Viewing the Past on Screen: The Challenge of Retrieving Indigenous Culture

The kids gathered around the nipa hut. Curiosity glows from their eyes as they intently view the screen in front of them. Each kid wanted to see the full view of the screen. After a while, a song plays from the film. Instantly, they started singing and humming to this familiar song.

Six years ago, I did a documentary film entitled “Sa Rikaw” which documented an Iraya Mangyan song. I visited the community five years ago and left a DVD copy of the film to the tribal leader.  However, Ada – one of the kids who was in the documentary – recalled that that year, the disk got lost after they viewed it.  Since then, they’ve never seen the film again.

Ada and the rest of the kids giggled. Seeing their younger selves on the screen brought laughter to them.  In the film, they were still little and boistrous. Now they’ve grown and have developed shyness. The film served as flashback to who they were as kids. Back then, they were enthusiastically sing “Sa Rikaw” and parade themselves in font of the camera. As the film on the screen progressed, the song “Sa Rikaw” played and a sudden sense of familiarity dawned to the kids. “… ba maki magirum…” The kids hummed and sang together with this familiar song. Some of them faintly remembered the lyrics of the song and some only the tune. As soon as the film ended, Ada turned to me and said in an excited demeanor that she desires to learn the song again.

Retrieving culture from the past has never been simple. Parts of one’s culture inevitable gets lost through time. Culture change happens. Imposition of external and dominant culture has been seen as one of the reasons for indigenous peoples’ culture change. Also, exchanges of practices, traditions, and daily rituals among people groups created fluidity, hybridity and changes on cultures. The nonuse of Iraya language by the community paired with lowland migration has caused the decrease of singing “Sa Rikaw”.

Songs are considered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. Across the world, indigenous people groups have utilized songs to embody their ethnic traditions, stories and history. Since songs are passed orally, there is always threat to its continuance in the culture. Through the aid modern technology in the form of photos, videos and audio recordings, researchers and anthropologists were able to document intangible heritage of indigenous people. Although culture can be documented, the reality is traditions or songs will only remain relevant when a group continually use, embody, recreate, imagine, and pass it to the next generation. Culture Conservation is never a simple process because culture is dynamic. Since culture utilization is decided and curated by people, a community can cease to use a song or a dance depending on its relevance to their lives.

Not only is intangible cultural heritage threatened by the discontinuance of practices, but also some of the documented culture are not accessible to their owners. Cultures documented through video and audio recording is not readily available to a community where incompatibility in technology is present. Gadgets that are capable of video cannot yet be afforded by some communities. Thus, the retrieval of culture is stifled and not propagated. Documentation is good but does not complete the equation. This challenge will continue to persist for anthropologist and cultural workers who seek to conserve and preserve cultural heritages.

I want to believe that the story of “Sa Rikaw” as a song will not stop within the documentary film. The song in itself will only genuinely live through the lips of the Iraya Mangyan people. The song will only authentically thrive at the minds and hearts of the people who own it. It is a real challenge. A challenge that  I desire to take on as a visual anthropologist. I don’t have yet the answer and will never have because I don’t own “Sa Rikaw”. Sa Rikaw belongs to its people. But I do believe that I have a responsibility to journey with the Iraya Mangyan community through however they want to cultivate the song.


Watch “Sa Rikaw”:

Published by Kathleen Lei Limayo

Documentary Filmmaker, Documentary Photographer & Visual Anthropologist

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