Art helps us see through the fog of war
Her mother is Christian. Her father is Muslim. What is she?
Published: 16/08/2014 at 06:00 AM Bangkok Post
Writer: Kong Rithdee
“I’m Muslim. I’m Christian.”
In her memory, in her biography, maybe in her ideology, Adjani Arumpac is both. It doesn’t really matter, because the irrepressible grind of history has made her realise identity is fluid, ever-progressive, and isn’t always bound by the tyranny of DNA.
Arumpac is a Filipina filmmaker whose ancestors have lived in the troubled region of Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, where Muslim insurgents have waged war against the central government for four decades (though the origins of the separatist ambitions date back for centuries). In Bangkok recently, Arumpac screened her documentary War Is a Tender Thing, a gentle probe into her own family history — Christian on her maternal side, Muslim on her paternal — and its complex relationship with the violence-prone land they call home.
The screening last Saturday had a cross-cultural/political angle. Organised by Deep South Watch and Thai PBS, the event saw a number in the audience from Thailand’s Deep South — many of them aspiring filmmakers themselves — and while we’re aware that each conflict in the world has its own thorns and particularities, the Mindanao struggles in Arumpac’s film resonate deeply with our own southern anxieties. The long struggle for peace, the fatigue etched in the faces of the locals, the remoteness of the troubles in the perception of the elite centre, the realities on the ground and the selective representation of them in mainstream media — all of this, to an extent, unites Mindanao’s centuries-old misery with the three southernmost provinces’.
Arumpac said her film is a visit to the conflict’s ground zero, “the massive migration within the country [in the 1930s] when the government gave ancestral Muslim and indigenous peoples’ lands to Christian settlers from the capital”. But her strategy — her tender war — is to find the link between the personal and the historical, the two streams that flow into the same ocean of time: War is a Tender Thing tells the story of Arumpac’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, which is sometimes a story of mistrust, massacre and colonial manipulation. It’s a calm film driven by a sense of gravity; the pain sometimes resurfaces and the violence is there, in the background, in the recollection, but the memories of pain are heirlooms that her family was reluctant to pass on.
In a talk after the film, Arumpac reminded us that besides history, people’s emotions and memories are also part of a nation’s history, though they’re often obscured by harsh realities and statistics. I agree. We’re preoccupied with the plot and forget that emotion is also fact — a personal fact, the only fact that matters — while memories are a museum of pain, hope and perhaps reconciliation.
This idea of viewing territorial/historical problems through poetic reflection is something we lack in our own Deep South problem, said Samatcha Nilaphatama, associate dean of the faculty of communication sciences, Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. Mr Samatcha, one of the panel speakers at the event, believes that after 10 years of strife in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, news reports and academic analyses have given the public enough information about the situation. What’s sorely lacking, however, is what he calls “the beauty level” — the use of art, film or poetry to communicate the finer feelings and testimonies of people in the conflict area.
“Art has the power of persuasion,” Mr Samatcha said. “It can touch people’s hearts, as we’ve seen in War Is a Tender Thing. Sometimes you can’t make people understand something by explaining facts. You need art to help that, to make things less rigid. That’s what we don’t have enough of in the South.”
In Mindanao, conditions seem to have improved slightly after the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a peace agreement in March after decades of negotiation (which Moammar Gadhafi helped broker in the 1970s). But in such an unstable area, peace is fragile. The parliamentary process that will legalise the peace deal’s framework has been criticised by people in Mindanao, Arumpac said, and the parties to the agreement are keeping their fingers crossed that the hard-earned pact doesn’t crumble under politics and bureaucracy.
In our own Deep South, the intensity of bad news has warped our perception of a resolution, especially when the new ruler in Bangkok is still gauging the way to continue the 18-month-old peace dialogue. But it’s important not to let the thundering of bombs deafen the whispers of sanity. Arumpac has shown in her documentary that if facts are understanding, then art is clarity. We need them both to end our own tender war.