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. 102: The Cream of the Crop

2014FulbrightPenman for Monday, June 23, 2014

 

A FEW weeks ago, I was happy to attend a pre-departure orientation seminar for this year’s US-bound batch of Fulbright and Hubert Humphrey scholars. I’ve been to quite a few of these PDOs over the past decade or so, and normally I’d be there up front, giving one of the orientation talks.

I’m usually the closer at these seminars, my task being to remind our scholars to enjoy their stay in America and to learn all they can—and then to come home and serve their people. “Love America all you please,” goes my spiel, “but never forget where your home is, which is here—not even here in 21st century Makati, but in those parts of our country which languish in the 20th and even the 19th century. We go to the great schools of America not just to improve our lives but theirs—those Filipinos who cannot even read, or are too hungry and tired from work to read.”

Last month, I sat in the audience on the listening end, having been privileged with a Fulbright grant—again, after my first one nearly 30 years ago, when I left for the US to do my master’s at Michigan and my PhD at Wisconsin before returning in 1991. This September, if all goes well, I’ll be leaving for Washington, DC to do advanced research in connection with my ongoing book project on the First Quarter Storm, specifically to seek out American perceptions of and experiences with martial law in the Philippines, and also to interview Filipino-American activists from that period.

The Philippine-American Educational Foundation, headed by the very capable and amiable Dr. Esmeralda “EC” Cunanan, actually administers or acts as a conduit for several distinct scholarship programs that fall loosely under the “Fulbright” rubric, named after the late Sen. William J. Fulbright, who saw educational exchanges as the best way to promote international cooperation and understanding between America and the rest of the world. (The Fulbright program also sends out American scholars for studies abroad.) Indeed, as I often tell my American friends, one Fulbright scholarship will probably cost a hundredth of and produce a thousand times more enduring goodwill than one bomb. For us Filipinos, this is the pensionado concept brought over into a new century, with the important difference that our learning is no longer meant to serve American ends, but ours.

A scan of this year’s batch of outgoing scholars offers great hope for the future. Chosen from many hundreds if not thousands of applicants after rigorous evaluations and interviews, they represent truly the cream of the crop, and I felt honored to be in their company.

The so-called “classic” Fulbright scholars—those going for their master’s and PhD degrees—include the likes of Lisa Decenteceo of UP Diliman, who’s going for her PhD in Musicology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (yay, go Blue!); Neil Andrew Mijares of the University of San Carlos, who’s doing an MA in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa; and Ramjie Odin of Mindanao State University-Maguindanao, who’s entering the PhD program in Fisheries and Allied Aquaculture at Auburn University.

Among my three fellow “senior” postgraduate scholars, despite the fact that she looks young enough to pass for an undergrad, is Marites Sanguila of Father Saturnino Urios University in Butuan, who’ll be going to the University of Oklahoma to undertake advanced research in “Species Diversity and Survival in a Changing Environment: Developing a New Center for Biodiversity Conservation.”

For many years now, there’s also been a special Fulbright program focused on agriculture, the Philippine Agriculture Scholarship Program for Advanced Research, which was set up at the initiative of then Agriculture Secretary Edgardo J. Angara to improve our agricultural expertise. This year’s nine grantees include Ma-Ann Camarin of MSU-Marawi who’s going to another MSU, Mississippi State University, to do doctoral dissertation research on (hold your breath) “Disease Surveillance and Study on the Bacterial Flora of Freshwater Prawn (Machrobrachium rosenbergii) as Biological Control Against Pathogenic Bacteria.” Meanwhile, Shirley Villanueva of the University of Southeastern Philippines in Tagum is going to the University of California-Davis to conduct research on the “Genetic Diversity of Native Chicken Groups in the Davao Region.”

Among the two US-ASEAN Visiting Scholars will be Jay Batongbacal of UP, one of our foremost legal experts on maritime law, who’ll be studying issues related to current disputes in the South China Sea. The three Hubert Humphrey fellows—all accomplished professionals in mid-career—include a PNP major and former Pasay City precinct commander, Kimberly M. Gonzales, who’ll be looking into public policy and administration concerns at the University of Minnesota.

To help Americans—especially Fil-Ams—learn Filipino, the Fulbright program is sending out three Foreign Language Teaching Assistants, who include Edward Nubla from the University of St. La Salle in Bacolod; he’ll be on his way to Skyline College in San Bruno, California. Lastly, four Filipino undergraduates will soon be spending a year on a US campus, thanks to the Fulbright program. They include Michiko Bito-on of Silliman University in Dumaguete, who’s taking up Mass Communications.

It’s heartening to see the diversity not only in these scholars’ expertise and concerns but also in their representation of all corners of the archipelago, ensuring that the Fulbright experience is shared not only by the usual suspects like me from Manila’s academia, but by bright young minds from north, south, and center.

 

SPEAKING OF the Filipino presence overseas, a big cultural event will take place in Hong Kong over this weekend, thanks to the efforts of the poet and scholar Armida M. Azada, who’s been based there for many years now.

On Friday, June 27, 5:30-7:00 pm, Mida will sit in conversation with visiting Filipino writers Joel Toledo, Charms Tianzon, and Daryll Delgado in a symposium on new Philippine writing titled “Our Words, Other Worlds,” at the Amenities Building, Lingnan University. The next day, at noon, Mida’s new book of poems, Catalclysmal: Seventy Wasted Poems will be launched at the 7th Floor of Hong Kong City Hall in Central. Earlier that morning, from 10:30 to 12 noon in the same venue, a free writing workshop will be held for Pinoy helpers and HK-Pinoy youth. On Sunday the 29th, from 6 to 7:30 pm, a poetry reading by Filipino writers and their friends will be held on the first floor of DB Plaza Terrace near Dymocks in Discovery Bay.

This is a wonderful thing that Mida Azada—a gifted poet who was a colleague at the UP Department of English before she moved to Hong Kong and the UK—is doing not just for herself but for her fellow Filipinos in the diaspora. As prizewinning poet Joel Toledo puts it in his endorsement of Mida’s new collection, “Cataclysmal is a collection of haunts and visitations. The poems here flit in and out of the Philippine archipelago, travelling to London, Hong Kong, and New York without losing touch of a Filipino rootedness. The poet’s concerns stray and meander from the personal and cathartic to the phenomenal and ultimately global. But Azada’s voice is keen and focused, filtered on the page by a careful attention to language. One may argue that this is the poetics of the expatriate ruminating on both the post-modern and post-colonial. Yet at the heart of this collection is fierce integrity, a resonant ‘I’ persona that won’t flinch. Here are poems that both strain to capture the fleeting and restrain from exoticizing the past. The poet Fanny Howe once wrote, “Double the beautiful/because they are so little.” While phenomena can sometimes be indeed cataclysmal, the hurtful is never wasted—so long as poems remember and reconstruct and, in time, recollect the sorrows, parse them into bliss.”

Mida, Joel, Charms, Daryll, and the other fine, memorable voices of their generation—they too are the cream of the crop.