Author Archives: Joel David

About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.]

Bringing Theater to the Home

The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) was a momentarily anachronistic entity when it first arrived. Productions by so-called legitimate Philippine theater companies had never been performed in any local language before. After the Spanish era, “serious” Philippine theater had always been done in the English language, with the occasional original productions in Spanish.

11011The advantage was that the English-language productions introduced dramatic realism, in contrast with the Spanish-language forms of the sinakulo, komedya, and sarswela. The only scripts that would ever include Filipino words would be those for the social-realist dramas of Alberto Florentino, where impoverished characters would speak fluent English and an occasional Tagalog or mispronounced English word.

11011Not surprisingly, when PETA announced a search for Philippine literary classics to be adapted into teleplays for its groundbreaking weekly anthology titled Balintataw, Florentino was among the earliest responders. Nick Joaquin, whose Portrait of the Artist as Filipino was filmed in the original English by Lamberto V. Avellana for Diadem Pictures, agreed to have his globally acclaimed short fiction to be adapted. In fact, it was via Balintataw that the public realized that the local language could be an entirely sufficient vehicle for delivering serious dramatic discourse.

11011Movies, of course, had already resolved the national language issue by the time PETA was founded, with Tagalog winning over English and Spanish, and Cebuano lording it over in the southern regions. Meanwhile, English-language Philippine theater had its last valiant gasp the same year, 1967, that PETA was formed. PETA’s same-age sibling, Repertory Philippines, had its own walk in the sun during the late 1980s when several of its performers, led by Lea Salonga, were cast for the original West End and subsequent Broadway runs of Miss Saigon.

11011Hence from the beginning, PETA had set for itself an ambition that would have sounded quixotic if it had been formulated in a different place and time. In her master’s thesis titled “A Prospectus for the National Theater of the Philippines” (published as Theatre for the Nation in 2003), PETA founder Cecile Guidote Alvarez described how “theater does not solely refer to the legitimate stage, which has been a powerful influence on human civilization for 2,500 years, but also includes its amazing twentieth-century offspring – film, radio, and television.”

11011If PETA was the first Philippine theater group to feature plays in local languages, Repertory Philippines turned out to be the last English-language local theater guild. Teatro Pilipino, for example, endeavored to present plays in both English and contemporary Filipino (translated by its founder, Rolando Tinio) – something that was regarded as “best practice” among local theater groups, notably those in the University of the Philippines, where bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater are being offered.

11011The only logical explanation for the persistence of what we may call the PETA spirit is that its founders were attuned to then-emergent social ferment: various interest groups, not all of them selflessly motivated, were invoking love of country as a means to lay claim to public patronage. What is remarkable about PETA, additionally, is that its early movers and shakers did not let patriotic fervor overcome their realistic assessment of what type of media could best provide the association with a foothold in the public consciousness.

11011Although pioneering among local media in its use of Filipino languages, film had just freed itself from the genteel and monopolistic strictures of the 1950s studio system – romanticized, problematically, as the First Golden Age – and was deliriously (and profitably) looking for barriers to demolish, hitting triple-digit annual output for the first time and building up to the taboo-busting bomba era by the turn of the 1970s. Radio acted as the support medium for film and print, providing news as well as entertainment series that would occasionally be adapted for the big screen.

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The First Medium

Like PETA, television was the Johnny-come-lately in Philippine mass media. Most observers attributed the success of Balintataw, PETA’s first mass-media effort, to serendipity. But it was more clearly a result of a well-considered survey of the field and an extremely sensible judgment of the local audience’s emerging preferences. Since film was in the throes of what film critic Bienvenido Lumbera described in his essay Problems in Philippine Film History as “rampant commercialism and artistic decline,” any well-intentioned newcomer would have easily been figuratively swallowed whole by the system.

11011On the other hand, the audience had been sufficiently modernized and would likely refuse to return to the wholesome patriarchal values at work during the First Golden Age. As written in A Continuing Narrative on Philippine Theater: The Story of PETA (edited by Laura Samson, Brenda Fajardo, Cecile Garrucho, Lutgardo Labad, and Malou G. Santos-Cabangon), Balintataw provided the middle ground from 1967 to 1971, with its adaptations of contemporary literary classics, handled with expert emphasis on performances, with a willingness and ability to innovate within budgetary constraints:

One unique aspect of this drama anthology was the use of a full teleplay script (15-20 mimeographed pages) to replace the former practice of working from a synopsis or sequential notes. Another was the scheduling of a separate day for rehearsals before the actual taping day. Of the many TV drama anthologies of the time, Balintataw was the only one that consistently followed the above practice. (Samson et al., 2008)

11011Resounding acclaim and a string of Citizens Awards for Television (then, ultimately, a CAT Hall of Fame recognition) affirmed the soundness of the PETA strategy and imprinted on the minds of attentive viewers the names to watch out for: Lino Brocka, Lupita Kashiwahara (then Lupita Aquino), Joey Gosiengfiao, Elwood Perez, Mario O’Hara, Nick Lizaso, Tony Perez, Frank Rivera, Lutgardo Labad, Orlando Nadres, Laurice Guillen, and several others. The newbies were not lacking in film-trained mentors, most prominent among them Pierre Salas, a veteran scriptwriter who was starting to venture into directing, and who was also known for his association with master filmmaker Gerardo de Leon.

11011Balintataw brought to the TV screen stories written by the outstanding authors of the time, starting with Nick Joaquin, N.V.M. Gonzalez, Jose Garcia Villa, Edith Tiempo, Narciso Reyes Jr., Sinai Hamada, Alberto Florentino, and so on. It also adapted material from authors who were barely known in classrooms for being too recent (Ernest Hemingway), non-Euro-American (Anton Chekhov), or sexually frank (D.H. Lawrence).

11011Although overwhelmed by the subsequent triumph of PETA talents in film, the story of Balintataw provides interesting angles that challenge existing assumptions. Nora Aunor, for instance, is celebrated for her seamless transition from film to theater via early 1990s PETA productions, specifically Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo and DH (Domestic Helper). Her friendly rival, Vilma Santos, is regarded as a runner-up in this regard – yet it was Santos who preceded Aunor at PETA, via Balintataw. The spectacle of other highly regarded film performers like Vic Silayan, Robert Arevalo, Charito Solis, Rosa Rosal, and Barbara Perez lending their hard-earned prestige to the show, together with younger talents like Santos and Hilda Koronel – all this made it easier for even the most successful film performers (like Aunor, Lolita Rodriguez, and Chanda Romero) to consider invitations to appear in PETA stage productions.

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The Transition to Film

Brocka may have been the first PETA talent to land a movie credit, with his adaptation of Mars Ravelo’s Wanted: Perfect Mother in 1970. He started as a stagehand at the UP Dramatic Club and embarked on a stint as a Mormon missionary and California migrant before returning to the Philippines in time for the founding of PETA. With his emergence in Philippine cinema, he immediately set the template for the serious talents who would follow in his footsteps, including his close friend (who was also regarded as his rival), the stage- and film-trained Ishmael Bernal. The two would compete in completing city movies (Brocka with Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in 1975, and Bernal with Manila by Night in 1980) and would stake their advocacies in different areas (Brocka in politics, Bernal in film form). Each one would, however, exhibit the influences of the other in their later output. Brocka and Bernal also periodically returned to TV and the stage, with Brocka, who was already a celebrated filmmaker, acting in Hanggang Dito Na Lamang at Maraming Salamat (PETA’s longest-running production) and directing Larawan, the Filipino translation of Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist. Tragically, both of them died early – Brocka in a vehicular accident in 1991 and Bernal from health complications five years later.

11011It was through Brocka and Bernal that PETA members found their footing in Philippine cinema, with Bernal also recruiting talents from the other repertory groups. Like Brocka, Bernal carried a theater background from the University of the Philippines, where he was to return after his effective retirement from film practice. Several PETA talents, specifically Joel Lamangan, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and Mae Quesada, worked in Bernal’s media projects, with Ongkeko-Marfil later recruiting him to train the members for film and TV.

11011While Bernal’s impact may have been more medium-specific, introducing the multiple-character format by reconfiguring the earlier “smorgasbord” gimmick of Sampaguita Pictures and insisting on a societal analogy where no single character could claim to be the center of the narrative, Brocka’s industrial innovations were no less crucial. After Brocka’s own debut in 1970 (with Bernal following the year after), he had a flurry of film outputs, writing three scripts for his own projects and one script, a comedy, for a popular comedian. Contracted to work exclusively for a major studio, he slogged through a period action vehicle (Santiago!) with the top local actor Fernando Poe Jr., and had two hits in a row. Critics hemmed and hawed over these works, but by Christmas Day, Brocka provided a present that would resound through the rest of his career and prove himself to be equal to the best practitioners of the then-raging bomba (soft-core pornographic) trend.

11011Still considered a vital text in Philippine queer cinema, Tubog sa Ginto also provided Eddie Garcia, an extremely capable actor already being relegated to villain roles, with an opportunity to foreground a conflicted, obsessed, lustful-yet-closeted gay family man. Garcia responded by turning in what has since become a benchmark for Filipino male performance. Although Brocka would eventually suffer from creative burnout a few years later, the example he set with accepting a few commercial impositions before insisting on a project that enabled him some creative leeway (which he demonstrated again the following year with Stardoom) became a pattern that he and Bernal, together with several of the talents they mentored, would observe in their big-studio careers.

11011More impressively, Brocka ushered in a renewed Golden Age after his studio stint by taking time off to organize an independent production company and coming up with a personal project based on his small-town experience, with the assistance of a talent he introduced in Tubog, Mario O’Hara. Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang was not just a sleeper hit; with its audience primed by Brocka’s campus and office tours to discuss the movie, it also swept the industry awards and enabled Brocka to come up with his city movie, Maynila, which is possibly the most well-known Filipino movie among foreign film enthusiasts and also the first Filipino movie to be made available in Blu-ray, through a remastering by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. The year after Maynila, 1976, was considered a milestone in Philippine cinema, with local financiers seeking to replicate Brocka’s one-two punch by producing their own anti-formulaic film projects.

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Brocka’s Children

Brocka’s impact on Philippine cinema was so all-encompassing that his name has become a virtual shibboleth for most contemporary “indie” practitioners who declare his example as their ideal and who aspire, in their own way, to be “the next Brocka.” In fact, if Bernal and a few other filmmakers did not emerge, it would be possible to define the Second Golden Age as Philippine cinema’s Brocka period. Since he effectively remained the custodian of PETA during Guidote-Alvarez’s political exile in the US, eventually being appointed its executive director, the public was inclined to perceive PETA through him.

11011On a personal note, I was surprised to realize that several film talents associated with PETA productions were actually fielded by Brocka, and that a few filmmakers associated with Brocka films (notably Mike de Leon, cinematographer and co-producer of Maynila; and Laurice Guillen, performer in several titles including Tinimbang Ka) were not from PETA either. After he made a name in European film festivals, starting with Cannes, a number of other personnel from Brocka Productions – notably Orlando Nadres, Bey Vito, Lito Tiongson, Soxie Topacio, Jeric Soriano, and Joel Lamangan (all deceased except for the last two) – were also able to initiate their directorial careers. Except for Soriano, all were PETA personnel. Tiongson, Lamangan, and Topacio were mentored by Brocka (along with Balintataw veterans O’Hara and Nadres) via another drama anthology, Tanghalan, which aired for only one season in 1977, as well as via a follow-up program, Lino Brocka Presents.

11011O’Hara (also deceased), de Leon, Guillen, and Lamangan established significant directorial careers. Nadres focused on writing (both scripts and plays), Topacio continued directing and occasionally performing mainly for theater. He took over PETA’s executive directorship after Brocka. Tiongson forged a still-to-be-rediscovered career as political documentarian via an NGO, AsiaVisions. Another PETA talent, recruited by Lutgardo Labad, was Maryo J. de los Reyes, who became a member of the theater’s pool of directors. When Labad was assistant director for Lupita Kashiwahara’s Alkitrang Dugo, Labad endorsed de los Reyes as acting coach. Since then, de los Reyes (also recently deceased) became a successful blockbuster director and the festival director of To Farm Film Festival.

11011Finally, one of the strangest career turns is that of Labad, who is musically gifted and is also an all-around PETA hand and cultural-policy expert with a solid foundation in people’s aesthetics. He directed, among others, May-i May-i, Dupluhang Bayan, Nasa Puso ang Amerika, and Radiya Mangandiri, and has been spearheading cultural tourism in Bohol, his home province. In film, Labad is known almost exclusively as a music director (Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang, Ganito Kami Noon… Paano Kayo Ngayon, Magnifico, Independencia). If closer attention were to be paid to the overlooked aspect of production, he would arguably be the country’s finest film scorer since Bayan Ko composer Constancio C. de Guzman.

11011Looking at the larger picture of PETA’s participation, it would be possible to conclude that the theater group would have found itself in film, via television, even if Brocka had not come along. But inasmuch as Brocka embodied PETA’s ideals and visions, it would be more appropriate to assert that Philippine cinema has distinct characteristics that may be traced to PETA itself: the concern for issues of national and global significance, the drive to reach the widest possible sector of the public at large, the willingness to work within industrial limitations, and the readiness to introduce formal and thematic innovations that have the potential of advancing audience appreciation of both medium and material. Even in the face of shifts in presidential regimes, industrial dynamics and technologies, these ideals have persisted, a testament to the theater group’s solid grounding and adaptability.

