‘Mga Buhay na Apoy’ smolders hearts and minds

by Lorie Ann Cascaro

“Mga Buhay na Apoy” (Breath of Fire), not only moved the viewers on its opening night on Oct. 2 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila, but also triggered a philosophical discourse, as they sympathized with the characters’ struggles.

It explores the intersection between love and hatred; faith and religion; cultural preservation and modernization; and, past and present.

The play also portrays the prevailing colonial mentality among Filipinos, such that fluency in English corresponds with a higher social status. For some people, being familiar or well-adapted to American culture helps to ensure a more promising future in the United States or Canada.

Written and directed by Kanakan Balintagos, formerly known as Auraeus Solito, and first prize winner of the 2015 Palanca Awards for full-length play, Mga Buhay na Apoy tells about the reunion of a broken family in Manila.

Born in Palawan, Soledad Santos, the matriarch acted by Irma Adlawan, reconciles with her two children, Aurora Alba and Aran, performed by Karen Gaerlan and Russell Legaspi. They have been indifferent after Soledad broke up with their father and became violent to them.

Calm and reserved, Soledad first appeared waiting for Aurora, who left several years ago to escape the negative atmosphere enveloping the household.

The maids, Yaya and Gusing, acted by Peewee O’hara and Doray Dayao, are preparing a sumptous dinner for Aurora’s homecoming. Soledad’s two sisters, Lili and Selmah, played by Carol Bello and Malou Crisologo, and their families joined the celebration.

Aran spends most of his time painting inside the greenhouse, where nobody dares to enter. Nonchalant to his mother, he is talkative and bubbly with Aurora.

The dinner was lively as they shared mythical stories and collective memories of Palaw’ans, the family’s tribe in Palawan.

But at bedtime, their family secrets are revealed, and Aran, who was the last to know, will eventually accept them.

Suddenly, Soledad appears in a black night dress, sleepwalking, and tells her nightmare while in a trance.

Irma Adlawan as Soledad Santos acts superbly when she was in a trance, while her family tried to calm her down. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz
Irma Adlawan as Soledad Santos acts superbly when she was in a trance, while her family tried to calm her down. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz

Struggles

Soledad’s struggles highlights the issue of violence against women, as she was raped first by a governor in Palawan, and then by her husband. As a result, she turned physically abusive towards her children and servants.

Their abundant lifestyle shattered after he left, alongside her relationship to their children.

But her active participation in a charismatic movement “saved her” from madness, according to Yaya, who invited her to the group.

Clearly stated in the whole duration of the play, their Christian beliefs are being challenged by the family’s cultural tradition. For instance, Aran says that humans came from the sun or fire, while Soledad insists from Adam and Eve in the Bible.

For Lili’s husband, intoxicated Kuya Benj, played by Jonathan Tadioan, wherever humans originated, what matters is that he’s alive.

Aran calls himself, “nakikibakang buhay na apoy,” a struggling breath of fire, when asked by Aurora about his condition.

Russell Legaspi as Aran climbs on the mango tree that has only one fruit. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz
Russell Legaspi as Aran climbs on the mango tree that has only one fruit. PHOTO BY Trixie Dauz

Superb acting

The cast members performed superbly, especially Adlawan during the trance scene by showing contrasting characters.

Her character was the most that developed, followed by Aran, finally showing his utmost concern for her mother when she was in a frenzy.

Although he does not need to be strongly emotional in the story, Aran excelled in portraying his role that seems to mirror the young Balintagos.

It’s not only because of the character’s costume, wearing shirts of ethnic patterns and accessories, but also his energy and enthusiasm, especially when explaining how painting is similar to giving birth.

Formerly a baliyan or healer of the tribe, Lili is chanting in Palaw’an dialect that sets the general mood of the play. Bello’s powerful voice in accapella reverbrated in the whole theater.

