April 15, 2004

Cornell Cinema

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The idealistic teacher with the heart of gold who, with the aid of music, gets through to her students and eventually helps them grow. By this day and age, the formula has become a Hollywood staple of sorts, practically a genre within itself. Director Gil Portes’ newest film, Small Voices, falls perfectly within the boundaries of this genre at first glance. But closer scrutiny will reveal that Small Voices has something none of its Hollywood cousins possessed; genuine honesty. There are no contrived scenes of exaggerated sentimentality, but instead gentle moments of hope born of realistic portrayals of situations.

Melinda Santiago (Alessandra de Rossi) is an idealistic school teacher, newly graduated from the University of Manila, who arrives in the rural village of Malawig, in the Philippines. Melinda strives to educate and connect with her students but she is initially deterred by cynical colleagues, uncooperative parents, and the widespread mindset that education is a useless achievement in the context of the real world. Students are often pulled from class for the sake of farm duties, and nighttime guerrilla gunfights that erupt in the neighboring forest only further damages the morale of Malawig’s youth. When a routine school inspection leads Melinda to discover a regional singing contest, she encourages her students to enter the competition, and eventually utilizes music to bring them hope for the future.

Small Voices is refreshing because it seems to lack a sense of self-awareness that marks similar films of idealism. Portes is merely giving audiences a glimpse of reality rather than dramatizing a story for the sake of achieving that “and the lesson of the day is” moment. Although the film makes a point in highlighting the inadequacies of the Philippine school system, this message is an end result rather than the initiating factor. Small Voices is not a vehicle of complaint but rather one of instruction that Portes uses to elucidate an issue existing in the present day.

Winning the contest is not the central motivating idea of the movie, and by the end, audiences will realize that not winning the competition does not detract from the overall quality of the film. Portes’ film isn’t about such simple, materialistic goals, but instead about uniting individuals with differing viewpoints through a common endeavor. The contest is a symbol of hope to the villagers of Malawig. Just by being allowed to participate, Melinda’s students are being allowed to dream for better things outside the cycle of poverty and violence that afflicts so many. Although a young child initially says, “Only the rich can afford to dream,” Melinda’s efforts grant her students a chance to break down such social barriers.

Portes makes no judgments in Small Voices, always providing the reasons behind the logic and choices of every character. There are no “good guys” or “bad guys.” Melinda and her students never struggle against a one-dimensional embodiment of evil because every character is given a chance to explain their actions and motives. Redemption exists in the world of Small Voices and through Portes’ objective storytelling, every facet of a character’s personality is equally represented.

Of course, no teacher-student movie would be complete without a charming cast of lovable characters. De Rossi is like a real life Ms. Honey — young, pretty, and idealistic. She brings to Malawig a kind of gentleness that seems severely lacking in the daily struggle against poverty and circumstance that the village’s inhabitants must go through. Her students are equally vivacious — often more mature than expected, often having to deal with their own share of real world experiences and struggles. Portes’ film is, in reality, a vision of hope, but most of all it is an opportunity, a chance to give voice to those who are often unable to speak for themselves.

Archived article by Tracy Zhang