We are what we watch

When did you last watch a locally produced film in a theater not so much for the stars who are in it as for its story, production values and technical excellence?

While the country goes through national cleansing from illegal drugs and criminality fueled by “The Duterte Revolution,” as termed by National Artist F. Sionil Jose, the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has revealed its own version of metamorphosis. As bravely announced by University of the Philippines professor Nic Tiongson, eight official entries were named, which the members of the MMFF board unanimously chose for the public’s viewing pleasure.

Surprising for me was the exclusion for the first time in the festival of “Enteng Kabisote” and “Mano Po,” which are on their tenth and seventh installments this year, respectively. That’s right: tenth and seventh. MMFF Goliaths “Mother” Lily Monteverde and “Bossing” Vic Sotto were shocked and frustrated. But should they be?

I visited the MMFF website and read its mission: “A festival that celebrates Filipino artistic excellence, promotes audience development, and champions the sustainability of the Philippine film industry.” And here’s its vision: “To develop audiences for and encourage the production of quality Filipino films, and to promote the welfare of its workers.”

Where is “Filipino artistic excellence” in a film that you expect to showcase, for the nth time, the same old formula: scenes of running, shooting and fighting fantastic creatures and other beings? Where is “quality Filipino films” in movies that time and again use the defense “Christmas is for kids” to justify poor storytelling and absence of creativity?

Are some of us that dumb that they make do with eating the same Noche Buena and Media Noche every MMFF season, with recycled concepts and forced twists in the script?

Renowned astrophysicist and thinker Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “If there is a country without art, it’s not a country I want to live in. If there’s a country without science, you’re living in a cave. We measure the success of a civilization by how much … how well they treated their creative people.”

When I heard this, I remembered what Lily Monteverde had said: “You know, there is a time for the indie movies, but not the Christmas season. Christmas is for the family.” Are we treating our creative people rightfully if we seclude them from a festival over which she has been reigning as a queen for a long time? Isn’t that a degrading statement to indie filmmakers, who mightily try to survive in a country that has a trifling regard for the beauty of the arts and quality films?

So far this year, I’ve watched only one Filipino movie. A colleague invited me to join her family one Friday evening days before my birthday in July to watch a historical drama based on the memoirs of St. Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. I was thrilled and curious.

“At last! A sensible movie!” was my reaction when the plot summary was introduced. “Ignatio de Loyola” kindled hope in me that Filipinos are too capable, competent and imaginative to be dismissed from the international stage. Truth be told, most of the mainstream movies shown after the blockbuster “Heneral Luna” in 2015 were not outstanding.

Are we not tired of the trend of our local films that, by just the title, reveals what the stories are, the flows of events, and their endings? Boy meets girl. Flirtation. Betrayal. They hook up even if one of them is in another relationship. Beach scenes. Sensual exchanges. Bodies colliding. Morning kiss. Characters dressed in white clothes. Reality kicks in. Guilt enters the picture. The forbidden relationship has to end. One asks for forgiveness. To move on, or to hold on? Frustration. Car accident. Amnesia. Final kiss. 5 seconds. Happy song. 20 seconds. The end. And the bloopers, for the members of the audience to believe that they had a great time.

Film as a form of art serves as a catalyst for the audience to take a sound look at what’s going on, to reflect, to empathize, and to act for personal and social development. We’ve heard the saying, you are what you eat. But isn’t it true that we are also what we watch? If we’re just content to spend our time watching rubbish posing as films and not have the curiosity to look beyond the horizon for better fare, maybe we deserve the chaos we’re in right now—a forgetful and gullible nation.

We have an opportunity in the coming MMFF to experience an unforgettable Noche Buena and Media Noche of high-caliber films. Let’s embrace the chance. It could be that the decades of slavery to mediocrity are gone, and we are independent, at last!

(This piece has been published in Young Blood, Opinion, Philippine Daily Inquirer on the 15th of December, 2016.)

Ulan, Tren, at Gabi

Naramdaman mo ba ‘yung hangin, tila malamig?
Parang may sinasabi, sa una’y malabo ang himig,
Ngunit habang tumatagal, lumilinaw, nauunawa,
Hindi ko alam kung dahil sa ulan, o dala ng awa.
Napansin mo ba na tuwing gabi, madalas,
Naglalakbay ang diwa, hindi mo namamalas,
Gaya ng ibon sa himpapawid, isip mo’y laya,
Nagbabago kang bigla, nagiging makata. 
Noo’y iniisip ko, lahat ng tao ganito,
Ngunit nagunita na mali ang akala ko,
Hindi lahat may ganitong pagkakataon,
Ang ila’y nagsasabi na walang kabuluhan, dapat itapon.
Pinilit kong itago ang pag-ibig sa letra at salita,
Dahil ang inhinyero, sabi nila, ay marapat na hilig ay agham at matematika,
Hindi ba’t marami pang higit sa numero?
O dahil makitid ang daluyan ng dugo sa kanilang ulo?
Magsulat ka hanggang kaya mo,
Gaya ng ginawa ni Rizal para sa’yo,
Hindi siya nagpapigil sa armas ng kalaban,
Dala niya’y may kapangyarihang humiwa, tagos kalamnan.
Naramdaman mo ba ‘yung hangin, tila may ibinubulong?
Sa tuwina na lang habang nasa tren, jeep o naghihintay sa kakanlong?
May mga namumuong ideya, pangungusap, kumakatok, naghahanap ng masisilungan,
Mapalad ka, kasapi sa lahing tagapag-ingat ng kanilang pahingahan.

