Penman No. 233: A Ray of Filmic Sunshine

Sunday_Beauty_Queen_poster.jpg

Penman for Monday, January 9, 2017

AS SOMEONE who wrote about 25 full-length screenplays for various film projects and directors in another life between the late 1970s and early 2000s, I really should be more interested in the remarkable developments that have taken place since in local cinema, especially on the indie scene.

But I have to confess, with some guilt and shame, that I haven’t kept up with what our younger, post-Brocka and post-Bernal directors have produced, except for the occasional viewing of a Brillante Mendoza or a Lav Diaz film, or outstanding documentaries such as last year’s Curiosity, Adventure and Love and An Open Door: Jewish Rescue in the Philippines. There are some personal reasons for this estrangement (not worth getting into at this time), but I do realize that I’ve missed out on a lot of good material while bingeing unpatriotically on Hollywood and Netflix.

I must say that the Metro Manila Film Festival and its seemingly bottomless decline from its glory days ages ago to the inevitable iteration of Enteng Kabisote contributed to my dismay. This most recent MMFF, however, seemed open to letting a ray of filmic sunshine through, with new criteria and a new selection process that put a premium on quality over commercialism. When I saw the list of the people involved and when I noted that their final selections were fresh titles by new directors, my expectations rose and I told Beng, after Christmas, “Let’s go see a movie!”

We’ve managed to see only two MMFF films as of this writing, but in both instances, our hopes were well rewarded.

Sunday Beauty Queen, which eventually won the Best Picture Award, documents the labors of Hong Kong’s OFW community in putting together a beauty pageant to ease the pangs of loneliness and the drudgery of their work. Directed by Baby Ruth Villarama, the film tracks pageant organizer Leo Selomenio—herself a longtime domestic helper—and the lives and stories of several key participants, all of them hardworking DHs. These girls, clearly, are no Gemma Cruzes or Pia Wurtzbachs, but even those of us who may scoff at the predictable inanities of beauty pageants will appreciate how the idea of “beauty” itself has been turned inward by this film, whose insistent positivity prompted me to tweet, as I stepped out of a cinema, that it was a “beautiful film about truly beautiful people.”

It wasn’t lost on me that I myself had written a novel, Soledad’s Sister, about OFWs, set briefly in Hong Kong, and had more than once observed our compatriots’ festive Sunday gatherings in Statue Square. Novels like mine tend to be morose reflections on human suffering, but there’s nothing like a well-crafted and even-handed documentary to bring out the verve and the tenacity that must accompany and cushion all that sorrow, and Sunday Beauty Queen draws on Pinay resilience in spades. The ultimate crown its subjects wear—and they are all winners—is that of dignity. Bravo, brava!

The other movie we chose to see was Ang Babae sa Septic Tank 2, with the irrepressible and hugely talented Eugene Domingo reprising her title role. We hadn’t seen the original movie from 2011 (and are now sorry we didn’t), but had no trouble wading into the premises of this sequel, which has Eugene playing herself as a comebacking star and tormenting her director (Kean Cipriano) with her “suggestions” for “improving” the script. It’s a riotously satirical project through and through, well-acted by its ensemble and well-scripted by the unfailingly sharp Chris Martinez, intelligent without being pretentious.

I may have chuckled more appreciatively than others in the audience, having gone through many of the absurd situations and propositions Eugene’s character raises in the film with her director-scriptwriter. I know I said at the start of this piece that I didn’t want to talk too much about how and why I got fed up with working in the film industry, but I feel like I should share at least one incident, from around 20 years ago, that’ll help explain why I moved from writing film scripts to writing novels and biographies.

Let’s set our scene in the offices of a big film studio, somewhere in Quezon City. I’ve been called to an urgent meeting by the producer because the movie we’re shooting (yes, we’re actually in the shooting stage) needs a new ending. Why? Because the studio’s Big Boss, who keeps track of the bottom line, doesn’t want our hero to die, like we’d originally planned; dead heroes bomb at the box office. So now we have to figure out a new extro, and the producers’ friends and alalays are all generously available and willing to help us think the ending through.

“So Gabby doesn’t die at sea when his banca is run over by a big ship,” one of them suggests, “but of course Sharon doesn’t know that, and in despair, she accepts Eric’s offer of marriage. But on the way to the wedding, she asks the car to stop by the beach, where she and Gabby used to promenade. She’s in her wedding gown, and she walks on the beach thinking about Gabby, until she reaches the tree they used to stand under. So she does some muni-muni, remembering their happy days….” At this point, another alalay interjects: “Ay, you know what, it will be so kilig if she looks up at the tree, and she’ll see the face of Gabby shimmering on every leaf!” I take a huge gulp of water to drown the welling acid in my gut.

