It’s important to revisit the past every so often. Sigwa, a movie about the emergence of the Philippine student movement in 1970 called First Quarter Storm is a good place to return to for many of my generation. Like tens of thousands of Filipino students, I was there among the demonstrators, timid and not at the front. I protested but didn’t want to get my head blown off either. I wanted to be counted, opposed to the Vietnam War and the use of our country for American bombing operations there. There was also a feudal society and rapacious capitalists to overthrow. There was a Maoist egalitarian culture to sow and a sexual freedom to embrace. We felt we were actually going to change the world. It was a heady experience. The movie begins with old newsreels of students battling in the streets then moving smoothly to reenactments of those moments. The defiant shouts and clenched fists and the battles with the police were chilling for they were like what it was before. Forty years later, I am seated in the theater entranced by the courage and conviction of our youth.
After a long absence Dolly (Dawn Zulueta) returns to the Philippines from the United States. She was here once before (young Dolly played by Megan Young) just around the First Quarter Storm covering events as a rookie reporter. With her camera she’s clicking inches away from running demonstrators or hanging out with some of the activists who initially can’t figure out if she’s with them or the CIA. Her visit to a dumpsite and her horror to how people could live this way clinches it. On the spot she joins the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) the most strident of leftist student organizations. A little too fast for consciousness raising but then again you only have two hours to tell this epic. Dolly moves from student organizing to joining the underground falling in love with a comrade named Eddie (Allen Dizon) and having a baby. He would turn out to be a government spy and when caught asks forgiveness from Dolly and his comrades. But the crime was unforgiveable and he shoots himself. Soon thereafter Dolly and another comrade Azon (Lovi Poe) are being raided in their hideout by the military. Dolly is wounded and hands her baby to Azon who, with a baby herself, scampers off with the two. Revealing herself as an American citizen, the imprisoned Dolly is released and deported. Now she is back looking up old activists and particularly Azon. Azon wrote years back that Dolly’s child died of sickness. But Dolly has a mother’s intuition that her child may still be alive. She wants to hear it, face to face, from Azon. In the course of searching for Azon she looks up Oliver (Tirso Cruz playing the older and Marvin Agustin as the younger Oliver).
After a movement stint where he succumbs in a torture house, he moves on to the other side and is now the spokesperson for the Philippine President. In an incredible coincidence, the previous President Gloria Arroyo, had for her spokesperson Gary Olivar, once drily remembered as a student activist. Oliver gives Dolly an address not knowing that in the palace there are agents monitoring who visits him. Dolly is trailed and we are given a lesson that if we seethe at renegades like Oliver, the evil military agents are not too far behind. Dolly has her long awaited reunion with Azon and we are all at the edge of our seats wondering if Azon has a secret to bare. No gritting of the teeth or tears at the ready. Instead, merienda is ready and rice cakes are offered. Lesson: You can’t get serious in this country until you’ve had merienda. Another actress lurking about, literally, is Cita (Zsa Zsa Padilla the older, Pauleen Luna the younger). She hung out with Dolly during the student days. While the others in the group either sold out, squealed or just lay low, Cita would be the unrepentant communist fighter, grim and determined. As a counter balance, another old activist, Rading (Jame Pebanco the older, Jay Aquitania the younger) appears in the Balikbayan’s visit. He did his time underground, got tortured, lost an eye and is now settled in a poor community, doing what he can do to help, declaring to Dolly that once an activist always an activist. There is a showdown among them at the wake of an old leftist professor and ideological guru. This was the most uncomfortable of all the scenes yet, even though such debates did and still happen. Sparked by Oliver’s presence to pay his respects and the quiet entrance of NPA fighter Cita sans uniform and Armalite, the oldies regroup. Gone are the flirtations and youthful chatter. Ever correct Cita badgers Oliver about his turnabout. Oliver throws it right back sneering at how retro Cita is when China and the Soviet Union have turned a capitalist corner. Rhetorical proclamations fill the funeral parlor. “The east is no longer red,” crows Oliver. They stare down at each other like a tableau from a revolutionary Chinese opera. Cita slaps Oliver and he retreats amidst shouts of “tuta” from the now listening funeral audience. The subtitle below jars; tuta is poetically one who is servile to a master but literally it means a lapdog. So, as the audience/chorus chants Tuta! Tuta! Tuta! The subtitle has a string of Lapdog! Lapdog! Lapdog! written below. One can get lost in the translation. Which brings us to another disquieting problem, the shifting of English to Tagalog and back due to Dolly’s long time absence.
