The dismaying spectacle of a wildly overcrowded Manila maternity ward during Christmastime is pitched midway between docu and drama in Eduardo Roy Jr.’s confident first feature, “Baby Factory.” Western viewers will choose their own comparisons — “ER” meets Frederick Wiseman’s “Hospital,” anyone? — but Roy, a veteran of Filipino TV soaps, has found his voice in feature directing by imbuing sudser conventions with a strong underlying realism. Following a limited local mid-October release, major early-year and spring international fests should baby-sit.
Flashes of dramatized moments — one features a husband unable to bring milk into the clinic for his wife, whose breasts are dry — are initially sprinkled into an overall view of Manila’s primary maternity hospital, stuffed with too many expectant moms and too few overworked doctors, nurses and aides. On one hand, Roy and his nimble d.p. Ogi Sujatan (managing extraordinary images in the actual facility, with more or less existing lighting) observe the place as if it were exactly what the title suggests. On the other, they create enough space for personal stories to play out.
The most foregrounded of these belongs to hard-working nurse Sarah (vet thesp Diana Zubiri), who tries to go by the book with her duties while putting up as much as possible with imperious head nurse Cora (Pee Wee O’Hara). Sarah is torn between her loyalty to the hospital and its staff and her desire to work as a nurse in Canada; plus, she has her b.f. to deal with. The closest matters drift into melodrama occurs late into the action when Sarah has to make a fateful decision about her own unplanned pregnancy — a plot turn that makes its point all too bluntly.
This narrative equivalent of shifting from closeup to long shot is what guides Roy’s and Jerome Samora’s script, and they skillfully manage a balance between the two perspectives, while taking maximum advantage of the real-life situations in the camera’s view. Pro actors dominate the nurse characters, from Sue Prado’s Heidi and Joeffrey Javier’s flamboyant Froilan, but the moms — most in their teens — are generally the real deal, with the exception of Ronne Contreras as an expectant mom on leave from prison and under constant guard.
Zubiri finds subtle notes to express Sarah’s inner conflicts, and she has a satisfying final confrontation with O’Hara that’s pure audience fodder. Cast generally matches Zubiri’s not-so-broad, non-TV manner. Pic is intended to build popular support for proposed legislation that would make Philippine contraceptive laws more progressive. Tech support is clearly as hardworking as these nurses, and delivers the goods.