She also performs a ritual during Soledad’s trance. Such ritual is similar to the one that was shown in Balintagos’ second movie of a Palawan trilogy, “Busong.”

As the curtains opened, the chanting began, while Lhorvie Nuevo appeared as a woman with long hair that touches the ground, while Aran was asleep. She was his recurring vision, as if calling him to discover his roots.

Kanakan’s home

With a big mango tree in the middle, the stage, designed by Paolo Alcazaren, almost resembles the backyard of the director’s abode in Sampaloc. The set captured a feeling of being in a mini forest or garden amid the bustling metropolis, which I also experienced when I visited there.

Changing the set in the second half of the play gives a different perspective of the house with the front being inside the greenhouse.

It was crucial towards the end, as Soledad, Aurora, Selmah, Lili and Topaz, Selmah’s daughter played by Kyrie Samodio, look at the audience while describing Aran’s imaginary painting on the wall.

Aran eventually goes to Palawan to follow his destiny.

Balintagos, the director of the movie “Ang Pagdadalaga Ni Maximo Oliveros,” considered the play as very personal.

It’s not only because it tells about the mythical stories that he has deeply known and grew up with, but also explains why he changed his name, which literally means “hunter of truth” for Palaw’ans.

This article was first published on NewsDesk Asia.

On the Lao side, Naga fireballs remain…

By Lorie Ann Cascaro on October 24 2013 5:59 pm

People swarm into a small village in Vientiane to see the Naga fireballs themselves despite others’ belief that the phenomenon is but a legend

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 24 Octet) – Somewhere around 7 p.m., visitors and the villagers of Pakngum in Vientiane see hundreds of golden lanterns rising slowly beyond a full moon from Thailand’s Nong Khai province. Between Laos and Thailand, where the Nam Ngum and Mekong rivers converge, an intermittent exchange of fireworks conveys the people’s excitement at seeing the Naga fireballs shoot up from the deep recesses of the river.

Locally known as “bangfai paya nak” and described as pinkish-red fireballs, they surge like rockets every Boun Ork Phansa at the end of Buddhist Lent, says Mr Khamphuan Bouthsingkham, 65, who was the village’s chief 13 years ago, speaking in an interview hours earlier. He says that according to their ancestors, the Naga festival has been a 400-year-old celebration above and “under” the Mekong. “While the human world holds a festival with boat races and fireworks, the Nagas underwater create fireballs to honour the Buddha,” he explains.

Buddhists believe the Nagas are servants of Buddha in the form of water snakes residing in the Mekong River. As Mr Khamphuan imagines, they resemble the structures of dragon-like snakes with golden and green bodies found in the four corners of a small tower inside the compound of the village’s Vat Pra That Yadee Sama Khee Tham Thin Soy. Built in 1570, the temple has a 500-year-old stupa sitting about 50 meters from the riverbank. He points out that the Naga visited the stupa 30 years ago as people discovered its tracks from the riverbank.

The Naga also took a human form, Mr Khamphuan continues. Sometime in 1978 or 1979, a novice monk crossed the Mekong to Thailand before the Naga fireballs appeared and bought two boxes of powder used to make explosives. The young monk has since disappeared, but people believe he was the Naga who used the powder to make fireballs.

The young Khamphuan saw fireballs rapidly emerging from the water and rising up past a big tree before they disappeared. He grew up in a traditional house which is a hundred footsteps away from the confluence of the two rivers. “They came out right from the centre,” he says, and points to an imaginary line in between the two flows. The water from the Nam Ngum is greyish green with a steady flow, while the one from the Mekong is brown and fast.

He has never seen the Naga, but a village fisherman did see it some years ago. Mr Khamphuan tells Vientiane Times that on the day of the festival, the man’s fishing net caught something heavy. Instead of pulling it up, the man was pulled into the river. Thought to be dead by his family and neighbours, the man emerged on the third day after his disappearance and told them about an underwater festival. He was sent back to tell the villagers to honour the Naga by refraining from fishing on Buddhist days, and practicing the precepts of Buddhism such as not telling lies.

