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Publication Date : 18-05-2012
Come hell or high water, Cannes-winning Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza was determined to shoot his latest film, Thy Womb in Tawi-Tawi, in the southernmost point of the Philippines.
Fortunately for Mendoza and his cast—led by Nora Aunor, Bembol Roco, Mercedes Cabral and Lovi Poe—Mother Nature fully cooperated during their two-week stay.
When cast and crew made the 14-hour boat trip from Tawi-Tawi to Turtle Islands, a nature sanctuary near Malaysia, Mendoza braced himself for a rough ride. He recounted: “I had been told the waves were as big as houses, but during our trip, the sea was calm.”
Last year when he visited the island province for the Sineng Pambansa organised by the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), he had been smitten. He rued the fact that not all Filipinos are familiar with that part of Mindanao.
"Because it’s far-flung and difficult to reach, it seems to have been forgotten. Now there are efforts to reach out to Tawi-Tawi and its people.”
He is grateful to FDCP chair Briccio Santos for introducing him to the place and its leaders, Gov. Sadikul Sahali and Vice Gov. Ruby Sahali.
"Chair Briccio convinced me to shoot in Sitangkai and Bongao,” he recalled. “When I first got there, I knew nothing of the place. I started doing research after deciding to make a film there.”
He realised that Tawi-Tawi was rich not only with cultural and natural treasures, but also with engrossing stories— one of which became the basis of his latest film Thy Womb.
In the film drama, which he hopes to premiere in an A-list festival soon, Aunor plays a midwife who serves the seafaring Badjao and other indigenous tribes in southern Philippines.
Shooting in Tawi-Tawi with major stars like Aunor and Poe was a “big statement” Mendoza quipped. “I think it’s the first time that a contemporary movie was shot there. We want to prove to our countrymen and the rest of the world that it’s safe to visit Mindanao.
Its beaches can give Boracay and Palawan a run for their money. Should tourists eventually discover it, I just hope it wouldn’t be exploited.”
(In February, Tawi-Tawi figured in the news after members of the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped some foreign bird watchers.)
It was a journey of discovery for the director in more ways than one.
"Tawi-Tawi is visually stunning and the people are kind and gentle,” he said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about Mindanao that we hope to address in this film.”
Similarly, Mendoza noted, Aunor was a victim of disparaging intrigue.
"Some friends discouraged me from working with Guy (the actress’ nickname).”
The more people tried to stop him, he said, the more resolute he became. Much to his surprise, Aunor proved her detractors wrong. "We never had problems with Guy,” said the director. “She was completely committed to the project."
He revealed that Aunor agreed to do the film even if the production couldn’t afford her usual talent fee. “In the end, she shared the modest fee we gave her with the crew and the residents of the villages we visited.”
The indie filmmaker, who won best director in Cannes for Kinatay in 2009, surmised that the country’s Superstar “appreciated that everyone in our production was treated equally, from utility man to lead actress. We slept in the same place and had our meals together.”
He doesn’t usually get star-struck, Mendoza insisted, but with La Aunor he immediately saw why fans have remained devoted to her.
"Everything she does comes from the heart. She’s passionate about things, never over-thinks them. For me, she’s more than a superstar; she’s an artist in every sense of the word."
For the same reasons, Mendoza believes Aunor deserves to be declared a National Artist.
"It’s not just a title … yes, she’s a phenomenon, but if you get to know the person behind the star, you’ll admire her all the more. Her heart is for the masses.”
Mendoza confirmed that Aunor aims to build a health center in Tawi-Tawi. “She has many plans for the island. She hopes to go back there soon.”