A pregnant woman, notably without a husband to keep her company and more notably with hardly an emotion on her face, walks to the maternity hospital. She arrives at the hospital, revealing a queue of other pregnant women, waiting for their turn to be examined by the physician who determines whether or not the mother's are about to deliver and should be admitted into the hospital. In the delivery room of the hospital, several women are giving birth together, side by side, seemingly oblivious of privacy and other things that make that most important moment in motherhood immeasurable unique and special.
With its unflinching depiction of the brutal conditions of an overworked and overcrowded public maternity hospital, the opening sequence of Eduardo Roy, Jr.'s Bahay Bata (Baby Factory) enunciates how poverty has pervaded and probably tainted what should be sacred. It's a literal baby factory, where mothers are herded in assembly lines, and doctors go through one mother after another, delivering babies with astounding but unfeeling efficiency that is not unlike that of a trained and skilled factory worker.
The images that Roy was able to capture within the maternity hospital are evidence of the gnawing overpopulation that strangles the country's economy and therefore making the cycle of poverty ever more apparent and inescapable. In a country that is in the middle of a seemingly never-ending debate on overpopulation and governmental regulations to put a stop to it, what Roy has strung together is politically and socially relevant, an intelligently rendered disclosure of the failures of the status quo, and a signal of a need to graduate from a stagnant culture of useless charity and temporary solutions to something more progressive.
Fortunately, Roy does not succumb to the temptation of being overtly political. From the shocking images that Roy sets the tone and feel of his film with, he moves on, focusing on the very human stories that miraculously still exist despite the hospital's pathetic conditions. Because of that, Bahay Bata succeeds in painting a very tender, very delicate, and beautifully non-judgmental picture of mothers at their humblest and most vulnerable.
From the nurse (Diana Zubiri, in a surprisingly heartfelt performance that is memorable not because there are big acting moments but because she was able to communicate the minute changes that happen from the first time we see her until the last) who is suddenly faced with the decision of continuing a pregnancy that is borne from an illicit relationship to the mother who is unable to lactate and breastfeed her thirteenth child, the stories that Roy and screenwriter Jerome Zamora found in their research which they wrote into the film are mostly fascinating. Masterfully weaved together by Charliebebs Gohetia's precise editing work, those stories merge to become a penetrating film that echoes the glistening imperfections that makes motherhood such a beautiful thing, how amidst the blood, sweat and tears of childbirth, there is the truest of pleasure, however momentary, in giving life, how it incites the most pronounced of emotions, whether it be happiness, anger, love, and depression.
Bahay Bata is wonderfully subtle, a description that is rarely used for films that have poverty as a constant and continuous backdrop. While it starts seemingly exploitative of the appalling scenario that the dozens of mothers have to face, it evolves into something extremely close to sublime, a film that can be both agitating and touching, numbing and heartfelt.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)