‘Smaller and Smaller Circles’: Circling back, looking closer

‘But years later, can’t we see the almost similar plot and subplots reverberating in our time?’

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AFTER RECEIVING a confirmation email from the cinema manager of a posh mall in the metro that they will be showing the much-awaited film adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s novel Smaller and Smaller Circles for two consecutive weeks, I rushed to check my schedule to buy a ticket on its nationwide release the next day. 

I arrived at the cinema early, and got my ticket for the 6:20 pm showing. With no smartphone to utilize the free WI-FI while waiting, I decided to have a look at the latest book titles at the bookstore adjacent to the cinema. I saw Murakamis, Ishiguros, Gladwells, Leavs, Kaurs on the shelves while I was languidly gliding along the rows and rows of books. Then, I was greeted by Smaller.

It has been over a month now since I last finished reading the book the second time. Yes, that was not our first encounter.

In my attempt to start a conversation with Pat – who would turn out to be my senior high school best friend – while we’re waiting for our next class one crisp afternoon, I asked for the theme of the intriguing book she was holding. I was then sitting on the aisle seat behind her, on the second row. While our other classmates were busy throwing crumpled papers in the air, or talking about their treasured online computer game, or reviewing our lessons for the exam the coming week, I was hooked on the book’s front cover showing a face of a strange man in black background. Published in 2002 by the University of the Philippines Press, it’s the UP Jubilee Student Edition of Batacan’s novella.

“It’s about a serial killer in the slums of Payatas” she said. “The poor victims are pre-teen boys. Do you want to have a look?” Thrilled, I responded, “Sure, thanks!”

I flipped through the pages, glimpsed at the texts written on the back cover, and started reading the book.

Pile of trash. Small, pale, unmoving hand. Mangled corpse. Genitals removed. Peeled face. Mutilated beyond recognition.

It was as if I was taken to a familiar place in cinematic details that I couldn’t move. I froze for a moment. My classmates vanished. The noise transformed into silence. The walls of the classroom have been silently destroyed by the maggots coming out of the boy’s body. And just like that, my heart and my mind were in unison.

Equipped with a two-volume dictionary at home, I intently read each sentence. The author used words I’ve never encountered before. It was a struggle. It was new to me. It was gripping.

Transfixed, I still remember how I intensely tried to hide my emotions. I wanted to cry. Again and again, I reminded myself that it’s fiction, that there’s no way it’s happening; there’s no chance.

But years later, can’t we see the almost similar plot and subplots reverberating in our time?

A pattern on the killings involving teenage boys which was allegedly done to sabotage the current administration’s war on drugs surfaced on the news. Some government officials, who because of the pressure to deliver and exhibit results to their bosses and to the public, purportedly plant evidence and falsely declare innocent, powerless individuals as the murderer, the perpetrator, the killer by conducting brutal tortures and wreak death threats. Some priests and authorities of the Catholic Church, who tell themselves that they carry the truth and that they serve as the guardians of the moral fiber of the society up to this day, ostensibly conceal their unrighteous acts, abuse minors and the weak, and improperly use their influence and power for their advantage.

With all these lurking on our plate, when are we going to wake up?

Frustrated that not so many people showed up in the opening day of the movie adaptation of Smaller, I searched for the Instagram account of award-winning director Brillante Mendoza for consolation. On that same day, he posted: “Film is an art and you cannot expect everyone to appreciate art. You just have to accept that this is the audience that you have. We cannot do anything about it.”

Literature and the arts bring us to places we’ve never been before. They show us perspectives that can shed light to some of the subtle, the hidden, and the unspoken ideas around us; that we may pause to look closer and circle back to the abhorrent fragments of our past to keep them from happening again.

We still have a long way to go but I hope that we’ll someday give time and investment to our quality locally produced films no matter how long or short or wherever the line is.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com. Opinion, IMHO on the 11th of December, 2017.)

12. Discovering that you are a creator, an artist

“Fail. Stand up. Discover the creator, the artist in you even if sometimes it’s scary.”

IF YOU see yourself as a creative, do not give up. If you believe that you are an artist, embrace and nurture your craft. If you think that every cell of your body directs you to do more, to work on your passion, to reach the farthest limits of your imagination, try. And if an idea pops up in your head out nowhere, while you’re brushing your teeth, while taking a bath, while pouring tomato sauce on your plate to make your special dish, while walking, jogging, or sprinting, while waiting for the one that you love in a cafe, Japanese restaurant, or on a bench somewhere, while reading a book, or while riding a bicycle, a car, or a seesaw in a park, listen.

The world is filled with people who call themselves artists and poets and writers but do not know when to listen and be brave enough to spend their time to give their art its own form, life, and space. They do not want to feed themselves with new perspectives. Everyone is born a creator but not all of us are courageous enough to face its inexplicable faces, its inescapable enigma.

Fail. Stand up. Discover the creator, the artist in you even if sometimes it’s scary. I know because it frightened me to write this.

But we both know that there’s no other way.

We are what we watch

“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.”

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

“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.”

“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 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 her if I could join 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 that by reading books and newspapers you will be a listener, a traveler, and a fan. And then, it occurred to me that for the past nine years, I have been exploring the world not through an epoxy-coated wooden boat or oil-powered vehicle but by flipping through the pages of the books and dailies that I can and sometimes cannot relate with; mustering every word for my curiosity’s satisfaction. I have been stolen from reality and taken to a different dimension. I have been spoken to, directly, by different authors and thinkers. 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 and most riveting articles get to be chosen by the committee to 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.

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 limited in dying for your 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, 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 got an access to copies of different newspapers. Every day, I would cut articles from the 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 the state of the nation and the relevant principles of the law on different social, political, and economic issues.

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 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 two months, my mentor asked and advised me to spend at least two hours after class to read old piles of articles in the library in preparation for my public speaking competition. It’s one 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 the 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, exciting and 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 in their core.

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

Imagine that.