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Small Voise(Mga Munting Tinig)

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From the moment she arrives at Malawig, a remote, impoverished village a bus ride from the Philippines bustling capital of Manila, Melinda Santiago realizes she has her work cut out for her. A young and optimistic graduate of Manila’s City University whose family wishes her to repatriate to America where the real opportunities are, Melinda is not exactly prepared to meet the many challenges of her new position, that of Elementary School teacher.

These challenges appear in many forms–an unscrupulous principal (Mrs. Pantalan) who sells ice candy to the students simply to stuff her own pockets, a motorcycle-riding “Bombay” (Indian merchant) who charges 10% for cash advances on delayed teacher’s paychecks, and aggressively passive parents who believe that only the rich can afford to dream, insisting that their sons and daughters would do better to work the fields or provide domestic help rather than securing an education.

And then, of course, there is the monsoon season, torrential rains that aim to destroy the school’s meager supply of schoolbooks, lesson plans, and other dwindling resources.

Melinda goes about her work with daily diligence though, always having a smile, a kind word for her neatly uniformed charges. But her battles against apathy, corruption, and contempt are constant, further hindered by the volatile political climate in which fathers and sons are constantly recruited to join guerilla forces fighting in the mountains.

When a funding opportunity in the form of a regional singing contest presents itself to Melinda, the idealistic teacher must smartly juggle uncooperative school administrators, confrontational parents, and the torn children themselves in order to let their small voices be heard.

Gil M. Portes’s simple, sincere “Small Voices” (“Mga Munting Tinig”) offers a rare insight into a culture we rarely see depicted on film. It applauds the fight of educators in an environment that is often times in direct opposition to the basic tenets of learning. Drawing from his own experiences, Portes fashions his film with light, delicate touches, deliberating on Melinda’s daily struggle with a viewpoint that is refreshingly unaffected by Western influences (this might make the film a little too unsophisticated for some).

For his lead Portes has chosen Alessandra De Rossi and he has chosen well. She’s delightful in the role of the naïve young woman who faces cultural obstacles at every turn. De Rossi has a calm strength about her that’s lovely to witness. Sometimes her reactions seem a little too immodest, such as when she acts surprised or shocked, but for the most part she’s efficient and convincing, especially in the film’s closing contest scenes.

There’s an innocent, lyrical quality to the film and it’s hard not to be charmed by it. Portes, who lives in New York, has made some 25 feature films in his native Philippines yet in “Small Voices” he’s guilty of a few fledgling errors–there’s a brief, slow-motion sequence, for example, that seems out of place and for much of the time the film feels a little too deliberate in its predictable setup and character observations. The subtitling, too, is poor, with several stretches indecipherable against the whitened images the director has so carefully constructed.

But “Small Voices,” much like its central character Melinda, rises above these challenges to emerge as a euphoric affirmation of the power of change, teaching us that big dreams and the desire to follow them often come in small packages.

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