A Formative Sojourn

The primary difficulty for me in writing this piece is that certain influential personalities are involved. Their ability to strike back (as they once already did) is not what gives me pause. The truth is that they’ve made a number of positive contributions, so I wouldn’t want to override the good they’ve done by providing an account of what they did wrong. I don’t have the expert fictionist’s skill in detailing moral triumph and failure in the same person, so the only claim I’ll make for now is that these were truths whose bases were definitive in my experience, but which I figured out only in retrospect, sometimes after years of doubts and after consultations with colleagues who were in a better position to clarify the issues I was pondering.

11011I’ll make my starting point the now-infamous article where I ascribed the problems of film criticism to the well-intentioned but ultimately calciferous influence of the Filipino Film Critics Circle (henceforth FFCC): it sought to provide a corrective to the corruption-ridden choices of the spurious Filipino film academy (about a half-decade before an actual film academy comprising practitioners’ guilds was formed), but could not extricate itself from the valorization that a supposedly credible awards system provided. My claim to credibility proceeded from the fact that I was once a member of this group, and attempted to redefine my membership to exclude my participation in its awards activity. I was dissuaded by the then-chair (now gone), and I realized, also in retrospect, that the group had no means of recognizing and initiating any activity – say, of advanced learning, which was my goal – that had nothing to do with its annual recognition ceremony.

11011So I strove to function as an unaffiliated critical practitioner, returning to college to pursue the country’s first undergraduate program in film, and garnering a “resident film critic” post in a short-lived weekly periodical (where my initially pen-named reviews led to an invitation to join the same critics’ org that I’d distanced myself from, until the group’s contact person uncovered my identity). It also led to my participation in alternative critics’ groups, with other former members as well as active critics who didn’t relish the idea of being identified with the group I left. After completing foreign graduate studies and returning to the Philippines, I was sounded out by all the existing critics groups that I’d been involved in, including the FFCC. I decided I could operate better by maintaining distance from these orgs, which was how I was able to formulate my critique of Philippine film criticism’s troubles being derived from the backward and unproductive example set by the FFCC.

11011The members’ response was over the top, although I should not have been surprised. Many of the members were officials at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, which I had set up and led until I left in disgust over the politicking indulged in by these same FFCC members. The then-dean said outright that he preferred faculty who got their degrees locally, like he did – a major hint that he wanted other FFCC members to take over my position; when his long-time ally and writer advised me that I was bound for more trouble if I stayed on, I took advantage of the lifting of the standard two-year travel ban for US-educated scholars and accepted an offer from a Korean university, also to be able to repay my graduate-student loans.

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11011When my critique lambasting the FFCC was published, the UPFI faculty organized a “roundtable” that I was unable to join because my teaching schedule had already begun. It turned out to be a Stalinist-style denunciation session where the UPFI participants cum FFCC members claimed, in so many words, that they did not deserve to be criticized – without naming me or the article I wrote. The same (now-former) dean who wanted me replaced by colleagues (who could not pass their screening committees because of alleged corruption) said that the most credible critics in the country were the ones who proved their integrity by dispensing awards “that could not be bought” (my translation of his words from the Filipino), in a transcription of a discussion that was subsequently deleted from the journal that reprinted the roundtable’s papers. What remained instead was still a carefully formulated set of specifications of “the qualifications that are necessary to be able to analyze and evaluate films well,” including “A healthy respect for other critics in order to encourage dialogue; and ¶Above all, an attitude of balance and fairness, which is free of all personal agenda and self-promotion.”

11011That of course was an intellectual fallacy premised on an extremely problematic assumption – that “other critics” are automatically worthy of respect and thereby deserve “an attitude of balance and fairness.” The more vital question in so far as my own approaches are concerned is: why was I anonymized? This is not a matter of egotism on my end, as those who know me will be able to attest; rather, it disenables the outside observer from tracking the writer’s source of annoyance and checking out the article I wrote, where I set my argument in no uncertain terms. Typically after the fact, I managed to deduct why the writer had to write that way: to put it bluntly, I’m not the one living in a glass house. In the same issue where the article came out, the lecture by that year’s Plaridel Awardee for Film was published. That awardee was Nora Aunor, who was not the first PAF; that distinction was given to Aunor’s rival, Vilma Santos, during the deanship of the same writer who responded to my critique of the FFCC.

