A Critique of Israel Laban’s Nuwebe

When Karlo asked me what my top ten favorite films are, I realized that most of them are films about children or have children as one of the central characters. On top of my list is Voces Inocentes, a film about forced recruitment of children for armed combat by the El Salvadorian Government in the 1980s and how children struggled to live under this circumstance. Other films that I like most includes Children of Heaven which is an Iranian film, Not One Less which is set in rural China, and Earth and Ashes by a French-Afghan writer and director. I also include in the list the short film titled Lire at Isa, an undergraduate project of a fim major in UP Diliman that tackles how militarization and everyday life of children in the countryside are intricately interwoven.

All these films had certainly put me into tears or disturbing silence. Voces Inocentes, for example, took me one week to stop crying everytime I recall the scenes in the film. I even made one of the pictures of film I got from the internet as my profile picture in facebook and downloaded the song Casas de Carta. My liking for these films is maybe attributed to the fact that I am quite sensitive and sympathetic with children given my involvement with children’s rights advocacy group Children’s Rehabilitation Center. I am familiar with the context in which these children are situated, especially their being drowned in poverty and their struggles for their rights and welfare. It is with this background that I thus became interested to know about the film Nuwebe by director Israel Laban.

Nuwebe is a film based on the real story of Krista, one of the youngest mothers in the Philippines. At her age of nine, she was raped by her father and gave birth at such an early age. At first, Krista and ther mother subscribed to the superstitious belief that her condition was contracted as punishment by goblins living at the termite house near their house until Krista’s teacher alarmingly talked to Krista’s mother that the girl is pregnant. A case was filed against the father and was imprisoned while Krista was taken to the shelter home of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

NuwebeAccording to Director Laban, the objective of filming Nuwebe is to raise awareness of the public on the issue of rape and incest. This is important in the context that many of the cases of violence against women and children (VAWC) actually take place at home. The film can serve as an eye opener to the reality that VAWC could take place anywhere – even in the place we commonly refer to as our safest refuge. More importantly, Nuwebe can be seen as an attempt to encourage children victims of incest and rape to overcome the stigma and to put an end to incidences of VAWC in the future.

However, Nuwebe simply did not radiate the same emotions that watching those films on children’s social condition and struggles that I mentioned above generated. Although I appreciated Nuwebe’s attempt to tackle the issue of children’s rights, I always ended up not liking it every time I tried to contemplate it. This is the opposite of my experience with Borat which I also did not move me at first but which I gradually came to appreciate after much thinking because of its in spite of its satirical treatment of life in the US and its relation with the peoples of neocolonial countries like Borat.

Artist’s intention versus effect in Nuwebe

Knowing the director and the entire production team’s intention makes Nuwebe appear progressive at the outset. It is supposed to be a daring exposition of the horrific reality of child rape in the Philippines. As the popular comments that I usually overhear from the film’s viewers put it, it takes a lot of courage and commitment on the part of the producers to have this project. But is this really the case? Mao (1942) in his Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art said, “In examining the subjective intention of a writer or artist, that is whether his motive is correct and good, we do not judge by his declaration but by the effect of his action (mainly his works) in the masses in society” (p.21).

Declaration of good will is, therefore, not enough. A film cannot be considered good if it cannot take its audience into its desired outcome. In the context that Nuwebe aims to raise the awareness of the public on the issue of rape, the film must expose the real context of such rape cases. Who are the actors involved? What is the effect of this event on the victim? This line of action can be extended even up to the point of giving tangible steps or solution on how not be to victimized or how such incidents can prevented. Concomittantly, such a film must make the audience re-think about their conception of rape and attitude towards the victim and perpetrator. They must be convinced that rape is indeed a violation of the right of women and that it is detrimental, especially for a child. More importantly, it must push its audience to make definite steps to help in the effort of putting an end to these cases of violence. This can be expressed in various terms – from reporting the case, counseling of victims etc.

Yes, the film may have reached its aim of opening the eyes of the audience about the reality of incest and how poverty, the primacy of superstitious beliefs over scientific explanations, and inefficient health service especially in the community aggrevated the condition of Krista. Moreover, the film may have attempted to convey the spirit of determination on the part of the victim to overcome the trauma of incest and may thus help in the empowerment of other victims. But this is just one side of the story.

The other side of the story has to do with the way the people in the film are portrayed. What is the impact of this film on the people who are described in the film, i.e. people in the rural area or the coutryside? What could be the impact of such film on mothers who are faced with the same circumstances? What could be the impact of such film on the traditional healers in the countryside? If the people behind this film are really true to their proclamation of raising the awareness of people on these issues, they must consider the impact of this film on these groups. In fact, my argument is that if the persons behind this film are indeed sincere in launching an awareness campaign, their primary target viewers must be those people in the countryside given that the characters that were associated with such circumstance are from the countryside.

