Bwaya—a film by director Francis Xavier Pasion—invites viewers to be detached witnesses to the life and death of Rowena, a 13-year-old girl attacked by a crocodile in the Agusan marshlands.
The film is based on actual events that happened in 2009 to Rowena Romano, a 12-year-old girl killed by a saltwater crocodile (called “bwaya” in Filipino) in Agusan del Sur.
Using no elaborate narrative tricks or visual sleight of hand and mainly relying on the true-to-life facts of the case, audiences get to see and know Rowena, her parents Divina and Rex as well as the floating village community of the marshlands.
Viewers also get to discover how Rowena and her “next-row” neighbors go to school, run errands, and make a living using row boats.
The rhythm of life in the Agusan marshlands unfolds onscreen, as unhurried as the gentle paddling of the Manobo.
Through the masterful use of aerial shots, the cinematography captures the sublime beauty of the marshlands.
Bwaya did not make a spectacle out of someone’s tragedy. The film immersed itself in Rowena’s world, dialect, frustrations, dreams, yet it was not stuck there. After Rowena’s death, it moved on to show the painful stages of grief.
When Rowena’s father Rex (Karl Medina) learned of his daughter’s death, he isolates himself by going to the marshlands. Later on, he returns to the company of his community and cries. Though his neighbors look on seemingly uninvolved, they give him the space and freedom to vent and lament.
Karl Medina as Rex
When Rowena’s mother Divina (Angeli Bayani) was informed of the tragedy of her daughter’s death, she goes through denial, hysteria, anger.
By bringing life to the grieving mother, Angeli did not act her way through the role of Divina: she became her.
Karl Medina, the eldest son of veteran actor Pen Medina, is silent and calm as the marshlands he is in—the same way the real-life Rex apparently is.
RS Francisco as Nestor, the “Maestro” implicitly blamed for Rowena’s death, expresses a subtle moral ambiguity even as he appears outwardly “nice.”
Jolina Salvado as Rowena, a child discovered by Direk Francis in Agusan, is so full of life that her presence onscreen being cut short is just as regrettable.
The raw emotions expressed by the characters in the film are shown in a way we can identify with, but not swept away by. As a result, we are able to empathize with the characters’ situation while also distancing ourselves from it.
Similarly, the film kept itself distant during moments when Rowena’s actual mother is interviewed. The real-life Divina is neither asked leading questions nor manipulated to give interesting sound bites. When her attention unintentionally veered away from the interviewer, she is allowed this freedom too.
The film doesn’t force or hook viewers to submit their attention. It just lays out the facts on which the story of the film is based, while also injecting fiction.
The mythical story heard as a voice over at the start and end of the film satisfies the basic human need to make sense of senseless events. It also gives the film a spiritual layer while being grounded in the characters’ social, economic and personal affairs.
Bwaya doesn’t push audiences to root for, side with or wish punishment for anyone or anything. It allows audiences the freedom to just watch and see so that (in the words of the real-life Divina) the world will (hopefully)”not forget” about her daughter.
Written and directed by Francis Xavier Pasion, Bwaya is an official entry to the New Breed category of Cinemalaya X.
It is being screened until August 10 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Trinoma, Greenbelt 3, Ayala Fairview Terraces, and Alabang Town Center.
(To learn more about the Cinemalaya 2014 entries, CLICK HERE)
Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial staff.