Penman No. 338: Back to Balangiga

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Penman for Monday, January 28, 2019

 

THE RECENT return of the fabled bells of Balangiga from the American West to their home in Samar reminded me of my fleeting involvement years ago in the effort to draw renewed attention to that traumatic episode of the Philippine-American War.

Sometime in 2001, the late film director Gil Portes called to ask me to work with him on a project that would focus on what people—echoing the American view—were then calling the “Balangiga massacre,” culminating of course in the loss of the bells (hardly the event’s most tragic outcome, considering the slaughter of innocents that the Americans undertook in the attack’s aftermath).

I suppose we were still basking in the afterglow of the Philippine Centennial, and directors were eager to take on historical subjects, long before Heneral Luna would prove that history artfully told could do well at the box office. In fact, our project ran alongside a similar one being put together by the formidable tandem of director Chito Roño and screenwriter Pete Lacaba. (Pete and I were good friends and knew what the other was doing.) The main difference was that our version was going to be a Filipino-American co-production, with the script in English, for a global audience.

I can’t recall now who our producer was, but I knew that Gil was in conversation with US-based financiers, and I did get a down payment for the sequence treatment and the script itself, so we were seriously engaged in the project—seriously enough that Gil and I went on a reconnaissance visit to Balangiga.

Balangiga is a small fourth-class municipality in Eastern Samar, reachable by surprisingly good roads (at least that long ago) from Tacloban across the San Juanico Bridge and past Basey. When we went there, we were billeted in the only “hotel” in town, where the rooms cost P100 a night and I tried to read my notes under a 10-watt lamp. But we were able to find and interview the descendants of Valeriano “Bale” Abanador, the town’s chief of police who led the attack in retaliation against American repression. I was even shown the wooden stick that Abanador was supposed to have waved as a signal to begin the attack that morning of September 28, 1901.

Sadly, after all the research and three drafts of the script, and despite rumors that Sony was going to be involved and that the likes of John Malkovich were being considered for the lead roles, our project fell through, as did the other one. One reason I heard was that in the wake of 9/11, it was proving difficult to bring a battalion of American actors over. Years later, Gil asked me for a copy of the script, thinking to revive the project, but then Gil himself died suddenly two years ago.

I don’t pretend to be a Balangiga expert, although I drew heavily on the writings of such real Balangiga scholars as UP Prof. Rolando Borrinaga and writer Bob Couttie, who have sorted much of the fiction from the facts of the event. I did fictionalize my treatment, as I was expected to do for dramatic purposes, without altering the basic facts as they were known to me. My chief conceit was to create a character named Ramon Candilosas, the fictional son of the bell ringer Vicente, who was a teenager when the attack happened.

My treatment opened this way:

SEQ. 1. Intro. EXT/INT. Fort Warren, Wyoming. Day.

 An old man, around 70, walks across the yard in Fort Warren, Wyoming, to where they keep the Balangiga bells. He pauses before one of them, takes off his hat, and reaches out with a trembling hand to touch one of the bells.

 Later, we see him signing his name with a scratchy fountain pen on a guestbook; a CLOSE-UP reveals his name: RAMON CANDILOSAS. “I do not know everything,” his voice begins to intone. “This is only what my father told me, and what I imagine to have happened in our hometown, in a war over a hundred years ago. It is a war we have forgotten, a war we find difficult if not impossible to believe.”

 Indeed, as I often remark to my American friends, I can understand if few Americans remember the Philippine-American War (downplayed for the longest time in American annals as the Philippine Insurrection). What’s sad is how few Filipinos do. At least writers like the US-based Gina Apostol are reviving that memory through her most recent and highly acclaimed novel Insurrecto, a complex and contemporary take on that century-old event.

But I’m glad for history’s sake that the bells are back, and that, for once, the fact has overtaken the fiction.

Penman No. 222: An Education for the Well-Rounded Filipino

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Penman for Monday, October 24, 2016

 

IN A few weeks’ time, several hundred professors at the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus will gather together for an important vote on UP Diliman’s General Education program—long seen to be the hallmark of a UP education. It’s important because what happens there will determine, to a great extent, what “tatak UP” will mean for the next generation or two, and what being “the national university,” as its charter defines it, entails as far as the quality and the breadth of its offerings are concerned.

The raging battle seems to be over how many units (or class-hours a week) to allot to General Education subjects, which have traditionally covered basic and compulsory courses in such areas as language (English and Filipino), history, math, science, and philosophy.