11011Evidence of this persistence may be seen in PETA’s handling of Balintataw. The declaration of martial law in 1972 resulted in the closure of Channel 5, which aired the program. By then, Brocka already had a solid foothold in the Philippine movie industry. As PETA was witness to the dismantling of the Marcos regime in 1986, as well as to the mass media’s power to mobilize participants in the people power uprising, PETA endeavored to revive the program in its original medium – it initially reappeared as Radyo Balintataw, under Guidote Alvarez’s tutelage, on DZRH. With Soxie Topacio overseeing the process, the TV program was reintroduced in 1988. From the start, Balintataw was never envisioned as a profit-generating venture; this time around, it was primarily intended to demonstrate PETA’s aim to upgrade the media literacy of its audience within politically progressive terms. Because of the then-novel atmosphere of democratic space, the program was able to assume a more confrontational tack, telling stories “of marginalized sectors in Philippine society – peasants, workers, urban poor, indigenous peoples, women, and others” (Samson et al.).

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Enter Broadcast & Film Inc.

In order to facilitate the orderly transition of talents from stage to mass media, PETA set up in 1987 a unit called Broadcast & Film Inc., or PETA-BFI, under the supervision of Soxie Topacio. It was, according to Joel Lamangan, “a continuation of Lino’s desire to bring to TV and film PETA’s commitment to truth” – Balintataw was, in effect, its laboratory. When Brocka’s commitment to the Concerned Artists of the Philippines heightened following the assassination of Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr., PETA was, in turn, guided by Soxie Topacio. One controversial detail that slowly came to light during that time pertained to Brocka’s political journey: he had not always been what you may call a fully formed social radical. In fact, at separate points during his tenure as executive director, he discouraged queer behavior and later denounced members who were allegedly Communist-underground partisans using their PETA membership as legal cover (see Johven Velasco’s “Brocka’s Theater: Something for the Heart,” in Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed. Mario A. Hernando). PETA stalwarts like Topacio and Labad were the ones organizing general assemblies so members could collectively articulate the organization’s position.

11011Funds for the PETA-BFI program had to be sourced from abroad and were solicited on the basis of a Community Media Education Program facilitated by trained theater counterparts. The program brought episodes to various rural communities using videocassette technology. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, who had become the most active film director among the PETA-BFI trainees, was in charge of the PETA-BFI following her participation in the directing workshop. Her first directorial output was an early episode for Handog ng PETA series. She was originally assigned to assist Marilou Diaz-Abaya, who eventually declined because the deadline was too tight. Ongkeko-Marfil organized a PETA-BFI directing workshop with Ishmael Bernal as main facilitator, in cooperation with the Mowelfund Film Institute. The MFI students, including renowned cinematographer Neil Daza, attended the workshop. Topacio brought in Brocka to lecture on lighting and provide feedback on the participants’ output. Lamangan was requested to mentor individual students. Finally, as if to provide contrast between the series’ pilot program and Brocka’s less politically pointed TV series Lino Brocka Presents, Topacio set the tone for Handog ng PETA by tackling the long-standing yet always controversial agrarian conflict between landholders and tenants – the basis for over half a century of resistance and armed rebellion reflected in his teleplay, “Si Panyong at ang Hatol ng Guhit na Bilog,” an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

11011Unlike its earlier incarnation, which garnered the enthusiastic support of its home TV station, the revival of Balintataw confronted a situation where the media technology was about to transition from film to TV, and then with other media and the internet. Hence, the rampaging commercialism that marked Philippine cinema during the 1960s was starting to make its presence felt in TV, culminating in the current scenario where TV studios have taken over mainstream film production. But unlike the commercial cinema predicament where several independent studios could occasionally challenge the major producers – which they continue to do at present – TV can only count on a limited number of players and has to contend with stricter censorship centered on family values, not to mention competing for advertisers based on the results of hotly contested audience surveys.

11011As a result, the new Balintataw’s reliance on grants could not be sustained. The realities of commercial production – where name stars, for example, get the bulk of the budget – made the PETA-BFI members realize that all the attention they devoted to production and creativity would be for naught if they continued to overlook the business and management aspects of their undertaking. The most successful PETA-associated filmmakers since Brocka’s demise were Mario O’Hara and Joel Lamangan, with O’Hara (who died in 2012) dealing with box-office traumas during his debut year (1976) by incorporating happy endings even in his darkest material. Lamangan rose to prominence as the mainstay director of Viva Films (to which he was introduced by Brocka), a major studio during the Second Golden Age. Lamangan succeeded by fostering a reputation for swiftness and budgetary discipline. He ended up with an extensive filmography, nearly the equal of the combined number of films by Brocka and Bernal, and managed to embark on an ongoing legacy project of telling the overlooked stories of the struggles against the martial-law dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

11011From the perspective of PETA-BFI insiders, however, the unit was still a part of PETA. Brocka and the practitioners who followed may have come from PETA but they were shared with the rest of the country and the world, given media’s universal appeal and accessibility. Hence, on the basis of the outpouring of sadness and the wealth of recollections that followed his recent death, Soxie Topacio has remained foremost in PETA-BFI members’ remembrances. He was almost literally a PETA mainstay, starting out at 17 and never leaving until death claimed him nearly 50 years later. Topacio also had a string of some of the most memorable PETA productions to his name as director: Pilipinas Circa 1907, Canuplin, Macli-ing Dulag, Kung Paano Ko Pinatay si Diana Ross, DH (Domestic Helper), and Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo. His devotion to PETA was so complete that he managed to make himself known in Philippine media in only one instance each time. For TV, his role as Neneng in Duplex was regarded as too groundbreaking so that RPN-9 executives, probably worried that the censors might inspect their programming, decided to dissuade all other depictions of gay characters so they could focus on upholding Neneng – and like a true trouper, Topacio delivered. Interestingly, when the Directors Guild of the Philippines Inc. got funding for “indie” productions, Topacio came up with Ded Na si Lolo, adjudged not only the best in the series, but as the Filipino movie worthy of sending to the Oscar competition for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on Topacio’s experience of family wakes, Ded Na si Lolo necessarily had a gay character, played by Neneng’s successor, Roderick Paulate.

11011In a real sense, PETA-BFI provided its own set of lessons for members who started out as talents trained for the people’s theater. Even those who had passed on left indelible marks – Soxie Topacio with his fluid, cinematically staged plays and rambunctious characters in various performing arts media; and Johven Velasco, with a long list of trainees including award-winning performers, and an impressive record of scholarship on theater, film, and TV at the University of the Philippines. Those who passed on in a different sense, by migrating abroad, continue to demonstrate the lessons they accumulated. Evelyn Vargas-Knaebel supplements the efforts of her husband in promoting Philippine indie films in foreign venues. Her husband, Martial Knaebel, is Director of the Fribourg International Film Festival, formerly the Third-World Film Festival, in Switzerland. Beth Mondragon Williams brought her experience in CMEP (as grants-person and video director) to her job as large-scale show producer and fundraiser in Australia. Louie Pascasio left for the US and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in mass communication while teaching mass communication theory and production and participating in Circa Pintig, Chicago’s Fil-Am theater company.

11011The members who remain Philippine-based followed and expanded on the lessons and examples bequeathed by their predecessors and mentors. Mae Quesada-Medina joined PETA-BFI while doing a stint for another TV drama anthology, Dear Teacher, directed by Ishmael Bernal. Her participation peaked as the executive producer of Petabisyon. Avic Ilagan branched out to audiovisual productions for various activist NGOs, along with a stint, like Johven Velasco’s, at a local university’s film scholarship and instruction program. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil responded to PETA-BFI’s traumatic experience with funding shortages by resolving to explore mainstream TV and film setups, with the objective of disseminating the PETA-BFI ideal to wider audiences. This while confronting the media industry’s limitations and exploiting their potentials, which she managed as director for Maalaala Mo Kaya and Pira-Pirasong Pangarap and as manager for Star Cinema’s children’s films and GMA-7’s News and Public Affairs programs. When digital technology arrived and enabled everyone to create and distribute content more easily, financially and technically speaking, she opted to venture into self-produced independent filmmaking – the first PETA talent to immerse actively in this mode of practice. The only effort by another PETA member that came close to a “personal” production outfit would be Brocka’s Cinemanila, which only managed to put out four films during the director’s mid-1970s comeback. Ongkeko-Marfil’s Erasto Productions and Erasto Films have the same number of titles, with more projects in the pipeline. An even newer area of exploration is new media, which Ongkeko-Marfil is also exploring as PETA pioneer, via her recently launched website Pelikulove (https://www.pelikulove.com/).

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Specialized Training, Awards and Demise

The first scriptwriting workshop was held at the Philippine High School for the Arts in Mount Makiling, Los Baños, Laguna. Ricardo Lee acted as facilitator for the original materials, while Rene Villanueva and Velasco took on the materials adapted from the stage. There were participants from various theater groups and regional partners, including George de Jesus and Bundo Deoma from Negros, and PETA’s Liza Magtoto. The second Writing for Television Workshop was supported by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and was facilitated by Rene Villanueva. Avic Ilagan also re-collected a season-long TV anthology titled Handog ng PETA, directed by the PETA-BFI members plus PETA veterans. This TV anthology was essentially composed of televisual adaptations of past PETA productions. This became the culminating activity of the BFI workshop participants who, in effect, added TV production skills to their stage expertise.

11011The first major directing workshop was held at the UP Film Center in cooperation with the Cultural Center of the Philippines through the office of Rowena Concepcion. Soxie Topacio and Lito Tiongson participated, while Lino Brocka, Joel Lamangan, Lutgardo Labad, and Peque Gallaga were invited as guest lecturers. The second batch of workshops was held in cooperation with the Mowelfund Film Institute, with Ishmael Bernal lecturing on directing, Amado Lacuesta on scriptwriting, Manolo Abaya on cinematography, Jaime Fabregas on musical scoring, Peque Gallaga on production design, Noel Clemente on sound, and Nick Deocampo on film theory.

11011PETA-BFI’s Handog ng Peta and Petabisyon series, its Children’s Television Program Sige Sali Ka Na, and its Telesine specials won awards from various recognition bodies. By the end of the millennium, however, PETA-BFI stopped producing any more programs. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil explains:

While we were all focused on this newfound creativity, we found the managerial and financial requirements to survive the industry too daunting. We couldn’t break the rules because, in fact, we disagreed with the rules. Perhaps another time, a new strategy could be found to conquer the medium…. For this particular period, victory was giving birth to programs that fulfilled the needs of that particular time as well as in giving birth to another generation of practitioners who would carry and implement the vision at their own time and place and hopefully pass it on to others as well. (Samson, et al.)

11011The call for PETA-BFI would be to recognize the ongoing transformation of mass media, with TV merely as the transitional medium and the internet as an even more challenging option and, so far, the ultimate destination. The internet promises to be the next major area of confluence and contention, directly responsible for the decrease in profitability of the so-called analogue media: print, film and TV – although these have been undergoing digital transformations as well. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, who had stints in Second Golden Age film projects as well as the TV-dominated digital-era productions, took to heart the lesson learned from the revival of Balintataw and made sure to develop a CMEP-type marketing strategy for her projects, starting with Boses (2008) and continuing through Lakbay2Love (2016). She kept away from new film productions in order to set up Pelikulove, still at its initial stage but aiming to be a women-centered website that provides content resembling the PETA package: films, trainings, coverage, and, as a tribute to theater, plays on video, starting with its coverage of the political play Indigo Child, a story based on martial law, written by Rody Vera and staged by Jose Estrella. Unlike previous approaches (e.g., Avellana’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino), the ideal represented by Indigo Child retains the integrity of the play while simultaneously maximizing the strength of cinema, such as its ability to tear down the fourth wall to facilitate intimacy with its audience. Online distribution is also part of Indigo Child’s future trajectory.

11011The democratic nature of new media (the academic term for the internet) is its strength, since those without financial resources could register and post their material and have the same chance as major corporate players at attracting public attention. But the same democratic nature is also its weakness, since it would be relatively easy for the malicious minded, including hackers, to spoil people’s interactions to push whatever motive they might have. In this case, Joel Lamangan’s insight on performance comes to mind:

11011Acting is not the monopoly of so-called stars or actors in the industry. For ordinary citizens – as long as it’s their personal stories and they’re familiar with the emotions, the conflicts, that are being narrated, even more if they’re the main characters of the story and if they’re convinced by the resolution that the story wishes to uphold, because they experienced it – like the material I directed for Petabisyon, a story from Davao about urban-poor folk who fought back, got killed or arrested – all the actors were Davaoeños – they knew the story, the life, so it was so easy for them. I didn’t have the heart to teach them. I could only adjust what they were doing, for the medium. (Phone interview translated to English, conducted by E.O. Marfil, September 4, 2017)

11011Perhaps the most useful insight, as far as the broadcast and film training and application unit within a theater association is concerned, would be the concept of reciprocal integration. Mass media possess the technological advantages of streamlining human exertion (one only needs a single staging of a filmed event), perfecting the presentation even after production via editing, graphic enhancement, and sound and music effects, and then providing reproducible material that could be marketed everywhere simultaneously, even abroad, to ensure bigger returns for the equivalent investment in a stage play. On the other hand, theater is capable of harnessing individuals and challenging them to perform at their peak capacity, usually with an unpredictable ensemble and an approach that resists atomizing or focusing on only one specialized element to the exclusion of everything else. So it makes perfect sense for PETA to start with the stage, then move on to mass media, especially considering that at both ends of the process are the people. They provide the raw material for the research that gets turned into plays, which are then refined and presented in media, and then returned back also to the people, as the audience this time. PETA-BFI, during its existence, performed as the conduit by which a nation was able to witness, assess, and critique itself. The ending of the PETA-BFI narrative is open, and a passage from A Continuing Narrative on Philippine Theatre might provide us with some realistic insights for moving forward:

…the vision to use “theater’s offsprings” of television and film to bring forth a national theater of cultural and social significance to the people, to give a country a name and a soul through the stories of its children,… would find fruition… for a time, but sadly thwarted as well in the end, first by the dictates of one man, later through the dictates of an industry. But it would be far from the truth to say that these efforts were in vain. PETA     has also grown and learned through these difficult and trying years, undaunted in making its voice heard, uncompromising in its conviction and principles. Many Filipinos from the city to remote barrios have seen and heard the stories and been touched by the fire of this vision (Samson, et al.)

