Bullet-Laced Dreams; gives a face to Lumad children

Published November 15, 2021, 11:55 AM

by Rica Arevalo

Kristoffer Brugada and Cha Escala’s documentary wins the UNICEF Prize

Documentary filmmakers Kristoffer “Tops” Brugada and Cha Escala recently received The UNICEF Prize at the Japan Prize, an international competition focusing on educational content for their work, “Bullet-Laced Dreams.”

‘Bullet-Laced Dreams’ movie poster

In an email interview, Tops remarks, “The win is a validation of the struggles of the Lumad children and community in their fight for their rights as human beings.”

The 29-minute film had its world premiere at the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in South Korea. It was supported by grants from the Tribeca Film Institute’s If/Then Short Documentary Program, In-Docs, MacArthur Foundation, Docs by the Sea, and Ford Foundation.

The UNICEF Prize-winning documentary centers on the struggles of Chricelyn Empong (right)

Co-productions work well in securing worldwide distribution. “It’s really good to have this support because as independent filmmakers, we don’t have the financial capability to get filming and editing consultants, and we got them all for free because of the efforts of these organizations,” says Tops.

A TV version was also shown in NHK World via “Inside Lens” in Japan.

Tops and Cha started filming in 2017 when they heard about indigenous children being displaced when schools were closed down because town officials and the military labeled them as “left-leaning.” They were branded as children of the rebels.

‘We are happy that our film has become a tool to help the public further understand their plight and, with hope, take action to help them in their struggle.’

“We had immersion on our first day with the kids, and that’s when we met our protagonist, Chricelyn,” recalls the George Foster Peabody Award recipient, Tops. “When we were listening to her talk, she had this innocence and courage in her that really impressed us.”

At that time, Chricelyn Empong was 14 years old and her dream was to finish her schooling so she could go back to her hometown in Kabalantian in Arakan, Cotabato.

From left: Chricelyn Empong with directors Cha Escala and Kristoffer Brugada

Seeing the exodus of the Lumads, the indigenous tribes in Mindanao from their own lands, who had to settle in an evacuation site, was heart-wrenching. The only “shortcoming” of the schools was teaching the children to defend their ancestral lands against mining companies and big businessmen.

What did the 41-year-old filmmaker learn from the Lumads? “I saw how these kids will do everything just to achieve their goal of getting a decent education—they are very persistent in pursuing this dream of having a better life,” he muses. “They will not settle for anything less than what they really deserve to have as Filipinos.”

For the University of the Philippines Film Institute graduate, the Lumads’ struggles are worth fighting for because all Filipinos should have the same rights.

Lumads fight for their right to education

The Japan Prize established in 1965 states that the UNICEF Prize is given to “an excellent work that promotes understanding of the lives of children in difficult situations.”

“We are happy that our film has become a tool to help the public further understand their plight and, with hope, take action to help them in their struggle,” says the 2010 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature screenplay winner.

Tops and Cha captured in their cameras how the Lumads were constantly harassed and pushed away from their ancestral lands—lands that they own and have occupied for hundreds of years. Chricelyn’s young life is marred with bittersweet tragedy and victory.

As the feisty teenager promised in the film, she would continue her father’s fight. “Helping other people is never a crime,” she said.

“Bullet-Laced Dreams” is available for streaming. Visit moov.cinemacentenario.com/.