I’ve seen movies where they begin with the language of the country they are set in and then move on to English. Or in the case of this movie, Dolly could have been speaking English first shifting to Filipino later. She could even speak Filipino with a slight American accent. Instead, the shifting between the two languages throughout the movie is problematical. And English spoken in this kind of movie doesn’t communicate well. Dolly, upon meeting Cita the communist, exclaims, “It’s been so long and you’re still at it!” or “How do you keep on going?” The question is valid, the delivery though is trite. The English language, especially that spoken by Americans is full of “Have-a-nice-day” “How’s-it-going” affectations. A conversation with Americans is punctuated with exclamations like Wow, or Fantastic, or That’s great! So when Dolly asks Cita “How do you keep on going?” the language and delivery betrays the content and feels more like “How do you keep your figure looking good?” Had the script been all in Filipino, the dialogue and its level of intensity would remain even. Sigwa is a learning lesson for our “millenials” the generation specifically born in the 80’s and 90’s with the Martial Law period a vague and even unknown history. You can tell it was a different world then when the young audience in the theater giggled at the “revolutionary” marriage scene. Instead of exchanging wedding bands, the marrying comrades pick up a bullet to declare their love for each other and the class struggle. It is the harrowing torture scenes that are graphic and realistic in depiction bringing to mind friends who went through that and left not unscathed. In these scenes one can understand the breaking down of principles and the desire to get out of the horror. One can also reflect on the courage and conviction of those who didn’t give in. The score of student activists many turning into revolutionary fighters who were caught have stories that should not be forgotten. This film does that and brings the issue of torture and summary executions into the present. Today, every time a person of whatever stripe or profession or just a plain citizen is arrested arbitrarily, detained without cause, or in the extreme, tortured, killed or made to disappear, this movie reminds us forty years later that the horror of Martial Law continues.
When Oliver leaves the funeral parlor and the crowd chants tuta, he turns around, raises both hands and gives the audience, including us the finger. You’re taken aback. Minutes earlier, when the oldies were having their polemics, Oliver was actually making some valid points while Cita was going on like a tired record. But when Oliver gives the finger which has all the intensity of one big Fuck You, then his arguments dissolve very quickly. The movie is partisan to the oppressed. Oliver, the exponent of a free market system has shown his/their true colors. Having known some of the student activists of those days one can’t avoid making comparisons by how we remembered their comportment and how these actors and actresses today approximate if not become them on the screen. The women activists I knew had little sense for vanity. They were either erudite or obsessed but not a thought about themselves. Some were quite striking, their beauty coming from within. So when young Cita and Azon are dragged into a torture house knowing this was no longer fun and games, the two are annoyingly fidgeting and flicking their long hair. If I had been the make-up artist I’d demand they cut their hair so they won’t get into a shampoo commercial mode. Maybe it’s an age thing because all the older actors were quite good in their roles. Dolly’s pensive return to the Philippines was real. Rading’s stick-to-it-ness, and the broodings of an aging activist felt real. Cita the Red fighter was certainly real exacerbated by the fact that this country hasn’t gone anywhere and we all at times want to use the Armalite she’s brandishing. The baddest best actor was Tirso Cruz. You hated all of him, his cynical, tired, seen-it-all slouch. Maybe we’ve felt that at times and we’re drawn to his venality. We appreciate Tirso’s continued metamorphosis in roles befitting his years. Consider the fact that during the First Quarter Storm, or thereabouts, who could forget Tirso in the tight white pants and the sideburns as a rock star. Did Dolly find out what she returned for? Did she return renewed or despondent? And what did the old barkada think of the Balikbayan? Ah, you must see the movie.
Plus it won 7 different awards in the 27th Star Awards including best Digital Film produced by Stanley Uy and Pelita Peralta- Uy ( My Dad and Mom number 2,!!!!!) Couldn’t be more proud!
Taking risks for the benefit of everyone to realize an important period in our history pays off… just look at what they were able to create… It’s another eye opener for us to remember the events that we start to forget about.
Joel Lamangan – Director
Bonifacio Ilagan – Scriptwriter
Stanley Uy and Pelita Peralta-Uy – Executive Producers (Beginnings at 20 plus)