The villagers’ strong belief in the Naga and Buddhist teachings might have influenced the emergence of the fireballs. Mr Khamphuan ’s 99-year-old father, Mr Thit Saun Bouthsingkham, says he saw hundreds of fireballs coming out of the river during his younger years. The only one left of his generation, this toothless old man narrates his earlier encounters with the fireballs. He says he could not touch them as they rose so quickly into the sky and there were hundreds of them coming out from the sides of his boat. But, as the environment changes and people’s belief fades, the fireballs seldom show up, he explains.

His granddaughter, Ms Lounee, 28, says she has seen fireballs every year for as long as she can remember. Her two children, a one-year-old and a five-year-old, also saw them last year, she adds. While decorating banana stems with flowers, candles and incense sticks that would be floated on the river later, she says “I expect to see them again tonight,” and smiles broadly.

But 13-year-old Jonas Onthavong from the distant village of Khosaath, who has been visiting Pakngum every year for the festival, has never seen any fireballs. He says he was too busy talking or playing with his friends and didn’t really care about them. Asked whether or not he believes they are real, he looks at the river and scratches his head with his left hand. “Ha-sip, ha-sip (50-50),” he says dismissively.

As the night darkens, everyone waits to see real Naga fireballs while drinking Beerlao and eating tam-mak-houng (papaya salad). Amid whistling firecrackers, a sailing boat loaded with some bubbly locals entertains the hovering crowd on the Lao side of the river. Hours pass as fireworks and flying lanterns continue to amuse the watchers’ eyes. Until, a red light, like a laser point, appears and rises over the silhouette of the dark part of Thailand’s shore. It is too dark and far to figure out if it emerges from the river. The people who see it gasp in awe as the light quickly disappears. A few minutes later, another one appears, coming from the same direction as the first. More people are now looking in the same direction, waiting for another red light to rise. The third one rises after a longer wait. And who knows, how many more red “fireballs” rise that night.

Last year, many fireballs appeared the day after the festival when there was less noise along the river, Mr Khamphuan says, adding that the more visitors there are, the fewer fireballs are seen.

But, the existence of the Naga fireballs remains controversial. Online articles try to provide scientific explanations on how the fireballs could be formed but until then they remain theories. For example, American writer Bryan Dunning said during his weekly podcast, Skeptoid, in 2009 that the “scientific” explanation of the Naga fireballs “is not very scientific at all”.

Dunning argued that there are “two fatal flaws” with the hypothesis that the decomposition of organic matter in the riverbed produces methane gas, which bubbles to the surface, have caused the fireballs. He said “methane can only burn in an oxygen environment within a specific range of concentrations” and “requires the presence of phosphine combined with phosphorous tetrahydride, whose needed proportions are unlikely to be found in nature.” But, he added that even if such conditions did exist in the Mekong, “the combination of oxygen, methane and phosphorus compounds burns bright bluish-green with a sudden pop, producing black smoke” and “under no conditions does it burn slowly, or red, or rise up in the air as a fireball”.

Some people have tried to solve the mystery or prove that the phenomenon is a mere fraud. In 2002, a Thai TV programme showed how soldiers were found on the Lao side firing tracer bullets to produce what those from the other side of the river saw as the fireballs.

Meanwhile, whether or not the red fireballs that people have seen in recent years are actually firecrackers discreetly set off to attract tourists does not matter for Mr Khamphuan . “Why should I care about those stories when I saw the fireballs myself?” Nevertheless, as long as there are still people like the Bouthsingkhams who hope to see them every Ork Phansa, the festival will continue to draw visitors to small villages like Pakngum and let them get to know its humble people.

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]

Read more http://www.mindanews.com/feature/2013/10/24/feature-on-the-lao-side-naga-fireballs-remain/

Laos kids express hope for the future through images

By Lorie Ann Cascaro on September 7 2013 3:59 pm

Through drawings, photos and role play, children from different provinces met in Vientiane to express their vision for their villages by the time they reach 20.

