2009, Divina Romano lost her 12-year-old daughter, Rowena, to a salt water crocodile in the marsh-lands of Mindanao. Francis Xavier Pasion presents BWAYA(the Tagalog word for crocodile)as a simple, tragic tale about Manobo folk, who happen to have an unusual, waterborne way of life. His tale is set against the vast emptiness of their home in the Agusan Marsh. The void of the marsh—whether it be filled with empty vegetation as far as the mountains on the horizon, or merely blanketed in fog—is starkly beautiful, but a vacuum is not what Pasion wants for a story, so he populates his film with multiple layers of narrative while using a great deal of subtlety to preserve the illusion of telling a simple tale.
The core scene, used as a teaser/trailer for the movie,is from the middle of the film: Rowena’s ghost, robed in sacrificial white, paddles her boat silently across the gray, silent swamp scape, seen only by a little girl. The credits announce (in the teaser) that Angeli Bayani is cast in the role of Divina, and somewhat before this scene (in the movie), Rowena gazes down at her mother as if to say goodbye. Ordoes this merely show that Divinais dreaming of her daughter, perhaps as a premonition of Rowena’s death? (It has already occurred, but she has not yet been told of it.)It is an open question, then, as with Hamlet’s father’s ghost, whether the dead Rowena exists outside the minds of those who imagine her. Angeli Bayani is well known internationally for her roles in the films of Lav Diaz (and in Anthony Chen’s IloIlo). During the opening part of the film,however,the first image of Rowena’s mother that we seeis not of this actress butof Rowena’s real mother, who, along with her husband, will be interviewed in several documentary “breaks” throughout the film: “Do you want your life to be made into a film?”“Do you want Rowena’s story to be told?”
After an introduction to our surroundings—a sort of nature tour of Agusan—Rowena’s (real) mother watches her daughter’s (fictional?) body, decomposed and wrapped in rags, being exhumed and placed into a rough concrete crypt. The soundtrack, meanwhile, has been narrating the problems that arise for Dinagye-an and Dehanejun, a mythical crocodile couple, when it is time for Dehanejun to give birth. Later we see that Dinagye-an’s anger at the loss of his wife is meant to parallel Rowena’s parent’s anger over the loss of their daughter, as they lash out to find an object for that anger—but there is really nobody in particular to blame. The crocodile, for instance, has just done what crocodiles sometimes do.
Even the most business like narration of the events leading up to and away from Rowena’s death is two-layered, divided into scenes that are in an anthropologically interesting “everyday” mode, where we learn as much about Rowena’s neighbors’ way of life as about the girl herself, and—at the most mystical or dramatic points—a “heightened reality” mode that is enhanced by aerial photography, fog, and anything else that Pasion’s cinematographer, Neil Daza, can throw at us.
The other layers are more like echoes of the main plot, not explored fully. There is a documentary layer, where we learn from Rowena’s parents that they never received a promised reimbursement for Rowena’s funeral expenses—or perhaps it wasa payment from a reporter for their version of Rowena’s death; there is also the myth of the crocodiles, which gets syncretically mixed up with the Biblical tale of Noah’s flood, and serves as a morality tale about the uselessness of anger.
The main narrative mirrors the documentary story, showing aspects of Rowena’s parents’ poverty: they are spared paying the 800 pesos they are trying to raise for Rowena’s graduation, but instead they have to pay for her burial expenses. (Another character pays for the shaman and the pig.) Perhaps the sociological fact of the greatest import is that they are both illiterate: the picturesque floating school-house that serves—more than anywhere else—as the geographical focal point of the story, has sessions for adults in the evening, but Divina and her husband do not participate.
All of this gives rise to a mood of fatalism, so Pasion exaggerates Rowena into a sacrificial victim, increasing her age to exactly 13: it’s the notional birthday of puberty and adulthood, a logical age for human sacrifice. Because Rowena wants to become a nurse, she receives a toy stethoscope as a birthday gift, but her graduation song, which she practices with karaoke-like insistence, seems to emphasize that she is never going to graduate and get free of her background enough to become a nurse or any other kind of independent adult. It is this song, along with her girlfriend’s teasing about Rowena’s lack of graduation fees and the playful splashing of the dugout’s oars, that attracts the crocodile.
But these additional themes and pretenses are wrapped in the fog of suggestion. and even what might be the film’s core theme—Divina’s desire for revenge, release or even just an explanation of her bereavement that might help her to abandon her grief—is only complete when a final footnote of a shot comes on the screen after all of the credits, when the audience would be leaving the theater.
This smacks of cuteness, but I think Pasion is walking a tightrope: he is afraid that his story, on the one hand, will either be too meager, or, on the other, that he will smother a good, real-life tale by elaborating too much on it. It took me several go-rounds to see how his layer cake of a movie is constructed, but one normally judges a film by what it means after the first viewing. So do all the extra overtones that Pasion has added to it enhance the experience of the film, even if the viewer only takes them in subliminally? I would say yes, but since I first saw BWAYA at Cinemalaya, I’ve replayed it too many times, watching it over and over again, to say for sure.
Bwaya won Best Film at Cinemalaya 2014
- by Nick Palevsky