“Dito sa Tondo, ang bata kailangan maging siga.” So says the the little boy with the sad and soulful eyes. And so unfurls the story of the metropolis under cover of dark, where there is poetry amidst the squalor of Manila’s underbelly and beat and rhythm under the rubble of violence.
Jim Libiran’s Tribu takes us to the inner parts of Tondo, an area right smack in the heart of Manila known for petty crime, urban poverty and the almost-daily gang wars taking the lives of many young lads. The movie is seen through the eyes of young Ebet — part-voyeur, part-Messiah, bigpart-lost little boy — who watches silently the sordid dramas around him.
A gang member has been killed and his gang must avenge his death. As his mother wails in grief, they sharpen their knives. Blood for blood. A prepubescent girl is applying as a neophyte member of a gang and eyes downcast, she takes of her clothes. Virginity for acceptance. A young woman (Ebet’s mother) goes on an orgy of drugs and alcohol with her married partner and his rowdy friends as her little boy watches. All these in a network of dark and putrid alleys reeking of the stench of poverty and alienation; a community of dead-ends, both literal and figurative.
But there is rhythm and poetry amidst this desperation. The entire movie is interspersed with rapping, where the discipline of measured cadence meets the colorful language of the street. There is a scene where, over gin bulag and swirls of cigarette smoke, two gangs begin an impromptu rapping contestwhile Ebet watches in the foreground. The rap is crude, even vulgar with generous helpings of gangsta braggadocio; but it is on some basic gutteral level, a sad rhapsody for a chunk of the population largely ignored and repeatedly condemned.
Does the movie justify gang wars? Does it romanticize senseless gang deaths? Does it make gang leaders larger-than-life heroes of the Robin Hood sort? No, it doesn’t.
Rather, it gives us an intimate picture of a portion of our world we would rather not be intimate with. It is a movie meant to be painful and difficult to watch, but it is a movie that must be seen nonetheless. Because it is the kind of movie that holds you in its grip and never quite lets go. Because it won the Cinemalaya Best Picture Award for 2007. Because an astounding amount of talent and genius went into the film’s creation.
But most of all because if little boys like Ebet end up as teen-age corpses left stabbed and bloodied in a gutter, it will be on our watch.
* I think there will be a commercial run of Tribu in Gateway on the 15th of August.