Penman No. 266: The Pinoy Film Family

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Penman for Monday, August 28, 2017

 

LIKE MANY Filipinos, I really should see more locally made movies than the Hollywood and Netflix confections that have become our staple entertainment. That statement’s even more ironic in my case, having scripted about two dozen movies, mostly for the late Lino Brocka, between 1978 and 2003.

I missed out totally on this year’s Cinemalaya offerings because of a toxic schedule at work—I tried to catch Respeto on its last day only to find all the tickets sold out—so I made sure to make time for the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino the following week. I suppose I more than made up by managing to see four of the PPP entries over as many days: Patay Na si Hesus, Pauwi Na, Birdshot, and Hamog, in that order.

I might have chosen these movies because I’d heard good things about them, but I also wanted to see how they represented the Filipino family—for me an eternally fascinating subject, even from the days when Lino and I explored its complexity in such films as Tahan Na, Empoy and Inay. Filipino society (and politics, for that matter) is nothing if not about family, which seems inextricably connected to our struggles for survival—we survive for family, and also because of it.

Directed by Victor Villanueva, Patay Na si Hesus has a long-estranged wife and now a widow, Iyay (Jaclyn Jose), drive her ragtag family in a minicab from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend the wake of her husband Hesus. Along the way and at the wake itself all manner of misadventure happens: a nun liberates herself, a lesbian relationship crumbles, a boy with Down Syndrome seems to get lost but actually finds his way, a coffin collapses, and a dog dies (curiously—and sorry for the spoiler—the three dogs in three of these movies all die). The dog’s demise has all the characters wailing and shedding the tears they couldn’t muster for the absent dad.

Pauwi Na is another family-on-the-road movie, with Mang Pepe (Bembol Roco) and his wife Remy (Cherry Pie Picache)—crushed by eking out an existence in the slums—transporting their brood back to the Pinoy fantasy of a paradaisical province, not by train or bus but by pedicab. Director Paolo Villaluna’s project is a long and laborious journey that ends in tragic loss, but the family’s dogged faith in a better life elsewhere infuses the film with both power and poignance. Mang Pepe is every Filipino tatay who’s gone the extra mile—many miles—to put food on the table and bring a smile to his family’s faces. (I’ll admit to having teared up remembering my own father, a highly intelligent man who wanted to become a lawyer but never quite got the right breaks, and who at one point had to work as a jeepney barker just to tide us over.)

Directed by Mikhail Red, Birdshot juxtaposes the coming-of-age of young Maya (Mary Joy Apostol) with the brutishness and brutality of political power in the rural hinterlands. The endangered eagle that she shoots dead is precious, but it’s hardly the most grievous loss the place suffers, although there’s little official interest in investigating the bigger crimes.

Hamog is set in another jungle—the bowels beneath and around Guadalupe Bridge, in the city’s slums and tenements where street urchins become almost feral in their predation. The movie is actually a diptych, an exploration of two lives—Rashid’s and Jinky’s—and it opens doors to what to most Filipino viewers would be unusual relationships (a Muslim man with several wives, a woman with a husband and a lover under one roof). While doubtlessly powerful, the narrative needed, I felt, a bit of rounding out, even assuming that its director Ralston Jover precisely wanted to make a point of leaving ends loose, as life often happens.

I’ve already mentioned the 100% mortality rate for canines in these scripts; another interesting parallel was the appearance of phantoms—Jesus Christ, a shadowy forest figure, Supergirl—in three of the films, which seemed more organic and necessary in Pauwi Na but too deliberately cinematic a touch in Birdshot and Hamog.

Their minor flaws aside, all four movies were well worth my time and money, and I was glad to see full houses for a couple of them, and appreciative audiences who clapped as the credits rolled. For someone who’s been out of the film industry for a while, it was heartening to witness such a wealth of new young talent—both on the directorial and acting sides (Chai Fonacier, who appears in the two road movies, has a great future ahead of her)—emerging to take over from the likes of Brocka, Bernal, de Leon, and the other masters of that generation. If I were to hand out my own awards just among these four, I’d give the top prize to Patay Na si Hesus, for its refreshing quirkiness and dark comedy.

What struck and impressed me from a writer’s perspective was the non-linearity of the plots and the moral ambiguity of the characters and situations—a far cry from, say, Brocka, in whose movies it was always clear who the villain was, and why.

Most important, of course, was to see how the Pinoy nuclear family had morphed in response to changing times—to nontraditional sexuality, to absentee parents, to the pressure to survive—and yet also to see the love and affection in it undiminished and even intensified by need. Bravo!

 

Penman No. 209: Coming: An American Museum of Philippine Art

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Penman for Monday, July 25, 2016

 

AS YOU read this, I’ll be winging home with my wife Beng from California where we’ve spent the past two weeks engaged in a pioneering project that should bring the best of Philippine art to a broader American audience, if ongoing plans work out over the next few years.

