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That shaky attempt to tackle abortion via ’12 Weeks’

As its attempt to tell a story about abortion in the Philippine context, Anna Isabelle Matutina’s “12 Weeks” is, in a word, shaky. Lemme try to (briefly) explain why…

The first time I (knowingly) encountered abortion tackled in any film was in the 1990s, via “If These Walls Could Talk”. There were actually three “films” here, as there were three stories told, dealing with the plights of three different women and their experiences with abortion, occurring in the same house in 1952, 1974, and 1996. Nancy Savoca directed the first and second stories, with THE Cher directing the third.

It was, simply, mind-opening for me. Like many who have been educated in Catholic schools, abortion was taught to me to be a “non-issue issue” – i.e. it’s “always wrong”, women have no right to decide for themselves when it comes to reproduction, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The three stories, though, made me see other dimensions related to abortion – e.g. women empowerment, effects of social injustices vis-à-vis abortion (like social class, racial issues, and so on), and patriarchy’s overwhelming impact on all discourses even if – in the end – its simply perpetuates abuses (for instance, men’s role in pregnancy is often ignored, putting the “blame” on women who – as if they got pregnant miraculously – now have to take “responsibility” over the fetuses all on their own).

That’s a mouthful for an intro, yes. But as its attempt to tell a story about abortion in the Philippine context, Anna Isabelle Matutina’s “12 Weeks” is, in a word, shaky. Lemme try to (briefly) explain why…

WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT

“12 Weeks” tells the story of a single, 40-year-old woman (Max Eigenmann) who discovered that she is pregnant just as she broke up with her younger (and, really, not-that good of a) boyfriend (Vance Larena). Taking into consideration various factors (e.g. family expectations, the partner, et cetera), she had to come up with a decision about the pregnancy.

WHAT WORKED

There are things that, I think, worked for the film, e.g.:

  • trying to tackle a topic that’s definitely still very controversial is always admirable. Arguably particularly in the Philippines, abortion is, usually, an issue reserved for documentaries; but this one here’s attempt to do so via a feature film, so… kudos.
  • the actors were more-than-sufficient – e.g. Eigenmann’s approach to the character (i.e. somewhat stoic) was believable; the mouthy friend (Claudia Enriquez) and reserved mother (Bing Pimentel) were at least spontaneous-like; and the BF (Larena) may not have exactly shone, but he sufficed.
  • the attempt to not limit women’s issues to reproduction was a good attempt at broadening contexts – e.g. how, even if unconsciously, men get to do pregnancy-related decisions of women (like when the boss decided for Eigenmann’s character not to travel).
  • production (by Marielle Hizon) wasn’t bad… generally speaking. For instance, you do get a sense of Eigenmann’s social class based on how things are presented onscreen.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK

But the film is, obviously, not perfect.

  • running for 105:00 minutes, the drama felt too long – e.g. editing by Michael Lacanilao and Matutina could have been tightened to make some scenes actually appear intentional as opposed to simply trying to appear pensive (like the empty silences between Eigenmann’s character and the mother).
  • dealing with inconsistencies could have helped – e.g. in that scene where Eigenmann had sex with Larena, she was shown to be naked, but he had his boxers on.
  • the main issue here, i.e. abortion, is on its own already HUGE; so to try to frame this via the Marawi siege sort of took away from what could have been a more detailed look at abortion in the Philippines. Yeah, yeah… we don’t live in a vacuum, I get it. But when a film about abortion is overshadowed by the Martial Law in southern Philippines, you have an issue here…
  • the seeming disinterest to tackle abortion head-on – e.g. we’re just told there are medical practitioners illegally doing abortion in the Philippines, but… this isn’t even this film’s concern as much as to replicate the director’s state when, at 40, she said she confronted her issues related to not getting pregnant. Due to this “approach”, don’t expect to be educated by the likes of – say – “If These Walls Could Talk”; this one feels more like some counseling session for the main character who had to process what she’s going through.
  • inconsistent characterizations – e.g. that nosy “counselor” who kept saying that whatever the patient says doesn’t matter, and yet still is very nosy anyway (yeah, yeah… we know it’s just to push the narrative forward); and Eigenmann’s character not really growing up as she’s eventually portrayed as a supposed feminist but who can’t get over Larena’s character’s dick (which was quite disempowering, really).
  • for that matter, incomplete character development – e.g. why is Eigenmann’s character always angry at… everything? We watch this for 105:00 minutes, and… don’t expect an answer to be found.
  • check technical aspects – e.g. when scenes are dark, they get too dark; that shaky camera at the start and end of the film may have been done stylistically, but as a companion said, “it just gave me headache”.

IN THE END…

In an explanatory note for her entry in Cinemalaya, Matutina stated that she started writing “12 Weeks” in 2017, when she turned 40 and struggled with the likelihood of never having children. At that time, “I took to writing in order to confront my frustrations and feelings of inadequacy, as well as reexamine my preconceived ideas about motherhood.”

Note the latter – i.e. “confront my frustrations and feelings of inadequacy” – to get a glimpse of how Matutina may actually really view abortion. And this shows in this predictable film – i.e. you know the main character will seek to have abortion, change her mind about it, and then lose the baby anyway. This approach has been repeatedly tackled in the past; this time, used in partially telling an abortion-related film.

But this isn’t Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Lingui, the Sacred Bonds” (2021); or Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” (2021); or Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” (2020). So forget the nuanced – yet encompassing (and at times cinematographically breathtaking) – tackling of this issue. If we want a similar telling of any story about abortion in the Philippines, “12 Weeks” isn’t it; meaning, we may have to wait longer…

CAST
Max Eigenmann, Bing Pimentel, Vance Larena, Claudia Enriquez

PRODUCTION
DIRECTOR: Anna Isabelle Matutina
SCREENPLAY: Anna Isabelle Matutina
EDITORS: Michael Lacanilao, Anna Isabelle Matutina
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Jippy Pascua
SOUND DESIGNER: Lamberto Casas, Jr.
PRODUCTION DESIGNER: Marielle Hizon
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Jules Katanyag, Danzen Santos Katanyag

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“12 Weeks” is part of the 18th edition of Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.

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