The Fault of Holding Back
by Jansen Musico
D: Joseph Israel Laban
S: Barbara Miguel, Nadine Samonte, Jake Cuenca, Anita Linda
When a nine-year old girl gives birth to her own child, it’s bound to inflict a thirst for exposition. More often than not, the questions are groomed to find its cause. Is it the work of enchanted beings or a sick twist of fate? Any aftereffects of the girl’s current condition are merely updates to what’s already known; what is more enticing is the elusive reason for her pregnancy.
Joseph Israel Laban’s Nuwebe starts this way: It introduces Krista (Barbara Miguel), the child mother, through an opening monologue. Eyes locked on the camera, she tells the audience how difficult it is to revisit the events leading up to this point in her story. She is clearly pained, but despite the hint of tears lining the sockets of her eyes, her words are void of sincerity—a gap the film ever fails to fill.
The success of Nuwebe rides on Barbara Miguel’s performance. Though the girl is obviously talented, the role is just too heavy to be carried by such frail hands. Miguel puts on a mature face for her audience, but her tendency to overact and over-enunciate her Taglish lines ruins the illusion of truth she tries to create. Laban’s style only aggravates this problem, exposing her weakness rather than concealing it. Though Laban’s roots may be planted in journalism, and, in some way, documentary filmmaking, his use of character confessionals impeded whatever effect he wanted Nuwebe to have.
The film takes a lot of screen time setting up details leading up to Krista’s pregnancy. It teases the audience with the warring ideas of mysticism and science, pitting a faith healer (Anita Linda) against a pastor sidelining as a butcher (Jake Cuenca). When the story reaches its climax, it censors itself. It’s understandable why Laban opts to withhold that type of scene from his film. Works like Mysterious Skin, for example, prove that films like these can stand alone without visualizing a minor’s sexual encounters. But that approach doesn’t quite work here. This unwillingness to shock only widens the void between Krista and her audience. Every time she speaks, it becomes harder to sell the idea of her being a victim, and a resilient one at that.
The confessionals veer off the tracks Laban laid out during the film’s first half and render them useless. Instead of following through with a straightforward narrative, the storytelling is derailed and runs off with a string of tedious monologues framed as interviews. Resolutions are done through words rather than actions, with characters saying more than they show. They come off uninspired. Even the combined efforts of Nadine Samonte and Jake Cuenca, playing Krista’s troubled parents, could not save the ensuing wreckage.
Rape, especially those involving minors, is an issue deserving of a spot in Cinemalaya. It merits the right to be seen by a captive audience and start some form of discourse on the matter. Laban could have done so much with this subject, if only he took more time to recalibrate the choices he made.