Treatment of other characters and nature of the problem

There is no question on how the victim and perpetrator are portrayed in Nuwebe. What is disturbing is how the film treats other characters. The film began in the slaughterhouse with Moises, Krista’s father, and a co-worker butchering a pig. The next scene shows the father masturbating while taking a bath and preparing to go home. This may be acceptable and I understand that the director wanted to establish that the Moises is indeed a pervert, thus helping condition the mind of the audience that he is capable of incest.

The very long blow job scene, however, of Krista’s mother with a man accompanied by the showing of his butt is another matter. The mother was forced into prostitution and it is understandable that this should be made explicit to explain the sordid conditions of Krista’s family. But why include a blow job scene and have this highlighted in a film about rape, incest, and violence against women? The only plausible reason to include the scene in the film is to show that the child is actually living in a “swinish” environment.

The father is working as a butcher and a pervert. The mother too, even though is can be seen as a victim of circumstance, is a filthy woman who allows herself to be treated like a pig. The film’s treatment of the mother, especially the focus on the blow job scene, is simply unjust given the fact that she too is a victim. If the director and his colleagues are serious in their crusade against violence against women, then this scene is grossly unacceptable and should not have been included in the film.

It was not just the mother that the director judged morally for being “pigs” that later on resulted in Krista’s ordeal but even the local healer. This was the idea that comes to mind with the introduction of the old lady in the scene where a footage of the edges of her skirt was shown while she was walking. The camera slowly rises up to show the face of the old lady. Everybody in the cinema house laughed upon seeing that it was an old lady. Why did they laugh? Because they did not expect that such a sensual scene will reveal an old lady.

What is the director’s agenda for doing that? That it is expected for the child to suffer from a life of promiscuity and incest because she is surrounded by people with decadent swine-like morals? That is very unfair on the part of the mother since she is a victim. That is very unfair on the part of the local healer who may not even think that way. The family and the community appears decadent and ridiculous at the same time. For the filmmakers, the issue of incest becomes a moralistic rather than a social one embedded in extreme poverty, a dominant culture of silence, and state neglect.

Apart from morality, one of the dominant themes in Nuwebe is the ignorance of the community. The mother was portrayed as very ignorant in so many ways. First, she relied too much on the advice of an albularyo. She even ignored her husband’s contention on the diagnosis of the local healer. It was only when the teacher, who is of course educated in the mainstream urban institution and has received a diploma, that she believed that her child is pregnant. The second case of ignorance or stupidity is her decision to leave her children under the supervision of her husband despite the fact that she herself was raped by her husband and that was the only reason why she was forced to marry him. I heard my seat-mate in the cinema calling the mother gaga and stupid upon hearing those lines of the mother. The third case of “stupidity” was her line during the interview wherein she was asked what she has to say about her daughter and she said “napatawad ko na po sya.” Again, shocked opinion from the audience.

The albularyo on the other hand is the carrier of the backward thinking. She was most adamant on the belief that it was the goblin in the termite house that caused the condition of Krista. All this led to the condition of Krista and even complicated her situation.

I understand that the director attempted to present the film as they actually happened. The filmmakers even claimed that the dialogue made by Krista are taken from the actual transcription they had during the time they did a documentary for GMA News TV. On the other hand, I must add that Laban also knew that Nuwebe is an advocacy film. Hence, it needs to convey a message based on his aim of raising awareness about violence against women and children. At first glance, an unsuspecting viewer could interpret the film as having considered the wider socio-cultural situation in which the child is situated. Poverty can be the great factor why such things occur. Instead, the film put the primary blame on the role of human agency –– on the mother and the albularyo.

There is this part of the film wherein the mother visited the Krista at DSWD but she was snobbed by the latter. That scene confused me. What happened between these two character? Only later, in the scene when Krista was interviewed that the reason for her attitude against her mother was revealed. The mother was in fact trying to convince Krista to withdraw the case against her father. The scene mentioned above marked the conflict betweent the mother and the child. Though the dialogue scene successfully revealed the sentiments of the mother, it is instead the mother’s “ignorance” and the dillemma in choosing between the child and the father that the film highlights.

This is a very disturbing presentation since the prior scene shows the mother extremely angered by the husband. In the end, she was even the one who went to the police station to file a case against her husband. What is the agenda of that inteview scene then? Instead of making the mother’s filing of the report the concluding scene and thus rescuing her from ignorance and trauma and thus empowering this other victim, the director even sensationalized such ignorance and make it seem to appear that a conflict of interest happened between the two victims.

