The films of Chantal Akerman are not an easy to like, just as much as their creator had been famously prickly in real life. (She was kinda homophobic, too, and had apparently died a suicide.) And she had disdained, for example, the labelling of her films as feminist tomes -- although feminists are her biggest champions because her films say so much about the experience of being woman alone in the traffic of the contemporary world. One of her most accessible films is also one that can test the patience of any regular moviegoer: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) -- and yes, thats the full title -- is famously slow and lengthy, clocking in at more than three hours in its matter-of-fact documentation of the daily life of the titular character as she goes about her regular business of keeping house, baking potatoes for dinner, and entertaining johns in her sideline as apparent prostitute -- and responding to all these with the same sense of clockwork precision and ritual bordering on resignation, until the twist in the last third of the film. (I watched this film last year by doing housework myself, and it was a strange and immersive meta-experience.)
Saute Ma Ville (1968) is her first film, made when she was just 18 -- and in this short film, she had already established that voice singular to her. It may be a pseudo-comedy of a young woman trapping herself in her own apartment, but its implications and its end are shocking and sad.
And here's a revealing interview Akerman did for the Criterion Collection, where she talks about the seed for Jeanne Dielman -- and those last words she uttered, as she thought back to the acclaim she won at 25 over that film, are chilling and insightful.
Rest in peace, Ms. Akerman. You have been needing that peace for quite a while now. And thank you for your strange films.
I am reading this fascinating article in The Atlantic where writer Selena Hoy muses over a cultural observation: that Japanese kids -- often as young as six years old -- are such a common sight on Japanese mass transit, and posits that "even in big cities like Tokyo, small children take the subway and run errands by themselves, [and the] reason has a lot to do with group dynamics." [Read the full article here.]
To be honest, I've always felt safer in Tokyo in a way I can never feel safe in Manila. Even with the problem of language (and the fact that Tokyo is a megalopolis), I know I can go from point A to point B without too much trouble. In Manila, even when I take a taxi, my guard is up, waaaay up, nakaka-stress. What's up with that?
Hoy writes: "Taking responsibility for shared spaces means that [Japanese] children have pride of ownership and understand in a concrete way the consequences of making a mess, since they’ll have to clean it up themselves. This ethic extends to public space more broadly (one reason Japanese streets are generally so clean). A child out in public knows he can rely on the group to help in an emergency."
Perhaps that's what's lacking with Filipinos in the Philippines [and I make that as a clear distinction, because we're totally different creatures abroad]. We don't take responsibility for our shared public spaces: we use our sidewalks as garbage bins, we snarl our traffic with our devil-may-care driving selfishness, we build ugly infrastructure, we consistently elect public officials who sleepwalk over issues of the public good (like public transit), and we treat our public parks and monuments like afterthoughts. About the latter, did you see those Paulo Alcarazen photos of the OFW statues at Roxas Boulevard taken within a few years of each other? The "devolution" is heartbreaking.
Public safety and public responsibility. Everything connects.
A history of the athletics in this part of the Philippines, I think, is something some local sports scholar should seriously consider studying. There's a ton of information out there. For example, there's the fascinating story of Sillimanian high jumper Simeon Toribio, one of the country's first Olympians, who won the Bronze Medal at the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1928, he wrote a letter back home to Dumaguete [subsequently published in the August 1 issue of The Sillimanian], where he talks about arriving at Port Said in Egypt on the way to the Amsterdam Olympics: "By way of practice, we have endeavoured to keep ourselves in condition. At every port the boat calls, we set out for some jogging. It is difficult to find any jumping pit. On board, we have made a cushion for my landing so that with my rubber shoes, I can practice jumping with no danger."
Toribio was also a campus poet. This is one of his poems, published in 1927, and already heavy with sports metaphors:
O'er the hurdles you go for the tape at the goal,
O'er these hindering bars from your starting foot-hole,
With the cheers and the cries in your front, at your back,
At the left and the right of the track.
Now you keep your fast gait and keep on stepping right,
Then a pebble that lies on the way of your flight,
Your alighting foot sprains, and lowers your nat'ral speed,
For it does e'en to any race steed.
Up and down! up and down! up and down! what a force!
From the start to the goal, can there be any worse?
But you never would stop and while onward you go,
A good lesson you teach -- don't you know?
That like jumping o'er hurdles in life we are bound
With our rooters unseen, -- but with hope so profound;
We should clear the high hurdles steadier,
So we breast our life tape the earlier.
Madaling-araw ng Abril 1974, isa’t kalahating taon pagkaraang ideklara ang batas militar, nireyd ang bahay na inuupahan namin sa Kalookan. Ang bahay na iyon, kalahati ng isang duplex, ay lihim na opisina ng aming “peryodiko,” isang babasahin na buwanan ang labas, may apat hanggang walong pahina, sa simula’y mimyograp pero sa kalaunan ay inimprenta. Naglalathala kami ng balitang hindi inilalabas ng mga regular na diyaryo, halimbawa’y ang mga ambus sa kanayunan, ang hunger strike ni Ninoy Aquino, at ang madugong pag-aalsa ng mga estudyante sa Thailand. Sa pamantayan ng diktadurang naghahari noon, ang ginagawa namin ay ilegal at subersibo.
