Fri, 18 May 2001

'Flor Contemplacion Story' flawed but still respectable

By Joko E.H. Anwar

The Flor Contemplacion Story (**1/2 out of ****); Drama, 120 minutes; Starring Nora Aunor, Ian De Leon, Julio Diaz, Vina Moralez, Gloria Sevilla; Directed by Joel Lamangan; A Viva Films Presentation; In Tagalog and English with Indonesian subtitles

JAKARTA (JP): The tragic story of a Filipino domestic worker who may have been wrongly hanged for murder in Singapore in 1995 opens this week in the capital's theaters.

Even though it is not a great film, its topic hits home in Indonesia as it focuses on the issue of female domestic workers, usually poor and from poor developing countries, who are sent to wealthy nations. Only last year a pregnant Indonesian woman faced a death sentence while working as a domestic helper in the United Arab Emirates.

The film opens with a TV news spot about the death sentence given to Flor Contemplacion as her family watches in the Philippines.

We are quickly introduced to the main problem at the heart of Contemplacion's troubles: the family is dirt poor, with her husband working as a public transportation driver to support his four kids.

It then cuts to a series of flashbacks when Contemplacion decided to work as a domestic helper in Singapore.

Despite her relatives' objections, she considered it the only way to help her family escape their problems.

The film tries to skirt the inevitable melodrama by not telling us in explicit detail how the family deals with the poverty. Instead, it quickly introduces us to a subplot -- the husband is having an affair with another woman while Contemplacion is away.

When Contemplacion goes home to visit her family, she finds out about the affair and warns both her husband and the other woman to split up. The segment adds nothing to the film, except for telling us that the husband is a one-dimensional loser but the mistress has a kind heart.

It takes quite a time before we get to the real issue of what happens in Singapore. Told through the point of view of several witnesses who insist that Contemplacion is innocent of the murder of another Filipino worker and her six-year-old Singaporean charge, the film pulls no punches in declaring its belief that Contemplacion was treated unjustly.

Unfortunately, it is not well-structured and almost ends up wandering nowhere but for Nora Aunor's powerful performance in the title role.

She is earnest and utterly believable as a helpless woman with a broken dream. The actress seems to be carrying the whole movie on her own; the performances of the other players are not disappointing, but they lack a suitable script to develop their characters.

It is at its best in the closing moments when it deals with Contemplacion's last days on death row. Its raw look, perhaps unintentional, adds to its haunting quality, but the torture session allegedly conducted by Singaporean authorities may be too disturbing for some viewers.

It seems the film was rushed into production in 1995 so the filmmaker could shoot actual footage of mourning crowds throughout Contemplacion's homeland following the execution. The scenes work in adding to the realistic feel and give the movie a documentary look.

Yet although they were brave enough in pointing the finger at the authorities in Singapore and the Philippines (Contemplacion's execution soured relations between the two countries), the producers should have gone further in dealing with the plight of migrant workers.

Despite its shortcomings, the film, which was the winner at the 1996 Cairo Film Festival, respectably succeeds in translating a tragedy that shook and united the nation to the screen.

It is far superior to any recent Indonesian movie on real life themes, such as Dukun A.S. (Misteri Kebun Tebu, the story of a shaman serial killer which was only disturbing for its complete ineptitude!

The showing of The Flor Contemplacion Story here should be enough for local filmmakers to realize that there is an audience for tales about events that people can identify, or at least empathize, with. They would be more valuable than, say, the crop of hipper than hip, implausible entries, such as an action film about the hunt for a precious diamond hidden at the top of the National Monument.

While many people complained about the censorship stranglehold on the film industry during the New Order era, times have changed and we can now take advantage of our freedom of speech. But until the day when factual, well-produced movies are made about actual events in Indonesia, such as the death of students during the Semanggi tragedy, we must be content with watching this interesting, if flawed, vehicle from our Asian neighbor.