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A Teacher Fights the System With Song
By Dave Kehr
Published: October 10, 2003

Arriving in the impoverished village of Malawig in the Philippines, the idealistic new schoolteacher, Melinda (Alessandra de Rossi),is shocked to find a corrupt school administration, indifferent, unprepared teachers and students who are eager to learn but are routinely pulled out of class by their parents, who need them to
work in the fields.
Facing outright hostility from local politicians and anger and suspicion from parents, Melinda sets out to remake the system. She decides that the best way to motivate her students and their parents will be by entering her class in a regional singing contest, where triumph will mean validation of her hopes and reinforcement of her student's dreams.
As a piece of pedagogical fiction, Gil M. Portes's "Small Voices," resembles any number of films that have come before it; it is difficult to watch without thinking in particular of Wes Craven's unfortunate 1999 "Music of the Heart,"which featured Meryl Streep teaching classical violin to students at a tough Harlem high school.
But where "Music of the Heart" seemed to consist only of calculated, heartwarming moments, "Small Voices" has an appealing innocence, a genuine belief in the story and respect for its characters that allows the emotional payoffs to arrive naturally and affectingly rather than being imposed from the outside through manipulative
music, emphatic close-ups and big-star emoting.
Mr. Portes has directed more than 20 features in his native Philippines, and he is enough of a professional to create a smooth, well-paced film but not too much of a professional to try to dominate his audience's reactions. This modest movie puts much of its faith in Ms. de Rossi, its 20-year-old principal actress, who has a natural sweetness and modesty that carries over to the entire
And while Mr. Portes doesn't belong to the Philippines' highly prolific commercial film industry,he is an independent, working without studio or television support he does understand the popular cinema's need for large emotions and grand climaxes, all of which are generously supplied here.
Even so, while the cute kids are singing away, Mr. Portes is able to slip enough social observation in around the melodrama to give "Small Voices" an understated but real political dimension.
This tiny film is heartfelt, well made and worthy of attention.
Directed by Gil M. Portes
In Tagalog, with English subtitles


October 10, 2003

'Voices' quietly speaks up for hope
Alessandra de Rossi's tenacious heroine infuses a modest, sentimental film with everyday heroism.

By Kevin Thomas, Times Staff Writer

Gil M. Portes' "Small Voices" is a gentle film that is nonetheless clear-eyed about life's harsh realities. Its Garden of Eden-like setting in a rural area of the Philippines is deceptive, for the inhabitants of the village of Malawig, mainly farmers, are caught up in a cycle of poverty. As one weary wife and mother of eight remarks, "Only the rich can afford to dream." The idealistic new teacher at the village's ramshackle elementary school counters that "every child has the right to dream."

"Small Voices" is a leisurely, understated film reminiscent of any number of Japanese counterparts featuring quietly heroic rural teachers.
It is easy to label the film as slow, old-fashioned and sentimental, which it certainly is, but it has the tenacity of its heroine, the pretty and intelligent Melinda (Alessandra de Rossi), a recent University of Manila graduate. Melinda is dismayed by the apathy of the principal, Mrs. Pantalan (Dexter Doria), and the two other teachers. The school is meagerly funded, there is a shortage of books and materials, and one burned-out classroom has never been repaired. Parents routinely take their children out of classes to help with the harvests and in general place a low priority on education, especially for girls.

Melinda, however, refuses to be overwhelmed by what she's up against in trying to make a difference. She resolves to make the best of her situation, starting with listening to her pupils so they might be inspired to listen to her. When she learns of a district singing competition she is determined that Malawig Elementary will participate.

As the film unfolds, Portes' strengths come into play. Melinda may rightly become dismayed and frustrated by her colleagues, but Portes judges no one, instead allowing us to understand the people of Malawig. And while Portes milks the climactic sequence of the singing competition and events surrounding it for all they're worth, he has been careful to make the point that the thought of the school's entering the competition at all is more important than whether or not it wins. He also cleverly structures his finish for maximum impact.
"Small Voices" emerges as an affecting film that is also quite critical of the resignation that seems to permeate Philippine society, underlined by corruption and violence. Yet by the time the film draws to a close, it suggests that the implacable determination represented by Melinda offers the possibility that an individual can effect at least a modicum of change, and that such an effort, no matter how modest, is reason for hope.

Times guidelines: Some scenes may be too intense for youngsters

A Sky Island Films release. Director Gil M. Portes. Producers Gil M. Portes, Ray Cuerdo.


September 19th, 2003
Review by Jonathan Curiel

Drama. Starring Alessandra de Rossi, Dexter Doria, Gina Alajar, Amy Austria and Bryan Homecillo. Directed by Gil Portes. Written by Gil Portes, Adolfo Alix Jr. and Senedy Que.
It's too bad only one foreign film usually gets attention at the Academy Awards. Scores of countries submit entries every year -- and every year the submissions are pared down to a select winner (this year: "Nowhere in Africa") while the rest are often left behind, lucky to get any mention.
Fortunately, the Philippines' 2003 entry, "Small Voices," has been picked up for American distribution, giving U.S. audiences a chance to check out this movie about a young, idealistic teacher who works with children in a poor village. At times dramatic, sweet, funny and sentimental, "Small Voices" almost seems like a fable -- except that it's based on a real story and includes a subplot threaded with violence.
Melinda Santiago (Alessandra de Rossi) faces stiff resistance from parents and fellow teachers when, shortly after taking the job, she tries to enter her class in a regional singing contest. Santiago's corrupt and cynical colleagues aren't used to someone who questions school policies and uses resolve and creative measures (like selling ice candy to villagers) to support class projects. Although Santiago's students are excited about practicing for the vocal competition, their parents say it needlessly cuts into their kids' time for house chores and farming duties. One mother threatens to take her daughter out of class because "you'll (eventually) just marry and have kids."
"Small Voices" addresses issues that transcend Filipino culture, and the setting and characters may even seem familiar to those who enjoy the work of Satyajit Ray and other directors who are considered humanist filmmakers. But Gil Portes -- a Philippine-born-and-raised director and screenwriter who now lives in New York -- includes many details that are unique, including the guerrilla insurgency that draws in the father of two students.

Sky Island Films