May 26, 2020

Life skills children can learn this year

This photo of a rice pounder in Bandung, Indonesia (1908) is reminiscent of the rice pounding tradition of the Moro people, particularly the Maguindanaon, because of the affinity of our cultures. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
A few months into second grade at the JASMS - Philippine Women's College in Davao, a circumstance forced me and my siblings to stop going to school that year and returned to our hometown in Pagalungan, Maguindanao. I was six years old then. I am remembering this now after reading about parents planning to let their children skip school for a year because of apprehensions caused by the pandemic. Little did I know, as I was writing this post last night, President Rodrigo Duterte had a television address saying that he was opposed to the opening of classes without a vaccine.

Although there was no emergency of any kind back then, with the situation that school children and their parents face right now, being out of school does not necessarily mean time wasted. They can put their tablets and PSPs away. In the meantime this is a time for kids to learn life skills - from the basics of cooking or something more complex like baking, how to start a fire when you run out of LPG, or how to quarter or chop a chicken which is a skill I haven't mastered after three decades. Sure, they can search Youtube for these seemingly mundane tasks but one is never too prepared when the practical need arises. It will also be soul nurturing for children to look back to this learning experience, finding meaning in the particular memory, that can be life enriching. 

While we were in Pagalungan, and later in my father's hometown of Paidu Pulangi, in neighboring Pikit, we learned some life skills that I'm thankful for until today. Here are a few memorable learning experience.

Planting corn. In front of our house in Pagalungan is a patch of land that we cultivated by planting corn. We were taught the dibbling method in which holes in the ground were made with a makeshift dibbler, in our case, a pole that was sharpened in one end. We threw three to five corn seeds in the hole and covered them with soil. Months later, the corn grew much taller than us. We were able to harvest a full sack of corn. 

Removing kernel from the cob. Once the corn was mature and dry, we were taught how to manually remove kernels from the cob. It was quite painful for our tender hands but we managed with a few cobs until our thumbs became sore. Another technique was using a bolo or machete to chop the kernel from the cob. While this method was easier, we were discouraged because of the danger of using a bladed weapon and the damage this method does to the kernel. The corn kernel would no longer germinate because an important part of the seed is removed by this method.

Twenty years later, my mother told us that she was quite happy we learned the hard way hoping that we do not end up as arrogant landlords or hacienderos.

How to fish. At the back of our house is a pond an acre or two in size. Our father taught us to catch fish using a bamboo fishing rod, nylon thread and hook with worm as bait. Aside from fishing, the experience taught me how to keep very still. The slightest movement scared the fish away.

How to make coconut oil. What made this chore attractive was the smell of coconut permeating the air. Of course, we eagerly waited for the sweet, solid byproduct of coconut oil making called lintad, or latik in northern tribes. I was also curious because the oil was called lana tidtu which translates to 'true oil' or 'pure oil'. I theorize that this term cements the importance of coconut in Maguindanaon culture. It is the most natural source of oil. 

How to make rice flour the traditional way. This was taught to us by our maternal grandmother. The process began with soaking the rice in water. The water was drained after an hour. The next step was the pounding. There was a specific rhythm to the pounding by two or three people, otherwise my grandmother would say that the resulting flour would be inferior. When she got frustrated with her servants' impertinence, she would throw the rice on the ground for chicken and ducks to feast on. The flour was then sifted using a fine mesh or ayakan. Any rice particles that would not pass through the mesh were pounded again. The flour was placed on mats and dried under the sun. After which, the rice flour was stored in big containers and were used mainly to make the Maguindanaon delicacy tinadtag.

Setting a trap for wild birds and small mammals. In Paidu Pulangi, our uncles taught us how to set traps using what looked like an easy noose. The noose would tighten on an animal's foot while feeding on bait. 

I remembered discovering a wild duck (tanepol) that my uncle Diding caught in the marsh. He intended to make roasted duck for dinner, but when I told my paternal grandmother I wanted the duck as a pet, my uncle obliged. A year later, that duck became the source of my grandmothers's grief. When a clan feud or rido escalated in Paidu Pulangi that time, the residents evacuated the village as gunfighting ensued. My grandmother wanted to bring the duck to the city but in the haste, she had to leave my duck behind.

Identifying wild birds. During the weekend visits of my father (he was in working in the city some two hours away), he would bring us to lake and grassland of Paidu Pulangi for some bird watching. He would then tell us the names of birds and their distinguishing features. 

How to weave a mat. The Maguindanaon people have a rich weaving tradition involving textiles and mats. For the latter, the main component, pandanus leaves, were harvested and dried. They were made into strips and then rolled. Some of the leaves were dyed in bright yellow, magenta and green. It involved grana, a type of dye, that was purchased in Dulawan which was more accessible by boat from Paidu Pulangi compared to a jeepney ride to the poblacion in Pikit. With the colored leaves and the ones without a dye, the weaving of the mats commenced with intricate patterns. As beginners, we were taught how to make rice containers or leban which took us two days to make.