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Appendix: An Archival Summary of the Gregorio Fernandez Filmography

This stand-alone entry is intended to provide additional information for the draft of an article titled “A Missing Installation in the Philippine Pantheon.” Barring further discoveries or corrections, the Internet Movie Database record on Gregorio Fernandez provides entries in three categories: as director, actor, and writer. The website’s information on the productions of LVN Pictures is fairly accurate, possibly a result of the close supervision by filmmaker Mike de Leon, grandson of the founder Narcisa vda. de Leon, over the family studio’s legacy. Since the lists are grouped according to decreasing number of output, we find only two credits for Fernandez’s writing (one of which, Higit sa Lahat, is still available), and several credits as actor. Nearly half of his acting credits, in fact, were for his own films: in one instance, despite his name appearing after those of the other stars, he was actually one of the lead actors in Kontrabando. One of the films, Carmen (uncredited, 1941), may also have been Fernandez-directed. In all, Fernandez participated in over 60 film projects, with 14 or possibly 15 of them in dual capacity.

11011Malvarosa (my transcription here) may be the closest to a complete Fernandez film, although several others do not suffer significantly from missing portions. The following are the IMDb-listed works attributed to Fernandez, arranged in chronological order, with additional information on his other roles in the projects as well as their availability and state of completion (where no directorial credit is indicated, the entry should be understood as made by Fernandez):

As actor (all pre-1937 films were directed by Jose Nepomuceno for Malayan Movies, with Hot Kisses, Ang Lumang Simbahan, and Ligaw na Bulaklak listed as silent): Hot Kisses and The Filipino Woman (1927); Ang Lumang Simbahan [The Old Church] (1928); Ang Anak sa Ligaw [Child Out of Wedlock] (1930); Ang Lihim ni Bathala [The Secret of the Pagan God] and Moro Pirates (1931); Ligaw na Bulaklak [Wild Flowers] (1932); Ang Kumpisalan at ang Batas [The Confessional and the Law] (dir. Rod Avlas, Filippine Productions, 1937); Taong Demonyo [Demonic Person] (dir. Tor Villano, Filippine Productions, 1937).

As actor and/or director: Asahar at Kabaong [Wreath and Coffin] (also as actor, Filippine Productions, 1937); Celia at Balagtas [Celia and Balagtas] (Excelsior Films, 1938); Ang Magsasampaguita [The Sampaguita Vendor] (Sampaguita Pictures, 1939); Tatlong Pagkabirhen [Three Virgins] (X’Otic Films, 1939); Palaboy ng Dios [God’s Vagrant] (as actor, dir. Eduardo de Castro, X’Otic Films, 1939); Takip-Silim [Nightfall] (as actor, dir. Don Dano, Sampaguita Pictures, 1939); Colegiala [Female Coed] (as actor, dir. Eduardo de Castro, Sampaguita Pictures, 1940); Katarungan [Justice] and Señorita [Mademoiselle] (also as actor, both Sampaguita Pictures, 1940); Princesita [Little Princess] (also as actor, Sampaguita Pictures, 1941); Carmen (as actor but directorial credit missing; Sampaguita Pictures, 1941); Principeng Hindi Tumatawa [The Prince Who Never Laughed] (as actor, dir. Manuel Conde, LVN Pictures, 1946).

11011All films in the preceding lists are considered lost. The following lists will indicate Fernandez’s participation (aside from directing) and will also indicate whether copies, or excerpts, are available:

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LVN Pictures productions

Dalawang Daigdig [Two Worlds] (also as actor; 1946)
Garrison 13 (also as actor; 1946)
Ang Lalaki [The Man] (1947)
Miss Philippines (also as actor; 1947) – video transfer available
Krus na Bituin [Cross-Shaped Star] (1948)
P 1,000 Kagandahan [Thousand-Peso Beauty] (also as actor; 1948) – short entry; video transfer available
Puting Bantayog [White Monument] (also as actor; 1948)
Capas (also as actor; 1949) – video transfer available
Florante at Laura [Florante and Laura] (as actor; dir. Vicente Salumbides, 1949) – video transfer available
Hen. Gregorio del Pilar [General Gregorio del Pilar] (1949)
Kampanang Ginto [Golden Bell] (1949)
Candaba (1950)
Kontrabando [Contraband] (also as actor; 1950) – video transfer available
Pagtutuus [Reckoning] (1950)
Bayan o Pag-ibig [Country or Love] (1951)
Dugo sa Dugo [Blood to Blood] (1951)
Bohemyo [Bohemian] (1952)
Rodrigo de Villa (also as story writer; 1952) – video transfer available
Dagohoy (1953) – video excerpt available
Philippine Navy (1953)
Squatters (1953) – video transfer available
Prinsipe Teñoso [Prince Teñoso] (1954) – remastered copy available
Singsing na Tanso [Silver Ring] (1954) – video excerpt available
Dalagang Taring [Cranky Maiden] (1955)
Higit sa Lahat [Most of All] (also as scriptwriter; 1955) – video transfer available
Gintong Pangarap [Golden Dream] (1956)
Luksang Tagumpay [Mournful Victory] (1956) – video transfer available, missing final sequences
Medalyong Perlas [Pearl Necklace] (segment “Kapalaran” [“Fate”]; other segments dir. Lamberto V. Avellana & F.H. Constantino; 1956)
Hukom Roldan [Judge Roldan] (1957) – video transfer available
Sampung Libong Pisong Pag-ibig [Ten Thousand-Peso Romance] (1957) – video transfer available
Ana Maria (1958)
Ay Pepita! [Oh Pepita!] (1958)
Casa Grande [Grand Dwelling] (segment “Gerilyang Patpat” [“Skinny Guerrilla”]; other segments dir. Manuel Conde & F.H. Constantino; 1958)
Malvarosa [Geranium] (1958) – remastered copy available
Panagimpan [Daydream] (1959)
Awit ng mga Dukha [Song of the Dispossessed] (1960)
Emily (1960) – video excerpt available
Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo [If You Love Me] (1960) – video transfer available

Post-LVN Pictures productions

Dugo at Luha [Blood and Tears] (Premiere Productions, 1961)
The Macapagal Story (MML Productions, 1963)
Ang Nasasakdal! [The Defendant!] (Kamagong Films, 1966)
Daing [Dried Fish] (Tower Productions, 1971)

Availability and contact info: A summary of the available works of Fernandez, all from LVN, is as follows: Miss Philippines (1947); Isang Libong Pisong Kagandahan (1948); Capas (1949); Kontrabando (1950); Rodrigo de Villa (1952); Dagohoy (1953, excerpted along with Singsing na Tanso & Lou Salvador Sr.’s Doce Pares [both 1954]); Squatters (1953); Singsing na Tanso (1954, excerpted along with Dagohoy [1953] & Lou Salvador Sr.’s Doce Pares [1954]); Prinsipe Teñoso (1954); Higit sa Lahat (1955); Luksang Tagumpay (1956, missing final sequences); 10,000 Pisong Pag-ibig (1957); Hukom Roldan (1957); Malvarosa (1958); Emily (1960, excerpts); and Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo (1960). Video material may be found at Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake pages (on either YouTube or Vimeo). Remastered and subtitled copies of Prinsipe Teñoso and Malvarosa may be ordered from the Facebook page of ABS-CBN Film Restoration, while the YouTube page of ABS-CBN Star Cinema occasionally posts censored copies of the organization’s collection.

End of Appendix

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The Political Is Personal

“Marcos and Memory: The Past in Our Future”
Sheila Coronel
2022 Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture

One curious development, still within the first quarter of the third year of a history-changing global pandemic, is that the audiovisual material which most Filipino netizens are burring over at the moment is expectedly streaming, but it’s neither a film nor a TV series. It’s the latest installment of the decade-plus Adrian E. Cristobal Lecture Series, sponsored by the Writers Union of the Philippines. Titled “Marcos and Memory: The Past in Our Future,” the material promised topical urgency in the wake of the so-far certain possibility of the Marcos family recapturing the seat of power that their patriarch, Ferdinand Sr., occupied for over two decades and refused to let go until he was expelled by a popular uprising.

11011The Marcos strategy – proffering the only son instead of his smarter sisters – resonates with the Catholicized culture’s belief in a messiah sent by a stern father to point the way to salvation; it also dodges the gender association with the still-alive and possibly already-daft Imelda, notorious during her heyday for her tackily excessive shopping sprees and hatred of anything that reminded her of how dirt-poor she used to be. This is enhanced by the likelihood that the sisters may be in charge of their father’s plundered billions, with Imee exposed when her grandchildren’s names were listed as beneficiaries in the Pandora Papers leakage in 2021, and side reports of the ongoing Credit Suisse scandal reminding readers that the Marcos couple were some of the bank’s most infamous confidential depositors.

Portions of the pseudonymous contracts drawn up with Credit Suisse by the Marcos couple. From Raissa Robles, “How the Law Caught Up with the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos and Her Stolen Millions,” South China Morning Post (November 17, 2018).

11011The Marcos campaign has proved particularly divisive for the generation that was able to participate in the anti-dictatorship movement that became an inexorable force when oppositionist-in-exile Benigno S. Aquino Jr. was assassinated upon his return to the country in August 1983. Those who count themselves as keepers of the democratic flame lament that later generations have been miseducated and incapable of the intelligence and strength of character to resist the Marcoses’ brazen attempt to launder their ill-gotten wealth, if not add a few billions more. A number of people who reversed course point to the post-Marcos administrations’ failure in preventing the reassumption of political influence of sectors that Marcos had started to marginalize, specifically the old oligarchy and the church (exempting pro-US neocolonial compradors, of which even Marcos strove to depict himself as one).

The Marcos regime: at the start (1965 presidential campaign) and at the end (1986 people-power uprising). From “Marcos and Memory,” courtesy of Sheila Coronel.

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11011Most people invested in the issue would have picked one or the other position to uphold; a select few would have rejected both. Sheila Coronel, Toni Stabile Professor of Professional Practice in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, performed the most unexpected act of deconstruction imaginable, by placing herself in both camps in order to explain why the Marcosist phenomenon is more deeply entrenched than we think, and why in order to confront it, we must begin by confronting ourselves. The premise of her lecture turns inside-out the self-righteous tendency to regard the support for the Marcoses as our Other, a monstrosity that only needs to be identified so it can be successfully resisted.

Sheila Coronel with her father, lawyer Antonio Coronel. From “Marcos and Memory,” courtesy of Sheila Coronel.

11011“If Marcos has such a hold on our collective imagination, it is in part because of the lies and half-truths he and his courtiers have told over and over again until they were accepted as fact,” Coronel leads off. “The Marcoses have been at this since 1935…. The rewriting of history didn’t begin after the fall [of the regime in 1986].”[1] Coronel then proceeds to recall how her own father, a well-known lawyer, defended individuals accused of acting on behalf of the martial-law administration. “He teased me about my objections to his clients but not to the shoes and dresses his lawyer’s fees bought me.”

11011The level of familiarity with which Coronel spells out her argument paradoxically provides her with an authority missing in those of us who profess to stand apart from the loyalty and devotion that the Marcoses inspire. (Essential disclosure: Coronel was a classmate and campus-journalism colleague during my first undergraduate program at the national university – and those of us who closely observed her could already see her capacity for ambitious, reflexive, research-based writing; her many global distinctions since then confirmed her determination to use her gifts in the service of the least-privileged among us.)

11011Toward the end of her narrative-driven account, she shared her recurrent nightmare of repeatedly attempting to write but with her pen failing to generate any ink. This is the point where she prescribes a call to action. Accepting the worst qualities that the Marcoses represent as an essential component of the Philippine character could easily result in our quiescence, if not despair. On the contrary, Coronel maintains, “resisting normalization means resisting disempowering narratives.”

11011It would be pointless to continue finding fault with whoever we believe should have been responsible for ensuring that the Marcoses’ record of atrocities and abominations be inscribed in the country’s educational curriculum, but just to make our terms clear (and affirm Coronel’s point): our historians and popular-culture artists have done everything they could to set the record down, even when the Marcos patriarch was still around. Coronel’s text (available both as a live recording and as a published transcription[2]) suggests ways in refining, if not redefining, the Marcos narrative, and if the present trend persists, it will soon be time to designate our younger subjects to take charge of fixing the mess that their elders left them in.

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Notes

First published March 6, 2022, in The FilAm; reprinted in May 2022 issue ofThe FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York.

[1] I thought of going over Roland Barthes’s 1957 text Mythologies (trans. Annette Lavers, New York: Noonday, 1972) to check if he had any suggestions on how to “read” the delivery of a lecture. He didn’t cover the topic, but I came up with something more useful: “Myth on the Right” (150-56), which for some reason I completely forgot after thinking it would be applicable in discussing the then-recently deposed Marcos dictatorship. As part of a section titled Myth Today (as opposed to the book’s eponymous primary section), Barthes describes myth as being “statistically” on the right, and enumerates seven rhetorical forms that typify bourgeois myth, all fascinating but too complicated to bring up here. The first property he mentions, for example, is inoculation, “which consists in admitting the accidental evil of a class-bound institution the better to conceal its principal evil” (151). The succeeding figures are: the privation of History; identification; tautology; neither-norism; the quantification of quality; and the statement of fact.

