tale transforms into an examination of the minority group's psyche and their sad but accepted place in national politics.
The fact that most of the film concentrates on Jonalyn and her father's hike, and on Jonalyn's persistent plea to the Aetas to vote the next day (only a few got to vote as most of the Aetas weren't registered voters; and probably only a few of those who actually voted have made valid ballots --- one of the Aeta grandmothers voted GMA-FPJ for president not knowing that GMA and FPJ are two different candidates; the consequences of Jonalyn's shallow re-educating of the Aetas), and the side plot of Jonalyn's missing grandfather, instead of the more conventional tale of the struggle of education against the Aeta's insistent rejection convinces me that Mendoza merely took the real story as a backdrop for his more ambitious designs. It certainly works. There's a feel of ancient tradition whenever the father-daughter tandem walks past the beautiful landscapes of the Pampanga wilderness. At certain points, Mendoza allows us to listen to the Aeta songs which are absolutely delightful; both in their melodic simplicity and the fact that the lyrics depict a sense of centuries-old aching and religion. More painful is when the father relies on his daughter's literacy to obtain a job from a passing Korean (he practices writing his name when his daughter sleeps during the night); Mendoza and Jover seems to acknowledge that the traditions of wilderness survival, of ancient paganist religion, and of all those songs equating the Aetas with the rest of humanity (the Aetas have been discriminated against as being the less civilized Filipinos) aren't enough to keep the minority group from surviving against the 21st century reliance on Western-imposed literacy; that the election the next day is an acknowledged step for the Aetas to pass to modernity.
Probably the most touching moment of the film is when Jonalyn waits for her grandfather outside the polling station. Her grandfather arrives carrying his traditional bows and arrows and a dead wild boar atop his strong shoulders. The grandfather doesn't vote but merely fetches Jonalyn, her eyes tell us a sense of failure on her part. The grandfather and Jonalyn return to their settlement to celebrate the day. The tribe feasts on the wild boar and starts to dance. One of the Aetas asks the grandfather why he didn't vote. He replies with the same pride that has gotten him standing strong against decades of discrimination and minority treatment, "that doesn't make me less of a man."