South Asian Projects
Project Name: Mind Your Language
Director’s Name: Chona Mangalindan, Philippines
In the last country outside the Vatican where divorce is illegal, women in abusive marriages pay the price. With only difficult options, they either stay or turn to unsavory solutions.
For twenty-one years, Grace experienced all kinds of abuse from her husband. “I had become immune to the beatings, but I could no longer tolerate the mental torture,” she recounts. Despite the multiple times she ran to the local authorities and to her peers, nobody helped her. Her troubles were easily dismissed as “away mag-asawa” (petty couple fights) and her capacity as a wife was repeatedly questioned.
This happens a lot in the Philippines, where domestic abuse is rampant but rarely discussed. Where divorce is not allowed and the Catholic Church wields its strong power to make sure it stays that way. Here, women are simply expected to endure it.
Grace is now a pro-divorce campaigner. Her husband eventually passed away. But before that, she considered killing him herself. It was the only way she could foresee an end to her misery.
Currently, the only options to escape a loveless marriage in the Philippines are arduous and inaccessible to most. Annulments can take up to decades to resolve and can cost upwards of 5,000 USD—more than the average annual salary in the country. The most common causes of a marriage breakdown–domestic abuse, infidelity, and abandonment–are also not considered legal grounds.
This unique predicament has given rise to unsavory underground trades. Annulment mills, involving bribing court personnel to improperly settle annulment cases have emerged. Scams offering quick results and fake certificates have cropped up. And for more desperate clients, hiring a hitman– which is cheaper and quicker than going to court– may feel like the only option.
In this film, we shine a light on the broken Philippine legislative system and the women it seldom protects. We follow the story of Grace and two other women who are fighting against cultural and legal obstacles to break free from their abusive marriages. We see their struggles, the toll, and, with limited prospects and resources, how far they are willing to go.
As a Filipino woman, I am drawn to this story as I have witnessed first-hand the physical and emotional toll the lack of divorce in the Philippines has exacted. One in three Filipino women has experienced spousal violence — be it physical, emotional, or sexual.
Currently, the only options to escape a loveless marriage in the Philippines are arduous and unaffordable to most. As a consequence, most women stay in abusive households or flee without legally dissolving their marriages. This leads to unending cycles of domestic abuse and to married women who have found new partners, at risk of being charged with adultery—a crime that can only be charged against women, with a maximum sentence of 6 years in prison.
All of this happens while efforts to pass divorce legislation fail. In the middle of this is the Catholic Church which maintains its strong influence on the political landscape of the country. According to them, divorce is “immoral, anti-family, and will only introduce disorder to the society.”
In a country with a population that’s 85% Catholic, it might be unpopular to go against that. But as I speak to more women who remain vulnerable in abusive marriages and unsupported in their communities, I am convinced that their challenges must be heard and must be better understood.
Combining observational filming with personal testimonies, this film will provide a raw window into the lasting consequences of the absence of divorce in the Philippines–and the fight to change it. My goal for is to raise difficult questions about the current system and consider how we can protect women in vulnerable situations moving forward. My hope is that by exposing the underground annulment market and the legal system that gave rise to it, the pressure to make significant changes will grow.
This story switches between the fight to legalize divorce in the country and the personal battles of women who are still stuck in an abusive legal union or the memory of it. In the case of Grace, it’s the latter.
The screen is blank but one can hear Grace sniffling. Her video camera turns on and vividly, she recounts how the abuse started on the 2nd day of their marriage, when she accidentally burnt the rice for dinner and her then-husband hit her so hard she almost went deaf. That was only the start of their 21 years together. The fits of temper turned so bad and constant that it pushed Grace into depression. And in the lack of options to get out, Grace reveals in detail how she plotted to kill him. A doctor friend coached her how to do it, she explains. The syringe was ready and the car trunk already empty. But on the night it was planned, her newborn child wouldn’t stop crying. She ended up reassessing her plans and waiting a few more years–until eventually, her husband died of natural causes.
