Photo by Rupert Quitag

This Ilonggo-Made Boracay Documentary Confronts our Prejudices on Atis & IPs

By joseph batcagan

A very Iloilo thing happened during the lead-up to the premiere of ‘Pagmuklat: Lugta Ke Tamama (Land of God)’: A friend saw me share the event poster on my Facebook feed, and then proceeded to send me a message to say that one of the subjects from the documentary, Dexter Condez, happened to be their classmate. “We all remember Dexter. He was the spokesperson for their tribe. He was shot dead by some men from a resort,” my friend said.

For anyone living in Iloilo, these “six degrees of separation” moments are frequently too common; We use these when making small talk with new people we meet as means to finding a common ground, like when we ask them about their favorite movies or their favorite bands. In this instance, however, it only served to remind me that although it seemed like the tragedy happened a world away, the impunity that led to it is very familiar—and, more distressingly, close enough to make one realize that no one is immune from it.

‘Pagmuklat’, directed by University of the Philippines Visayas professor Kevin Piamonte, doesn’t mince its message: It implicates the “big people” (according to one Ati interviewee featured in the film) perpetuating the generations-long system of displacement and exploitation of the native Aeta community.

boracay philippines
Photo by Rupert Quitag

Over the course of an hour, the documentary provides viewers a glimpse of the Aeta’s lives, with the narrative cleanly starting from the year the Boracay Atis were granted a title for their ancestral domain by the Philippine government in 2010; If anyone else is wondering if the religious overture on the film’s title wasn’t intentional, a sequence featuring a sister from the Daughters of Charity who ran the Ati school in Boracay described the event as something akin to the Exodus, complete with the Atis bringing their family and possessions in tow to go to what they believed was “The Promised Land”.

Unfortunately, like the biblical story in question, the Ati people were hounded by persecution from varying political and commercial interests ever since transferring to a plot—all 2.1-hectares of it—in Brgy. Manoc-Manoc.

Although the film tried to paint a positive light on how much the Boracay Atis had achieved during the past few years—with education and its role in empowering the community being reiterated not just by the Atis, but also by the religious and educational institutions that helped them achieve those in the first place—it made no efforts in hiding how difficult and bleak the Atis’ battle against the powers-that-be are.

Condez, for instance, was one of the few Atis who managed to get a college education and, before his demise, was emblematic of his people’s future. His should have been a success story by all measures, but his murder by still-unidentified perpetrators at the age of 26 is a chilling reminder of how the promises of youth can even fall through the system’s cracks.

The documentary’s audio mixing, on the other hand, is uncompromising. Littered throughout the talking-head interviews are sounds of whirring choppers overhead, motor- and multi-cabs passing through the too-small island highways, and even the barking of the random askal or stray mongrel. The interviews go to a complete halt whenever an intrusion happens during the conversation, like it’s telling the viewer that these harbingers of modernity are the price these people are made to pay for opening Boracay to the outside world.

There’s a lot of things to chew on in ‘Pagmuklat’, like a sequence which featured several Atis who considered themselves “lucky” to be employed by the island’s resorts as domestic workers. However, while it may be curious to note that the film did not even dare once to name someone from the “big people”—and considering that politicians are getting too libel-happy for everyone’s comfort these days, it’s probably best they left that hanging sword of Damocles untouched—it’s ultimately an appeal to us to view Atis, and even other less-recognized indigenous peoples, as, well… people like us. As journalist Nestor Burgos said at the open forum that followed the film’s screening I attended, he noted that “Ilonggos treat Atis as a figment of the past” while also taking the Dinagyang Festival to task for the ‘Negrito’ imagery it continues to peddle.

When viewed against the lens of Boracay’s impending closure that was announced at the start of 2018—and make no mistake, it will close—the film’s last scene, which shows a group of Asian tourists giving fastfood burgers to children in the Ati Village, seems apt, and precisely because we rarely think of the long-term consequences we impose upon people when doing charitable acts that are supposed to benefit them. As with most things, we operate from a place governed by our beliefs and prejudices that we’re mostly not aware of.

A day before the premiere of ‘Pagmuklat’, the driver’s cab I hopped into had its radio dial set to an AM station where a correspondent was interviewing one of the subjects featured in the documentary. When asked what “good noon” is in the Ati language, she wasn’t able to answer immediately because she confessed that she grew up speaking Akeanon and Tagalog. The host, probably without thinking much, then asked this to her: “Tuod ka gid man nga Ati [Are you really an Ati]?”

As the usual aphorism goes, we do need to change ourselves first before demanding for one.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.