Have you heard of the American Museum of Philippine Art? Probably not, since it’s still something of a pipe dream, but some people on both sides of the Pacific are blowing very hard on their pipes to make it happen. Those people include businessman Raffy Benitez, president of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Arts Center, and University of the Philippines professor and art expert Dr. Reuben Cañete, who developed the idea late last year after Erehwon’s successful involvement in a binational mural project at Chicago’s Field Museum sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation through Dr. Almira Astudillo-Gilles, a Chicago based Fil-Am writer and cultural advocate.

I reported on that project in this column last November 25, noting the warm response received by the participating Filipino and Filipino-American artists for their works—two murals, one at Erehwon and another at the Field—depicting the flows of Philippine culture and history from pre-Hispanic times to the present.

That positive experience encouraged Raffy and Reuben to conceive of a bigger and more enduring project that would bring Philippine art even closer to Americans—not just the huge and broadly dispersed Filipino community in the US, but the American public at large. Raffy and Reuben noted that the Mexicans and the Chinese, among other immigrant groups in America, both had their art museums, but that Filipinos—among the largest and fastest-growing minorities in America—did not.

Reuben recalled the long tradition of Filipino artists going over to the US to study and to work—such as Guillermo Tolentino, Victorio Edades, and Alfonso de Ossorio, among others—and observed that while strong cultural ties remained between the two countries, the connection was overwhelmingly one-way, with Philippine art (and music and literature, for that matter) being little known and appreciated in the US.

“In this age of globalization, art is now a global commodity that is exhibited and collected by various international venues, such as Art Basel Miami. Philippine Art, both in its historical as well as contemporary manifestations, must now be aggressively promoted in the United States, which is a major area of collection and promotion of global art,” Dr. Cañete would say in a concept paper on AMPA.

Karlota I. Contreras-Koterbay, a prizewinning Fil-Am sculptor and Director of the Slocumb Galleries at East Tennessee State University, agrees, writing that “There is a rich and dynamic art practice by Filipino-Americans in the US. However, there is a huge discrepancy in the visibility and recognition with regards to the idea and form of ‘Philippine Art’.

“The Philippines is the second highest Asian country whose citizens migrate to the US. The Filipinos have a long, complex history of immigration and residency in America, yet ‘Philippine Art’ is not as accessible nor recognizable in popular culture nor in the global art world. This statement does not claim that there is lack of talent nor creativity; on the contrary, there are thriving communities of artists, art groups and cultural workers who are making a difference in their respective locales, as well as receiving recognitions for their work in the field of arts.”

To take the first steps toward turning vision into reality, Raffy, Reuben, Beng, and I flew to LA to meet up with some prominent Filipino-American community leaders and artists to set up a foundation that would start the spadework on the museum. The American Museum of Philippine Art Foundation, Inc. (AMPAFI) was formally launched July 12 at the Holiday Inn in Diamond Bar, California, in a day-long meeting attended by a couple of dozen participants from all over the US.

Raffy Benitez will serve as chairman and president, and Reuben and I are joining him on the board, but we know that this project can’t be run from Manila, so the directors will also include art curator Karlota Contreras-Koterbay, physician Jose Botor Regullano, and engineer Ricardo Real Almonte. The officers include Fil-Am standouts Rafael Maniago, Art Zamora, Sal Budz Floriano, Rosie Vinluan Muñoz, Connie Buenaventura, Daniel Gutierrez Bassig, Dennis Martinez, Bobby Halili, Jess Española, Jun Sison, Ninette Tenza Umali, Ernan Ebreo, and Bernadette Escalona-Cooper. During the launch, a group of Fil-Am Artists headed by Paeng Maniago also rolled out a mural that they had executed to celebrate the occasion.

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We all realize that this project will take many years, enormous resources, and tremendous effort and optimism to realize. (Being Filipinos, we expect a lot of naysaying, and I’ve been Raffy’s chief buzzkiller whenever I think someone needs to pull his feet back to earth, but I have to admire the man’s guts and what he’s done at Erehwon, which you can preview here: http://erehwonartfoundation.org.) The museum as Raffy and Reuben envisage it is a mini-CCP, with enough spaces for exhibitions and performances (and even classes in Pinoy cooking), and the renowned architect Conrado Onglao was motivated and generous enough to contribute a prospective design for the building. That may be years down the road, but in the meanwhile, AMPAFI is taking early and doable steps toward building a countrywide arts community—a virtual museum, as it were—in cooperation with other groups such as Bernadette Escalona-Cooper’s Silicon Valley-based Global Artists’ Creative Collaboration for Empowerment (GACCE), whose leaders also attended the launch.

Karlota reports that “Our first two official projects are: ‘Nandito N Ako’ by 11 emerging Filipinx artists from the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and possible community mural headed by NY-based artist Art Zamora with the Phil-Am organization and ETSU organized by Slocumb Galleries in the Northeast. This will be early October 2016 in time for Filipino Heritage Month. Also on the same month on the West Coast is the proposed Indie Film Showing in LA by special committee on fundraising head Ernan Ebreo. Both are curated programming for awareness campaign and fundraising efforts.”

(Wait a minute, did I read “Filipinx?” Indeed I did—and this trip was the first time I encountered the term myself, which seems to be gaining currency among young Fil-Ams, who define “Filipinx”—which I’ve heard pronounced as “Filipinics”—as an effort “to make the community more inclusive—we changed the O in ‘Filipino’ to an X to remain gender-neutral and recognize all genders that exist in the Filipinx community. There’s apparently been a lot of debate on this issue, which we’ll deal with some other time.)