[2] Still on the matter of approaches to evaluating a lecture, all the academic discussions I could find dealt with transcriptions rather than with audiovisual material; I look forward to more balanced coverage now that streaming websites have made available some of the more famous recordings by prominent thinkers of the recent past. Regarding “Marcos and Memory,” which was delivered live at the Facebook page of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat ng Pilipinas, the recording has been uploaded on the organization’s YouTube page, along with preliminary material and subsequent Q&A exchanges. Coronel’s draft, on the other hand, was reprinted in Rappler as well as in Positively Filipino, MindaNews (with a Cebuano translation), and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (which Coronel founded). The audio recording of the lecture has also been posted on the PCIJ’s Spotify channel.

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Addendum for “Critic in Academe”

Professor Lumbera died in September 2021, a few months before he could turn 90. The whole country mourned for him, if we were to go by the combined simulacra of traditional and new media. That ought to be more than enough for anyone’s legacy, and before everything else, I ought to acknowledge that he deserved all the accolades pertaining to his role as teacher of literature, through which he influenced several generations of national university students. I cannot pretend to have full competence in evaluating the musical libretti and books of poetry on which part of his literary legacy rested, but I do have a passing acquaintance with his critical output as well as his exploits as film administrator, scholar, and critic.

11011While I was pursuing my graduate studies in the US, he was declared a Magsaysay Award winner. A few acquaintances tried ribbing me by claiming that the interview I conducted contributed significantly to a favorable evaluation by the jurors of his nomination. I had no way of finding out for sure, but I felt that even without it, he would have won anyway because of his prior record as author and activist.

11011I was foreign-based again, this time in the country where I was striving for tenure via the more rigorous global process, when I found out he was declared a recipient of the Order of National Artists of the Philippines. I had a longish personal short list of fellow citizens who I expected to place way before he did, and when Carlo J. Caparas, who was being excluded by previous winners led by Lumbera, complained that the decision-making process was dominated by an academic in-group, I felt that Caparas’s points deserved to be addressed, even if he did not deserve the Order.

11011I will raise just two related issues, one regarding Lumbera’s administration of the University of the Philippines Film Center (the springboard for the aforementioned interview) and the other regarding his role as academic adviser. Upon my return from US graduate school, I was appointed to the same position Lumbera held – also the position that was being prepared beforehand for Ishmael Bernal if only the latter had not suddenly been cut down by an aneurysm. Why was Lumbera replaced if he had certain sufficient qualifications, specifically as founding member of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino and as author of books honored for their film scholarship?

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11011Because he refused to recognize the attachment of the center to an academic program, effectively depriving the national university’s film students of access to facilities and equipment, not to mention a sizable collection of funds from film screenings and theater rentals. He parroted the canard that only the UPFC deserved to offer film courses and thereby allowed the institution to operate independently, with a lot of controversial practices by its officials, duly noted in the records of the university administration’s human resources office. Even when I was in charge, it attempted to solicit a million-dollar donation of equipment from the Japanese government on its own – which finally provided the singular opportunity for university officials to advocate for its abolition and irrevocable merger with the film program.

11011To his credit, Lumbera supported the merger, but this indicated a larger problem by then, one where he claimed to be either bird or beast depending not on whose side he was interacting with, but on which side was gaining the upper hand. I saw him only once since my return to Pinas in the early aughts, and thought that my disquietude that time came from his inability to recognize me. Which was unlikely, however, since I was forewarned by my faculty mentor, then also my supervisor, that he’d been suffering from memory loss. An acquaintance whose parent was coping with dementia taught me to watch for signs where the sufferer performs the markers of recognition but only comes alive when she encounters someone she actually recognizes.

11011The mentor I mentioned, Ellen J. Paglinauan, mapped out a strategy for graduate studies for me around the time I interviewed Lumbera. Since all that UP had then was a limited collection of grad-level film subjects mostly at the College of Mass Communication, I could major in the interdisciplinary Philippine Studies program and declare film as one of my areas. With MA in hand, I could proceed to a PhD also in film, in an American university via the Fulbright grant. Upon fast-tracking myself and reaching all-but-thesis status, I applied for and got the Fulbright grant, and applied for and got accepted to all the universities I listed as my preference. I necessarily had to specify MA-level studies since I still had to complete my degree, but Ellen assured me I could apply for a change in status before the scholarship commenced.

11011I’d also focused on a specific narratological interest (with inherent sociological potential) throughout my Pinas program. Lumbera was the only member of the faculty that the Phil. Studies coordinator endorsed as thesis adviser for film material, and I of course looked forward to an overlap between my study and his specialization in literature and society. He said he could not understand the first draft of the study proposal I submitted, so I prepared a second. After the third one, he said he’d prefer that I undertake the study of a Pinoy auteur or studio, and I had to explain that I was unprepared for that kind of project; take a few more courses, he said, but I said my coursework was complete and my US grad study program was looming up. Finish your MA there then, he went.

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11011I still refused to give up and requested a deferment of my Fulbright program, which the sponsor approved for no more than one sem. Lumbera wouldn’t budge. I finally started the foreign-studies grant as a master’s student, and subsequently got accepted to the doctoral program, with CMC officials instructing me to stay put and apply for a work-study arrangement. This was the most expensive school in the most expensive city in the US, so I had to take out student loans via a guarantor, aside from working for a pittance. The pressures building up in that corner of the world came to a head with twin explosions at the World Trade Center – the first one when I arrived in 1993, and the second one demolishing the structure during the 9/11 attacks. The study proposal that got me accepted to the PhD program (as one of four out of a few hundred applicants) and invited by Robert Sklar to be his dissertation advisee was exactly the same submission that Lumbera insisted on turning down. It formed the basis of several articles and a book that film scholars from all over seemed capable of comprehending.

11011I knew I was suffering from some potentially serious psychological issues during my foreign grad studies but I wagered that these were linked to the locale, and for the most part I was right: they dissipated when I finally departed from the school, office, city, and country that dominated my existence for nearly a decade. That was how I knew, after seeing Lumbera again, that I would be adding to my list of must-avoids. I’d already resolved early on to reject his prescription of writing criticism sans style and disposition – flaunt it if you got it, is my stance. I made sure during my UPFC term that film students should have better opportunities via access to heretofore unavailable resources, before I sought overseas employment to repay my grad-student loans. I also have been making every effort since then to accommodate the topics in which my advisees express interest and demonstrate expertise; I’d conduct any necessary self-study to ensure sufficient competence on my end, and recommend other experts when I feel that the students’ selected materials exceed my grasp. Whatever Bien Lumbera was in these areas of film criticism, policy, and mentorship, I found myself functioning more productively by doing exactly what he would have avoided or refused in the same situation.

11011He was the last to die among my academic advisers, and I hope I’ll never need to point out again that he served as my antipodean figure, the one who showed me what not to do by demonstrating in actual practice how wrong it was. Ellen was diagnosed with cancer after being savagely pilloried for months by faculty whom she had accused of corruption; she told me she was mistaken in asking me to return to Pinas and, as her final counsel, urged me to seek tenure abroad. While Ellen was undergoing treatment, Bob Sklar perished in a vehicular accident while on vacation. Ellen followed my example in resigning, without any prodding from me, from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, and succumbed to her illness around the same time that my tenure status in Korea was being decided. I may have been first among Pinas profs to clinch the distinction, but it was still too late for me to express my gratitude to these two for their letters of recommendation, among other more-essential matters. I was also on the verge of convincing myself that my grad-school traumas were entirely my fault, until the news about Lumbera’s passing enabled me, in his final inadvertent act of kindness, to be less harsh on myself.

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Á!


Every Tier a Victory; Or Why Film Awards Don’t Have to Be So Divisive

I endeavored to provide this postmortem-of-sorts of a film event that I wrote about just recently (specifically my October 30, 2021, contribution to The FilAm, reprinted in its newsmagazine’s December 2021 issue). The awards results, which are too bulky to contain within the body text, will show up as the equivalent of appendices in the endnotes.

One of the this year’s FACINE Gold winners for Best Film. [From the FACINE 28 Facebook page.]

This late in the year, a set of film awards has been generating social-media buzz, though it’s not from any of the usual sources: it’s from a preselected (film-festival) collection, and it’s not even Philippine-based. It’s also the second year that the annual festival of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International or FACINE handed out its highly modifiable tiered arrangement of winners.[1] After what seemed like collective head-scratching last year, you could look up the winners’ online posts at this time and see how a lot of mutual relief and bonding has been fostered by the results.

11011A “tiered” system may be just an approximation of the awards results that the FACINE has been presenting, since the term still refers to fixed categories that allow for a multiplicity of levels of achievements. Film awards of course have always proved fascinating for the general public, since they grant recognition in several more-or-less permanent categories. But the FACINE’s tiers not only adhere to rationalized recategorizations and more than one level of achievement within a category; they also accept multiple winners, when the evaluators agree that more than one talent deserves to be upheld.

11011My appreciation of the warm public response toward FACINE’s tiered system derives from more than just the satisfaction of knowing I helped promote the right kind of event. Believe it or not, a decades-long stretch of nostalgia’s at play in my case, from the time during the late 1980s when I and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., FACINE’s founding director, counted ourselves as stragglers from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino Film Critics Circle. Since a number of active film critics had also resigned from or were refusing to join the MPP, we thought that organizing an alternate group could provide innovations that the earlier body was by then already too calcified to implement.

11011One of our several extensive discussions with a growing number of prospective members, in consultation with progressive film practitioners, raised the issue of how a system of recognition could avoid the MPP’s hypocrisy in claiming to support a community of artists, only to have them resenting one another after only one winner per fixed category has been declared. (“We still live in a capitalist society,” one highly reputable elder told me after I expressed my objection to the winner-take-all concept, “so we have to provide a system that capitalist subjects can recognize.” There’s more where that came from but we’ll leave the more exciting stuff for later.)

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11011Did alternative models exist? Not in the Philippines at that time, although regular attendees at the year-round film screenings of Goethe-Institut Manila were aware that the Federal Republic of Germany’s national film awards handed out gold, silver, and bronze appraisals to deserving film titles from any given year. When the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’s Film Ratings Board started classifying film applicants in terms of their quality achievements in order to qualify for tax rebates (i.e., A for 50%, B for 25%, and C for nothing), the practice proved so popular that the FRB can be considered the only ECP agency in continuous operation since 1982, even after its supervising organization was dissolved a few times over (it was renamed the Cinema Evaluation Board during the early aughts – see Butch Francisco, “The Birth of the CEB,” Philippine Star, January 6, 2003).

11011Hence the Young Critics Circle, with Mau as founding chair, started out by declaring, minus a nomination process, winners in Gold and Silver categories, with performances conflated in one gender-blind arrangement that dispenses with the usual actress/actor, supporting/lead, and multiple/individual divisions; only the second innovation is still observed by the group, while FACINE, to maximize celebrity presence, listed the traditional categories while maintaining the more-is-merrier approach.[2] The difficulty of introducing a hitherto non-existent system is twofold: the year under consideration might not require too much complexity and potential rewards; and the attempts at announcing new or shifting categories could prove tricky for the evaluators themselves.

11011A hint of the second can be seen in the first set of YCC prizes. After we decided on the first two sets of winners, we felt that one final release deserved some kind of runner-up status. It was given a prize for direction, which of course was entirely not its distinction. The next year, Mau and I set up Kritika, again with him as chair, with the purpose of designing results that were as flexible as they were fair, as responsive to the year’s output as we could make it.[3] We were fortunate in that the two films that impressed us the most that year happened to be a superstar genre vehicle and a short art film (also in the literal sense, since it focused on an outstanding female sculptor).

11011Said art film was also arguably a documentary, but the Silver group affirmed our resolve to break down the boundaries that separate formats, modes of distribution, screening length, and the feature/nonfiction binary (with the local industry’s and critics’ prizes finally following suit exactly three decades later, with last year’s best-film win for Alyx Ayn G. Arumpac’s documentary Aswang). That time also, a particularly noteworthy entry too minor to include in either Gold or Silver category was declared exactly that: Particularly Noteworthy. In the list of individual achievements, we had a writer who was cited for two films as well as two winners in the performance category (one of whom won for three titles); this turned out to be the only critics’ prize ever given to Elwood Perez, until FACINE declared him a life-achievement winner in 2015. Finally, we also decided to provide certificates of appreciation for the foreign-film distributors who released some of the better non-Filipino entries of the year.

11011Up to the end, all the recipients of these tiered prizes kept remarking how grateful they were for the recognition. If you ever hear from the FACINE jurors what a tough assignment it was, believe them; the MPP might claim their awards system is the best they could come up with, but that’s either a load of bunk or an indicator of the limits of their imagination. By the end of 1992, nearly all the Kritika members had left or were preparing to leave for various purposes – overseas graduate studies in several cases, migration on Mau’s end. As a US resident and naturalized citizen, he was able to continue his organizational activities, with a global-showcase film event as his cynosure this time, while I plug along elsewhere in my sinecurish tenured post. So the good vibes over the FACINE awards announcement? That’s always good news, even if it’s no longer news to me.

