Abal

by Jade Mark Capiñanes (Nonfiction)

EXT. SEASHORE – AFTERNOON

Nobody hears the sound of driftwood being washed ashore. We hear only the waning waves, the shards of the sea, slowly shattering on the sand, the splinters of stones.

I am standing under a coconut tree, a few meters away from the shoreline, where my classmates are preparing the set for the final scene of a short film we have to finish shooting today in order to beat the deadline. Standing next to me is a boy, around five feet in height, holding a long piece of driftwood. We have been talking for some time now.

He has stopped schooling, he tells me, to help his father in providing for their family. His mother died a few years ago. He is only ten years old, he says, but his friends tells me later that he doesn’t really know his exact age.

Like a sailor, he places his right hand just above his eyebrows and just below his semi-golden hair. He gazes at the sea, eyes fixed perhaps at some distant island. He talks of fishing like he has done it so many times, like he knows all the secrets of the deep. He prides himself on being a fisherman at such a tender age, as if it is his fate, his destiny.

He is a Sama Dilaut.

He asks me what the scene is all about. This is the scene my classmates and I have to take:

Jenny is walking along the seashore, where the sand and foam meet,
and gazes at the sea. She meets a boy.

BOY
Are you lost?

JENNY
(faces the sea for a while)
I’m home.

We see a wide shot of the sea, Jenny and the boy in the foreground.

The boy starts scribbling things on the sand, using the piece of driftwood.

“Can you please write your name?” I ask him.

He does not answer. He continues to scrawl things, now circles.

There are a lot of pieces of wood—short, long, bent, straight, small, big ones—on the shore. The waves might have brought them to the shore last night or the other. A twig is lying just a few steps away from us. I pick it up.

“What is your name again?” I ask him.

He tells me his name.

I clear the sand in front of us. On it, using the twig, I write his name. He looks at his name for a while. I notice his hand, the one holding the stick, is moving, little by little, as if tracing all the letters.

Our director calls me. As the assistant director I am needed in the set. Next to the name I wrote on the sand, I leave the twig. I run towards where the set is, where the sand and foam meet.

 

EXT. BADJAO VILLAGE, BAWING, GENERAL SANTOS CITY – EARLIER

Riding a van we have rented, we arrive two hours late. We were supposed to be here at exactly 7 AM. Along the way we had a disagreement with the driver, because he had not been informed that we needed to shoot some scenes inside the vehicle. Fortunately, after some negotiation, he agreed.

The road toward the community is steep. From where the van dropped us, we can see the majestic blue of Sarangani Bay. We walk downhill, bringing a DSLR camera, an underwater camera, a tripod, a clapper, three walkie-talkies, several bottles of water, and all other things we need for the day. We encounter a man walking uphill, carrying a large bucket on his shoulders. He seems to be so focused on his load that he just passes by without even looking at us. My eyes follow him until he reaches the entrance, the peak, where he puts the bucket into a tricycle.

Finally we reach the house of the purok chairman our production team contacted some days ago. I approach him. We shake hands, patting our chests afterwards. We are all welcome, he says, but he cannot accompany us further because he is suffering from joint pains. Instead a woman offers to assist us in finding the places to shoot in and looking for the boats to rent. We agree.

The kind woman then leads our way along the almost labyrinthine community. But just as there are narrow alleys we need to pass through, so are there wide smiles on the faces of the villagers we come across. We arrive at their mini market, so small that there are just a couple of fruit and vegetable stands. She briefly goes to a vendor, perhaps her kumare, and I overhear her speak in Tausug. I start to wonder. Isn’t she a Sama Dilaut?

FLASHBACK TO:

INT. OFFICE – TWO MONTHS AGO

A professor in our university hires me as a research assistant for a project she’s working on. We analyze qualitative data gathered from interviews and group discussions conducted throughout Mindanao. I am tasked to collate the data gathered from Tawi-Tawi, which highlight the plight of the Sama Dilaut.

