Thy Womb: Starring Tawi-Tawi & Sama Culture

Shooting Sama Culture Up Close

After watching the movie Thy Womb in Gaisano Mall, Davao, a newspaper editor approached my Sama wife asking, “Is that really how it is?” The response was, “Yes, with only a little bit of exaggeration.” Reviews that have called the film more of an ethnography than a drama, ring with some bit of truth. Brillante Mendoza in the film, Thy Womb, was privileged to get to shoot Tausug & Sama culture up close and promote it throughout the Philippines and the world.
The movie opens inside a home, presumably with an ocean view, and kids jumping off of what looks like the porch into the ocean. Shaleha, Nora Aunor’s character, is helping with a home birth. This isn’t all that uncommon of a sight in the Philippines, an island nation with many homes built on stilts over the ocean. Zoom out the shot and you find out you were viewing one of the increasingly rare houseboat communities of the Sama in Tawi-Tawi. Shaleha and her husband Bangas-an, played by Bembo Roco, drive off in their papet, a Malaysian boat common among the Sama in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Next snapshot of Sama culture: Your in their home where the couple is weaving tepo‘, the Sama banig or mat that has reached high enough demand that SM sells them. The whole process of dying the mats and starting the weaving is abbreviated into about a two minute conversation about searching for a second wife because Bangas-an is childless.

Gender Roles in Sama Culture

In this case the relationship of Bangas-an and his wife Shaleha seems unnatural.  The making of a tepo’ from start to finish would most likely be done solely by women, not a joint work of husband and wife. In Sama culture there is usually a clear separation of the sexes when working.  Usually a man and wife would not go out to sea together fishing.  Of course, Bangas-an has no son to do this with.  Certainly the husband of a midwife would not be there at a birth and most likely the father would be sent out as well.  Other than that the birthing scenes, the fishing scenes, and the process for making the Sama tepo’ follows the culture.

Dangers in Tawi-Tawi

The next scene is for the viewers who disdain the Bajau that you’ve seen begging for money in the Philippine’s major cities. Many have the impression that the Bajau are lazy and don’t work for their own living.  In contrast to many of your perceptions of Bajau, throughout the film you will see how hard working the Sama are. This couple earn a living from Shaleha’s work as a midwife, they sell mats, they dry and sell fish and they search for food at low tide. Here you see the couple net fishing and pleased with their large catch. Suddenly they are chased down by bandits. Bangas-an is shot before jumping into the water. When the bandits leave Shaleha must help her husband back into the boat. This cultural reality of the Sama is what causes many Sama fishermen to carry guns when fishing or not to fish at all.  Many of the more ocean based Sama (Sama Dilaut/Badjao) have fled their sea based lifestyle to live in the Philippines larger and safer metropolitan areas. What often gets sacrificed is their traditional ways of supporting themselves.
The scene with the bandits attacking Bangas-an in his boat is also one of the biggest cultural bloopers in the film. For all that I can tell the bandits take the fish and not the motor. In real life they throw the fish and take the motor.  Bangas-an and Shaleha would be forced to paddle home.  Later, however, we see that they must sell the motor of their boat in order to pay for the dowry that it costs to marry a second wife.

Sama Dowries

The searching for a second wife and preparing to pay the dowry make up the majority of Thy Womb’s plot.  I heard gasps from the audience when the number P200,000 was mentioned as the dowry for one of the brides.  To non-Muslim Filipinos this may come as a shock.  Bride price may vary depending upon social status as well as individual tribal custom, but the stated P200,000 is considered a reasonable amount for a college graduate, especially among the Tausug.  The film showed well the struggle that a man’s family, wishing to marry, must go through in order to pay the price.  Gold jewelery may be pawned or exchanged. They must approach close and distant family members for help. Often several family members will go into debt just to help their relatives pay a dowry.

Sama Cultural Ceremonies

Director Mendoza catches on film several cultural ceremonies.  When dead fish are found floating around their community they perform the Sama custom of Tulak Bala’.  It literally means, “The departure of a plague.”  They say Arabic prayers while members of the community are washed and cleansed in the ocean.  A local imam burns incense in a dried out coconut shell before they send the shell and handcrafted miniature boats out to sea, thus asking that the plague that has come to their community would leave.
The Sama wedding scene that took up a major portion of the film truly captured the essence of the Sama ceremony.  As the groom is prepared you hear the traditional chanting, loved by many Sama, called lugu’.  The groom is dressed in his best attire.  He is carried on the shoulders of his groomsmen and shielded from the sun by an umbrella.  The bride is wearing the makeup of a Sama bride.  All that she lacks is the painted uni-brow, kilay langgung, that Sama culture finds beautiful.  Mercedes Cabral does a great job of imitating Sama Pangigal in the film (Later you will see that Nora & Bembo don’t).  She is to be commended for this considering that unlike every Sama girl from Sulu & Tawi-Tawi, she didn’t grow up dancing the pangigal.  Midway through the wedding it is disrupted by gunshots.   This is certainly not unheard of happening at weddings in Tawi-Tawi and the wedding participants manage to carry on almost as if nothing even happened.
Also filmed in Thy Womb is the engagement ceremony of Bangas-an and his  soon to be second wife Mersila. The groom presented a beautiful engagement ring (it was from Jacob Mercari, as I noticed a branded box). Culturally the ceremony is natural although something to be noted is that multiple wives, though allowed in Islam, is not common in Sama culture.  Much more common would be the divorcing of a wife due to her inability to provide a child.  As seen in the movie, it takes a groom three times to profess that he accepts his wife.  It also takes the same three times to say, “I divorce you” and thus be divorced.  This indeed becomes one of the things demanded of Bangas-an, that if Mersila can provide him a child, he will divorce his first wife, Shaleha.

In the End

The movie ends with a shocked and unsatisfied audience pondering the injustice of putting away a wife that sacrificed so much for her husband and yet there is no clean ending to the film, just as their is no clean ending in divorce and betrayal.
Whether it is the various run-ins with the Philippine military, the shots of sea turtles giving birth, the slaughtering of a cow in accordance with Islamic law, the beautiful shots of Sama communities and serenity of Tawi-Tawi’s islands, the ceremonies, or the everyday living of the Sama, we commend the movie Thy Womb and director Brillante Mendoza for its portrayal of what it means to be a Sama.  I personally thank him as I end in quoting his speech at the SM Lanang Premiere Showing, “I would like to thank the people of Tawi-Tawi, the Bajau, to whom I dedicate this film.”
Here are some pictures we took from the Premiere Showing at SM Lanang, Davao:

Brillanted Mendoza & Nora Aunor Speeches at SM Lanang Showing

Muslim Pangigal

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