Captive: Berlin Film Review

Brillante Ma. Mendoza's adventure film takes inspiration from the 2001 Dos Palmas kidnappings in the Philippines at the hands of Islamic separatists.

Brillante Ma. Mendoza's adventure film takes inspiration from the 2001 Dos Palmas kidnappings in the Philippines at the hands of Islamic separatists.

It’s hard to turn a dramatic story like the 2001 hostage crisis in the Philippines at the hands of Islamic separatists into a routine adventure story, but in Captive, Brillante Ma. Mendoza (Serbis, Kinotay, Lola) succeeds. While the film has enough action and realism to keep from being dull, the French-Filipino-U.K.-German coprod starring Isabelle Huppert is so predictable in intent and execution that it should hurry to find safe haven with TV audiences after making a few specialized theatrical stops.

Based mainly on 2001-02 Dos Palmas kidnappings on the South Philippines island of Palawan, in which the armed Abu Sayyaf group took around a hundred hostages in an extended series of raids, the screenplay also draws on other, similar events that have put the Philippines on a black list for tourism. Taking a deliberately neutral approach that neither totally vilifies the kidnappers nor defends or justifies their actions, Captive focuses on describing the torturous life of the hostages, whose survivors were freed only after a year in captivity.

The film is scrupulous in recreating events in realistic settings, adding little dramatic invention to the true story.  What it actually lacks is a spark of storytelling that would pull it out of the historical recreation category. Only Huppert’s French social worker Therese Bourgoine stands out from the cursorily drawn characters, stereotypes borrowed from other disaster movies. There is the handsome, gentleman rebel leader, his rougher lieutenants who do the dirty work, and the young teenage separatist who Therese tries to mother. Lined up on the victims’ side are a missionary couple (Katherine Mulville and Marc Zanetta as Sophie and John Bernstein, apparently stand-ins for the real-life Kansas missionaries Gracia and Martin Burnham), Therese’s elderly friend and coworker Soledad who is obviously doomed from the start, and several hospital nurses picked up along the way.

The story begins at nighttime as a group of tourists disembark on their way to a resort. Therese and Soledad barely have time to reach shore before men in fatigues armed to the teeth start firing in the air and rounding up everyone in sight. Westerners and locals are dragged out of bed and indiscriminately herded aboard a small motorboat, which takes them to a mother ship. The commandant has everyone introduce themselves in hope of finding rich people able to conjure up a goodly ransom. The only man who fits the bill calls his lawyer and has the money sent over with no questions asked. Everybody else is clearly in trouble.

Therese shows the first signs of her strong character and stubbornness defending a box of Bibles which are tossed overboard by the Islamists, who identify with a little-known leader named Osama Bin Laden. It is only in the autumn of the year that their hero will become famous when the World Trade Center is blown up, much to their delight. However, the whole Christian/Muslim part of the hostage conflict is not very clear and sinks into the background as the story goes on.

Mendoza faithfully follows the sequence of events in the Dos Palmas abductions. The kidnap victims are taken on a long sea voyage to the island of Basilan in southern Mindanao, where they’re marched into a Catholic hospital the separatists take over. Attempts to negotiate with the Army fail miserably, and the first of many gun battles erupts as the military fire on the hospital. This makes the point that, throughout the year-long crisis, the Philippine government and Army are concerned almost exclusively with killing the rebels and make little or no effort to protect the lives of the hostages, who are continually caught in deadly cross-fire. Many lose their lives this way.

Escaping with several members of the hospital staff, the group moves into a mountainous jungle region where they appear to enjoy local support. The days stretch into months as the film turns into a numbing tale of kidnappers and victims constantly on the move through hostile territory. Amid all the dangers and discomforts they face on the trek, Mendoza emphasizes the daily horror of living with hornets, snakes, leeches, ants and spiders, not to mention torrential downpours and bullet wounds.  Prisoners are apt to be beheaded without warning, to show the Abu Sayyaf mean business, and two of the young nurses are forced to marry their captors.

In this compendium of horror, the film has only the angry, frightened Therese as a central point of view, and she’s not all that easy to identify with. Her short fuse often pits against her captors her in furious outbursts, putting her life in danger. More than others, she fights off the Stockholm syndrome. Her courage only breaks down when a local TV journalist is allowed into the rebels’ camp to interview her and Huppert pulls out the stops on her considerable acting gifts.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition), Feb. 12, 2012.
Production company: Swift Productions in association with Centerstage,
B. A. Produktion, Studio Eight Productions, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Katherine Mulville, Marc Zanetta, Maria Isabel
Lopez, Rustica Carpio, Ronnie Lazaro, Angel Aquino, Sid Lucero, Raymond
Bagatsing, Timothy Mabalot, Mercedes Cabral
Director: Brillante Ma. Mendoza
Screenwriters: Brillante Ma. Mendoza, Patrick Bancarel, Boots Agbayani
Pastor, Arlyn de la Cruz
Producers: Didier Costet, Brillante Ma. Mendoza, Antonio Exacoustos,
Jamie Brown, Alex Brown
Executive Producer Didier Costet
Director of photography: Odyssey Flores
Production designer: Simon Legré, Benjamin Padero
Editors: Yves Deschamps, Gilles Fargout, Kats Serraon
Music: Teresa Barrozo
Sales Agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 120 minutes.