From the data I have analyzed, I learn that, historically, the Sama Dilaut, popularly known as the Badjao, are native sea dwellers in the southern part of the Philippines, as well as in some parts of nearby Southeast Asian countries. In the past they freely crisscrossed the waters, back and forth between their mooring islands in the Sulu Archipelago and in the adjacent island of Borneo, particularly in its northeastern tip, Sabah. Since the establishment of national boundaries, however, Sabah has become a separate territory and their maritime laws have been strict. The Sama Dilaut were forbidden to set their feet there, unless they have proper documents, which most of them do not have.

Since then the Sama Dilaut have been displaced, their traditional ways of living have been disrupted, and their plight have begun. Some of them have tried their luck in major cities in Mindanao, and even as far as Luzon. Here in General Santos City, a mostly Cebuano-speaking community, I often see them roaming around the city plaza, especially during the Christmas season, asking for some pinaskuhan, sometimes with a laminated document in hand. Until now I honestly do not know what that piece of paper is. At night, while walking along Pioneer Avenue, where the right hand of the monument of General Paulino Santos in the city plaza points, I see them sleeping next to closed roll-up doors of barbershops, drugstores, and banks, their backs cushioned by only a piece of malong or cardboard.

Our sense of space is tied to our sense of culture, identity, and, for French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, social production. The Sama Dilaut, traditionally, are less familiar with being on land than they are with being in the sea. In the city they feel a kind of “landsickness.” To live in urbanized areas, whose structure is shaped and designed by urban-dwellers in order to suit their own urban needs, therefore, poses a challenge for the Sama Dilaut, who in turn are further marginalized. That is why they are often forced to become mendicants in the city—which, unfortunately, is the stereotypical depiction of the Sama Dilaut, mainly because of our ignorance of and indifference to their history as a people.

When some of the displaced Sama Dilaut settled in Tawi-Tawi, where they lived in coastal communities called pondohan, characterized by houses and bridges built on stilts over the waters, and started agal­agal (“seaweed”) farming, some Tausug from Sulu encroached on their dwelling and livelihood. Being naturally mild-mannered people, they refused to fight back and were forced to leave. Hence, again, their displacement.

MONTAGE
– The waves rush to the shore.
– The sand and foam fill the screen.
– The sea is seen, majestic in its blueness, its currents
flowing in unpredictable and agitated motion.

BACK TO PRESENT

Maingat kaw mag-Tausug? (“Do you speak Tausug?”)” I ask our guide, using the few Tausug words I still know.

Maingat kaw tuwi? (“So you speak it, too?”)” she answers.

I say yes and proceed to share a little about how I learned the language. Growing up, I learned two languages: Cebuano and Tausug. Before moving to General Santos City several years ago, I spent my childhood years in a coastal community in Davao, where I had Tausug neighbors and friends. Some of my aunts, in fact, married Tausug men and since then have embraced Islam. My mom’s aunt, whom I call Mommy, also married Al-Hassan Adel, a Tausug, whom I call Tatay. Tatay grew up in Patikul, Sulu. As a child I would stay in Mommy and Tatay’s house, where I used Tatay’s binoculars to zoom in on Samal Island. Tatay inherited a big bolo from his father, which he claimed was one of the weapons the group of Lapu-Lapu used in defeating Magellan.

While I can understand Tausug now, I can only speak a few words and phrases. Malingkat. (“Beautiful.”) Pakain kaw? (“Where are you going?”) Mayta kaw byaan? (“Why are you like that?”) Kalasahan ta kaw. (“I love you.”) Katiyu lang in katumtuman ko byaun. (“I can only recall a few right now.”) Mataud na in kyalupahan ko. (“I have forgotten many.”) So from time to time I code-switch, between Cebuano and Tausug, while talking to her. But to use the language of the people who once took away a significant part of you, I think, must be difficult. If only I could speak in her language, Sinama. If only I knew a lot more Sinama words than abal, which, based on a Sinama dictionary I found online while researching for our short film, means “the rough water at the meeting of two currents.”