The director made Krista the ultimate courageous super star. There is no problem with this. But it is very disappointing how another victim who is the mother becomes ridiculed and antogonized in the process. The same is true with how the film treats the albularyo. Nuwebe in this sense is based on a divisive plot. But what is the point of an advocacy film? It does not rest on the conscientization of the third party alone so that they will to act for the victims. What is also important is to show unity among the characters who are victimized. Yes, this might not be made possible if we follow the actual flow of events especially if it is taken from original story but there is always what we call angling. From which vantage point does the filmmakers seek to present the story? This plays a very crucial role in sending appropriate message. At the same time, this gives viewers a hint on the politics of those making the film.

The issue at hand here is violence against women. Let me be clear that I do not subscribe to the idea of sisterhood amidst all odds. Yes, there are cases in which you cannot build solidarity with fellow women because of antagonistic interest. This is especially true when we talk about the interest of the women belonging to the landlord class and women belonging to the peasant class, i.e. between women belonging to an oppressor class and an oppressed class. But in Nuwebe, both women – the mother and the child – are victims not just by the father but the entire feudal partriarchal system that treats women and children as passive and “un-productive” members of society. The empowerment of both characters and their unity against the feudal-partriarchal system must thus be put into utmost consideration.

The same can be said about the albularyo. Yes, she might possess a backward world view but in the final analysis she is not the decisive instrument for its perpetration. In fact, looking at the history and status of this albularyo in Philippine society, they too must be considered a victim as well. Since the Spanish colonial era, they were antagonized by patriarchal Roman Catholic Church. The present State system maintained them at the margins by not studying their craft and appropriating their indigenous knowledge for scientific procedures and by not educating them.

All these three characters are victims of the present feudal-patriarchal system in the Philippines. A genuine advocacy for women’s empowerment needs to build an alliance of these characters and not make them antagonistic towards each other. Yes, there mus be an exposition or say criticism over backward and wrong practices. But any artistic craft that aims for true empowerment should never rests on that alone. More than the wrong doings, it needs to highlight the struggle and aspirations to become better persons and to have a better society. As Mao Zedong points out:

Our writings should help them [the masses] unite, to make progress, to press ahead with one heart and one world, to discard what is backward and develop what is revolutionary… we shoul not dwell on their negative side and consequently make the mistake of ridiculing them or worse still, of being hostile to them.

Solution offered

The film reveals the supra-class politics of the producers on the issue of children and women. This explains the statist solution offered by film. It seemed to appear that putting the child at DSWD will give light to the dark matter. Yes, it was indeed the task of the DSWD to assist the victims of VAWC. But, how such an institution was portrayed is also inaccurate. The scene wherein the Social Worker in-charge, played by Manny Castaneda, went out of the interview room after interview and cry as if shocked and frustrated with the dialogue with the mother was very striking. It was like the government felt so concerned and asked why its people have gone this far. This is also related to the pronouncement that cases of incest must be reported to the DSWD as the government welfare institution tasked to end it. But, is this really the right solution?

The DSWD or say the government in general, indeed, is the ultimate bearer of responsibility in ensuring the protection of rights and welfare of children. But such a role prescription is an idea floating in the United Nations ivory tower. The actual practice of the government reveals a contradictory reality. Though a positive view was ascribed to DSWD, it is the same institution that became controversial for hoarding relief goods and politicking in the wake of supertyphoons Pablo and Yolanda. It is the same institution that illegally detains children suspected of being child soldiers of the revolutionary New People’s Army (NPA). It is the same institution that “educates” children and “help” them overcome the idea of being a child soldier even if the accusation of being such is just based on the bias accusation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). How could you expect an institution of such to offer the solution to the problem faced by children like Krista?

In a wider scale, it is the issue of how we look at his problem and how we view the government. It was clear that the case of Krista is not an isolated one. There are so many children out there. There are so many women who are raped, beaten or experience any form of VAWC. Why is this happening? Violence against women and children is innate in a feudal-patriarchal system. The government is complicit in perpetuating this system. In fact, many feminist argue that the State is patriarchal and is based on the authority and interest of male power.

But adding a class dimension to the traditional feminist focus on gender, it becomes clear that it is not just the male power that is forwarded by the State. Rather it specifically carries the voice of the patriarch of the landlord and comprador class. Thus, despite having two women presidents and a high score in the global gender index, the Philippines remain a host to a large number of cases of VAWC. In fact, Philippines is also noted as a country wherein many forms of prostitution is practiced – from isang putok isang tasang kape and balyo bugas in the countryside to akyat barko and sex trafficking, escort service, GRO and taxi girls. Giving faith to government to solve this issue is quite delusional on the part of the producers of the film. It exposes their reformist agenda.