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Notes

[1] From the Facebook page of FACINE 28:

Film

Gold: Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films); Midnight in a Perfect World (Globe Studios, Epicmedia)
Silver: Isa Pang Bahaghari [Another Rainbow] (Heaven’s Best Entertainment)
Bronze: Nerisa (Viva Films)

Direction

Gold: Joel Lamangan (Lockdown)
Silver: Dodo Dayao (Midnight in a Perfect World); Joel Lamangan (Isa Pang Bahaghari); Irene Emma Villamor (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Writing

Silver: Eric Ramos (Isa Pang Bahaghari)
Bronze: Dodo Dayao & Carljoe Javier (Midnight in a Perfect World); Irene Emma Villamor (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Lead Actress

Gold: Bela Padilla (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)
Bronze: Jasmine Curtis-Smith (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Special Citation: Elora Espano (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); Kim Molina (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending [You and Me and the Ending])

Lead Actor

Gold: Paolo Gumabao (Lockdown); Jerald Napoles (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending)
Silver: Oliver Aquino (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); Phillip Salvador (Isa Pang Bahaghari); JC Santos (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Secondary Actress

Gold: Rio Locsin (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)
Silver: Bing Pimentel (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Bronze: Sheree Bautista (Nerisa); Elizabeth Oropesa (Nerisa)

Secondary Actor

Gold: Jim Pebanco (Lockdown)
Silver: Michael de Mesa (Isa Pang Bahaghari)
Special Citation: Dino Pastrano (Midnight in a Perfect World)

Editing

Gold: Renard Torres (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending); Law Fajardo (Nerisa)
Silver: Gilbert Obispo (Lockdown); Lawrence Ang (Midnight in a Perfect World)

Cinematography

Gold: Joshua Reyes & Jess Lapid Jr. (Nerisa)
Silver: Pao Orendain (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending); Albert Banzon & Gym Lumbera (Midnight in a Perfect World); Pao Orendain (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Visual Design

Gold: Production designers Benjamin Padero & Carlo Padije, art director Katrina Napigkit, costumer Nikki Tabije, visual effects supervisor Vladimir Castanedo (Midnight in a Perfect World); production designer Law Fajardo, art director Ian Trafalgar, costumers Bryan Bermudez & Andi Balbuena, make-up artists RJ Coste Reyes & Barbie Rotschild (Nerisa)
Silver: Production designer Jay Custodio, art director Rodel Calimon, make-up artist Ruffa Zueta, wardrobe supervisor Rosel Cuarentas (Lockdown); production designer Ferdi Abuel, art director Patrick Topacio, set designer Mace Cruz, costumers Benedict Fajardo & Fernando Quilala, make-up artist Shiela Villegas, visual effects supervisor Ogie Tiglao (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Aural Design

Gold: Musical supervisors Malek Lopez, Erwin Romulo, & Juan Mguel Sobrepena, sound supervisor Corinne San Jose (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Silver: Musical supervisor Alfredo Ongleo, sound supervisor Albert Michael Idioma (Lockdown); musical supervisor Angeline Carlos, sound supervisor Andrew Milallos (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); musical supervisor Peter Legaste, sound supervisor Kaye Balmes (Nerisa)

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[2] From the Sine Sipat annual awards program brochures of the Young Critics Circle:

YOUNG CRITICS CIRCLE
(1990 Film Awards)

Gold: Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina? (dir. Gil M. Portes; MRN Films)

Silver: Bakit Ikaw Pa Rin? (dir. Emmanuel H. Borlaza; Viva Films); Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? (dir. Chito S. Roño; Viva Films); Hahamakin Lahat (dir. Lino Brocka; Regal Films); Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? (dir. Chito S. Roño; Viva Films)

Individual Achievements: Augusto Salvador (direction of Angel Molave); Ricky Lee (screenplays of Andrea & Hahamakin Lahat); Nora Aunor (performance in Andrea); Jun Pereira (cinematography of Bakit Kay Tagal); George Jarlego (editing of Gumapang Ka sa Lusak)

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[3] From “Some Words on Film Awards,” Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part 2: Expanded Perspectives), UNITAS 89.1 (May 2016), pp. 136-49 (for first four entries only):

KRITIKA
(1991 Film Awards)

Gold: Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. (dir. Elwood Perez; MRN Films); Yuta (dir. Hesumaria Sescon; Julie Lluch Dalena)

Silver: Huwag Mong Salingin ang Sugat Ko (dir. Christopher Strauss de Leon; Viva Films); Ynang-Bayan (dir. Nick Deocampo; Goethe-Institut Manila, Mowelfund Film Institute, Philippine Information Agency); Masakit sa Mata (dir. Jo Atienza, Ditsi Carolino, Cesar Hernando, Joseph Fortin, Mario Guzman; Goethe-Institut Manila, Mowelfund Film Institute, Philippine Information Agency)

Particularly Noteworthy: Ipagpatawad Mo (dir. Laurice Guillen; Viva Films)

Individual Achievements: Elwood Perez (direction of Pacita M.); Ricky Lee (screenplays of Pacita M. and Huwag Mong Salingin); Nora Aunor (performance in Pacita M.); Christopher de Leon (performances in Huwag Mong Salingin, Ipagpatawad Mo, and Makiusap Ka sa Diyos)

Citations for Foreign Film Releases [reconstructed]: Distributors of Beauty and the Beast (dir. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise); Boyz n the Hood (dir. John Singleton); Cape Fear (dir. Martin Scorsese); Dreams (dir. Akira Kurosawa); Flirting (dir. John Duigan); JFK (dir. Oliver Stone); Man in the Moon (dir. Robert Mulligan); Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme); Thelma & Louise (dir. Ridley Scott)

KRITIKA
(1992 Film Awards; reconstructed)

Silver: Andres Manambit: Angkan ng Matatapang (dir. Ike Jarlego Jr.; Viva Films)

Particularly Noteworthy: Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal (dir. Carlos Siguion-Reyna; Reyna Films)

Individual Achievements: Johnny Delgado (performance in Lumayo Ka Man sa Akin); Ike Jarlego Jr. & Marya Ignacio (editing of Andres Manambit)

Citations for Foreign Film Releases [unsure of others]: Distributors of Basic Instinct (dir. Paul Verhoeven); Howards End (dir. James Ivory); Unforgiven (dir. Clint Eastwood)

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Nether Nation

Lockdown
Directed by Joel C. Lamangan
Written by Troy Espiritu

A recent Philippine film release will be easy to overlook because it appears exploitative and merely topical – starting with its title, Lockdown. It recently ended its extended streaming run and has been slated to compete at the Asian Film Festival in Barcelona as well as this year’s FACINE International Film Festival in San Francisco (also with a streaming option). The latter festival has what may be the strongest lineup in any millennial Philippine film event, reminiscent of the glory years of the long-diminished Metro Manila Film Festival.

11011At first glance, Lockdown may be regarded as part of the series of films initiated by Lino Brocka’s Macho Dancer (1988, hereafter MD), where rentboys contend with the sordid realities of Third-World existence. The Lockdown director’s previous film, in fact, claimed to be the first authentic sequel to Brocka’s biggest global hit, as indicated in its title, Son of Macho Dancer.[1] Most entries in this series tended to be weighed down (as MD was) by their insistence on the dignity claimed against all odds by their central characters, as well as by the insularity of the sex workers’ situation. MD nodded toward the degeneracy induced by the presence of US military bases, but abandoned those concerns once the title character set out for the metropolitan center.

Danny lifts his handicapped father. Screen cap from Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films, 2021).

11011Joel C. Lamangan, who played the role of an unruly queer madam in MD, invests Lockdown with the same vision of an infernal underworld, but relocates the community to a coastal district, where Danny, an overseas worker forced to return after the global pandemic shut down the Dubai hotel where he worked, escapes from the mandatory 14-day quarantine to be able to raise funds for the recuperation of his recently handicapped father while acting as family breadwinner. The suburban setting considerably facilitates the mapping of territories that separate the seaside slum from the more affluent (and safeguarded) business centers, as well as the most militarized location of them all: the police compound with its discreet cluster of cottages for legally indefensible activities.

11011Like more aspirational working-class graduates than we realize, Danny worked out a gay-for-pay arrangement with Lito, a young entrepreneur, to be able to complete his studies; but since the pandemic was no respecter of overseas boundaries, Lito’s catering business also had to suspend its operations. The only income-earning activity Lito happened to be aware of was the one sustained by foreign customers, via live video exchanges, where native hunks offer to dance naked and engage in increasingly salacious displays, depending on the price the viewer pays. (The local term, vidjakol, is both a pun for video call and a portmanteau of video and the clipped slang term for ejaculation.)

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Danny auditions for Mama Rene. Screen cap from Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films, 2021).

11011The necessarily clandestine activity is conducted in Mama Rene’s Café, with the proprietor acting as barker, webmaster, trainer, and financier in charge of the performers’ income as well as a police official’s protection payment. Littered with antique appliances, the coffeehouse’s ground floor serves as audition space as well as lounge area for Mama Rene and his stud collection. The income-generating activities take place in crammed cubicles on the next floor, all darkened except for video monitors and spotlights illuminating the on-cam performances. Although initially nauseated by the abject nature of this version of sex work (as opposed to the escort service he used to do), Danny manages to find some professional equanimity in the tasks at hand, motivated by his father’s deteriorating condition and buoyed by the camaraderie of his fellow performers.

11011As it turns out, the further challenges that lie in store for the narrative hero escalate from this point onward, rapidly and terrifyingly. The turning point is occasioned by a comic lovers’ quarrel that turns violent and leads to wholesale betrayal. Throughout these dramatic shifts, Lamangan ensures that we remain mindful of Danny’s plight by maintaining unconditional empathy with the character; his strategy is matched by a performance startling in its fierce commitment from Paolo Gumabao, one of the exceptional local cases where an offspring manages to surpass anything done by his actor-parent, Dennis Roldan.

Camaraderie among fellow performers. Screen cap from Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films, 2021).

11011Even with less-than-ideal material, Lamangan is capable of guaranteeing stellar performances, from himself as well as for others. (For adequate proof, check out his other FACINE filmfest entry, One More Rainbow, where he draws out heart-tugging ensemble work from a trio of now-elderly stars from the Second Golden Age.) In Lockdown, he manages to differentiate a motley mix of vidjakol players via sharp performative strokes: the final sob story, for example, is rendered by a cherubic actor who actually smiles throughout – a masterly touch that indicates how the speaker is aware that he uses the same lines to elicit sympathy (and, consequently, larger tips) from his customers, yet intends to inform his peers without adding to their already overwhelming burdens.

11011PC guardians will be thrown off by the resolutely negative queer imaging in Lockdown, where the higher the out-gay character’s position, the more malevolent he turns out to be. Yet this perturbing state of affairs should be seen as postqueer, rather than homophobic. The characters presume to stake their claims on limited resources and rewards, enabling impoverished local citizens to conduct transactions with better-heeled clients that they would never be able to encounter otherwise in their daily lives. More crucially, the global circuits of cash and power tracked via these personalities demonstrate the inroads made in the lives of our dispossessed by internet media – implicating in no uncertain terms the very same types of viewers who would be ultimately watching presentations like Lockdown.[2]

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Danny as Mama Rene’s special payment. Screen cap from Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films, 2021).

11011A reflexive glance might help us appreciate the movie’s achievement better. Brocka first attempted to depict the underworld of male hustling via an extensively improvised sequence in Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), most of which was excised after the author of the source novel objected to the contrivance. MD was therefore more of a more carefully planned (though also highly unstable) treatment of the material. Who should turn up as the embodiment of the apex exploiter in Lockdown? None other than Allan Paule, MD’s lead actor, who in effect provides both an extension of the earlier film’s triumphant ending as well as a critical suggestion of where all its desperation and inhumanity could wind up, with a character thoroughly incapable of evoking the warmth and concern he was once able to summon for his fellow sex pros.

11011Considering the defiance and frustration that Brocka expressed right before his unexpectedly sudden death, Lockdown might well be the movie he would have made if he survived into the present millennium and its discontents. No higher accolade can be granted to a Filipino filmmaker than stating that she or he has made a work worthy of Brocka’s highest aspirations, and Lockdown happens to be one such rare instance.

Notes

First published September 27, 2021, as “Macho Dancing Goes Virtual in Joel Lamangan’s Lockdown” in The FilAm and reprinted in the November 2021 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. Constant thanks to Jerrick Josue David (no relation) and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. for alerting me to the creative ascent in the recent output of my namesake.

[1] An interesting sample, exploitative in the extreme but tackling head-on the issue of human trafficking, is Lamangan’s No Way Out (2008), worth tracking down for a look-see. The films regarded as MD’s direct successors, completed and marketed following the same sure-fire circuit as Brocka’s landmark release, are Midnight Dancers (1994), Burlesk King (1999), and Twilight Dancers (2006), all directed by the late Mel Chionglo.

[2, spoiler alert] As further elaborated in the succeeding paragraphs, a comparison with Lino Brocka, this time in terms of his handling of the reflexive potential of media, would be in order: it may be considered a weakness of Brocka that he was unable to subject media to critical reconsideration during his short and abruptly terminated career. In his overtly political films, either the media were inexplicably absent (as they generally were in MD) or they served as empirical chroniclers of history-in-the-making, even occasionally providing a counterweight to government corruption. The presence of a TV reporter in Lockdown, who feeds on the police department’s hypocritical suppression of what they announced as an offense to public decency, and who instructs her crew to film the hapless performers against their will, is given insidious significance once an abusive official repeats her words to justify torturing some of the prisoners.

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A Missing Installation in the Philippine Pantheon

I have decided to attempt the drafting and revision of an article whose final form I am still uncertain about. It will have elements of what we might recognize as basic film research, so it may wind up as a formal essay or a scholarly article. Depending on the terms that any prospective publisher might specify, this article may be pulled out (“embargoed” I think is the technical term) before it can be considered finalized. I will of course alert readers where and when it will be published. For the foreseeable future, I expect to add bibliographic notes, to be minimized if I can help it, and illustrations, as much as I can compile. I also prepared an appendix summarizing the archival status of the auteur subject’s films, but I could not include it in this post without extending the article as well as distracting from it. For now, it appears as an independent upload.

