(Mga Munting Tinig) Directed by Gil Portes. Philippines. 2002.

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Small Voices is about Melinda (Alessandra de Rossi), a young women who starts work as a teacher at a remote rural school. She is replacing a young teacher like herself who has gone abroad to seek her fortune. 

It’s not surprising that her predecessor decided to go as the school is run-down and the teachers have lost all ambition for themselves and their pupils. Their pay cheques are infrequent and the headmistress supplements her income by selling ice candy to the pupils.

All the parents are poor and struggle to exist so they are reluctant to let their children attend school when there are chores to be done at home. Education is at the bottom of everyone’s list of priorities. Some see joining the communists as a solution to their economic situation but the army is busy killing them off in night-time fire-fights.

Alessandra de
                    Rossi at the chalk face in Small Voices.Melinda is idealistic and does not want to become another victim of apathy. When a local choral singing competition comes up she seizes this opportunity to inspire her pupils to go for a dream. There is opposition to her plans from all sides but her quiet determination and problem-solving skills help win the day.

The main story is based on the experiences of Portes’ niece in the 1980s.  He also draws on his own experiences as a pupil at a similar type of school, and from the stories told to him by his mother, wife and sister who are all teachers.

Portes uses all these experiences and sources of information to create fully-rounded characters and realistic situations. The headmistress is shown to have fallen into cynical ways, but it is revealed that she was originally a star pupil at the Central School of Teaching. She has since given into the idea that she and her staff “are just teachers” who cannot change things. At heart she is really a “softie” and she does finally help Melinda enter the choral competition. The interaction between the headmistress and her fellow teachers is often amusing and sad. One teacher agrees with everything she says and another is shown to be no better educated than her pupils.

The children at the school have more tragic stories but they cheerfully respond to Melinda’s teaching and guidance. 

In his introduction to the screening of the film at the 5th Bangkok International Film Festival, and during the question and answer session afterwards, Gil Portes spoke with passion about his love for telling stories, writing and talking. He revealed that he gained a degree in journalism and worked in advertising before making his first film in 1966. He wrote Small Voices about 3 or 4 years ago but that was the easy part, the main difficulty was finding funding for it. The Department of Education in the Philippines did not want to back it as it did not show their school system in a good light. Eventually he was able to persuade the head of an educational organistation, CAP, to fund it and once that happened it was all systems go.

During the making of the film Alessandra de Rossi, who plays Melinda, told Portes that she was worried that it would not make any money. He told her to worry about the film not the money. At 17-years-old she was a couple of years younger than the character Portes had written in the script, but as that anecdote shows she already has a view-point beyond the lights and cameras. She certainly shows plenty of promise in this film as she avoids being too cute or too brittle. Here we are seeing a star in the making.

The main criticism of this film is that Melinda’s idealistic bubble is never burst. For her hard work and education can overcome everything, and it is the main message of this movie. The film itself shows that her predecessor is abused by her new employer overseas, yet the end note of the film is Melinda leaving for the USA and a successful teaching career. Her philosophy works for her but it doesn’t offer much for those left behind. 

Small Voices follows in the wake of many films about a teacher who inspires unmotivated, unwilling pupils against all odds and it does not fully answer the problems of the real world but it is full of warmth, feeling, humour and love. If you get the chance watch it.

Nigel Watson

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