If there is one thing that every administration has in common, it is the presence of political prisoners. It is not only during Marcos’ martial law that people were silenced and subdued.
In a country seething with unresolved class conflict, it comes as no surprise that every president, who inevitably hails from the ruling elite, only reveals themselves to be anti-people in the pursuit of their class interests.
Set during the martial law years, Liway proves to be a film that not only breathes the stories of its time but also reflects the narrative of repression ever-present in the Philippine society. The film, however, refuses to be lumped in with other historical drama films whose plots are driven, or at least are greatly motivated by particular historical events in the past.
While it features a fair amount of scenes depicting memories and experiences shared by many during that time—like taking part in demonstrations, with some eventually joining the armed struggle— the film delves more into Liway’s (Glaiza De Castro) personal relationship with her son, Dakip (Kenken Nuyad). It is Liway’s role as a mother that is highlighted throughout the movie, as opposed to images the promotional poster of the fierce-faced rebel commander holding an AK-47 might have conjured.
But what sets Liway apart from other films of the same theme is the very environment in which most of the film took place: a prison compound. Interestingly, it is also what makes Liway’s story relatable, at least for people like her whose voices are ignored in the discourse of war.
People like Liway who are fighting for a legitimate cause threaten the interest of those in power. Thus, they are thoughtlessly branded as rebels, slapped with fake criminal charges, and shoved into overcrowded jails.
The film’s strength lies in its ability to humanize people who have always been projected as enemies by those in power. While director Kip Oebanda chooses not to elaborate on the politics behind the characters’ decisions and circumstances, he still finds a way to communicate the struggle of political prisoners and even make the audience sympathize with them by weaving a personal and intimate portrait of Liway.
Liway’s struggles raising a child inside a prison may not be an experience familiar to everyone, but it evokes a universal human emotion that is amplified by De Castro’s moving performance.
This intimacy is also translated in the limited space they navigate and occupy, always bordered by gates, barbed wires, and metal bars. This motif helps establish the feeling of closeness and community among the detainees and also functions as a visual reminder of their isolation from the rest of the country. And it does feel like they are isolated, existing only in a world of their own.
While there are attempts to contextualize the story through flashbacks and montages, they seem too vague for audiences who have minimal background on the events and players that are portrayed in the movie. Secondary characters feel underdeveloped, hence the emotional detachment from the audience in scenes that are supposed to make them feel sympathetic or sorrowful.
Some characters are even projected to be of vital importance but due to lack of depth and buildup, they fail to appear as such.
The film also chooses to leave some issues on the periphery. This is understandable, considering the angle from which it wants the story to be told. However, relying too much on abstract, general statements also diminishes the impact of the characters’ decisions and subsequent plot developments.
It is hard for the audience to appreciate the characters’ choices and actions when they hardly know their motivations: What, specifically, made Liway embrace the armed struggle? Why are they teaching liberation theology to farmers? And why liberation theology in particular?
The film could have been their chance to shed light on the plight of the farmers, given that Liway’s immersion with them had undeniably contributed to shaping her revolutionary perspective. However, this lapse does not constitute an irreversible shortcoming—and the burden of putting together details that the film might have overlooked does not lie solely on the director, but on us, who have seen the movie as well.
The film might not have fulfilled its full potential, but placing it in the context of the current political climate, it becomes more compelling and relevant than ever. It is one of the few recent films that dare to present sides and faces normally frowned upon by the general public. Liway shows how a political detainee, and even a rebel, takes on many other roles just like everyone.
Inside the prison with her husband and son, Liway exhibits the same courage and firmness as she had as a guerilla fighter. And despite its imperfections, the film aspires and succeeds to be just as brave.
Liway won Audience Choice award in the full-length feature category, as well as Special Jury Commendations for director Kip Oebanda and child actor Kenken Nuyad.
A definite release date is yet to be announced, but the film is set to return to theatres nationwide soon.