Colleagues in academe: I admit to being tempted to call this post a preprint, but it departs in too many significant ways from the standard sample. I appreciate the comments that have pointed out ways to improve the article, although I find my having posted it just as useful for soliciting pointers from other experts. Better to regard it then as an preprint wannabe, or whatever we call drafts before they can be considered fully ready for formal peer review.

To jump to later sections, click here for: Contentions; “Yoyong”; Family Tragedy; Showpieces; and Notes & Works Cited.

I must begin with a personal paradox: I started in film studies during a time when auteurism (or the “auteur theory” for those who prefer Andrew Sarris’s mistranslation of the politique des auteurs) had its heyday and persisted mostly in the minds of what today’s cultural snobs would call fanboys. I participated in such activities as a way of demonstrating the many lacks that local critical practitioners brought to their activities, and saw the millennial generation pick up on the mechanics but not the critique that I thought would make people hesitate or avoid auteur politics altogether.

11011I subsequently became aware that the prevalent trend in pop-culture activity will always be toward more prestige markers, not less (definitively explicated in James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige). In undertaking what I hoped would be my ultimate – and therefore final – stab at canon-formation (see David & Maglipon), I came to understand a significant aspect of its appeal: in recounting a work we have cherished, the more exclusively the better, we get to replicate the pleasure we experienced in appreciating the piece, along with the satisfaction of knowing, or hoping, that our writing might persuade other people to reconsider their differences with us.

11011The canon project I had been working on (formally as consultant for a publication team) affirmed for me the collected names of appreciated filmmakers – or what Sarrists would call a Pantheon, an assemblage of worthies – along with occasional additions or tweaks, mainly in the direction of rectifying the constant and predictable errors of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the original Filipino critics circle. This process has become so commonplace that most of the better young film bloggers could figure out for themselves how to evaluate films and bodies of work without falling into the established critics’ self-laid traps.

11011With earlier film samples, the provision of proof becomes more burdensome, mainly because of the country’s archival travails. One might stumble across the claim of certain oldtimers (some of them now gone) that Gerry de Leon’s the all-time greatest Pinoy film talent, were it not for the loss of his reputedly best entry, Daigdig ng mga Api [World of the Oppressed] (1965). Yet when I reread a vital article by the best among the first batch of MPP members, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, he expressed serious reservations regarding this film, and instead upheld Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita [Child of Sorrow] (1956). Lamentably, the latter film exists, in a remastered condition … and will probably be unable to sustain more than a single screening with audiences who do not share its church-fomented biases against slum residents, lumpenproles, and racial minorities.

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Contentions

Interestingly, these first two winners of the Order of the National Artist represented not just rival studios but also different sets of creative associates and political affinities. Although both (along with another National Artist, Eddie Romero) directed episodes of Tagumpay ng Mahirap [Triumph of the Poor] (1965) for Diosdado Macapagal’s ultimately failed campaign against Ferdinand E. Marcos, Avellana managed to switch sides quickly and effectively enough to be able to get his National Artist recognition ahead of de Leon.

11011The one last studio-era National Artist, Manuel Conde, also labors under the loss of his “best” entry, the series of political satires that feature his version of folk trickster Juan Tamad, as well as his celebrated color musical, Bahala Na (1957); the few Conde musicals I’ve seen, including the now also lost Ikaw Kasi (1955) and Basta Ikaw (1957), suggest that his work in this genre may be an even bigger loss than his later homiletic output. What remains in his name is the charmingly problematic Genghis Khan (1950), evidence of the Philippines’s once-confident cosmopolitanism in appropriating a “lesser” culture’s heroic figure and devising rollicking entertainment premised on the legendary exploits that led to the rise in power of Temujin Borjigin, prior to his Eurasian expansion of the Mongol Empire during the 13th century.

11011Hence, via a process of elimination, the First Golden Age film that most contemporary film buffs have been holding in highest regard for the past few decades would be Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa [Blessings of the Land] (1959).[1] Like Anak Dalita, it was produced by LVN Pictures, famed for its costume epics. Another quality both pictures share is an insistence on social conservatism as vital to the definiton of nationhood, along with the open and violent rejection of marginal characters. It would be tempting to conclude that Filipino film observers tend to revert to reactionary values in evaluating the past, although I would caution against such a headlong conclusion. It may be safer to assume that whatever tools they may have devised for appreciating contemporary releases seem to them to be inappropriate for older films.

11011For this reason I have insisted on maintaining the vital importance held by Gregorio Fernandez’s Malvarosa (1958). I also submit that its modernity gestures toward our present, which is why it appears anachronistic, capable of baffling viewers of early cinema who expect the samples to be genteel, virtuous, placid, and old-fashioned, possibly out of understandable and well-placed empathy for their elders.[2] Nevertheless such sentiments are beyond me, for better or worse, so my own uphill struggle to convince colleagues to keep rewatching these titles until they arrive at a level of familiarity that breeds either contempt or admiration can only be assuaged by the fact that Malvarosa will be capable of leaving behind most of them, and a lot of latter-day cinema besides.

11011A major part of the difficulty of championing Malvarosa is the figure of its director. Gregorio Fernandez was celebrated for his mid-1950s output, which when regarded by the acclaim bestowed by the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards would have indicated a declension: from a sweep of the major categories for Higit sa Lahat [More than Everything] (1955), to a best film and technical prize only for Luksang Tagumpay [Mournful Victory] (1956), to nominations for the direction of Hukom Roldan [Judge Roldan] (1957) and Kung Ako’y Mahal Mo [If You Love Me] (1960), with an “International Prestige Award of Merit” (presumably for foreign film-festival recognition) for Malvarosa.

11011As anyone familiar with award-giving trends might be able to infer by now, these prizes do not track Fernandez’s achievements with satisfactory accuracy. His first incontrovertible world-class masterwork arrived before the FAMAS took notice, in Prinsipe Teñoso [Prince Teñoso] (1954), dismissed then presumably for being an overtly commercial adaptation of a literary form, the metrical romance, introduced during the Spanish colonial era and previously filmed in 1942, also for LVN Pictures, by Manuel Conde (who takes story credit in the Fernandez version). From available evidence, Higit sa Lahat would be a gendered twist on the Hollywood melodrama perennial Stella Dallas (silent, dir. Henry King, 1925; B&W/sound, dir. King Vidor, 1937; color/sound version titled Stella, dir. John Erman, 1990), but the succeeding films up to Malvarosa demonstrate even more admirable and often successful risk-taking.[3]

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“Yoyong”

Born in 1904, Fernandez died before he reached 70, in 1973. This was about a year after the Order of the National Artist of the Philippines was first introduced. Considering the many other Filipinos who were able to acquire the distinction posthumously, Fernandez is certainly highly qualified. In fact, with the ready availability of several of his major projects for his home studio, LVN Pictures, one could easily make the argument that Fernandez has been severely underrated and unfairly overlooked. (For these and all other general filmographic and archival references, please refer to the Appendix.)

11011The prevailing assumption about Fernandez is that he shone brightest during the 1950s, the height of the First Golden Age, with a number of his films dominating the so-named academy prizes, in a way that would only be surpassed by Gerardo de Leon, an early National Artist Awardee, in the 1960s. The comparison between the two filmmakers goes beyond the acclaim they received during this period. They were both actors, held advanced health-science degrees (de Leon in medicine and Fernandez in dentistry), provided unforgettable roles for actresses, and had clan members who also became prominent in the local industry.

11011While de Leon’s productive streak continued way after the collapse of the studio system in the early 1960s, Fernandez’s output became scarcer until he seemingly gave up on making films altogether. Unlike de Leon, who was still working on an unfinished epic (Juan de la Cruz, for Fernando Poe Jr.) when he died, Fernandez worked on a hagiographic bio-picture for Diosdado Macapagal and a few sex-themed films. De Leon also did Daigdig ng mga Api for Macapagal’s campaign and a number of genre projects, but he seemed to weather the collapse of the studio system better than Fernandez, making films for the actor-producers who dominated the independent-production system as well as B-films for the US drive-in market.

11011The relative inactivity of Fernandez may have baffled serious observers during the time, but all we have are a few reports posted online as well as the accounts of some of his now-elderly contemporaries. (People were understandably more discreet during this period.) His daughter Merle forged ahead of the aspiring sex sirens of the late 1960s by pioneering in the trend known as bomba, which were erotic melodramas that were premised on the more (literally and figuratively) frontal depictions and discussions of carnal situations that originated in Western cinemas.

11011While the founding elders of the MPP decried the collapse of the vertically integrated studio system (and the First Golden Age along with it), I have pointed out elsewhere that the tendencies they considered most deplorable – bomba films and teen-idol musicals, both products of low-budget “quickie” efforts – actually betoken a progressive sensibility in the local mass audience. Because the new urbanites, comprising rural migrants working in factories and domestic labor, demanded a new breed of stars who resembled them more closely (non-white females rather than the studios’ emphasis on Euro-manqué males), the standard old-time mestizo performers were forced to immerse in taboo-busting material.

11011We ought to take note of the fact that a National Artist for Literature, Bienvenido Lumbera, once stressed (in “Pelikula” 216) that bomba films deserve to be revaluated in light of their overt challenge to the strictures of conservatism and denial of women’s prerogatives in acting on their desires and preferences. (Fernandez’s last film, in fact, starred his daughter, possibly accounting for an abhorrent rumor that both engaged in an incestuous relationship.[4]) With the declaration of martial law in 1972 by President Ferdinand E. Marcos, bomba-film production ended, as did Merle Fernandez’s acting career for the most part. Instead, she provided contacts and support for her younger brother Rudy, who became one of the country’s top action stars, renowned for his ability to combine stunt scenes with serious drama.[5]

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Family Tragedy

Interview articles on Gregorio Fernandez during this period situate him in his hometown, where he earned another kind of renown – as an expert cockfighter. He may have worked this out as his way of retiring from industry practice, although this may also indicate some degree of estrangement (from his familial and work circles). One might want to speculate that his professional troubles may have started from the suicide of his wife, Pilar Padilla, whom he had directed and performed with in a 1946 title, Dalawang Daigdig [Two Worlds] (per the Internet Movie Database). The tributes that came out after Rudy Fernandez’s untimely death from cancer mention how he was the first family member to encounter his mother’s body – a traumatic experience, considering he was 5 years old when she died in 1957.

11011We can speculate on the ways that this incident may have affected Fernandez’s frame of mind, i.e. that he still valiantly managed to come up with an early feminist masterpiece the next year, in Malvarosa, and that he lost his enthusiasm for innovative filmmaking afterward, as perceivable in a decline in his later LVN films. This would be a tricky way of applying auteurist principles, however, primarily because his non-LVN films from the 1960s onward are unavailable. To reference once more Gerardo de Leon, I remember how most cineastes tended to uphold his prestige productions up to Daigdig ng mga Api but dismissed his co-productions and genre projects; yet when video copies of these films became available later, many of them constituted major revelations.[6]

11011In Fernandez’s case, we are fortunate to have LVN scion Mike de Leon, who has overseen the video transfers of nearly all existing Fernandez films and selflessly uploaded these on his Vimeo website, open-access style. I would enjoin all Filipino film enthusiasts to go over the Fernandez titles chronologically, to be able to acquire a proper appreciation of his considerable skills as director and actor. The most significant aspect I noticed in the major films was his careful attention to identity issues, both in terms of strong women (and children) roles as well as in a sincere respect for Muslim Filipinos, to the point of providing them with a heroic twist in the spy narrative of Kontrabando (1950).

11011He could not avoid the Cold War tendency to demonize East Asian characters, unfortunately; but in Capas (1949), he brought up the fraught issue of wartime collaboration and provided a conflicted Japanese officer as a way of demonstrating to the Filipino double-agent that people on the enemy side could also be capable of human decency. We may note here that this film came out almost right after the end of World War II, several decades ahead of Mario O’Hara’s comparable (though expectedly better-focused) Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (1976).

11011The other primary mark of Fernandez’s films is his willingness to deploy comedy. Even in his serious works, this tendency enables him to approach the material with a light touch, reminiscent of a great Classical Hollywood practitioner, Ernst Lubitsch. Despite its several promotional placements, Miss Philippines (1947) evinces the bemused stance that would sustain Fernandez through the “heavier” material he would tackle later; in fact the situation of the alcoholic mother and the daughter torn apart by filial loyalty and her longing for happiness would subsequently reappear, with fuller social implications, in Malvarosa.

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Showpieces

In the meanwhile, he came up with the only available color film bearing his credit, Prinsipe Teñoso (1954), and it’s a marvel beyond the novelty of its Ruritanian-type romance. Its storytelling is so assured and skillful that the existing print’s archival predicament, resulting in a narrative leap from the title character’s attempt to defy his father to his wandering in another kingdom as a leper whose true form appears when he bathes, becomes an unexpected modernist touch – perfectly in keeping with the film’s championing of women, captives, the outcast, and Islamic outsiders.

11011Fernandez’s major FAMAS winners, as recounted earlier, were Higit sa Lahat (1955) and Luksang Tagumpay (1956), which attempt to spin the genre of melodrama by placing the burden of saving the family on male characters. The first time I saw these two during a late 1980s retrospective, I had the impression (affirmed in Prinsipe Teñoso) of a director who was not content with observing the standard approaches dictated by genres, star personas, even Classical Hollywood stylistic prescriptions. The now-missing final sequences of Luksang Tagumpay had an Expressionistic denouement, where the central male character’s domestic world literally starts falling apart around him. I remembered having just seen a similar sequence in a film whose title escaped me then; when I saw it again later – Mikhail Khalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying – I needed a double-take, because Luksang Tagumpay had preceded it by a year.

