Arts & Culture

When Films Give Voice to the Voiceless

Filmmakers Nonilon Abao, Christine Flemming, and Tinshine Mont share their vision for political filmmaking.

Words by
b-side staff

Words by Shawn Hoo

Initially slated to open in Ipoh, Malaysia—this year’s SeaShorts Film Festival has moved onto a virtual platform and will be, for the first time, available to stream throughout Southeast Asia. From 12 to 20 September, and for a festival pass priced at USD$10—catch the Official Selection of the SeaShorts competition, as well as collaborations with Kaohsiung Film Festival featuring migrant stories, moving image art from the Image Forum Festival, and attend masterclasses with leading film industry figures from the region. In collaboration with SeaShorts, B-Side peeks into the creative process of some of the festival’s most exciting filmmakers. This is the third of three articles – click here to view article one, and article two.

Nonilon Abao’s first documentary short film, This Is Our Land (Dagami Daytoy), records the protest actions of the Didipio community of Tuwali-Ifugao in Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines against the mining projects of OceanaGold. “I first went there in 2014 to join an environmental investigative mission which looked at the effects of large-scale mining on the community, and was assigned to do photo and video documentation,” Noni says of his long engagement with the community. He is as much a filmmaker as he is a human rights worker, having also assisted political prisoners and their families in the Cagayan Valley region. On the state of political filmmaking in the Philippines, he says, “I wish there were more narrative films about political prisoners, farmers who are fighting for their right to land, and the exploitation of workers.” 

Still from This Is Our Land (Dagami Daytoy) (dir. Nonilon Abao)

His sentiment is not unlike the hopes of the Thai filmmaking duo Christine Flemming and Tinshine Mont, whose first collaboration A Day Will Come (สุสานดวงดาว) features the story of a young reporter who interviews the sister of a missing activist. “I want to see [film] funding provided for minority groups as well,” the duo tell me, as they lament the lack of films that challenge the prevailing political and social structures in Thailand.

In the film’s insomniac atmosphere, Christine and Tinshine show precisely the difficulty of speaking up, and capture something of the disillusionment that youth in Thailand face under repressive and unstable political conditions. “To speak the truth means to risk being permanently silenced,” they characterise their dilemma, “yet to succumb to the fear, is to succumb to the will of those who wish to intimidate and harass us into silence.” Noni concurs, citing how President Duterte’s anti-terror law could endanger political filmmaking in the Philippines as well, “You might be tagged as a supporter of the rebels, or considered a critic of the government.” 

Behind-the-scenes of A Day Will Come (สุสานดวงดาว) (dir. Christine Flemming and Tinshine Mont)

To understand their aspirations for political filmmaking in oppressive times, B-Side speaks to these young Southeast Asian filmmakers about creative resistance and changing the world. 

Christine and Tinshine, A Day Will Come centres around the story of a reporter who interviews the sister of a missing activist. For me, it captures so well the anxiety and sleeplessness of a young journalist who feels a responsibility to truth but cannot speak it. Why does this story speak to you?

Christine and Tinshine: At the beginning of 2019, we came across the news of bodies discovered on the shore of the Mekong river. They were identified as aides of an exiled anti-monarchist Thai activist, who is still missing to this day. Although their deaths were proved as murders, no culprit was caught. There are other similar cases of missing and murdered pro-democracy activists; enforced disappearances and the failure to bring justice to the victims and their family have become a pattern on the Thai government’s part. Reading interviews of the wives, the mothers, the daughters, or the sisters of missing activists, we felt the need to record the grief and anger of these women who are left to find out about their loved one’s fate on their own—between the state of hope or despair—waiting for the day when the truth unfolds. 

Still from A Day Will Come (สุสานดวงดาว) (dir. Christine Flemming and Tinshine Mont)

Same question for you, Noni. What made you film your documentary, This Is Our Land, which documents the setting up of the people’s barricade in Nueva Vizcaya against a big mining company? Tell us a bit about what is going on today in the movement as well. 

Noni: I first went there in 2014 to join an environmental investigative mission. Ever since then, I went back periodically for activities such as community immersions and tree planting. I always brought a camera with me every time I go to the community. I also got help from my friends who are also filmmakers to do documentation every time we went back. The last time I went to the community was in November 2019, which is a few months since they made the barricade. Since the mining operations continue till now, and the barricade of the community is still ongoing—there are many things that have happened since the last time I was there. Community members in the barricade were violently dispersed while trying to stop the entry of a fuel tanker amid the lockdown during the pandemic. They are determined to take back parts of their land inside the fenced area of the company by planting fruits and vegetables.