“She makes a speech and tells the absent Gabby how much she truly loves him,” the original contributor ventures breathlessly, “and then she walks away… to her marriage and her life with Eric…. But it doesn’t end there! Because… because when she drives away, we see that there’s movement from behind the tree—it’s Gabby! He’s alive!”

There’s clapping and cheering all around the table, until somebody has the temerity to ask, “But why doesn’t he show himself to her?” It’s a question met with profound disdain. “Because—don’t you see?—Gabby is now in crutches, he lost one of his legs in the boating accident, and he loves Sharon too much to make her share her life with a cripple! So, nobly, he lets her go, as the theme song plays to the closing credits…..”

Appreciative sighs greet the revelation, as some of my water sputters onto the table.

Thankfully my director and I found a way to weasel out of that inspired conclusion, and the movie was shot and finished. I collected my paycheck, and resolved to do my best to write just stories, novels, nonfiction, and columns from that moment on.

Penman No. 154: Teaching English to Filipinos

NEU

Penman for Monday, June 22, 2015

I HAD a great time last week with the English faculty of New Era University in Quezon City, who had invited me to speak at their three-day workshop on “Enhancing English Teaching Practices.” For three days, I met with a very lively group of about 30 to 40 college and high school teachers of English, talking about writing, reading, and teaching the language in today’s Filipino classroom.

I was backstopped in these discussions by the young and very sharp Ms. Cyndriel “CY” Meimban, who had taken her high school at New Era before doing an English degree with us at the University of the Philippines and then a master’s in Education at Arizona State U. CY—who also just happens to be the daughter of an old friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Dr. Adriel Meimban—took a break from her teaching duties at Northern Arizona University to help out her fellow teachers at NEU.

It was my first visit to the NEU campus near Commonwealth Avenue, which was rather ironic because we’ve lived on the UP campus just across that avenue for the past ten years. The NEU is part of the Iglesia ni Cristo complex and is run by the church, although I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s open to all faiths. There’s a substantial Muslim population in that very area, for example, and many students from that community attend New Era.

We held our workshop in the new Professional Schools building, which housed NEU’s colleges of Law and Medicine, among others; more prominently, along Commonwealth Avenue, the College of Evangelical Ministry which Dr. Meimban (a former president of NEU) now heads trains young INC ministers, including about a hundred students from overseas—Filipino-Americans and Filipino-Europeans, among many others; I was surprised to be addressed by a young black man from South Africa in perfect Filipino. I was, in other words, in a very rich cultural and linguistic environment, in which language is used not just to express oneself or get jobs but to propagate the faith.

Otherwise, the workshop attendees voiced the same problems I’ve heard elsewhere: a clear decline in English proficiency not just among students but teachers as well; the lack of new materials in the syllabi, particularly in literature classes, as well as teaching guides for these materials; and the persistence of outdated approaches to the reading and teaching of literature and of English itself.

I began my presentation with something I always emphasize when I teach English in UP, especially in my American Literature class: we study and teach English not because we want to be Americans, British, or some other Anglophone people, but to become better Filipinos. We learn English and study other literatures in English to gain insights into and understand how these other societies operate and how certain human values and truths transcend national and social boundaries. Thereby, we should lose our unfamiliarity with and our awe of the foreign, empowering ourselves as citizens of the world.

I did a module on creative writing—focusing on fiction and nonfiction—as a way of showing teachers how writers think and work, so they can themselves become writers or at least understand what writers do and how they do it. In reading and teaching literature, I went over several poems and stories, and asked my audience to draw up a list of questions that could or should be raised about the text beyond “What’s the moral lesson?”

I emphasized the importance of considering and discussing form and technique as much as content and meaning as a way of seeing how language works, on the level of the sentence or even the word. I argued for the enjoyment of language for its own sake—in effect, for the study of literature as an exercise in pleasure as much as in education.

The problem with too many literature classes is that they’re taught as anything but literature—as philosophy, as religion, as politics—rather than as the imaginative play on words that lies at the heart of literature. When teachers march into class and declare, “Class, this is what this poem means, and believe me because I’m the absolute authority on it,” students and even teachers miss out on the fun of discovery, of teasing out sense from seeming chaos.

Inevitably, the question of a “language policy” came up. Would students benefit from the imposition of an “English-only” policy? Was it all right (or was it criminal) for a teacher of English to resort to Filipino when teaching English, or literature in English?

I went out on a limb here—and I’m sure that what I’ll say here will turn many a reader livid with consternation and disgust—but I said that, even as a former chair of the UP English Department, I’ve always been opposed to an English-only policy, because it’s silly and it simply doesn’t work.

We study English—and try to master it—because it serves us well in communication and in business, especially in a global sense, but to deliberately throttle our use of other languages (of which we have an enormous wealth) in the notion that it will somehow make us better users and speakers of English is downright stupid. I’ve yet to meet someone who now speaks and writes perfect English by having paid 5 centavos for every Filipino word he or she used. Most writers of my generation are happily bilingual or even trilingual, and we don’t get our languages or linguistic registers mixed up; what’s key is appropriateness—which language and which register is best for which occasion?