No Blank Pages

“Filipinos are not a reading people, and despite the compulsory course on the life and works of Rizal today, from the elementary to the university levels, it is accepted that the ‘Noli me Tangere’ and ‘El Filibusterismo’ are highly regarded but seldom read (if not totally ignored). Therefore one asks; how can unread novels exert any influence?” – Ambeth Ocampo, Rizal without the Overcoat

Each of us has his own and distinct passion. It is something that drives our soul because of excitement and extreme joy it brings; and so the body follows. It is not just a pastime. It is a craft that helps us understand our inner being and the world outside and vibrantly live with it.   My passion for reading started in 6th grade when this young, shy, Most Behave Awardee, had a conversation with the class valedictorian. I asked to walk with her, on her way home, one sunny afternoon. Our classmates teased us but I was glad she didn’t mind them.

“How did you do that? How can you share the things and stories you mentioned in our English class?”

“It’s because I read books and articles in broadsheets”. Her answer pinched a deep scar in my heart. On that moment, I saw myself added to the reading population.

They say, by reading books, literature, and news articles, you will be a listener, a traveler, and a fan. And then, it occurred to me, for the past nine years, I have been travelling not by an epoxy-coated wooden boat or oil-powered vehicles but by flipping through the pages of the books and dailies that I can and sometimes cannot relate with; mustering every word for curiosity’s satisfaction. I have been stolen from reality and taken to a different dimension. I have been spoken to, directly, by these authors. I have been a fan not just by the senators, congressmen, environmentalists, leftists, rightists, MMDA officers, engineers and technicians but of the common, complex, rare, and sometimes out-of-this world characters created by the minds of the so-called ‘writers’. I remember Nancy Malone’s book, “Walking a Literary Labyrinth”, where she talked about reading as an act of meditation; how imagination allows the mind to grow after a process.

I enjoy reading different book series. One of which is Youngblood, originally published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Opinion section. This is not your usual material for twenties and teens. Only the best articles with the most relevant topics will be chosen by the committee and be published. Different youth experiences are voiced out in this column, unveiling stories about life and love. Everything under the sun, created by the young minds of this country, is shared and pointed out. Its counterpart, Highblood, is also featured in PDI.

One of our Literature mammoths, Jose Rizal, brought a different perspective in me in our college subject Rizal’s Life, Works, and Letters. It is not just because he made two illustrious novels (Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo), but because it took me a while to research new facts about his life. Has everything about him been shared and written? We consider him our national hero. Poets address him as the “greatest man in the brown race.” He made me realize that Nationalism is not entirely about dying for the country. What’s important is how you lived your life to influence the succeeding generations even after you’re long gone. One of which, is giving value to your own roots. And because of this further research, I met Ambeth Ocampo, the former Chairman of the National Historical Commission. It did not happen personally. I chanced upon his article in PDI, “Looking Back”, and it was the start.

In 2007, with the help of my mom’s friend, a retired U.S. army soldier, I had a daily dose of information for free. Every day, I would cut articles from first page, all the way to the last page, of the newspaper. I would write the publish date in red caption. I kept everything in a long, red clear book. Never did I realize that I would, one day, call myself a collector. In an inventory I made two weeks ago, I have a total of 567 newspaper articles, excerpts and clippings by different columnists from different broadsheets. Some of my favorites are Michael Tan’s “Pinoy Kasi”, Conrado de Quiros’s “There’s The Rub”, Patricia Evangelista’s “Method to Madness”, Neal Cruz’s “As I See It”, Rina Jimenez David’s “At Large”, Juan Mercado’s “Viewpoint”, and Amando Doronilla’s “Analysis”. Raul Pangalangan, who took over as the Publisher of Philippine Daily Inquirer, after the passing of Isagani Yambot last year, is also included in my list. His column, then, tackled important issues like national stability and the judicial application of law.

One of those who influenced me to accept, nurture, and love this craft was my friend, a staffer of the official student publication of the university I attended years back. She spent time for it despite of majoring in a technical course, which was an unusual feat. Not many engineering and technology students have a room for art and literature in their hearts. We love numbers, figures, and mathematics – that was the hollow block we shared. There were days when we talked about anything we fancied; from the blue sky she saw on her way home from a vacation, the formation of clouds on a Saturday morning, the heavy rains brought by the Low Pressure Area, the devastation of a Super Typhoon to low-lying areas in the provinces, up to the latest book she has read. Truly, things are best done when shared.

Also in college, for 2 months, my mentor asked and advised me to spend at least 2 hours after class, to read old piles of articles in the library in preparation for my debate and public speaking competitions. Those were some of the most creative periods of my life.

To keep up with technology, I left my conventional, old-fashioned way of collecting articles and news stories. As the saying goes, “When a door closes, a new window opens.” News and media organizations have embarked and embraced current technology, by putting up their own websites. Today, you do not have to buy a newspaper to be updated with what is going on at the other side of the country and of the world.Information is readily available through the internet. And they are no longer limited with printed texts but supported with HD videos and photos. They are real-time and interactive and in a sense, challenging.

I miss the smell of a still-hot-just-delivered broadsheet. I miss the enticing sound one creates in turning its pages. I miss holding history with my hands. I miss the old days…but I know I will return someday. It is not the newsprint that changed me but the stories imprinted on each of them.

In the future, at the right age, I will tell my children this secret that I kept for eight years; introduce them these dignified people and show them my no blank pages treasure.

Imagine that.