The AMPA website is up at http://www.ampafi.org. Contributions and donations are, of course, very welcome, but more than that, we need goodwill, prayers, and strength of spirit to see this vision through. Mabuhay at salamat sa lahat!

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Penman No. 177: Compress, One More, Wacky!

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Penman for Monday, December 7, 2015

 

 

GET SEVEN or more Pinoys together for a group photo and you’ll invariably hear this mantra: “Compress! One more! Wacky!” To the uninitiated foreigner—already surprised by our propensity to grab them by the arm for a quick and giggly shot—they’re orders that demand translation, so here goes:

“Compress!” technically means that not everyone can fit into the shot and that everyone should therefore squeeze together, at which point people will take a deep breath and turn sideways, turning a 40” midsection into what they imagine is a svelter 38”. This process can morph into a quick trip-to-Jerusalem rearrangement of the subjects, if the hold-your-breath trick doesn’t work. “Small ones in front!” or “Kneel! Kneel!” will be the next order of business, followed by a flurry of to-ing and fro-ing, and split-second negotiations over who’s taller than the other by half an inch, or whose knees can take the bending.

“Compress!” can also mean some young swain’s opportunity to snuggle up to an unsuspecting loved one. But even without the side benefit of romance, “Compress!” manifests the Pinoy’s sense of personal space, which is to say, ”I’ll let you dig your elbow into my rib cage, or touch your knee against mine—but I warn you, go no further, lest you think me immodest!”

The coming of the selfie—or more precisely, that new word I picked up from a book launch last week, the “groufie”—has made compression even more necessary than ever—which, let’s admit it, is a lot more fun than the scientific solution, which is to get a wider-angle lens.

“One more!” reaffirms the Pinoy’s fatalistic conviction that something will surely go wrong and that the first shot taken will prove to be a bad one, or will mysteriously vanish into some dark photographic abyss, from which no memorable snapshot ever returneth. This seems to have been more likely to happen in the bygone days of film, when everything from a faulty sprocket to invasive sunlight could spoil the most carefully posed portrait. But the onset of digital photography has clearly offered no measure of assurance to the Pinoy, who remains deathly suspicious of solitary shots, and who will scream, from the back of the pack, “One more!,” as if the course of history depended on the preservation of that instant.

And so the photographer dutifully fires off a few more shots, giving the subjects a chance to modulate and modify their poses and expressions—more often for naught, because the Pinoy’s fatalistic conviction that something will surely go wrong just happens to be correct, and the camera almost always takes the shot at the worst possible millisecond, when one’s mouth is half-open or one’s eyes are half-closed. This foreknowledge, seared by experience into the Pinoy’s subconscious, likely accounts for the multiplicity of shots taken at every occasion, and “One more!” is never meant to be taken literally, but rather to resound like an echo.

Let’s not forget the equally inevitable complication to this phase. Just when it seems all the angles have been exhausted and the smiles have dried on people’s incisors, some latecomer—who had been blithely chatting away on her cellphone across the grounds, in full view of the pictorial entourage—just has to make a mad dash across the grass, yelling, “Wait! Me, too!” And being the world’s most hospitable people, Pinoys will invariably accommodate the catcher-upper with a frozen smile, even as their eyes glare at her like live coals. And having wedged herself into the frame with a cheery sigh, Ms. Latecomer, of course, will have every right to demand “One more!”

“Wacky!” is probably the most perplexing word in the vocabulary of Pinoy photography for the foreign observer. “Compress!” and “One more!” at least make practical sense, but the command to go “Wacky!”—sometimes given in dead seriousness by some phlegmatic photographer—taxes Occidental logic. To visitors who’ve never witnessed it—meaning, you haven’t been here for more than 24 hours—“Wacky!” means assuming some ridiculous stance, or putting on a clownish face, the permutations of which are theoretically endless, but which typically reduce themselves to tongues stuck out, googly eyes, hands like Mickey Mouse ears, and poses like zombies or broken marionettes.

It isn’t all that strange when the subjects of the “Wacky!” shot are fifteen years old and younger—after all, it’s second nature to juveniles, who don’t need to be asked to act like they were, well, kids. It approaches the bizarre when—say at the closing of the 16th Annual Meeting of the Southeast Asian Society of Gerontology or of the National Consultative Assembly of Tripartite Wage Boards—grown men and women in shiny barongs and power suits are exhorted to do their “Wacky!” best, and deliver on demand.

Professional anthropologists and sociologists (who do the same thing at their conventions, for certain) will have a proper explanation for this behavior, but it can’t be too far-fetched to surmise that the photographic display of Pinoy wackiness is meant to be a healthy release of our inhibitions, even a democratizing gesture of self-effacement and bonhomie. It’s good to look and feel silly once in a while. Never mind that, given our itch to socialize, to see and be seen, “once in a while” happens three times a week on average.

As Paul Anka put it, “the times of your life” will always be worth remembering, and always worth compressing for, one more time, the wackier the better.