Tatlo kaming nasa bahay noon. Natutulog ako sa banig sa sala nang gisingin ako ng paulit-ulit na sigaw: “Buksan ninyo ang pinto! Mga awtoridad kami!”
Pagsilip sa bintana, nakita kong napapaligiran kami ng mga armadong lalaking nakasibilyan, nagkakanlong sa likod ng mga dyip at kotseng bukas ang headlights. Mga 20 sila. Napag-alaman ko sa kalaunan na mga miyembro sila ng 5th Constabulary Security Unit, isa sa pinakamabagsik na tagapagpatupad ng batas militar.
Lumabas sa kuwarto ang isa kong kasambahay, at pagkaraan ng ilang minutong bulungan, ipinasiya naming buksan ang pinto. Wala kaming armas kundi makinilya’t bolpen. Baka paulanan kami ng putok kung hindi kami susunod.
Pagbukas na pagbukas ko ng pinto, sumaksak sa tiyan ko ang dulo ng isang riple. May kamay na humawak sa balikat ko, pinaikot ako’t itinulak sa sahig. Sa pagkakadapa ko, tinuntungan ako, sinipa sa tadyang, kinulata sa likod at batok.
Matapos mahalughog ang buong bahay, ipinasok ako, nakaposas, sa loob ng banyo. Ang humila sa akin doon ay isang tenyente na kalaunan ay naging koronel, gobernador, at kongresista. Tinanong niya kung may tunnel sa ilalim ng kubeta.
Nabobohan yata ako sa tanong. Hindi ko napigilan ang matawa—saglit lang, halos walang tunog. Biglang tumama ang kamao niya sa dibdib ko. Maskulado ang tenyete, tipong Incredible Hulk, at ako naman noon ay may timbang lamang na 111 libra, tipong Palito. Bumalandra ako sa dingding ng banyo.
Mataas na ang araw nang dalhin kami sa Kampo Crame, sa himpilan ng 5th CSU. Pagkaraan ng kaunting paperwork, dinala ako sa likod ng opisina, sa lugar na tinutulugan ng mga konstable. Doon, ginawa akong punching bag ng mga opisyal at sundalo.
Sa dibdib at tiyan nila ako pinagsusuntok, hindi sa mukha, para walang ebidensiya ng tortyur. Nakaupo ako sa gilid ng isang tarima. Bumibira ang mga interogador tuwing magtatanong, at bumibira kung hindi gusto ang sagot ko. May ilang konstableng napadaan lang, papunta sa locker, at nakikiambos sa gulpihan, binabatukan ako o kinakarate.
Nang magsawa na sila sa kasusuntok, pinaiskuwat ako, nakaderetso ang dalawang kamay sa harapan. Habang nasa ganito akong posisyon, ang mga lulod ko ay pinapalo ng hawakan ng walis-tambo. Mahina lang ang palo, parang walang puwersa, pero sa katagalan ay namaga ang mga lulod ko.
Naranasan ko rin ang tinatawag nilang San Juanico Bridge o higa sa hangin. Nakapatong ang ulo ko sa gilid ng isang tarima, ang mga paa ko sa gilid ng isang pang tarima. Deretso ang mga kamay ko sa aking tagiliran, at deretso ang katawan kong nakabitin sa pagitan ng dalawang tarima.
Mahirap manatili sa ganyang posisyon. Tiyak na hihilahin kang pababa ng gravity at ng bigat ng sariling katawan. Pero bago lumundo at kusang bumagsak ang katawan ko, sinikaran na ako sa tiyan.
Dalawang beses akong pinahiga sa hangin. Sa pangatlong beses, hindi na ako bumangon mula sa sementong sahig. “Patayin n’yo na lang ako,” sabi ko. Noon natigil ang tortyur sa araw na iyon.
Sa maniwala kayo’t sa hindi, nagkaroon pa kami ng lunch break. Hindi ko na maalala kung ano ang inihaing ulam na lumalangoy sa sabaw—baka sinibak na talong. Kahit walang kalasa-lasa, naubos ko. Nakakagutom ang tortyur.
Nagbabaka-sakali ako, nang magpatuloy ang gulpi, na ang lahat ng kinain ko’y isusuka ko sa mukha ng mga tomotortyur sa akin. Sa kasamaang-palad, hindi iyon nangyari.
Ang ikinuwento ko rito’y pahirap sa unang araw lamang. Bahagi ito ng aking salaysay na iniharap sa class suit sa Hawaii—isa sa halos 10,000 testimonya mula sa mga naging biktima ng paglabag sa mga karapatang-tao noong panahon ng rehimeng militar.
