Making a Difference
Small Voices (Mga Munting Tinig) is a Filipino drama about a young woman fresh from college named Melinda. She has her future laid out for her as her mother in the US has already gotten her visa ready. In this country where every graduate dreams of flying off to the USA, her decision to stay and teach in a remote barrio is difficult for her mother to accept.
But she is a young woman who is trying to find herself, and in her desire to try new things and reach new places, she opts to accept a temporary teaching post at the MalawigElementary School located in a poor remote barrio. Armed with her optimistic view of people and of the world, she aims to make a difference in that small school.
The movie could very well be a political film because it includes many of the socio-political problems that every poor Filipino is confronted with. Pilar, the teacher whom Melinda is to substitute for is leaving to become a domestic helper in Singapore because the salary of a teacher is just not enough to live on.
Melinda gets to know the school OIC, Mrs. Pantalan who sells ice candies to the school children who are compelled to buy lest they don’t get their report cards. Kids have no money? No problem, they just have to list down their names and they can pay on the last day of the week. There is no excuse for refusing to patronize the ice candies of the OIC. This is her way of augmenting her income since she sends two children to school in Manila.
One of Melinda’s two co-teachers who is a bit dumb handles the English subject and proceeds to teach wrong grammar and wrong spelling to the children. The other teacher takes the children home after school to scrub her house clean, to feed her pig, and to fetch water for her bath.
This is the situation that Melinda has to contend with but it doesn’t end there. She feels bad when the few old books are damaged by the rain, only to find out that there are several new books kept by the OIC in her office for show when the school supervisors visit.
Melinda is pressured by her mother to use her US visa and come to America but she persists in her desire to make a difference in that remote barrio for the sake of the children. The reality that has confronted her has not diminished her spirit but her fear is that she becomes one of them, the teachers who have corrupted their roles for their own benefit.
Corruption and Indifference to Education
Melinda is not only confronted with the corrupt practices of the teachers but also the lack of concern of the parents for their kids’ studies. It is usual for a child to be absent from class during harvest season to help in the fields.
The movie shows scenes where parents reprimand their kids for going to school. One mother tells her boy that going to school is a waste of time, and that the money is in the fields. He has to work in the fields and forget about school.
Another mother tells her daughter that finishing elementary is enough because she is a girl and girls need not dream of becoming anything, girls get married and raise kids. This mentality is common among the Filipinos in the barrio. It seems that they begrudge their children for going to school while they are left at home doing housework, taking care of the small children. And fathers begrudge their boys for being in class while they work in the fields. This is coming from the belief that children are born to help their parents, not parents working to ensure the good future of their kids.
There are many touching scenes in the movie, such as the plight of the boy Popoy and his older brother Obet. Popoy goes to school in the morning and his older brother in the afternoon. Obet waits for Popoy to come home so he can wear the uniform that Popoy is wearing that morning. There is only one uniform for both the boys to wear to school. Their father has joined those who oppose the government because they have experienced oppression by some rich land grabber. He thinks he can change the system through violent struggles.
Against All Odds
Melinda learns about a choral singing contest for schools and they are invited to join. The OIC has no intention of making the children of MalawigElementary School join the contest but Melinda has insisted. She types letters asking the parents to allow their children to join said contest. Her first hurdle is to make Mrs. Pantalan sign the letters. She signs grudgingly but warns Melinda that she has to face the parents in case they come to complain.
One scene shows a father tearing the letter in two, another shows the mother toss the letter into the fire. The next scene has parents flocking to Mrs. Pantalan’s office angrily. They tell Melinda not to make their life more difficult by keeping the kids in school for practice. She tries to calm them down and explain what she intends to do but they just refuse to allow their children to be part of the contest because they need their children after school to do odd jobs at home.
When time comes for practice, only a few appear. Obet appears for practice without his younger brother Popoy and he tells Melinda to talk to their mother why Popoy cannot join the practice. Melinda learns that only one boy can be at school one at a time because they have only one uniform, otherwise the mother has no problem allowing her sons to join. She even helps Melinda talk to the other parents but still the parents adamantly refused. The movie shows Melinda buying a school uniform for the boys and gives them as a birthday gift to Obet.