May 23, 2020


Qiyamah (The Reckoning) is my third film. It won best film in the Young Critics Circle of the Philippines Citation for Distinguished Achievement in Film, in 2013. The critic Tessa Maria Guazon wrote, "While Qiyamah partakes of the nothingness that shape apocalyptic films, it grounds it well within a local moral world; that of the small village, its council of men and the ties between women. It foregrounds tainted innocence as it tries to ferret out the workings of evil in a world which little by little has shrunk both in its physical realm and within the imagination of those who inhabit it. Qiyamah underscores the fickle nature of our individual desires and dreams, whose value and gravity becomes apparent only in context of relations with others."

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May 19, 2020

Digital decluttering

I decided to embark on a digital decluttering project while on quarantine. The objectives are mainly to organize my files and create a digital bank of all the files I've accumulated all these years from movies, photos, documents, ebooks, presentations, to the raw files of my own films; to free up the space of my MacBook so that I can upgrade the operating system, and lastly to reduce my digital footprint. 

The first two objectives I accomplished with ease. First I copied all contents from my MacBook to a hard drive. With a lot of patience I sorted through files stored in 16 hard drives. I decided on what will stay and which to delete. I ended up deleting 10 percent of my files, which were my former students' works and papers. I also had to decide on categories for folders - the decision was between creating a file system based on year or type of files. I decided on the latter so I ended up with 3 hard drives of movies, 12 hard drives of raw files of my own films, and 1 hard drive of documents, photos and presentations. I also thought of a back up for important documents which are stored in the Google Drive of my email address. A Gmail comes with a free 15Gb of data storage. If you want to upgrade your storage, you can do it for a fee. Another Gmail stores back up of my three recent films which still get invited to film festivals. That way file transfer is also convenient. My iCloud, on the other hand, contains photos. So I don't need to bring hard drives with me all the time.

The reduction of digital footprint can be quite challenging. It's easy to permanently delete old Facebook or Twitter accounts for as long as you still remember the password. It's also important that you can access the email address that you used to create the accounts. Social media platforms usually require verification via email. 

What I find challenging is the deletion of email addresses, particularly Gmail. I have about ten Gmail addresses which I used for various reasons. I no longer use half of them, hence, the desire to delete them. But Gmail has a very complicated verification process before you can delete your address. Gmail asks you to access a linked email address for security reason. That was no problem. But they also ask for the mobile number that you linked your account. This was problematic because the emails that I created ten years ago were linked to an old mobile number. So they're staying, for now, until I can find a way to convince Gmail that I no longer need the email addresses. 

May 14, 2020

Recreating sound and look in a period film

When I was pitching Masla A Papanok (Bird of History), I was asked the question, "What does the bird look like?" Papanok is the Maguindanaon word for bird. So I began describing the bird and how I intended to shoot the scene to the QCinema International Film Festival selection panel.

Masla A Papanok takes place in 1891, towards the end of the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines. One day a huge bird suddenly appears, which, according to local superstition, is a bad omen.

Much later, when I was got the grant from QCinema to shoot the film, I asked my father to recall accounts of those who have seen this mysterious bird in the past. It was a big black bird, he said. He likened it to an eagle, but much larger. He has not seen it himself, but has heard of many stories about it. I imagined that it might have looked like the thunder bird Argentavis magnificens, or the giant teratorn (photo above). 

My father cautioned me, however, to stop obsessing on the physical features of the papanok. I wanted to argue that I needed to imagine how this bird looked like because film is a visual medium, but I was also eager to learn more. You see, in Maguindanaon lore, the appearance of this bird is bad omen. People in the olden days say "inunian na buniga" to refer to this event. Roughly translated, "the sounding of the big bird." When people hear the sound, they know that bad things are bound to happen. The sound of the bird is, therefore, the ominous presence more than the sighting. To imagine Masla A Papanok is to imagine how it sounded.

But how does one make a period film for 1.5 million pesos (US$30,000)? Clearly the biggest challenge of producing Masla A Papanok was how to mount the film's production design with very limited resources. The first task was turn to archival photos of Cotabato, the milieu of the film, which were taken during the last years of the Spanish colonial period. These photos offered a lot of insights to the production - from creating an authentic look to deducing knowledge on the political economy and social life of the Maguindanaons of the late 1800s, which would then inform the visual design of the period. As there is little extant tangible heritage of the period, imagination filled the gaps. For instance, basing on the photograph below, fabric was a luxury only the rich or nobility could afford in those days. Servants and members of the lower class had to make do with a singular malong (tubular cloth) as garment and would wear it to cover the breast down. Trading with the outside world was a lifeline of the economy, so a lot of goods and commodities came from Chinese traders. As a result, the Maguindanaons wore camisa de chino ('Chinese shirt') and malong made of cotton and silk cloth (rather than the traditional inaul weave of the Maguindanaon).

Old photographs are a window to the past, a time and place that we will never be able to visit. They capture images that are frozen in time. Much of my work as a writer, a filmmaker, an observer of culture are produced by encounters with photographs. I am particular with images of the common folk as they could provide a more accurate assessment of the social, economic and cultural conditions of the past. With meager material resource, there is little room for staging or art direction.