Who then are in the capacity to do give justice and put an end to this practice? The victims themselves, the women and children victims together with the rest of the majority of the toiling masses. This is always the recipe offered by women and national liberation movements. VAWC can never be stopped unless the material condition that breeds such practice continues to prevail. This is also the importance of having a film that exposes not just the plight of the central character and her struggle but at the same time makes it explicit to depict the solidarity of the victims and the rest of the marginalized sectors in order to change the oppressive condition in which they are stuck. Unfortunately, this never materialized in the film Nuwebe.

The question of for whom?

This leads us to the most fundamental question: for whom is this film for? If this film is indeed for empowerment of victims, this film must have those people in the countryside as audience and that the plot must offer a solution not just for the child but also the rest of the victims in the film. Unfortunately, an examination of the film reveals that this is not the case.

I will conclude this critique by saying that this film is more of an appeal to the urban middle class population to open up their minds and act in order to save those children and ignorant peoplen in the countryside. It calls for an NGO-kind like of intervention in order to stop this kind of incidence. To use the words of Professor Shivji in his article Five Silences of NGO Discourse, this film merely calls for action without even critically examining the true and fundamental causes of rape and incest. It is indeed activism without understanding the world. With such, I say that, indeed, the film is very elitist and messianic in orientation.



  1. “The next scene shows the father masturbating while taking a bath and preparing to go home. ”

    Showing a masturbation to imply that a character is a ‘pervert’ makes me question the director’s idea of sexuality, which is obviously dubious, and the social and artistic suggestions of his film.

    It’s sad to see that a lot of our indie filmmaker cannot seem to go beyond ‘exploitation’ films (this one being literally an example), when in fact it has been for so many times already and has already become a parody of itself.

    1. Indeed, Nuwebe sensationalizes the issue of incest and uses the victims (the child Krista, the mother, and their poverty-stricken community) as capital to be exploited for the filmmakers’ ends. As Sheila emphasizes, what comes out is no advocacy film at all. Instead, we have a film essentially blaming a “swinish” surroundings and immediate companions for the child’s ordeal.

      Governed by a highly moralistic world-view, Joseph Israel Laban’s film self-righteously condemns what it considers to be the ignorant and promiscuous masses for turning Krista into a “slut.” Other problems with Nuwebe that I think should be pointed out include the ironic and simply unbelievable choice of the mestizo Jay and Nadine for the roles of Krista’s rural poor parents. Another is the romanticized depiction of the countryside as the rustic and serene haven idealized by urban dwellers that is shattered only by the shocking orgies of the wretched of the Earth.

      Ultimately, Nuwebe does not help in “raising awareness” but instead pushes middle class viewers to castigate the poor for “victimizing” their children. In the same vein, the state and its apparatuses (here it’s the DSWD) are lionized as the real heroes! Quite disappointing but really nothing new in a country where everybody’s gaming for quick fame.

      1. A good counterpoint to Nuwebe would be Lilet Never Happened, about a child prostitute in Manila. Unlike the moralistic and statist undertones of Nuwebe, Lilet Never Happened presents the complex social web of poverty, prostitution, and desperation in which Lilet and the individuals around her are caught in.

        In this touching film, we are are shown the realities of poverty in Manila’s slums and how urban poor children live in this setting. We are taken to sex dens and the lives of the prostitutes trapped in its chains. We are exposed to the complicity of state forces in perpetuating this sordid state. We are made to realize the limitations of NGOism and humanitarianism in resolving the problem of Lilet as rooted in an unjust and rotten society. Most importantly, we are acquainted to the effect all these have on the psychology of children like Lilet.

        The way government agencies like the DSWD, government officials, and President B.S. Aquino himself deny the realities of crisis and poverty in the Philippines make it seem as if Lilet Never Happened. But they do. And watching this film is a must for all children and adults seeking a brighter future for the next generations.

  2. Over the past twenty years, governments have commissioned or funded literally hundreds of studies about violence against women. A high-profile example at the federal level alone is the $10 million traveling commission, the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women, which issued a national action plan with over a hundred recommendations in 1993. The women’s movement has also been busy with documentation of the problem and the charting of effective solutions, as it is on the front line of mopping up the blood every day. Government has taken no action on the majority of the recommendations in these hundreds of reports, particularly in the areas of economic equality and housing which are fundamental necessities for women escaping abuse.

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