11011In fact, the primary social-network controversy over the declaration of Aunor as recipient of the Order of the National Artist centered on why Santos did not get it at the same time, or even earlier than Aunor. Where did this conceit come from? Followers of Santos would need more than just her record as the first PAF, since Aunor was not only the first FFCC best actress winner but also the first in her batch of performers to win the FFCC life-achievement prize. The source of their clamor is: the FFCC gave more best-actress trophies to Santos, and those for Aunor were often shared with other winners. After years of going over the various historical incidents, in consultation with contemporaries who were also close observers during the period of these two performers’ emergence and rivalry, I concluded that I had enough to provide an explanatory account. It will involve exactly the same critical personality I’ve been referring to, regarded at the moment as the most senior authority among FFCC members, and it will not result in a rosy image. Even then, I’ll have to leave out a lot more supporting details just so we can follow the most basic narrative through-line.

11011Fortunately (in the ironic sense), my tenure with the FFCC covered the years when Santos won her first acting trophy, and followed it with two more in as many years – an FFCC record not equalled before or since. This specific personality I’ve been referring to, an FFCC founding member and former chair and subsequently former national university mass communication dean, was the most enthusiastic campaigner for Santos during this entire period. This caused major expressions of outrage during Santos’s first win, since Aunor was defeated for what was subsequently regarded as one of the best performances in local cinema. In fact the films of both actresses had the same director and scriptwriter, and both of them expressed strong disagreement with the results. (Personal disclosure: I was the first person to make this declaration regarding Aunor’s output, in an assessment of film performances during the Second Golden Age, which I was also first to name; I subsequently qualified my upholding of both items in updates to the lead article in my first book, The National Pastime.)

11011Why did I and most other people not find anything suspicious about this member’s campaigns for Santos? Because, among other things, he had on record an article, typically old-fashioned in its reliance on dualisms in order to uphold orthodox-left principles. The article discussed a set of values in Philippine cinema, stating that then-current filmmaking practice was lacking because of its reliance on spectacle, martyr characters, optimistic narratives, but first and foremost, fair-skinned performers. The oppositions he raised would be easily deconstructible by college freshmen (though not in the Philippines, sadly) but in case we prove incapable of figuring it out, he proceeded to articulate the solutions. The first, of course, was in upholding “kayumanggi” or brown-colored actors, naming Aunor as first examplar.

11011Fast-forward to the current millennium, after Santos earned her record-breaking FFCC trophies even for performances that were vitally flawed like the first one she won for, and Aunor losing or tying with others during the several decades when she had peaked as performer. Why would this person desist from identifying me when I never hesitated to call out his organization and colleagues for their several problematic actuations? During a casual exchange with a former FFCC member who became a successful scriptwriter with his own gripes against the group, we got to talking about this anomaly and I suddenly made a deduction, which my conversation partner said he was aware of from the beginning. Because what was playing out, specifically with the person in question, was not admiration for Santos, but hostility toward Aunor. This became evident when I thought further back, during the year I first joined the group. Aunor nearly lost her second acting prize – for a film that she had favored for the yearend film festival. The film that she disfavored was the one that the critic in question had scripted.

11011One other conversation I had boosted this new interpretation of events. It was with the only surviving Second Golden Age filmmaker who had never won an FFCC award despite his coming up with the year’s best film at least twice. “They never gave me an award,” he told me, “because of what I did with [the FFCC member’s] script.” He described it as unworkable and even improperly formatted, so much so that he needed to ask a more experienced scriptwriter to help; said veteran writer was associated with non-prestigious commercial projects, so presumably the member felt insulted. This amounted to two people whom the member wanted to penalize, and the FFCC was the means by which he could carry it out. No wonder, after asserting his association with the FFCC and their fairness in dispensing their awards, he needed to be discreet in attacking me. And for the record, I may as well provide the essential conclusion: the relative artistic accomplishments of Vilma Santos and Nora Aunor, among others, were mostly only incidental considerations when it came to the FFCC deciding on whether or not they deserved to win.

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Á!

About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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