I would even argue that code-switching from English to Filipino can work in the teaching of English, and especially of literature in English, if it relaxes the non-Anglophone student and allows him or her to speak—and even to make a mistake, which should also be encouraged (and gently corrected) without too heavy a penalty. Patience and understanding, rather than force and sheer authority, have always gotten me better results in the classroom. I hope my colleagues in New Era University got a taste of that treatment, and that they enjoyed the experience.

Flashback No. 4: What Fil-Ams Can Do

This being the Fourth of July, and my daughter Demi having taken her oath as an American citizen a couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d repost this piece I wrote for the now-defunct San Francisco-based magazine Filipinas a few years ago.

Manileño for January 2007

I HAD a very pleasant and engaging semester as a visiting professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, last fall, a welcome break from my teaching duties at the University of the Philippines, where I should be back in harness by the time you read this. Not only did my stint at SNC allow me to introduce the Philippines to about 50 of my own students, only three of whom were Filipino-Americans; I was also able to speak before several groups of students and compatriots in other schools—the University of Michigan, the University of California at San Diego, and Marian College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

With UCSD having one of the biggest Asian-American student populations among US universities, my encounter with the students there after my formal talk proved the longest and most challenging. Here, a student raised a question that I would hear in other places: what was the best thing Filipino-Americans could do for Filipinos and the Philippines?

I’m sure that it’s a question that occupies Filipino-Americans all the time, and for which there are any number of answers, some easier and more obvious than others.

When a supertyphoon hits the Philippines and ravages the land, then relief goods are always welcome; when poor Filipino boys and girls can’t go to school despite their talents, their lives can be changed by scholarships from Fil-Ams who also worked their way up the educational and economic ladder. Many US-based doctors make regular pilgrimages home on medical missions to poor communities. Some Philippine schools receive loads of used books and computers from their alumni in America.

All of these efforts are noble and much appreciated, for sure. A few of them may have been undertaken more to burnish the image of the donor than to uplift the lot of the receiver, but in the end, it doesn’t matter: some public or private good has been done.

At the same time, such humanitarian projects are basically defined by a relationship of dependency, with America as the perennial giver and the Philippines as perpetual receiver. It’s a relationship that, like I told the students in San Diego, can sometimes grate on both sides, with Fil-Ams feeling like the only thing they’re useful for is another donation to another needy cause, and Filipinos feeling like they’re seen as little more than mendicants.

It gets worse when—dependency or not, and whether out of frustration, bossiness, or a genuine concern—some Filipino-Americans dispense quick and easy prescriptions for the cure of Philippine maladies as though nobody back home had the brains or the guts to come up with such ideas on their own.

One such bromide Pinoys often hear is, “Why don’t you just unite behind the President and stop bickering with one another?” Sounds good, but it makes me wonder why more than two million Filipino-Americans can’t get together under, say, just one dozen regional associations and one alumni association for each major university or college, and elect a congressman or US senator among themselves.

The fact is that the best and worst of our culture manifest themselves on both sides of the ocean. Our generosity, our sense of self-sacrifice for the good of the family, our commitment to education, and our industry and resourcefulness have helped us back home as much as they have gained our compatriots a firm footing in American society. On the other hand, the same sorry habits of inggitan, intrigahan, and siraan have fragmented Filipinos in Manila and Manhattan, in Cebu and Chicago, in Davao and Detroit (I’m using these cities metaphorically, but I’m sure you can supply the damning details). One of the worst examples I heard of recently had to do with the visit some years ago of a Philippine president to a Midwestern city—only to find two competing Fil-Am organizations holding two separate programs in two hotels facing each other across the street.

So what did I tell the bright and idealistic Fil-Am students who asked me what I thought they could best do for the Philippines?

Be good Americans, I said—whatever that may mean to each of them. Get engaged in America’s political processes, and make a difference in your own sphere of action. Vote not just for fellow Filipino-Americans—although a few more such voices in high places could help the community as a whole—but for political leaders who will make responsible decisions that will benefit peoples everywhere, including Filipinos.

As the world’s only remaining superpower, America needs all the critical intelligence (and I don’t mean military intelligence) it can muster, and Filipino-Americans can make themselves heard on both domestic and foreign-policy issues, instead of simply going with the flow and making themselves as inconspicuous as possible.

And what’s our claim to being in a unique position to tell Americans and American leaders something they don’t know? Well, we lived with America for half a century. As I often tell my American friends, we were their first Vietnam; and yet we also view America with much greater affection—some would say unreasonably so—than they can ever expect from Afghanistan or Iraq.

Overseas charity is good for the soul and is always welcome; but as they say, it begins at home, as does good global citizenship.