SIGNAL ROCK Sheds Light on Philippines’ Toxic Patriarchal System
Written By: Lauren Lola
The second iteration of the Cinematografo Film Festival kicked off its three-day programming on November 8th with a screening of renowned Filipino auteur Chino Roño’s latest work, “Signal Rock.”
The film, which is the Philippines’ official entry for Best Foreign Language Film for next year’s Academy Awards, lets the natural beauty and harsh realities of a town on Biri Island come alive as the central protagonist, Intoy, goes to a specific rock where cell phone reception is the best as it will ever get, in order to communicate with his sister Vicky, who lives and works in Finland. Life has its own routine on Biri, filled with uplifting moments and disappointments alike. However, when Vicky has escaped an abusive relationship and is at risk of losing custody of her daughter, Intoy rounds up the townspeople to help prevent that from happening.
There is plenty to say about “Signal Rock;” such as how it depicts life in an isolated area of the world and about such issues faced by people in Intoy’s position. While it is notable that the film gives a look at the predominantly female labor force that sends women away – sometimes abroad – to work to provide for their families, there is definitely more to it than that. “Signal Rock” shows the problematic patriarchal attitudes and practices that exist in the Philippines.
Referring back to the female labor force, it plays a major role in the story, as it shows the limited options in life women who find themselves in these positions have. Their families depend heavily on the money they alone make to get through life, and that is a burden they – in a perfect world – shouldn’t have to experience. While some may argue on how the man is “traditionally” the bread winner, the fact that women are sent away to work somewhat ties into that. Apart from being countries where they’re likely to make a lot more money than they would if they stayed home, being abroad opens up the possibilities of “finding a foreigner to marry;” as was the case of Vicky.
Domestic abuse is also a key factor in the film’s plotline, for it’s because of falling victim to such brutal circumstances that Vicky escapes her husband. Unfortunately, despite removing both herself and her child from harm’s way, that doesn’t stop the fact that Vicky might lose her daughter to a man who should really be in jail.
Domestic abuse is sadly an occurrence that can be found all over the world, and for the longest time, the ones on the receiving end – women mainly – have hardly been given a shard of compassion for what they’ve been through. That’s why for some audiences, if it feels unnerving to watch Intoy and his town come together to save his niece from being handed over to an abusive parent, good. It is unnerving because once again, in a perfect world, Vicky should not have to fight to keep her daughter away from an abuser, and yet it happens all the time anyway.
Beyond the surface issues linked with the Philippines’ patriarchal attitudes, smaller moments – such as a scene where rape comments are exchanged between two male characters for humor’s sake and a driving desire throughout to save face – also intertwine with these frequently normalized behaviors and way of thinking. It is likely no coincidence that not once does Vicky make an appearance onscreen. It’s appropriate that this year’s Cinematografo Film Festival’s theme is “Breaking Down Walls.” In “Signal Rock,” the walls that are being broken down are centuries’ worth of a toxic patriarchal system.
It is above all ironic that this film has so much to reveal about how women in the Philippines are perceived and treated, and yet the central protagonist is a young man. As much of a troublemaker he can be who is far from being anything close to the definition of “perfect,” Intoy has a good heart and he sees and understands the challenges many women face, by way of the ones closest to him. The fact that he is so willing to do whatever to takes to help his sister and niece is a sign of hope that one day, this strongly embedded system of attitudes and practices as portrayed in “Signal Rock” might, at last, be brought to an end.