Still from This Is Our Land (Dagami Daytoy) (dir. Nonilon Abao)

Music plays a significant part in key moments of both your films. In Noni’s film, for example, opens with a song lamenting how the “entire of Kasibu is divided and occupied” and closes with another song comparing freedom to the flow of water. Then, in Christine and Tinshine’s film, someone sings about hope and dreams. Can you tell me a bit about the function of music within your films?

Noni: The first song, DESAMA Song, was composed by a community member and can be considered a creative form of resistance against the mining company. Though I only selected part of the song, the entire song narrates how they were courted by the company through deceitful negotiations, how they became informal settlers in their own ancestral lands, and how the government neglects the importance of Didipio and other provinces in providing vegetables and other produce. The recording I used was taken when one of the village elders performed it to a contingent of environmentalists who went to the barricade for a solidarity visit. As for the final song, Danum—which in the Ilocano dialect means ‘water’—it is performed by Dap-ayan ti Kultura iti Kordilyera (DKK), an alliance of cultural organisations and individuals in the Cordillera region. It is one of my favorite songs of the movement. I chose these songs to let the residents’ voices be heard, and let their truth be seen. 

Christine and Tinshine: The nature of protest culture often involves music and dance, as what Noni has said. In our film, on the stone plaque that is an empty tomb of the missing activist, there is an engraving of a verse taken from a song by leftist scholar and author Jit Phumisak, who believed that art should invoke the spirit of liberation in people’s hearts. The song, “The Sea of Life” (“ทะเลชีวิต”), is about finding hope in times of despair and asking the stars to give guidance in darkness. We pay homage to those who lived and fought to see change in our country in the film’s original title: “สุสานดวงดาว”, which can be literally translated to “the graves of the stars”. When we are forbidden to express ourselves in speeches, we sing. For years, the Thai government has been erasing the history of democracy in textbooks and in demolitions of pro-democracy monuments. If evidence of the people’s victorious moments no longer exists, then no one will remember the violence they faced fighting for their cause. Stories of activists’ enforced disappearances should never disappear from our memory. 

Still from A Day Will Come (สุสานดวงดาว) (dir. Christine Flemming and Tinshine Mont)

When it comes to films that dare to take sides with the oppressed, or films that speak truth to power—what are some of the films that you are inspired by? 

Noni: From the Philippines, Barber’s Tales by Jun Lana (2013)—which is about a widow who inherits a barber shop from her deceased husband during the Marcos regime. I was inspired by the character Marilou, a woman who shares with others and takes the path less taken. Also, Five Broken Cameras by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi (2012). This is a documentary about the resistance of a community in Bil’in where Israeli settlements are slowly encroaching. The directors’ persistent covering of the protests even though their lives were at risk proves the importance of media coverage for protests of unheard communities.

Christine: When I watched the film I Am Not A Witch by Rungano Nyoni (2017), a familiar sense of uncanniness came to me: a powerful politician takes advantage of the absurdist superstition of a culture by accusing a girl of being a witch, in order to justify forcing her into his human-trafficking business. The reconstruction of reality, and the monopolisation of righteousness to enforce mass conformity is similar to what I have always experienced in Thai culture, that takes the forms of denying not only one’s right to freedom of expression but also one’s right to bodily autonomy. I’m inspired by stories of surveillanced reality/bodies of those impacted by having opposing identities or ideologies to the status quo. 

Tinshine: For me, No by Pablo Larraín (2012) showed me the power of counter-propaganda in creating massive change to overthrow a dictatorship. How the movement changed history brings me hope for a revolution which Thailand wants.

Can filmmaking change the world? 

Nonilon: Films affect people one way or another, whatever genre or form it is. Our stories with contradictions give spark to the mind of our viewers. That’s why I believe in using film to expose the plight of the marginalised, wherever we may be. 

Christine and Tinshine: As filmmakers, we are motivated to give voice to the voiceless. But an equally important question needs to be asked: does the world appreciate films? In Thailand, films are thought of as mere entertainment for the middle-class. Local independent films fail to survive in an industry designed by corporates to monetise on imported blockbusters. Even if filmmakers make beautiful works of art, their efforts would come to nothing if no one watches them. We need the Thai government’s support not just in funding diverse films, but in planting the seeds of film appreciation in our culture. We believe in the world-changing power of film, but that’s not enough. We need everyone else who is not in the film industry to believe that filmmaking can change the world too. 

Still from This Is Our Land (Dagami Daytoy) (dir. Nonilon Abao)

Both films will be screened on 19 September at the SeaShorts Film Festival. 

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