11011This was all in preparation for a final Fernandez revelation, heralded by Mike de Leon’s social-media announcement. Hukom Roldan (1957) is the major black-and-white discovery of our time, proof that Fernandez’s maverick impulses led him to attempt narrative and cinematic techniques that heralded a globally influential trend that was just about to break out a year later in France. The fragmentation of linear time, abrupt shifts from one character to another, sudden insertions of direct-address sequences – even the narrative twist in following the title character’s story only to focus more intently on the woman he inadvertently betrayed: when Alfred Hitchcock attempted this defiance of audience expectation a few years later in Psycho (1960), the gender emphasis was in the more conventional direction of disposing of an unruly woman so we could focus on the man who solves the mystery of her disappearance.

11011I am not in the habit of lionizing our local filmmakers so enthusiastically, because I believe that we do them (and ourselves) a disservice by overemphasizing their achievements. With Gregorio Fernandez, I have finally come across a filmmaker whose available body of work can sustain enough appreciation for us to declare, no matter how late in our history, another master film artist. I would rate Malvarosa (1958), for which he is justly celebrated, as superior to all the other existing “best” works – Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan (1950), Lamberto V. Avellana’s Anak Dalita (1956), Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa (1959); Gerardo de Leon would peak in the 1960s, so Fernandez’s films in the 1950s ought to rate more highly than even de Leon’s.

11011Inasmuch as it would take too much time to explicate why Malvarosa deserves more than the significant appreciation it already enjoys (our best black-and-white movie would not be difficult to declare), I should just close for now by pointing out its merits vis-à-vis its contemporaries: its focus on the downtrodden is not “redeemed” by the intervention of society’s superiors; it embraces slum culture – its lingo, pastimes, and aspirations – while slyly and good-naturedly pointing out their limits; it provides warm emotional closure without falsifying the tragic losses that our poverty-stricken compatriots (still) undergo. This may help explain why it has been easier for film commentators to dwell on the other 1950s films: although more identifiably of its time than most of the other entries, the treatment that Malvarosa invests in this material is beyond-classical in its sophistication and naturalistic in its sociological observations.

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Notes

[1] In two of the most comprehensive canon surveys covering Philippine cinema, we can track the persistence of the stature of Biyaya ng Lupa. In “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990” (David & Garduño), it was ranked one rung behind Anak Dalita. In the 2013 poll “100 Greatest Pinoy Films of All Time” (Labastilla), it was the only pre-1970s film in the top ten. It also holds the distinction of being the second Filipino film to be the sole subject of a book publication, after my entry Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (published in 2017), considered National Artist Ishmael Bernal’s most important output. I still have not been able to source the volume, Edward delos Santos Cabagnot’s Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time & Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa; a third book, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s Ang Daigdig ng mga Api: Remembering a Lost Film (published 2022) tackled the archival stature of still another “best” film by yet another National Artist, Gerardo de Leon.

[2] Camp may have been around for decades, but its acceptance by evaluators only became possible after Susan Sontag paid tribute to it in her essential 1964 essay. In Pinas film practice, campy humor became the staple, starting in the 1970s, of a loose group of directors who used to convene at the Laperal Apartments and later supported one another in a series of omnibus projects, and whose output was consequently downgraded by high-minded film evaluators. Yet once more, Fernandez preceded everyone. As a sample, in one of Malvarosa’s several familial tragedies, the following exchange occurs between the youngest and only female sibling, Rosa, and her gangster brother Leonides, who has killed a prospective holdup target and is now engaged in a shootout with Philippine Constabulary soldiers (in the provocative spirit of camp, Vic Diaz, who plays Leonides, references his physical appearance):

LEONIDES (opens door and lets her in): Why did you come here? Have you gone crazy?

ROSA: You’re the one who’s crazy! You’re deluded! Don’t you know that the law rules above us all? What you’re doing has no hope of winning! Best that you can do is surrender.

LEONIDES: Surrender? So that they can barbecue me on the electric chair? Leonides hasn’t lost his marbles yet!

ROSA: That won’t happen. You might not know it, but the law is just. If you’re innocent, you won’t be punished.

LEONIDES: Idiot! I’m far from innocent! If I weren’t guilty, why would I be in hiding?

(Scr. Consuelo P. Osorio, trans. Joel David)

[3] While I would generally downgrade quantitative measurements of achievement, especially those based on periodical award-giving, the forthcoming canon project I mentioned in the opening section (see David & Maglipon) has claims to providing more accurate assessments of individual filmmakers’ accomplishments: it allowed for as many, or as few, or even no available titles for every year covering the history of Philippine cinema, with works under contention re-viewed for as many times as would be necessary for a team of sufficiently informed evaluators to arrive at an assessment. While the specifics of the results have been contractually embargoed until the book’s publication, I can generally describe that Gregorio Fernandez had, after Gerardo de Leon, the most number of entries, with all the rest of their contemporaries limited to one or two films each.

[4] Rap Fernandez, grandson of Gregorio Fernandez via his son Rudy and the latter’s wife Lorna Tolentino, replied to my query on the allegation by stating: “I was only made aware of the rumor through the research I conducted for my thesis on Gregorio but I know for a fact that this is blatantly untrue. There were even rumors that my father was Merle and Gregorio’s secret son but that’s just completely false.” A niece of Merle, Jane Po, affirmed not just the falsity but also the implausibility of such a scenario. (Both exchanges were conducted via Facebook Messenger.)

[5] Gregorio Fernandez introduced Rudy to Sampaguita Pictures in time for the musical teen-idol trend mentioned earlier, but the son probably shared his elder sister Merle’s dilemma of being too fair for the preferences of the early 1970s mass audience, aside from coming in when the trend (along with bomba) was at its peak. Rap Fernandez pointed out Merle’s involvement in finding opportunities for Rudy; she also grieved over his death from a terminal illness, maintaining that she had lost someone she deeply cared for (interview with Leavold & Palisa).

[6] It would make sense to place Gregorio Fernandez’s peak in the 1950s, a decade ahead of Gerardo de Leon’s, since the latter actually was nearly ten years younger. Gerry de Leon’s Terror Is a Man (1959), Women in Cages (1971), Kulay Dugo ang Gabi [The Blood Drinkers] (1964), and Ibulong Mo sa Hangin [Blood of the Vampires] (1964) hold varying degrees of admirable regard for cineastes who specialize in B-film production.

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Appendix: An Archival Summary of the Gregorio Fernandez Filmography
[Posted separately]

Works Cited

Cabagnot, Edward delos Santos. Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time & Manuel Silos’s Biyaya ng Lupa. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2018.

Daroy, Petronilo Bn. “Main Currents in the Filipino Cinema.” Readings in Philippine Cinema. Ed. Rafael Ma. Guerrero. Manila: Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, 1983. 95-108.

David, Joel. Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017.

David, Joel, and Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon. Sine: 100+ Films That Celebrate Philippine Cinema (working title). Mandaluyong City: Summit Media, 2022 (forthcoming).

David, Joel, and Melanie Joy C. Garduño. “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990.” Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995. 95-108. 125-36.

Del Mundo, Clodualdo Jr. Ang Daigdig ng mga Api: Remembering a Lost Film. Manila: Film Development Council of the Philippines & De La Salle University Press, 2022.

English, James F. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Value. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005.

Labastilla, Skilty. “100 Greatest Pinoy Films of All Time.” Society of Filipino Film Reviewers. Online post, 2013.

Leavold, Andrew, and Daniel Palisa, dirs. The Last Pinoy Action King. Documentary. Reflection Films, Death Rides a Red Horse, and Quiapost Productions, 2015.

Lumbera, Bienvenido. “Pelikula: An Essay on Philippine Cinema.” Tuklas Sining: Essays on the Philippine Arts. Ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson. Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1991. 190-229.

Osorio, Consuelo P., scr. Malvarosa. Dir. Gregorio Fernandez. LVN Pictures, 1958.

Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. 1968. New York: Octagon, 1982.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Dell Publishing, 1966. 277-93.

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Siren Call

Nerisa
Directed by Lawrence Fajardo
Written by Ricky Lee

Among the “new normal” adjustments in media consumption induced by the still-ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of streaming as a viable, though still far from preferable, option to theater-going was definitely on its way to happening, with the current health crisis only speeding up its inevitable arrival. Not surprisingly, streaming has now become the place to watch out for pop-culture benchmarks, unless one insists on adhering to the increasingly nonsensical insistence of the Philippines’s critical and academic elite (same circle, for the most part) that the high-art presentation of poverty issues is the cinematic ideal to aspire to.

11011Among the country’s streaming participants, Viva Films has resumed its early role as determined new player, the same way it set out to challenge the then-nearly monolithic Regal Films when it first emerged during the 1980s. This time, however, it also seems to be partaking of the innovations that Regal once became known (or notorious) for, including its reliance on commercial (“low” to the critical elite) genres and bare-bones budgeting.

11011I would be remiss if I fail to report that with a currently streaming release, Nerisa (available via Vivamax & other services), it has finally struck gold, the same way that Regal regularly did during its time. Shot on a schedule resembling Regal’s pito-pito (₱2 million, minuscule for 1990s celluloid, for seven days of production plus another seven of postproduction), the project intercepted a young filmmaker, Lawrence Fajardo, on his way to upgrading his fluency in the medium while extending his grasp to material he had not yet attempted.

Foundling rescued by an orphan. Screen cap from Nerissa (Viva Films, 2021).

11011Fajardo’s qualitative shift in directorial expertise was affirmed when his previous project, Kintsugi (the technique of pottery repair in Japanese), shared the Young Critics Circle’s top prize with Raya Martin’s Death of Nintendo. Fajardo started out by specializing in the multicharacter-film format, a challenge that only a select number of filmmakers accepted with regularity, including Ishmael Bernal, the country’s undisputed master of the form. With Imbisibol, an earlier film set in the northernmost (and therefore coldest) Japanese island of Hokkaido, he depicted the lives of undocumented Pinoy migrants – one of whom was played by the luminous Bernardo Bernardo – beset by financial and immigration troubles, and attained a personal best.

11011Nerisa benefits immensely from the narrative treatment shaped by Ricky Lee, who has apparently reworked his script for Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981), in its focus on the plight of an outcast couple in a coastal village. Since it follows a linear trajectory rather than the recollections in Salome of a crime of passion from the perspectives of several participants, Nerisa enables its characters to position themselves in the violence-prone class and gender dynamics that a patriarchal order imposes on its citizens, and further qualifies the proceedings by articulating (via radio commentaries) the global concerns of our fisherfolk confronted by Chinese vessels overstepping their territorial boundaries and plundering Philippine waters.

Short-lived idyllic happiness. Screen cap from Nerisa (Viva Films, 2021).

11011The townsfolk are far more aware this time of the impact of alien forces taking undue interest in local resources (as has always been the case since the 16th century), with the elders explaining how recent industrial activities cause landslides and pollution that make it impossible for fishes to thrive close to shore. So the scarcity of catch at all familiar distances, coupled with the possibility of superior foreign vessels ramming native fishing boats and leaving the occupants to the mercy of the sea, has made fishing-as-livelihood both difficult and dangerous. Obet, the title character’s husband, badgers his peers to venture beyond municipal fishing grounds in order to be able to purchase his own boat and stop relying on the preferences of boat-owning artisans.

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11011As in Salome, the couple live beyond the pale of their town’s quotidian concerns. Obet was an orphan raised by a childless couple, with his stepsister Lilet (an abandoned child being raised by the same couple) narrating Nerisa’s tale. Nerisa herself was a foundling rescued by Obet from drowning, who cannot remember her past life, and whose beauty is enhanced by her faithfulness to her savior; understandably the men who learn about her develop a fairly strong carnal interest in her, while their wives suspect her of bringing to their island the rusalka-like curse of a seductive yet dangerous mermaid. She finds sororal refuge in the town’s other outcast women – Joni, the independent-minded loner who dares to dispense with her body according to whatever advantage it might bring her, and the aforementioned Lilet.

11011When Obet disappears during a fishing expedition, the trio set out to ask help from Coast Guard officials. The townsfolk thereafter initiate a round of malicious gossip whose outcome anyone familiar with social media can expect to end dismally for everyone involved. Upon his return, Obet gets caught up in the cycle of negativity and works out a form of punishment premised on the kind of homosocial interaction observed by the late queer feminist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men, where same-sex male bonding is facilitated by their use of women as objects of exchange.

Traditional mothering: nurtured son, oppressed daughter. Screen cap from Nerisa (Viva Films, 2021).

11011Fajardo’s expertise in handling these admittedly distressing developments lies in his ability to render passion as a crucial element of survival. Obet’s original intent to punish Nerisa via marital rape is misperceived by her as an expression of his ardor. The other menfolk’s savagery is infused with the anxiety they feel because of the depletion of natural resources that they once took for granted. Yet Fajardo also makes clear whose side he champions: in failing to see how the women in their lives are twice victimized – by the forces of uneven global development as well as by patriarchal ideology – they set themselves up for an ironically satisfying bloody retribution.

11011Nerisa’s brand of cautionary feminism may be yesterday’s news to today’s enlightened viewers, but I would argue that its delineation of a more conflicted mentality among villainous characters, as well as its upholding of women’s solidarity premised on their bodily prerogatives, ought to serve as templates for future rural-set sex melodramas. In addition to these revelations, Fajardo deploys a disciplined minimalism that only the ornery would ascribe to the limited resources he had to work with.