Abal, as my classmates and I agreed upon, will be the title of our short film.

But still our guide becomes warmer. I cannot help but wonder why, although little by little I start to feel more comfortable.

We meet some of her neighbors, and she tells them that I speak Tausug. Maybe because I am donning a keffiyeh around my neck, they think that I am a Tausug myself. They ask me where I am from, and I tell them where I grew up. They recognize the place, claiming that they have relatives there.

Our guide tells me that not everyone in the village is a Sama Dilaut: they share the place and live harmoniously with the Tausug. Much to my surprise, she says her husband is a Tausug. They have been married for years.

We walk on, and a familiar scent, as I take a deep breath, fills my nose. Petrichor, they say, is the earthly scent of soil moistened by the rain. I wonder what they call the watery scent of the shore dampened by the waves. Memories overwhelm me, and I remember, among other things I associate with my childhood by the sea, those little grains of sand stuck between the gaps of my toes. In every step I take, I know the sea is just nearby.

Finally we reach the shore. Our guide introduces us to a fisherman whose boat we can rent. I make an arrangement with him and, unlike the driver of the van, he agrees with the deal without qualms. Everything goes smoothly.

Around 10:30 AM the sun is blindingly shining and hot. Still we have to go to the shore and start to prepare all the things we need for the first scene we will take for the day. One by one, our director, our cinematographer, the fisherman, and I get into the boat.

Slowly we sail away from the shore. With our camera I take some wide photographs of the community as it is seen from the boat. This might be what a pondohan looks like, I say to myself as I look at the pictures I took. It also looks similar to the place where I grew up: the wooden houses on stilts, the boats, the children running along the shore, the sea.

After handing the camera to our cinematographer, I gaze at the village. I imagine the village gazing back at me: a Cebuano, in a community named Badjao Village, where the residents, Sama Dilaut and Tausug alike, share the same shore, let alone the same roof.

 

EXT. SEASHORE – AFTERNOON

My classmate who plays the role of Jenny walks along the shore, where the sand and foam meet, and gazes at the sea. She meets a young Sama Dilaut, the one we cast to play the role of the boy.

“Are you lost?” the young Sama Dilaut asks.

“I’m home,” my classmate says.

They both look at the sea.

“Cut!” shouts our director.

And with that our filming is finished. The whole production has been tiring, and our film still have to undergo post-production, but my classmates and I still rejoice.

FLASHBACK TO:

INT. FUNCTION HALL – A MONTH AGO

We are having our preparatory filmmaking seminar. I submit the screenplay of our short film to our resource speaker, a director from Manila. After the evaluation of manuscripts, he points out that I need to name the characters. “You don’t know the characters you have created?” he asks. “Not even the protagonist?” He adds that names will talk a lot about them, as well as how I feel about them.

I have some reservations about it. I think naming implies that I know exactly who my characters are. But the point of the story is that I still do not know them, in the same way the protagonist finds it difficult to know and accept her true identity. At that time I have yet to grasp what our resource speaker said, so for compliance, I admit, I give the protagonist a name. Perhaps only when I see it all, only when I meet them in person, only when I see the reality behind—and especially beyond—the screenplay, will I be able to understand it all. Only then, beyond this rough water, will I finally see that currents, despite their seeming separateness, are all part of a greater thing, are all just the single swaying of the same sea.

BACK TO PRESENT

It is getting late in the afternoon. The wind blows harder, and it starts to drizzle. We start fixing the set, but we feel we do not have to hurry. It is, after all, the last day of shooting. We take group photographs every now and then. For the technical staff and the cast, it is a day to be remembered.

I go back to the coconut tree, under which I left my things. The boy is still there, still holding the long piece of driftwood. On the sand his name, which I wrote earlier, is still written. Beside it, however, I see a couple of letters. Although they are somehow crooked, the small a’s looking like o’s with unnecessarily long tails, nonetheless they are legible.

The letters spell out his name: Aman Tapsan.

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