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It sounds utopian to those of us in the long urbanized parts of the Philippines, but academic studies have documented an indigenous community that lived for generations without a single case of rape. In the crossroads of the Cordilleras, this was once just reality: the Bontok Igorot did not even have a word for it, no concept nor punishment for a crime so pervasive today.
Director Lester Valle first heard about the Bontok and the case of a society without rape during a Sociology class back in college—but his fascination followed him long after, when he eventually became a filmmaker and produced a documentary on this very story.
Released in 2014, the documentary Walang Rape sa Bontok looks into the indigenous culture of this community and what they can teach us about the nuances of rape culture. We spoke to Lester about being an “outsider” filmmaker in indigenous land, and why we should tell more stories like this.
How did you go about filming Walang Rape sa Bontok as an outsider, so to speak, in indigenous territory?
LESTER: I wasn’t formally schooled [in] filmmaking. I drew my learnings from my experiences on the field. Ito yung mga natutunan namin along the way, what we can call “best practices” that worked for us in Bontok.
Siyempre ang pinakamahalaga diyan [ang] intention ng pagpunta mo sa community. Why do you want to talk about or do a film on this certain group? Ano ba yung intention namin when it comes to selecting the Igorot community as the subject for our films?
May historical context yung initiative na ‘to: documentary filmmaking in the Philippines was introduced by our colonizers... [who] viewed the documentary as a tool for colonization, a tool to forward their intentions. Maraming eksena in documentaries, lalo na during the American period, that show our IPs na ang itsura ay... dirty and primitive dog-eaters—without actually giving context to what’s happening. Sinabi lang nila, picture tapos ayun na. “Ah, ‘yan walang damit.”
There are those types of condescending readings: they captured photos that served their interests, made us look primitive and them as our saviors. Alam mo na ang ibig sabihin nun. We come from that mentality when it comes to documentaries, at actually hanggang ngayon may remnants pa rin ng [ganyang mindset].
It’s very interesting work. I’m curious: when you say "walang rape sa Bontok," does that mean the entire area of Bontok or within a certain tribe?
LESTER: The reason why Bontok is spelled with the letter K sa title instead of C is because Bontok—with a K—refers to the people. If we spell it with a C, medyo problematic siya in terms of context. Throughout history kasi, nag-iiba ang context ng Bontoc; probinsya siya during the American period. There used to be a Bontoc province that included areas ng iba pang IP groups. In the present day, it’s a municipality. So from a large area, it’s now very small.
It can be problematic to use Bontoc because we’re speaking about an area that’s changed in context. When we say Bontok, with a K, we refer to the ethnolinguistic group. The Bontok Igorot.
Bontok Igorot, meaning, the Igorot tribe?
LESTER: In the Cordillera region, there are many different ethnolinguistic groups: the Bontok Igorot, the Kalinga, the Ifugao, the Ibaloi, the Kankanaey. There are sub-groups of those pa. ‘Pag sinasabi nating “Igorot,” may notion na iisang group lang ‘yan, but in fact, iba-iba sila. Iba-iba rin yung pananalita, yung rituals.
Thanks for clarifying! With regard to your production process, how did you and your team decide to create a documentary about Bontok?
LESTER: Our motivation with Walang Rape sa Bontok is very personal. ‘Yung mga kasama namin, si Carla and Andy, were survivors of childhood sexual abuse, so one strong motivation we had was our personal views as a team, lalo na yung teammates namin. As survivors of sexual abuse, there was a yearning to learn more about the Bontok Igorot that in the past had no concept or incidences of rape in their community—and all of this has been validated by several studies.
Our second motivation was what I mentioned earlier, the misrepresentation of indigenous peoples in the media. As we know, maraming pelikula kung saan hindi maganda ang representation sa IPs natin: tampulan sila ng jokes, mga taong walang alam o walang pinag-aralan, marumi. Gusto namin magkaroon ng IP representation sa pelikula [kung saan] makikita ang inherent intelligence and goodness within indigenous communities.