There’s a menu of options on the table, ranging from a formidable 45 units to a scant 21, and an emerging compromise of 30-36 units in between; the mix of courses in these totals is also under negotiation. Those who want more want to ensure that every UP undergraduate—whether he or she plans to become a lawyer, an engineer, a surgeon, or a painter—can talk intelligently as a well-rounded citizen about the Katipunan and mitosis and perspective and Sophocles and interstellar travel. Those who prefer less want students to graduate from their programs sooner, for UP to remain competitive with other schools, and suggest that students can imbibe some GE skills both from their K-12 add-ons and from their higher-level classes.

I don’t mind saying that I put myself squarely on the 30+ side. We can’t keep complaining that young Filipinos can’t write or speak in proper sentences or don’t know who Apolinario Mabini was—without doing enough to fix the problem, given the chance. Sure, some of these learning points can be addressed in senior high; but subjects like History, English, and Philosophy will still be different when taught in UP’s staunchly secular context and pitched as adult concerns.

But never mind me—let’s give a listen to one of our most accomplished writers, the Leyte-born but now New York-based Gina Apostol, whose novels have won the 2013 PEN America/Open Book Award and National Book Awards in the Philippines. Some time ago, Gina wrote UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan to plead for the strengthening of UP’s GE program, and I got her permission to quote from that letter here:

I am writing as a graduate of the UP English department, 1980-1984, a former teacher at the department, and as a novelist whose work has been indelibly shaped by my education at UP—in particular, by its General Education program, to which I look back daily in my own work as a teacher and a writer.

My three published novels owe their genesis to that program. My current novel, William McKinley’s World, about the Philippine American War, began in a PI 101 class in a classroom at Palma Hall Annex, where my professor taught me about a war I never knew about.

In those first two years at UP, I learned to think. The General Education program made me into a writer. I went to a private high school in Leyte that certainly taught me well (arguably just as rounded as the current K-12 program); but I needed the General Education program at UP to make me whole—a critical consumer, a nationalist thinker, a global reader, and finally, it gave me ground to think honestly and seriously about what education means, it gave breadth of thought to allow me to become who I am—a novelist whose work is absolutely grounded in the questions that UP had asked of me in my first two years at the school.

It is my misfortune (though some call it luck) that I have ended up teaching in the States, living among an extremely lucky group of students: the wealthy enclave of Manhattan’s private schools. But every day, teaching my very privileged, very wealthy students who can enroll in any school they want, I can compare what they have to my education at Diliman, and I am daily impressed by the foundational, long view of knowledge grounded in the breadth of UP’s General Education curriculum.

My experience as an educator and an artist here in America is that the education I gained at the University of the Philippines is equal to and (given the state of America) too often exceeds the quality of education abroad. This is true of my fellow alumni who come to America: we understand how well we were prepared.

I cannot underline this enough: I know that UP provided me with an incalculable, a priceless education. I am writing to state emphatically that the General Education program at UP should be enriched, not reduced.

Even today, having been to and taught at several schools considered the best of their kind in America—so acculturated and mired in the world of the privileged as I am here in America—every day, in my classroom, I still marvel at the amazing comprehensive education I got at the University of the Philippines.

Here in Manhattan, these kids are killing themselves to get into colleges with the kind of education I got at UP. My own daughter went to the University of Chicago, and I will say that I was proud (and fascinated) to know my education as a freshman and sophomore was equal to her own rigorous coursework in the General Education program of the University of Chicago, where highly able freshmen have to go through the GE program. As you know, Chicago’s program still stands as a beacon of higher education in America today.

At UP, as my daughter was at Chicago, I was required to take philosophy, maths, history, sciences, and four rigorous courses in English that made me read across cultures (the stories of Akutagawa and D.H. Lawrence, Marquez and Achebe)—to read across time (Machiavelli and Madariaga, Rizal and Homer)—and to read across disciplines. I noted that just as at the UP in my time, the University of Chicago does not stint its students—my daughter was required to do the full two years of humanities reading before she did her majors, reading Hegel and Homer as a freshman and sophomore, as I was asked to do in Diliman. In my case, much of the knowledge that has stayed with me came in one packet (Dadufalza’s primer). The way UP taught its students to think then remains an incalculable benefit, equal to the best in America.

I repeat: I learned to think at UP, and the General Education curriculum made me into a novelist. It made me into a writer who can hold her own anywhere. It distresses me to think that the university will fail even one child, one student from the provinces, like me, who arrives at the university not knowing exactly who she could be—but now without the bulwark of its tough and extended humanities curriculum to point her to the myriad possibilities that creates not only engineers but also artists, not only scientists but also philosophers. The rigorous General Education program of UP is a boon to the country.

UP should strengthen its GE curriculum, not reduce it.

Please let me know how we, alumni across the world, can help to strengthen our alma mater. We love UP, we love our education, we would love to help.

Gina Apostol, AB English 1984