Cinemalaya's 'Delikado': The power of the documentary

To see the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Main Theater filled to the rafters is a rare occasion, what more when it’s for one of the closing films of Cinemalaya, and it’s a documentary that’s being screened. Documentaries have often taken a back seat with our cinema-watching public; so it was encouraging to see the broad and diverse cross-section of Philippine society brought together for this film about saving the Palawan forests and environment, and filling the rafters with the theater.

The Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI), a group of environmental crusaders who put their very lives on the line each time they venture out to apprehend illegal loggers and fishermen, are at the center of this documentary directed by Australian Karl Malakunas. And right off the bat, I’ll say it’s a powerful, provocative think-piece that fully deserved the rapturous reception by the audience; and even more, deserves to be watched by the public, who are often unaware of what is transpiring at ground level in the tourist destinations and travel hotspots of our country. Then it’s up to the audience to make a decision on what they’ve viewed.

And of course, the irony wasn’t lost on the audience that it took an Australian journalist/filmmaker to bring this film project to life. As Malakunas mentioned as he introduced the film, he first came to the Philippines, and to Palawan in particular, to produce a feelgood, sunny beaches with happy tourists kind of film; but the sudden death by shooting of one of the PNNI enforcers had events catching up with his intentions, and he soon discovered there was a more compelling story screaming to be told.

The main protagonists of Delikado at the Q&A following the screening

At the center of the film’s exposition are three central characters. Bobby Chan, an environment rights lawyer who lives in El Nido and organized the PNNI, Nieves Rosento, the former El Nido mayor who sided with the PNNI, and Tata Balladeros, one of Bobby’s eco-warriors, and a former military man who admits to participating in illegal logging in his past. Together, they form the triumvirate of local ‘heroes’, advocating for environmental protection and tribal rights in a province that’s been described as paradisiacal, and is at the center of massive development as a tourist destination. 

The documentary has been honored with the Sustainable Future Award at the Sydney Film Festival 2022, and the Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. And it’s easy to see why, as the opening shots of the paradise that is El Nido Palawan, is quickly segued to the life-threatening tension that surrounds the lives of these self-styled conservationists.

Like some modern-day Lone Ranger, Bobby Chan explains why the PNNI was formed, as an NGO that was ready to make citizens arrests of illegal loggers and fishermen, as they seemed to be protected by the voracious appetites of the local politicians, businessmen, and big business who were raping the forests and seas in the name of development.

There’s a quixotic element to their mission vision, and it’s soon evident as the film progresses, that despite their noble intentions, they were possibly biting off more than they could chew. And that is essentially the tragedy here, how environmental crusaders of the island would have fatal targets on their backs; and in the case of the ex-Mayor, even be placed on then President Duterte’s list of narco-politicians, and be stripped of any police power.

While the filmmakers explain that they tried to get statements from the Palawan Governor and other politicians who were the parties up against the PNNI, it’s clear that the filmmakers are dealing with blacks and whites in their exposition, and firmly putting forward the case of the trio of Chan, Rosento, and Balladeros.

The full house watching Delikado.

Community screenings and the extended Cinemalaya schedule of this film can hopefully bring audiences to watch the film. It is at one level, a call to action, and one that needs to be heeded, if we are to save this province that’s been called the Last Frontier, and which Bobby calls the Lost Frontier.