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 7 Sept) – Luxon Keodavonh from Donkhoun village in Khammuan province’s Xebangfay district wants to be a soldier when he grows up. He will be 20 years old in 2020.

“My two siblings and I are living with my mother in Khammuan. Our father left us for reasons I don’t know. But, when I become a soldier, I will earn a lot of money and will give it to my mother to support us,” he told Vientiane Times.

He is one of 12 children picked by World Vision Lao PDR (WVL) to join the “Hearing the hopes of children for Laos in 2020” forum in Vientiane last Tuesday.

Coming from 12 provinces, they were selected as children’s council members to tell government partners about life in their communities and what they wanted to achieve by the time they were 20.

Using crayons and coloured pencils, the children used drawing to express how they envisioned their villages in the year 2020.

“The school in my village is very old; I want it to be fixed. My village also needs a hospital to treat sick people,” Luxon said, showing his own picture to participants.

Khamphay Vilayvong, National Leading Committee for Rural Development and Poverty Eradication Foreign Relations Department senior official, attended the forum along with representatives from government and non-government organisations and agencies.

Children also presented photographs they had taken in their villages.

Twelve-year-old Chansy showed a padlocked toilet in her school in Seanmeaung village in Champassak province’s Soukhuman district.

“We cannot use it because there is no water and we cannot keep it clean,” she said.

Vongphachanh, 13 and from the same village, showed a picture of a water pump.

“It’s very difficult for us to use this,” he said. “We need a sustainable water supply.”

Lattana from Pakbok village, Ngoy district in Luang Prabang province, showed a photo of farmers in cabbage farm.

“In the past, we grew a few vegetables only for us to eat but now we are growing vegetables in a very big field to eat and sell as well,” she said.

Photos taken by Phengkham from Samyaek village in Phoukoun district, Luang Prabang province show a market in her village and farmers climbing a steep hill while carrying huge baskets of vegetables.

She said the stalls in the market didn’t have strong roofs, the place was not clean and her family needed a vehicle to transport their goods.

One photograph from Khamla, from Vangxieng village in Phonthong district, Luang Prabang province, was of two men riding a bamboo raft along a river. One man is holding on to his motorbike, while the other is maneuvering the raft.

“The villagers need to build a bridge to cross the river more easily and safely,” Khamla said.

The group dramatised scenes of two families to show how parents can violate their children’s rights by not sending them to school or by depriving their daughters of an education.

WVL National Director Amelia Merrick said she had felt discouraged hearing children’s stories last year and had realised World Vision was not working fast enough to help the children in its 24 target districts.

She said it was around then her friend Sombath Somphone, a well-regarded Lao community worker who has been reportedly missing since December, told her stories of change.

“He told me, ‘I have seen it different in Laos, Amelia’,” she said.

“Mr Sombath said our greatest hope is listening to the youth and listening to the children. He said the children in Laos are very smart and they have great ideas and want to be a part of the change in Laos.

“Today I believe that it is true because I have been inspired that it can be different.”

More than 46,000 children are enrolled in WVL’s child sponsorship programme, which is run in rural communities in five provinces – Luang Prabang, Borikhamxay, Khammuan, Savannakhet and Champassak.

Unlike Luxon’s dream of becoming a soldier, Seua, who led the group singing, wants to become a policeman.

“But, I can also be a singer,” he said, showing his teeth in a shy grin.

The small boy sang along with the other children in a song honoring soldiers who fought for the country’s freedom, while Vongphachan, 13, played a wooden beat box like a true professional. (Lorie Ann Cascaro / MindaNews with Patithin of Vientiane Times)

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]

Read more http://www.mindanews.com/around-mindanao/children/2013/09/07/laos-kids-express-hope-for-the-future-through-images/