How did you learn about Dr. June Prill-Brett and how did she influence the production?
LESTER: I met Dr. June Prill-Brett back when I was a student in UP Baguio. Her retirement year was in 2004; I was taking a Sociology class at the time and we were required to attend her talk. She presented the paper that eventually became our primary resource for the documentary.
She talked about gender relations [among] the Bontok Igorot. Doon ko unang nalaman about the rapeless society. It was 2004—hindi pa ako filmmaker or photographer nun, wala akong idea na mapupunta ako sa media work, but that study stuck with me. Hanggang ngayon, ang laki pa rin nung influence niya sa akin.
“Collaborative yung process namin with the Bontok Igorot... Para na rin silang filmmakers.”
How important was that research in your pre-production process?
LESTER: When we teach documentary filmmaking, lagi pa rin namin binabanggit yung process namin with Dr. Prill-Brett. Her material really touches on the importance of research—when you’re doing any kind of work, it requires solid research. Ganun din sa documentaries, and filmmaking in general. You have to do the research.
‘Pag documentary, lalo na sa amin, merong initial research pero nag-iiba pagdating mo sa field. ‘Yun din yung natutunan namin: you have to maintain an open mind, an openness to change because your initial concept will really change. It can be enriched by so many other factors you may not have imagined when you first thought about the project.
Walang Rape sa Bontok shows that a society without rape is possible. When did the idea of rape enter the consciousness of the Bontok?
LESTER: If we are to believe what the elders will say, pumasok yung ganung ideas nung dumating ang media, betamax, VHS… some time in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Around 1984 or ‘85 lang nagkaroon ng steady na kuryente sa Bontok. With electricity came television. Nauso sa community yung parang mini-theater: sa isang room may TV, parang movie house pero television lang yung screen. Ang kuwento ng matatanda, may mga nakakapasok na mga sexy films at that time.
Napapanood nung mga binatilyo, mga kabataan, some adults. Nakita ‘yun ng mga elders, at nagalit sila na ipapalabas ang ganung klaseng films na sexual in nature, kasi sa kanila, taboo ang exposition ng sex. Suspetsya ng elders na doon nag-simulang ma-introduce ang concept ng rape—they blame the media.
Bontoc is also the capital town of Mountain Province, so siya na rin yung economic center. People from other provinces go to Bontoc to work, study, and do business. Halo-halo na rin yung mga tao sa Bontoc, kaya naghalo na rin ‘yung social beliefs... Either way, nakapasok na [yung rape culture]. Hindi na inosente ang pag-iisip ng mga taga-Bontoc pagdating dun.
When filming, what protocols and steps did you have to take to ensure you not only had the consent of the Bontok, but also their trust?
LESTER: What’s most central to our work ay ang pagkuha ng consent; ang panghingi ng permiso na maging bahagi sila nung proyekto. Consent is the core of the work we do in Habi Collective Media.
Before shooting, we go to our potential informants and explain our intentions. Ang maganda rito sa paghingi ng consent ay [nagiging] informal way siya of giving ownership din sa subjects mo. Usually in media production, the relationship between filmmaker and subject can be detached. Kung documentary filmmaker ka, kailangan i-establish mo na partner mo yung subjects mo—hindi lang sila passive subjects, bahagi sila ng buong proseso.
If that’s the framework we apply, nagkakaroon din ng involvement and investment yung subjects mo sa proyektong ginagawa mo, instead na detached sila. Ang consent, spark siya sa pag-build ng social capital of a relationship dun sa community. Kung documentary filmmaker ka, kailangan maging bahagi ka talaga nung komunidad na ipapakita mo eh. Hindi ka pwedeng [outside looking in]. You live within the world, the people that you’re trying to represent.
Did you conduct test screenings?
LESTER: Yes. Prior to releasing the film, we went to the barangay that we interviewed, that were part of our documentation. Pinakita namin sa kanila yung first hour, just to show them kung ano yung magiging itsura. This is another level of getting consent from them, 'no? Reviewing the material, showing them the first edit.
