Apo Whang-Od Featured In New Documentary

Apo Whang-Od To Be Featured In A New Documentary About Philippine Tattoo Culture

Photo by Renee De Guzman

The trailer for Treasure of the Rice Terraces explores tattooing as a means of connecting with Filipino identity and culture, especially for Filipinos of diasporic experience. 

With conversations around Apo Whang-Od, indigenous representation, and the artistry of batok continuing worldwide, a new documentary about Filipino tattoo culture is set to be released featuring the esteemed mambabatok

Titled Treasure of the Rice Terraces, the film delves into the Philippines’ tattoo culture: how, from the ’70s until recently, it has been inundated with negative connotations, associating tattoos with gang activity, prison and crime; and how the attention on someone like Apo Whang-Od and the Butbut tribe’s tradition has changed this view, reminding people of a lost culture where tattoos were an art form, a form of expression, and symbols of belongingness to certain tribes. 

Vancouver-based Filipino-Canadian Kent Donguines, the man behind the documentary, adds another layer to the discourse on local tattoo traditions: the diasporic experience. He explores the tattoo pilgrimage to Buscalan as a means for Filipinos from other countries to connect with their culture and get permanent markings of their Filipino identity.

“The question of one’s identity and its permanence has always been a complex conversation,” says Donguines in a voice over at the beginning of the documentary’s five-minute trailer, noting that as he grew older, he felt less Filipino because there were many aspects of the culture he did not explore, experience and understand, one of which is the country’s tattoo culture. 

In the trailer, Apo Whang-Od talks about her beginnings as a mambabatok, being taught by her late father when she was still young so she could make a living. She also talks about how, culturally, tattoos are the only treasures you can keep when you die. “If you’re rich, when you die, they will take all your jewelry, and it’s only your tattoos left on your body, and it can’t be taken away from you,” she says in Butbut Kalinga.

Also in the trailer is Apo Whang-Od’s grand-niece, Grace Palicas, who talks about their life in the village prior to tourism, and how opening their village to tourism has helped open people’s minds about tattoos being symbols of bravery and beauty.

“I would like to continue the legacy of my grandmother,” Palicas declares in the video, adding she wants to continue so that the younger generation could keep the tradition alive. Donguines also mentions at the end of the trailer that the documentary will also look into stolen inked mummies, cultural appropriation, and “our ongoing fight for cultural sovereignty.” 

Watch the full trailer below. 

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