The movie is not clear how all the children have been able to join the choral singing group in spite of some parents’ refusal. Then comes the problem of costumes since the school has no budget for it but Melinda has an idea. The children sell ice candies to the whole community to raise the money for the costume.
When everything seems to work out well, a battle ensues between the government forces and the rebels. The next day, the people in the barrio finds the dead bodies of the rebels, and two of them are Obet’s father and young Popoy who earlier the previous day has gone with his father to the mountains.
Obet has withdrawn from the choral group because of what has happened to his family. The other kids seem to have lost their spirit at the death of Popoy. Melinda is ready to give up on the contest as well, but her determination prevails.
The Small Voices are Heard
The kids get their motivation back and gather for practice to the delight of Melinda. On the day of the contest, all the kids are loaded into a jeepney to get to town. Obet on the other hand decides to join the contest and runs to the school but the vehicle has already left. He runs through the field to catch them at the road but still missed the jeepney by a few seconds.
It seems that fate is against Obet. He hails a passing jeepney but the driver has not heard him. He takes a short cut to catch the jeepney and after calling out at the top of his lungs, the driver has heard him and stopped. Before he can even reach town, the driver forces him to get off because he does not have money for the fare. He takes a motorcycle ride but the motor stopped and he has to run. At the gate, he falls down but continues until he gets to the door of the auditorium where someone acting as a guard forbids him from entering. I don’t understand the obstacles that Obet has to go through just to be part of the contingent. It must be a symbolism of his uphill climb to pursue something that he normally does not do.
Long story short, he joins the choral group a few minutes after they start singing. He does not wear the right costume but it does not seem to make a difference.
Perhaps, I am looking for practicality in this scene. Perhaps, he could have joined them at school and spared him the long run. After that long run, he appears at the stage without even showing signs of exhaustion.
I never expect them to win. For me, it is enough that they are out there, that they are able to sing, produce their costume, and be present in that auditorium in spite of their parents’ obstinate insistence that the activity is a waste of time.
The movie has tried even at the last moment to create a moment of heart-piercing dejection when the 3 prizes are announced and the group is not in them. Just as you are ready to accept that this is one of those “it’s-not-whether-you-win-or-lose-it’s-how-you-play-the-game-that-counts” movie, the emcee announces that there is a tie for the first place. Who else? The Malawig Elementary School!
Well, towards the end of the movie, Pilar who has gone to Singapore comes home because she has been a victim of illegal recruitment. Melinda decides to do as her mother wants and go to America where she gives herself a year to find out if America is for her. The kids say a tearful goodbye. Mrs. Pantalan says Melinda has given them new hope. Perhaps the OIC would implement some changes in the school, and perhaps the parents of the kids have been given a different perspective towards school. Well… we can only surmise.
Small Voices (Mga Munting Tinig)
Small Voices (Mga Munting Tinig) is a 2002 Filipino film directed by Gil Portes. The movie has won many awards including a Gawad Urian Award in 2003 and Famas Award also in 2003. It is a Filipino film released by Warner Bros. Pictures. That may be the reason why there is so much expectation for this movie but there are those who say that they are a bit disappointed with it. Sad to say, I am one of those.
I would have wanted to see character growth from the children. I would have wanted to see how they learned to overcome their situation through music, how their small voices have made a big impact on their lives. I would have wanted to see Melinda grow from a naïve fresh graduate to a more mature, reality-anchored woman. As a moviegoer, I would have wanted to see more.
It would have been nice to explore the stories of the other characters a bit more and given resolution. There is the story of Gela and her many siblings whom her mother expects her to cake care of. Her mother tells Gela that “dreams” are only for the rich and that women need not nurture any dreams at all.
There is the story of a father and a mother who tells their young son Adong to do what his older brothers have done. They have stopped going to school and opted to work in the fields. The parents are obviously proud of the two older brothers and disappointed with Adong who insists that he dreams of a better life than working in the fields.
Also in the movie is the story of Pilar and her mother, Aling Chayong who in one scene tells Melinda that she has worked all her life as a domestic helper overseas so her daughter can graduate from college, so Pilar can have a better life than her. But just like Aling Chayong, her daughter who is a college graduate and a teacher is a domestic helper in Singapore.
The movie ends as Melinda rides in a jeep away from the barrio hoping in her heart that she has made a difference in the lives of the children in that poor remote barrio.