May 11, 2020

An ugly truth about blog monetization

So I resumed my blog after an absence of five years. I noticed some changes in the blogging landscape. For some of us who started blogging more than a decade ago, it was more to do with expressing ourselves, writing our observation on just about anything, or chronicling our day to day experience. However, blogging nowadays is driven by marketing of information on a particular subject or niche. Blogging sites are full of advice to focus on a niche or lose an audience. But while I'm not ready to do that yet here (I talk about a range of topics that I like from film to books, travel to shopping, current events to cultural anthropology), I'm quick to adapt a few changes. I learned that Google Adsense has been disabled in this blog for inactivity. It was easy to monetize your blog through Adsense then. There was virtually no requirement except to open a blog and post regularly. Due to stiff competition today, Adsense has set some new requirements focusing on number of traffic and quality of the blog. I'm not sure when my Adsense will be approved or activated again, so while waiting I searched for alternatives to monetize my blog

A week ago I found a seemingly attractive alternative in Adsterra. I read some good reviews and sent my application. I got accepted in an instant. So I copied the scripts and HTML codes to my blog's HTML template and added the ad codes to my gadgets (the equivalent of widgets for Wordpress users). The ads were displaying well and when I checked my Adsterra publisher dashboard two days later, my blog started to get monetized. It was a good start. I added two other blogs to my Adsterra registration. But yesterday morning all my blogs started acting strange. They were being redirected to gambling and porn sites. My first instinct was to Google the problem and most of the advice centered on malware. I'm using a MacBook so at first I couldn't believe that I was having this problem. There was a long-held belief that Apple products were immune to virus and malware. But upon checking, Macs do get infected by virus and malware and they have even outpaced PCs. Since I didn't have anti-virus installed in my MacBook, I purchased BitDefender online. It scanned my system for more than an hour only to find out that my MacBook was clean. So what's the problem?

There are two things common in my blog. All of them are hosted by Blogger, but since it is owned by Google it has a robust security system. The next thing that all my blogs share in common is Adsterra. So I checked Google again for similar issues with Adsterra and was shocked at what I found out. There have been complaints of blogs and websites using Adsterra that were getting redirected to other links or what is called malvertising campaign. The problem lies with the scripts that you embed in your blog. So I removed the Adsterra scripts from my blogs. It remedied the problem. I browsed my blogs using my MacBook and my Android phone, and they were working fine. No more porn and casino sites. Still unconvinced I asked my partner to check my blogs using his phone. There were no more problems. 

My comeback came with a hard lesson with the risk I got myself into with finding alternatives to monetize my blogs. I guess that while good reviews provide promising options to consider, others that raise the red flag also deserves (more serious) attention. 

May 10, 2020

Blogger as a reliable blogging platform

I have been using Blogger as my preferred blogging platform for close to fifteen years now. It's easy and convenient, and it's also free. Blogger is one of the earliest blogging platforms developed by Pyra Labs in 1999, which was bought by Google in 2003. All you need is a Google account to start a free blog on Blogger. Once you create your Gmail account, it can easily be activated as with other Google features. It requires very minimal technical skills. Because it's powered by Google one can expect a secure blogging platform with little no hassle.

Blogger has fallen out of favor because of its perceived limited blogging tools. The theme design templates might be few but third party templates are available for Blogger which are either free or priced low. I don't see this as a downside for this blogging platform. In fact, the simplicity of the theme options makes you focus on the content of your blog. Too many customization options offer unwanted distraction. You are also tempted to use everything at your disposal. Nobody wants to read a blog that looks like an overly decorated Christmas tree. 

Still there are a lot of useful options on Blogger that you can optimize to create a handsome blog. These include customization of theme background and blog layout, text options like font type, color and size, width adjustment of main post area and sidebar, and so much more. There are a wide assortment of gadgets (or widgets) that you can add to your blog, including HTML scripts from third party sources like advertising platforms. If you want to monetize your blog, Google Adsense is a built in feature which you can activate if you meet their minimum requirement. You can also add CSS codes without the need for plugins. All these features come with no additional cost. The only cost I incur using this platform is my annual domain registration which is US$12. 

I have tried migrating to Wordpress a few years ago, and even started another blog using Wordpress a month ago. 

WordPress starts out free but as soon as you want additional features, you have to upgrade to Premium. This costs about $100 per year with a free domain. If you want to monetize your blog, you have to upgrade again to a Business Plan that costs about US$300 a year, purchase a plugin give you control of your blog and be able to add HTML codes from third party advertising platforms like Adsense, Media.Net and Adsterra. This can cost up to US1,0000. WordPress is expensive and is not suitable for personal blogging or a start up business. The blogging platform also calls for advance technical skills including creation of HTML codes. I was so frustrated I ended up terminating my WordPress Premium plan.

I'm sticking with Blogger not only for this site but also for two more blogs I manage - New Durian Cinema, a journal of Southeast Asian cinema, and Cobek Batu Adventures, a food and travel blog devoted to culinary trips around Southeast Asia. Now I have more time to think what I want to write about.

The blogging landscape has changed drastically in the last several years. Once used mainly as a site for creative expression, personal journal and political punditry, blogging has increasingly become a business tool where information on all sorts of things are marketed and niches are your new speciality shops. Information is the greatest commodity of this age.