I spoke to Mindanaoan filmmaker Arnel “Arbi” Barbarona who, this month alone, took home the Best Director prize from two prestigious award-giving bodies, the FAMAS Awards and the Gawad Urian, for his lumad film Tu Pug Imatuy (The Right to Kill).
Barbarona’s Tu Pug Imatuy premiered at the 2017 Sinag Maynila where it bagged major awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and went on to compete at the Tokyo International Film Festival the same year.
The film revolves around a lumad couple who experiences one tragedy after another. After the death of the couple’s youngest child, a brush with the abusive military traps them in a nightmarish journey into the mountains in search of guerrilla rebels. Their story is inspired by true events.
What makes the movie captivating is its deep sense of place. The mountain is very much alive in the film, both sinister and stunning, poetic and barbaric. Barbarona takes us deep into the thick of the forest, in the dead of the night, or in the faint light of a dying sun, conjuring beauty, mystery and the horrors of the lumad’s condition.
Tu Pug Imatuy is Barbarona’s directorial debut. Prior to this, the award-winning director has been creating short films and documentaries, and collaborating with fellow Filipino filmmakers. But now, the Mindanaoan director has made a name for himself in Philippine cinema and plans to continue his passion and advocacy through the powerful medium of film.
Q: How does it feel winning Best Director in both the FAMAS Awards and the Gawad Urian?
A: It’s a great honor to be recognized along with seasoned directors. I didn’t expect to be honored as Best Director by two prestigious award-giving bodies. I share this triumph with the film and cultural workers in Mindanao.
What I desire more than these honors is to empower and lift the Mindanaoan film workers in the industry, and to continue to give voice to the lumads, the Moros, and the Christians in Mindanao. Hopefully, these awards will raise awareness among viewers about the struggles of these Filipino minorities.
Q: Why the title (The Right to Kill)?
A: Tu Pug Imatuy literally means “Sa pagpatay” in Manobo. It played in my mind, the lumad practice to fight whenever they are dishonored. And the word pangayaw means “to kill an opponent that transgressed you,” because the conflict can no longer be resolved in a peaceful way.
With the title Tu Pug Imatuy, I wish to present questions to the viewers: Does the state have the right to kill the lumads by means of a war in the name of democracy, just because they deem the lumads inferior? Do the lumads have the right to fight back because they are being robbed of their ancestral lands? Who has the right to kill? Because of these questions, the title Tu Pug Imatuy was formed.
Q: Who are your favorite film directors of all time? Have they inspired or influenced your work on Tu Pug Imatuy?
A: Akira Kurosawa for his powerful imagery. Terence Malick for his experimental poetry. Alejandro Jodorowski for his surrealism and magic. Most of all, the late Lino Brocka, who had no fear in showing the struggles of plain citizens in his film.
Q: After Tu Pug Imatuy premiered at the 2017 Sinag Maynila Film Festival, did you screen it to the lumads? What was their reaction to the movie?
A: Before it was shown at Sinag Maynila, we had already been hosting screenings in lumad communities and evacuation centers. While I was showing the film in an evacuation center, there were women who cried out in fear every time soldiers would appear onscreen. And the film gave them more courage in their stance amidst the continuous militarization in the countryside.
Q: Do you think your film had an impact on the conditions of the lumads?
A: My purpose is to show clearly the unified desire of the lumads, which is peace, not war. The film wishes for peace talks between the state and the rebel group to continue, so that they would not be caught in the war for the sake of their children. But if challenged, they will fight even against a giant. You know, they really want their children to go to school and learn how to enrich the yutang kabilin.
Q: You beautifully directed non-actor Malona Sulatan in the challenging lead role of Obunay. What made you decide to get a non-actor to portray the crucial role?
A: Originally, I thought of Mon Confiado to play Dawin and Althea Vega for the role of Obunay, but I asked myself, “What is more important? Who is more authentic for the role?” So, I chose a real lumad who had experienced violence.
Malona Sulatan and her family are former evacuees. She is an assimilated Boholana lumad. The moment I saw her, I knew immediately that she’s perfect for the role because of those eyes that speak volumes.
Before the shoot, I had the main actors attend a three-day workshop. It was fortunate that all have properly acted the role.
Q: How long have you been passionate about the plight of the lumads?
A: I was in high school when I was exposed to the Manobo culture. My amain is an Agusanon Manobo. And at that time, I became friends with someone named Dawin. Every Christmas, Dawin and the other lumads would head to town and ask for gifts. We always saw each other, and I gave Dawin clothes, rice and whatnot. To his delight, he gave me his boat lute, the faglung, which is a two-string lute of the lumads.
After that, I never saw Dawin again. I heard that he was killed, because he was mistaken for an NPA. That’s why in the film I named Obunay’s husband as Dawin. And I even used that faglung for the film’s music score. I became active in cultural work, so their stories are close to my heart.
Q: Which do you think makes more impact: dialogue or images?
A: In my personal opinion, images supplemented by dialogue, poetry, and music are more powerful because film is a visual language.
Q: Are you planning to do another full-length feature? What’s it going to be about?
A: I am in the process of collecting data for a new project. It’s about the battle of Marawi in the 19th century, where the Meranaw fought against the invading Americans. And about one datu who fought against logging concessioners in the 1970s, in Talaingod.
The datu went into hiding because the authorities labeled him a wanted man. Finally, just last June 9, he was forced to surrender, and he was already sick at that time. He is also the metaphysical entity “Sagasa” in Tu Pug Imatuy.
Q: Where are your FAMAS and Urian trophies sitting right now?
The heavy trophies are just on top of the table. Over the honor, the more important thing is that I gave a voice to the katawhang lumad.
This article also appears in the June 19, 2018 issue of The Daily Tribune.