On May 23, 2017, government forces clashed with members of the rebel group Maute in Marawi City, Lanao Del Sur. What followed was a five-month conflict displacing thousands of civilians, leaving the city in ruins and taking lives from both sides. The island of Mindanao was placed in Martial Law, which is still in effect as of this very moment.
In those five months, Elias and his three best friends play soldiers with their makeshift banana leaf rifles. They scour the fields of their own home as in a battlefield, unaware of the situation their absent fathers are in as they point towards their ‘opponent’: “TULISAN!” With their blissful ignorance set amongst the beautiful scenery of their little paradise—the blooming gumamelas, the sea-green river, and summer upon their backs, it’s a cautiously charming start to these four children’s companionship throughout those months.
Elias, our main protagonist, goes through the motions of being the responsible eldest child: cleaning the yard, taking care of his younger sibling, and doing errands; occasionally meeting up with his friends in between for short meetings about their scheduled morning calls from their fathers. All seems well until Ted, a typical model-ish friend of Robin’s brother, comes over for a visit. Elias suddenly struggles with the familiarity of a brewing crush, as well as coming to terms with his own identity.
Despite its seemingly sweet start, the plot slowly steers into slippery ground as soon as Ted leaves their small town and the reality of their secluded ignorance is raised into question. In the first half of the film, the impact of the paternal absence is not addressed, nor does it ever show the mothers quietly worrying and patiently coping with it. The film restricts itself into the usual trope where the older, conventionally attractive person befriends a smitten teen, and makes do with it as it paces into the third act, which has a more questionable message.
Maricel Cariaga’s awkward and scattered direction doesn’t help. There are odd close-up shots with the occasional shaky cam that muddies the scene. At a birthday party where all is in attendance, Robin attempts to dance with his partner behind another couple. But instead of focusing on him, the camera sways along with the couple who are obviously better dancers, making the scene as awkward as Robin’s moves.
Noel Comia Jr., known for Thop Nazareno’s Kiko Boksingero, is charming as Elias, his words soft as he sings about the promises of waiting. The same can be said about his friends Pepsy, Robin, and Agol, who banter so naturally and enthusiastically, one can’t help but be invested in their friendships.
That said, their reliance on each other and their support towards Elias’ identity parallels that of their families’. We see their own mothers complimenting each other’s children, leaving extra food in tupperwares in the morning, as well as helping take care of one’s sickly child. It’s a tightly woven system culminating in a scene that is easily the film’s highlight: the shot of the four children and their worried families in one room, waiting for the scheduled call of their absent patriarch. As it arrives in Elias’ phone, Cariaga doesn’t veer the camera away from the emotions running through each member. She allows us to soak in their grief, in Elias and his family’s guilty relief, and takes us into the questionable last act.
In a film about a tight-knit community in a land far away from war, it’s easy to be manipulated by the patient agony of knowing that someone you love is facing great danger. We are groomed to believe in the nobility of self-sacrifice even if the authority that commands it comes from a place of malicious intent. We tell ourselves it is right, as the now-Elia watches their father weep about dragging his own childhood friends—Elia’s friends’ fathers—into an occupation out of sheer brotherhood and support. We refuse to question the motivations of every authoritative order, or even acknowledge our complicity in the cycle of destruction. One can say the ends justify the means, but how about the lives of the displaced citizens of Marawi, forever traumatized by the still ongoing military presence in the ruins of their once homes?
Elia nervously asks if their father will return to war. The father explains that someone must fight, then casually brings up Elia’s sexual orientation to shift the conversation into a cheesy final act. He expresses support and the mother reassures the unconditionality of her love for Elia. The film’s refusal to criticize the role of the military is shrugged off in the veils of faux nobility, and Elia’s struggles of self-identity—which used to be at the heart of the film—has now been downgraded as merely a piece in a grander picture.
Our coming-of-age films have always been tinged with systematic violence and blood, but in Children of the River, it is alarmingly apologetic in its depiction of the military. It cushions the atrocities of its state-sponsored violence. An Amnesty Report cites that “members of the armed forces detained numerous people and accused them, without evidence, of being militants. Detainees were allegedly then subjected to various forms of ill-treatment including sustained beatings and threats of execution.”
One can’t help but wonder what its exact message is, or the state of the children in Marawi. In a time where a lot of our indigenous groups in the south are displaced from their own lands or are subjected to red-tagging bordering on abuse, we must ask ourselves: what more can we do besides veer away from our secluded communities? How can we reach out against our privileged blissful ignorance towards our own oppressed countrymen?
Cariaga doesn’t provide us with a concrete message; instead, there is a lingering cautious optimism in the film’s end, when Elia decides to leave the handcrafted banana rifle on the ground with a determined smile, then running off to swim with their friends. It’s not much, but it can be enough—for now.