11011There’s a breakout lead performance in Cindy Miranda reminiscent of an earlier beauty queen-turned-actor, Elizabeth Oropesa, who here plays Obet’s adoptive mother, as overprotective of him as she behaves cruelly toward his half-sister (another feminist insight into mothering from an essential circle of authors starting with Jessica Benjamin and Marianne Hirsch). I also never imagined a time when Aljur Abrenica would be able to command a film screen with any authority, but if our cinema ever runs out of talent to celebrate, that would be the definite indicator that our surrender to forces beyond our control has been completed.

Note

First published August 23, 2021, as “In Nerisa, Viva Brings Back Regal’s Low-Budget Blockbuster Formula” in The FilAm. A word of thanks to Jerrick Josue David (no relation) for his recommendation. The authors and their texts mentioned in the order they appear are: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); Jessica Benjamin, “The Omnipotent Mother: A Psychoanalytic Study of Fantasy and Reality,” in Representations of Motherhood, ed. Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, & Meryle Mahrer Kaplan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 129-46; and Marianne Hirsch, “Mothers and Daughters,” in Ties That Bind: Essays on Mothering and Patriarchy, ed. Jean F. O’Barr, Deborah Pope, & Mary Wyer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pp. 177-99.

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An Error in the Urian’s Internet Record

Despite how this article may sound at first, I’m really taking a respite from my usual role as the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino’s most (in)famous tormentor. A well-meaning researcher, possibly even a younger MPP member, must have conducted a search of the organization’s prizes for best films for the decade of the 1970s, and included titles that I was certain were roundly rejected during the final deliberation session.

11011So yes, I’m writing because I was involved in the organization during that period, and as I’ve emphasized in several other articles beforehand, the processes I managed to observe during my Manunuri years helped shape my careful approach to canon-forming activities. I might even add that the group seems to have yielded to a latter-day tergiversation in its methodological purpose, but that’s not really our concern right now.

11011How bad is the resultant placement of wrong information? Awful enough to have affected at least two major internet resources, one general (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, excerpted below) and another film-specific (the Internet Movie Database). I was close to lobbing another stink bomb aimed at my former colleagues, until I thought of looking up possible online causes for the errant material.

Screenshot of Wikipedia‘s “Gawad Urian Award [sic]” page, as of the current time. Click pic to enlarge. To see the IMDb record, search for a film title and click on the “Awards” link.

11011As it turned out (bear with me now), the data was accurate, drawn from a reliable source: an article published January 10, 1980, in Expressweek, the weekend supplement of the Philippines Daily Express, one of many business concerns that coterminated with the Marcos regime. Titled “Ten Best Films of the ’70s,” it came out in a column (on pages 8, 22, & 34 of this specific issue) allotted to the MPP. This would have been one of the group’s then-persistent attempts to encourage its members to write by taking turns filling up pre-assigned periodical space.

11011The column was titled Urian (what else, right), and I could even deduce who wrote it. From the members identified during the survey-taking session, the only active one not mentioned, except as “this writer,” was the late Mario A. Hernando.[1] (Scanned files of the article were uploaded in 2009 to the Pelikula, Atbp. blogspot and are excerpted below.) The only error I recognized in the report was when it attributed the script of Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) to Orlando Nadres rather than to Mario O’Hara.

Click pic to enlarge. The rest of the post comprises scanned items, like the pic on the left. The typewritten section may have been an attempt at presenting a clearer version of a messy photocopy.

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11011Again, as in most historical problems, the currently available legit-seeming list of the MPP’s choices of the best films of the ’70s isn’t entirely in error: seven of the ten titles were the ones the group officially declared – with no other film missed out. That’s because the members eventually refused to round off the choices to ten. These seven were, in alphabetical order, Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? (Eddie Romero, 1976), Insiang (Brocka, 1976), Itim (Mike de Leon, 1976), Jaguar (Brocka, 1979), Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Brocka, 1975), Nunal sa Tubig (Ishmael Bernal, 1976), and Pagdating sa Dulo (Bernal, 1971).

11011So how could I be certain that the internet list is technically correct yet officially wrong? I could jokily reply that I wasn’t included in the enumeration of participants identified by Hernando, along with other members whom I remember during the final deliberation session but described as absent or inactive in the article. If we resort to a timeline of events, that would make things clearer: although the Expressweek article came out right before the awards ceremony for films released in 1979, no such announcement of “best of the decade” choices was made then.

11011Instead, the decadal prizes were handed out in 1981, during the awards cycle for the movies of 1980, when I became an active member. The full list came out in media reports as well as in two official publications: the program brochure and the first Urian Anthology published much later, plus of course the telecast of the event.[2] That meant that there was enough time – a year, more or less – for a reconsideration of the three other titles in the initial version of the top ten: aside from Tinimbang Ka, these included Behn Cervantes’s Sakada (1976) and Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (1978).

11011The process by which we decided on what films to honor turned on their ability to sustain repeat screenings. Pagputi ng Uwak might seem increasingly heavy-handed, but Tinimbang Ka would be unbearably moralistic and reactionary while Sakada would be, shall we say, amusing if it were regarded as a radical-left counterpart of Reefer Madness, minus the latter’s Classical Hollywood expertise. These last two might still be available on DVD (as is Reefer Madness on YouTube) so check them out if you think I’m being unfairly dismissive.

11011In fact, the session where we finalized the entries had an entirely different set of also-rans. I remember Burlesk Queen (1977) emerging as Castillo’s favored entry, and some votes as well for Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto (1970), Bernal’s Aliw (1979), and get this, Elwood Perez’s Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae (1974). I must add that any of these titles would still be superior to the original trio, as would a handful of others, some of which unfortunately have been difficult or impossible to locate for some time.

11011Calling for and demonstrating carefulness in canon discourse was only an intermediate aspirational stage for me, however. My idea of an ideal film culture is one in which canonizing concerns become secondary at best – something that the MPP has declared will never happen as long as it’s around. No surprise in how yesterday’s flowers have turned into today’s rotten veggies, but then when they believe that they’re still in bloom,…

Notes

[1] As of this writing, the “Gawad Urian Award [sic]” page of Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia lists only part of the current membership and includes two who have since died (Mario A. Hernando and Bienvenido Lumbera, the only lifetime members as far as I can ascertain). The complete roster, as listed in each of the organization’s decadal anthologies, is as follows:

  • 1970s list: founding chair Nestor U. Torre; founding members Behn Cervantes, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Pio de Castro III, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Justino Dormiendo, Mario A. Hernando, Bienvenido Lumbera, Manuel S. Pichel, and Nicanor G. Tiongson; and subsequent members Mario E. Bautista, Isagani R. Cruz, Joel David, Christian Ma. Guerrero, Ricky Lee, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Tezza O. Parel, Jun Cruz Reyes, and Agustin L. Sotto;
  • 1980s list: all the preceding plus Grace Javier Alfonso, Paul Daza, Butch Francisco, Alice G. Guillermo, Jose Sevilla Ho, Ellen J. Paglinauan, Miguel Q. Rapatan, Emmanuel A. Reyes, Rolando B. Tolentino, Mauro F. Tumbocon Jr., Alfred A. Yuson, and Joselito B. Zulueta;
  • 1990s list: some of the previous plus Benilda S. Santos and Tito Genova Valiente and excluding Ellen J. Paglinauan, even though she remained active during this and most of the next decade;
  • 2000s list: the current membership as listed in the Wikipedia entry, again excluding Paglinauan.

11011The 2010s anthology is presumably being completed and may include the aforementioned Wikipedia list comprising Alfonso, Francisco, Rapatan, Santos, Tiongson, Tolentino, Valiente, Zulueta, plus (per the group’s official website) new members Patrick Campos, Gary Devilles, and Shirley Lua – that is, unless a name like Paglinauan’s might be inexplicably dropped again (I specified her as the dedicatee of my article “The ‘New’ Cinema in Retrospect” in the 1990s collection, my only condition for having the article reprinted, but her name was also deleted). All the preceding volumes were edited by Nicanor G. Tiongson and were cited as follows: The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (Quezon City: Manuel L. Morato, 1983), 406-07; The Urian Anthology 1980-1989 (Manila: Antonio P. Tuviera, 2001), 336-43; The Urian Anthology 1990-1999 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2010), 404-07; and The Urian Anthology 2000-2009 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2013), 504-07.

[2] The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (see previous endnote) would be the only still-available definitive source of info. Unfortunately the MPP’s collections, numbering one for every decade since its founding, are affordable only to the deep-pocketed – so very progressive of them innit. The seven “best of the ’70s” choices were allotted a page each, but rather than show each title plus immediately adjacent pages, I figured that providing proof of their page numbers should suffice:

Pages v & 397 of the 1970s Urian Anthology. Click pic to enlarge.

11011As shown on page v of the book’s rather idiosyncratic table of contents, the list of films begins on page 397 and ends on page 404, with page 405 announcing the appendices. Page 397 (printed sideways on silver background, for that classy look) heralds the feature and explains how “In 1981, the twelve members of the MPP decided to honor the best films of 1970-1979…. Seven films emerged as the critics’ choice.” The featured titles per page were as follows: Pagdating sa Dulo, 398; Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, 399; Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?, 400; Insiang, 401; Itim, 402; Nunal sa Tubig, 403; and Jaguar, 404.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Mini-Appendices & Works Cited

Mini-Appendix A: Self-Study

There is a wealth of introductory books on film theory, most of which provide an adequate overview of ideas on the subject. I usually recommend Robert Stam’s Film Theory: An Introduction for the author’s acknowledgment of the interests of non-Western peoples; it is accompanied by a supplement, edited by Stam and Toby Miller, titled Film and Theory: An Anthology. The more comprehensive standard collection, continually updated, is Film Theory & Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, now on its 8th edition. A still-useful reference would be the two volumes edited by Bill Nichols titled Movies and Methods: An Anthology. A recommendable process would be to complete an overview, read up on the authors who prove interesting and useful, and proceed to these authors’ book-length output. (Make sure though to still read up on the other authors later.)

11011I would also urge any beginner to provide herself with a beyond-theoretical summary of the field; a sample (that badly needs updating) might be The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. Considered a basic and vital introduction to film aesthetics would be David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith’s Film Art: An Introduction, currently on its 12th edition. Bordwell himself maintains a website that contains his recent articles and updates, as well as an exemplary blog with Thompson (as primary author) titled Observations on Film Art. I mention this to be able to badmouth all the other film-studies websites that fail to display the same degree of rigor and thoroughness, and these are legion. Avoid getting into those (and writing similar crap later – you’ve been warned) by using Thompson and Bordwell’s material as benchmark, and focus instead on reading as many entire books as you can find useful, whether for instruction or pleasure.

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Mini-Appendix B: Deconstruction

Two French names are central in studying deconstruction (unfortunately still far from being fully assimilated in Pinas education, even in grad-school programs): Jacques Derrida, whose principles were initially reduced to methodological approaches by overeager American literary critics, but who persisted in tackling forward-looking global issues through the turn of the millennium; and Michel Foucault, acknowledged as influential by several new progressive activist movements as well as historians grateful for the opportunity to regard the past in new ways.

11011Both have been extensively translated to English, with Foucault generally more readable than early Derrida; both are also well-served by scholars who sought to explicate the deconstructive turn, which requires a grasp of interdisciplinary principles drawn from history, literature, aesthetics, sociology, politics, psychoanalysis, and economics. (Sounds intimidating, but it gets easier as you go along.) Read up on as many introductory materials as you can find, then explore each one’s body of work before forming your own take on deconstruction and its usefulness for social change. You may even reject it, but if your ultimate motive is to return to an older set of ideas, then save yourself the trouble and find other ways (if you can) to defend an order that has become part of the past.

11011Your encounter with deconstructive principles will lead you to certain trends and ideas that may or may not be familiar to you, depending on how updated your educational institution was: binary systems, poststructural frameworks, identity politics, and so on. Unlike preceding systems of thought that mimicked monotheistic religions in claiming the finality and correctness of their premises and prescriptions and abhorred all manner of dissent, deconstruction has the potential of operating without end and leading to relativistic, if not nihilistic, conclusions. It can of course turn into its own form of dogma, open to exploitation by both left and right extremists, so the challenge (recognized early enough by politicized thinkers) is in harnessing it to attain progressive social change. At the very least, the excitement of encountering a new set of ideas for the first time will be yours to claim.

 Works Cited

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Volume 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. 2nd ed. Madison, WI: Irvington Way Press, 2018.

Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith. Film Art: An Introduction. 1979. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2020.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory & Criticism. 1974. 8th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

David, Joel. “Corrigenda & Problematics for Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic.” Ámauteurish! (June 6, 2020).

———. “The Reviewer Reviewed.” Ámauteurish! (December 12, 2015).

Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Ed. David Crystal. 1926. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hechler, David. The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.

Hill, John, and Pamela Church Gibson, eds. The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Directives on the Film Business.” 1922. Volume 42 of Lenin Collected Works, October 1917 – March 1923. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971. 388-89.

Longworth, Karina. Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor. Cahiers du Cinema series. London: Phaidon Press, 2013.

Malko, George. “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies: A Profile.” Conversations with Pauline Kael. Ed. Will Brantley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 15-30.

McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

McMahon, James. “Life Is a Great Screenwriter.” Interview with Francis Ford Coppola. The Guardian (December 5, 2020).

Modern Language Association of America. MLA Handbook. 9th ed. New York: MLA, 2021.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Vols. 1 & 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976 & 1985.

Rice, Mark. Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Simon, John. “A Critical Credo.” Private Screenings: Views of the Cinema of the Sixties. New York: Macmillan, 1967. 1-16.

Smith, Zadie. “That Crafty Feeling.” Columbia University Writing Program lecture. The Believer (June 1, 2008).

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2000.

Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller, eds. Film and Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2000.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Observations on Film Art. At David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema (September 2006 to the present).

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