Making impactful filmic imagery from the margins

The Philippines’ Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival

Danton Remoto

The Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival has upped the ante in training indigenous and Muslim communities in filmmaking, for them to show the invisible images and voices of their homelands.”



Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival

The annual Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival is recognised as a leader in the promotion of peripheral cinema in South-East Asia, providing a platform for emerging filmmakers in the region to pitch, produce and showcase their films. The film festival has supported the careers of filmmakers from Manila in the Philippines; Sarawak and Sabah in Malaysia; and Jogjakarta, Makassar and Sumatra in Indonesia. The festival is also interested in the development of Muslim and indigenous voices in Mindanao in the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia. The Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival gives filmmakers in these areas a chance to voice their aspirations and dreams and express to the world their issues and concerns.

The film festival facilitates this by using these strategies:

  1. Platforms for performance
    The film festival provides a space for the filmmakers to connect with mainstream audiences in the southern Mindanao city of General Santos City and beyond through online streaming. It enlarges their audience and disseminates the issues and concerns of the Bangsamoro homeland and of the indigenous communities.
  2. Local and international collaboration
    Working with local and regional stakeholders, the festival organisers not only provide support and training opportunities to the local filmmakers, but also helps to raise awareness of the issues affecting marginalised communities.
  3. Providing training and upskilling
    The film festival runs intensive filmmaking programs to educate and support filmmakers from long neglected, marginalised and poor communities so that they can improve their skills and tell compelling stories.
  4. Showcasing films on topical themes and issues
    The film festival features films produced by regional Asian, local indigenous and Muslim filmmakers. Some of these films highlight the challenging and often taboo themes and issues affecting those in the marginalised groups.

Platforms for performance

The Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival takes place in the southern island of Mindanao annually and provides a platform for the emerging voices in South-East Asian cinema who come from the peripheries—outside of the film capitals in Manila, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur—to connect with mainstream audiences in General Santos City and serves as a regional hub for South-East Asian cinema. Filmmakers can also connect with audiences in other parts of the region via online streaming of their films which showcase the issues and concerns of the Bangsamoro homeland and the indigenous communities. Filmmaker and writer Gutierrez ‘Teng’ Mangansakan founded the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival in 2016. It is anchored in its mission to be a mirror (salamin) of peace (salaam) in Mindanao, the second-largest island group in the Philippines, hence the name, Salamindanaw.

The film festival aims to promote regional cinema and support the developing film industries of Mindanao in the Philippines and its South-East Asian neighbours. By providing a platform in which filmmakers can showcase their work, the existing and emerging talent in the region, including those from indigenous and Muslim communities, can be nurtured. Importantly, the thought-provoking themes of the films on show often facilitates meaningful discussions among the audience, enabling them to form ideas about the social issues faced by different communities in the region, which, in turn, serves to raise greater awareness and encourage cultural diversity.

Local and international collaboration

The film festival is held annually in General Santos City, the cultural and economic centre of South Cotabato province. It is a strategic location for regional cinemas across East Asia because of its proximity to other regional film hubs such as Davao and Zamboanga in the Philippines, and Palu and Makassar in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The neighbouring Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) with a seat in Cotabato City is only three hours away from General Santos City and has a close affinity with southern Thailand, which has a large Muslim population. Every year, when the festival is taking place, it allows the many delegates from the different South-East Asian countries to network and connect with one another. The last festival was held in 2020 before the pandemic began and there are plans for the festival to return in 2023.The film festival organisers collaborate with local and regional stakeholders to support the regional filmmakers as well as the indigenous and Muslim filmmakers in their projects. The support from the local government unit, the National Film Development Council, a local college and local artists’ groups enable the filmmakers to broaden their reach and raise awareness about their issues and concerns. Filmmakers and producers from Asia and abroad as well as writers, journalists, bloggers and curators provide training on pitching, producing and filmmaking to local filmmakers to polish their talents and expand their networks.

Aside from the support also received from the Japan Foundation, the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival organisers also sought assistance from the Film Development Council of the Philippines, the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Colleges and the local government unit of General Santos City to fulfil its mission.

Providing training and upskilling

The film festival runs a Screen Lab every year, which is an intensive learning program designed to train emerging Mindanao filmmakers, with a focus on training young cinephiles from the Moro and indigenous community groups.

Participants are provided hands-on training and project development sessions to enable them to transform their ideas into films. They are required to pitch a story or sequence for mentoring during the program and the best ones go on to receive a program development fund and further mentoring.

Showcasing films on topical themes and issues

The Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival presents films of varying lengths produced by Filipino and Asian directors or Asian co-producers alongside budding filmmakers in three sections: Asian Competition, Mindanao Short Film Competition and Filmmaker in Focus. Some of these films are by the local indigenous and Muslim filmmakers of the Bangsamoro homeland which highlight the challenging and often taboo themes and issues affecting those in marginalised groups. Topics such as war, colonial history, refugeehood, LGBTQ+ people, “coming out” and arranged marriages are poignantly depicted in a variety of films by indigenous and Muslim filmmakers in the region.

The following is a deep dive into the past three years’ ‘harvest’ of the festival which featured the cinematic gems made by the indigenous and Muslim filmmakers.

In 2013, the film War is a Tender Thing was part of the festival’s main competition. It tells the blood-soaked story of war-torn Southern Philippines. Directed by Adjani Arumpac, the film gently unravels the war as an endless attempt at survival and adaptation by the Muslims and indigenous peoples to the state policies that disregard the most basic concept of home.

