Tribu (Jim Libiran, 2007)
Tribu's script is Jim Libiran's Palanca Award-winning screenplay. It follows the members of three gangs thriving in the narrow alleyways of Tondo. It opens with a voice-over by Ebet, a kid who describes his community as a place where only the strong survive; that kids have as much right as adults, as long as they have the guts to push through. The film follows Ebet who witnesses three youths being initiated into the Thugz Angels gang (the males are beaten up with a wooden beam; the female is given the choice of pain or pleasure). That same night, the gang is framed for the death of Boy Turat, member of another gang. The film revolves around that death, which becomes the impetus for the climactic gang war.
It's structured like a half-hearted Robert Altman picture. You are aware that Libiran is going for that sprawling portrait of a the seedy Tondo hood through its numerous characters. Sure, it's about the free-styling gangbangers that roam the dreary Tondo nights but Libiran's camera curiously follows every detail with a peering eye: those violent marital fights that erupt in full view of those hanging in the streets, the pitiful utilities man who gets bombarded with complaints of expensive electric bills, the grimy butchering of hogs, the rumormongering, and more. Libiran jumps from one resident to another; carefully sketching a boisterous portrait of Tondo living.
But it's only half (or less) an Altman-homage; much of the film is spirited away from Fernando Meirelles' hugely successful City of God (2002). Libiran's recollection of the many Tondo gangs may have all the little details right (the initiations rites, the freestyle rapping, the sudden sparks that tempt intrigue between the rival gangs) but the film traverses too closely into Meirelles territory.
Accompanying the narrative is a soundtrack composed of freestyle rapping performed by the cast. I believe this is the meat of the film. The borrowed plot merely serves as frames for these rap artists (referred to by Libiran as modern poets) to deliver their verbose and angst-ridden verses. These are the highlights of the film; the beats and rhythms of homegrown hip-hop are in itself, worthy of a film without the overly expounded (yet sloppily directed) gang war.
Part of the film's success can be attributed to the rapport Libiran garnered from the Tondo residents. He manages to get adequate performances from the non-professional castmembers (I sat in front of the boy who played Ebet, who inadvertently provided commentaries on who among the cast are actual residents of Tondo). It certainly feels like the entire community welcomed the film crew (the main theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines were full of Tondo residents who cheered and jeered at the sight of familiar faces on the silver screen; quite a lovely crowd) and opened their homes and lives to Libiran and his crew.
This brings me to the irony of the film. While gang culture has become the norm in the impoverished communities in Manila, the film treads it with no fresh ideas. Libiran proudly proclaims that through the film, the top rival gangs in Tondo have patched up and settled their differences, which is undoubtedly good. The experiences in filmmaking, however, are vastly different from the film itself --- which can be described as gritty for mere gritty's sake. It plays out like a cautionary tale, or worse, a stamp of legitimacy to the stereotypes that have prevented progress in Tondo. It attempts at harsh realism, but only succeeds in sensationalism, something Tondo hardly needs.
This film won Best Full-length Feature Film in the 3rd Cinemalaya Film Festival.