Sa totoo lang, mas kinakabahan kami kapag Bontok Igorot yung audience, kasi syempre alam nila yung kultura nila. The Bontok are a very vocal bunch of people; they speak their minds. Kapag may nakita silang mali, walang preno ‘yan, sasabihin nila sa harap mo. Pati yung mga mali na translations sa subtitles, they called those out too.
Our process with them was collaborative. Parang na rin silang filmmakers.
What were some takeaways that you learned through immersing yourself in Bontok?
LESTER: Marami. In the context of filmmaking: there are no shortcuts to producing culturally sensitive and competent films about the indigenous people; it takes a lot of hard work. Siyempre, iba-iba rin ang IPs natin, [so] importante talaga ang immersion. Kung ano yung ginawa namin with the Bontok Igorot, baka hindi mag-apply [to other IP communities]… We have to learn about the social structure within the communities we work with, and pattern production [accordingly]. No shortcuts.
In the context of rape culture: [I believe] pwede baguhin ang mindset ng mga tao. It would be interesting to know kung kumusta na kaya ang perspectives ng mga Pilipino ngayon when it comes to gender relations—are we more gender sensitive now, may changes ba?
Ang ganda siguro pag-aralan kung may naging social impact ang Walang Rape sa Bontok kasi hindi ko alam. Nakapagpabago ba siya ng ugali? Nakapag-improve ba siya ng mindset ng mga nakapanood? I wouldn’t know, pero kung meron man ay napakagandang achievement na ‘yun for us.
“Sino mag-aakala na dito sa Pilipinas, meron tayong IP groups like the Bontok Igorot... na ang ganda ng gender parity? Bakit pa tayo lalayo?”
I first watched this in class and we were all amazed that this kind of society was possible. It's a very insightful film.
LESTER: Thank you. When it comes to anti-rape culture initiatives, we always look to Western examples. That’s not necessarily bad, [but] sino mag-aakala na dito sa Pilipinas, meron tayong IP groups like the Bontok Igorot... na ang ganda ng gender parity? Bakit pa tayo lalayo?
Karamihan sa indigenous stories reside sa minds ng elders. ‘Yun siguro ang role ng media: [mabigyan] ng access ang kalakhan ng Pilipino sa indigenous knowledge.
Your colleague Carla Ocampo said in an interview: “Hindi lang kami nagkkuwento, kami ay nagpapamulat.” Moving forward, what do you hope for?
LESTER: Sana magkaroon pa ng stories that amplify the voice of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. Kaya kami nina Carla, ‘yung group namin, we continue working in the provinces in the hopes of helping young people na gustong mag-pelikula o magsulat. To empower them to narrate their stories or amplify the stories of where they come from.
What is something you wished you knew before starting your career?
LESTER: I wish I had started my career in filmmaking earlier. I was a late bloomer... I started when I was around 30 years old. Siguro if I had [more] maturity, patience, and experience when we did Walang Rape sa Bontok, siguro magiging iba pa ‘yung [complexity] ng documentary.
Will Walang Rape sa Bontok be available for public viewing again?
LESTER: That’s a touchy question. As much as we would like to give access to everyone, the film is owned by GMA Network. Right now, there is an ongoing conversation with them about making it accessible or mabigyan ng options for access; hindi ko lang alam kung papayag sila sa libre or kung may arrangement with a minimal fee.
Actually, ang dami kong nakukuhang messages requesting for access or a copy, but we’re bound by our contract... Kung kami lang [magdedesisyon], matagal na naming inupload.
“Gusto namin magkaroon ng IP representation sa pelikula [kung saan] makikita ang inherent intelligence and goodness within indigenous communities.”
Are there any future projects that we can look forward to?
LESTER: We are [working on] another documentary pero baka matagal pa. It’s a documentary about our lives as cultural workers and filmmakers in Bontok. Tumira na kami dun eh, we documented it. Hindi pa siya tapos.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.