The film War is a Tender Thing gently shows the resilience and resistance of the people against the state policies that erase the concept of ‘home’ for the Muslim and indigenous peoples. Photo credit: Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival.

In 2017, a special mention at the short film competition went to Si Astri maka si Tambulah (Astri and Tambulah) by Xeph Suarez. The film focuses on Astri, a 16-year-old transwoman in a relationship with the 17-year-old Tambulah. Although this kind of relationship is an unusual sight in the indigenous community where they live, nobody bothers them. Subsisting on coins that people throw at them when they perform their traditional dance at sea, everything is perfect, except that Sama Badjao tradition and a pact made long ago require Astri to marry a woman she hardly knows.

The Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival featured a controversial short film titled Si Astri maka si Tambulah (Astri and Tambulah) by Xeph Suarez about a Sama Badjao transwoman. Photo credit: Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival.

In the same year, Paglubad (Unravel) by Jean Claire was also featured at the festival. This film is about Ligaya, a filmmaker who stays with her Uncle Primo to finish a documentary about her roots. Motivated by a need to understand why her family in Mindanao resists her plan to marry Malik, her Muslim boyfriend, Ligaya is determined to find answers. Malik is an orphan whose parents were killed in a fire during one of the massacres perpetrated by the Christian militia Ilaga group. This happened during the war in the 1970s in Central Mindanao.

In 2019, the Best Mindanao Short Film went to Octogod by Shievar Olegario. The film speaks to the current generation not only of Mindanao but also of the rest of the world through images that show personal and social experiences, blurring the lines between film and the visual arts.

The opening film for 2019 was Masla a Papanok (The Bird of History) by Gutierrez ‘Teng’ Mangansakan. The film mixes history, myth, memory and magic to reimagine the Spanish colonial period in Mindanao.

Gutierrez ‘Teng’ Mangansakan’s Masala a Papanok (The Bird of History) offers emblematic tableaus of Mindanao at the turn of the 20th century. Photo credit: Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival.

The year saw a good number of films made by indigenous filmmakers. Among them was the prize-winning Manis ma Pikilan by Bhas Abdulsamad. This film is about a princess who seeks refuge in a convent to escape an arranged marriage. A young prince tries to make sense of his life. A giant bird then mysteriously appears after centuries of silence. In one fell stroke, the film shows a concise summary of Philippine colonial history. A Malay bedrock of culture was superimposed with a Spanish one (convent), later to be supplanted by the American (giant bird).

TokWiFi by Carla Pulido Ocampo is another indigenous film, this time from the Cordilleras of northern Luzon. The film shows Limmayug carrying firewood back to his house in the village when something falls from the sky; it is a 1950s TV set with a hysterical showbiz star trapped inside. She is Laura Blancaflor. The frightened man saves the TV—nay, saves Laura—from the flames of the impact. Worlds apart in their language and methods, the two try their best to engage each other. But for Limmayug, Laura’s TV talk seems too contrived and, alas, during commercial breaks, something tactless as well.

Teluki by Abdul Zainidil deals with a coming out. However, coming out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community is different, especially if the person lives in a conservative Muslim society. Zainidil’s film captures this struggle and presents it in a poetic manner.

On another tangent, Lazaro’s Trip by Joy Dalman is set in post-apocalyptic Mindanao, where Lazaro confronts the folk creations and beasts of the past to understand the present. Pamalugu (In Limbo) by Ram Botero shows a transwoman, a poet and an activist contemplating the lives they have left behind on a journey to an indigenous Filipino reimagination of hell.

In 2020, Salamindanaw presented “Perspectives”, a series of short films from Mindanao that dealt with important issues and expanded the film landscape of the region. The section included Pamalugu (In Limbo) by Ram Botero; Lazaro’s Trip by Joy Dalman; Displaced by Aedrian Araojos, a Marawi story told from the point of view of refugee children; and Consequences of Man by Jeffrie Po, an allegorical tale of man’s relationship with nature.

It also presented Visions of SOX, a retrospective of the best short from South Central Mindanao in the past decade. It was top billed by Tembong by Shai Advincula, winner of the Gawad Urian Award for short film in 2019.The other films included Yort by Thea Monica Tiongco, Panicupan by Bagane Fiola, Siglo by Kwesi Jay Junsan, Mountain toCry for by Kikko Kalabud, Mga Handuraw sa Kahilitan by Amaya Han and Ebb of Forgetting by Liryc Dela Cruz.

The Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival has upped the ante in training indigenous and Muslim communities in filmmaking, for them to show the invisible images and voices of their homelands. Gutierrez ‘Teng’ Mangansakan sums it up perfectly, “It is committed to remain a sanctuary for cinema and will continue to train practitioners of cinema. We need to expose them to groundbreaking Asian films and educate a new breed of filmmakers. Lastly, we need a space for discourse on cinema that is rooted in our diverse identities and animated by the Asian soul.”

Danton Remoto  
Danton Remoto was a Fulbright scholar at Rutgers University and a British Council scholar at the University of Stirling. He was a resident fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the MacDowell Arts Colony, as well as a literature fellow at the Cambridge University Summer Seminar. His latest book is Riverrun, A Novel, from Penguin Random House. He has also worked as Head of School-English and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia and Head of Communications at the United Nations Development Program, as well as Dean and President of The Manila Times College. He also had a daily radio-TV show that ran for six years and he has been writing columns for the Philippine press since 1990. He is writing his second novel as well as his memoirs. 

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