I’ve been in correspondence with Grace for over a year now. We initially communicated through video calls at the height of the pandemic, but in in early 2022, I was finally able to film her in-person and follow her efforts in lobbying for a divorce law in the country. Some wonder why she is still campaigning for divorce when her husband has already passed away and she’s no longer trapped in an abusive home. But we learn that for Grace, it’s about redeeming herself after all the years she wasn’t able to do anything.
We follow her as she meets other women from her divorce advocacy group and as they discuss their next steps. The biggest push back has been from religious groups who are anti-divorce and have been sending them intimidating messages. We watch how Grace and her group face these challenges and lobby for divorce in a country that’s 85% Catholic.
In Rizal, we accompany Faith as she makes sense of the complex legal troubles she finds herself in. Originally from Cebu, she now lives in the outskirts of Metro Manila, rebuilding her life while supporting her kids through her small eatery. She recounts why she left her marriage. “I really didn’t want to get married. I was only 19 but his parents forced me. I was already pregnant and they wanted to stop the gossiping in their town,” she explains.
Only after a year together, she fled their home. In the following 13 years, while not able to legally dissolve their marriage, they each led their own lives and had their own string of romantic affairs. Faith, after several years, met a new partner and had another child.
Then in 2018, for the first time in 13 years, Faith asked her legal husband for child support for the daughter they share together. The husband ignored her requests and, instead, charged her with adultery for having borne a 3rd child with a different man.
This triggered a series of traumatic events for Faith. Having left her hometown where she was shunned for being “separada” (separated) and “malandi” (promiscuous), she gained equal notoriety in her new neighborhood when plainclothes men scandalously arrested her in front of her home without any warrant.
Her eatery remains empty these days. No one wants to be associated with a charged adulteress. Her partner is now gone too. When charges for adultery were filed in 2018, they were against both Faith and her partner. Upon learning of this, her partner immediately fled the country, taking with him the daughter they share together. Faith is now left with 2 kids, an eatery that is barely surviving, and an adultery charge to her name. “They say the divorce will ruin families and encourage broken families. What they don’t know is that the absence of divorce is what breaks us,” she muses.
Her case is ongoing and we follow her as she prepares to face her legal husband in court.
Interwoven with the stories of women, Edcel Lagman, a human rights lawyer and member of the Philippine House of Representatives, elaborates on the importance of absolute divorce law in the country. “The state cannot abandon couples and their children in a house on fire, ” he laments. He is the principal author of the divorce bill that was recently approved by the lower Congress but is now stuck in the Senate. Efforts to pass a divorce law in the country have repeatedly failed over the past decades and Representative Lagman is turning 80 soon. He hopes that before he retires, divorce will finally be passed into law.
We follow him as he pushes for this bill one last time.
Chona is A Filipino documentary filmmaker currently based in Berlin. Her film IN SANTA ANA won Best Film at the Sorok Short Film Festival and was nominated for Best International Short at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. She was a selected participant at Docs by the Sea and the Global Short Docs Forum.
Anne is a producer with a track record of helping first-time filmmakers succeed. THE WORKERS CUP premiered on Opening Night at Sundance and was nominated for an Emmy and a Critics Choice Award. Anne also produced first-time director Hillary Bachelder’s film, REPRESENT, with Kartemquin Films.
From November 2022- April 2023, we are scheduled to film the 3 protagonists. We will closely watch Grace as she faces obstacles in campaigning to legalize divorce in the country. We will follow Faith as she faces the adultery charge filed by her legal husband. And lastly, we will accompany Mercy as she finds ways to protect herself and her children from her murderous husband.
In the next months, we will apply for different grants and complete the financing of the project. Production is estimated to last from 6-8 months, and we are aiming to wrap up before mid-2023.
This project is currently in the late-development stage. After speaking to more than 40 women, we chose our protagonists: three women who have attempted to leave their marriages but have failed. They have confirmed their participation and have agreed to give full access to filming.
We have also recently spent four months in the Philippines conducting interviews with the most active players in the campaign to legalize divorce. We gained access to the biggest pro-divorce group in the country and already have permission to film their lobbying efforts at the Senate starting November 2022.
Visual Material’s Link