Wala akong intensiyon na sagutin ang ipinadalang form para sa mga hinihimok na sumali sa class suit. Pero ilang araw bago dumating ang deadline na itinakda ng korte sa Hawaii, kinausap ako nang masinsinan ni Thelma Arceo—ina ng isang Atenistang pinatay ng militar sa Panay. Hindi pera ang habol natin, sabi niya. Ang importante’y mapatunayan sa hukom na may 10,000 nga ang nabiktima ng rehimeng Marcos.
Ngayon, may bali-balitang baka bago magpasko ay tumanggap ang bawat biktima ng danyos na hindi bababa sa kalahating milyong piso. Hindi ako umaasa diyan, pero kung nariyan na ay hindi ko tatanggihan. Marami akong utang na binabayaran.
Gayunman, hindi komo’t handa akong tanggapin ang pabuya ay inaabsuwelto ko na ang nasirang diktador na naging dahilan para ko matikman ang karinyo brutal ng romansa militar. Ano siya, sinusuwerte?
Merlie Alunan's "The Bells Count in Our Blood" remains one of the best poems written about Martial Law. First published in 1988 in the pages of The Sillimanian Magazine, it tells us about the horrors of those dark days and the disappearance of one activist priest. But it is a poem that also takes the Filipino to task about forgetting, admonishing us that even if remembering is painful, it is vital because it "keep[s] us from decay." It is also very personal for me because the locale of the poem is Dumaguete -- but it might as well be any other city in the Philippines. Here's the full poem, including the epigraph about the disappeared Father Rudy Romano:
“Every night at 8:00 we shall ring the bells for Father Romano, and we shall continue to do so until he is found.”
~ The Redemptorist Community,
Dumaguete City, September 1985
Every night just as we settle
To coffee or a mug of cold beer,
They ring the bells—
A crisp quick flurry first, then
Decorous as in a knell, ten counts.
Into the darkness newly fallen
The cadence calls for a brother lost.
At home as we try to wash off
With music and a little loving
The grime of markets from our souls—
The day’s trading of truth for bread,
Masks of honor, guises of peace—
The clear sounds infusing the air
Deny us the salve of forgetting.
We know for what they lost him,
Why expedient tyrants required
His name effaced, his bones hidden.
As we bend over the heads of children
Fighting sleep, not quite done with play,
The bells vibrating remind us how
Our fears conspires to seal his doom.
We could say to the ringers:
Your bells won’t bring him back,
But just supposing that it could,
What would you have?
A body maimed, perhaps, beyond belief—
Toes and fingers gone, teeth missing,
Tongue cut off, memory hacked witless.
The nights in our town
Are flavored with the dread
The bells salt down measured
From their tall dark tower.
It falls upon our raw minds wanting sleep.
Shall we stop them?
Though we smart
We know they keep us from decay.
Shared in this keening,
A rhythm beating all night long
In our veins, truth is truth still
Though unworried. The bells
Count in our blood the heart of all
We must restore. Tomorrow, we vow,
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
Once a year, on a day in September, I begin the daunting task of packaging tidbits of information that make my stomach queasy, and proceed to put them up one by one in Facebook and Twitter—complete with photos and complete with research and links—in a meticulously paced posting that allows for the entire run of the hours in the day. It is a flood of dark information, and sometimes I cry over them.
But it is only one day, and once a year at that, and it has to be done.
What is that day?
It is the day we came to know the number 1081.
It is the proclamation number with which Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, former Philippine dictator and the boogeyman of our collective historical nightmares, plunged the entire country into martial rule.
By the time it was over twenty long years later, the numbers had to be crunched, and the numbers do not lie. According to a report made by Amnesty International shortly after the EDSA Revolution happened, after the imposition of Martial Law, 70,000 people were arrested, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 were killed by the military and the police, all with the blessings of a despot who wanted to stay infinitely in absolute power.
What do they say about absolute power again?
So why do I do this social media barrage? Because more than forty years after 23 September 1972, that day of infamy, there is a different battle going on, and it is a battle for the Filipino soul. On one hand, there is memory—but one that is not meticulously kept, for certain reasons that underscore a Filipino frailty (which is a cultural forgetfulness). On the other hand, there are the claws of revisionism. And it is a revisionism that is being waged, soul by soul, in the murky landscape of the Internet. Every few days, we see posts of some young person questioning whether the darkness of those years was truly darkness. Perhaps you are mistaken, we are told by them. And I am perfectly all right with the act of questioning the writing of a history, which is—as we like to say—always written by the so-called victors. But what if what is being questioned belittles the blood that had been spilled in the name of your freedom? What if what is being questioned is a national nightmare that has been twisted by a grammar of lies that aim to render it more like a reverie? Do we question, for example, the horrors of the Holocaust in World War II? That idea is preposterous, but it has happened. There are Holocaust deniers existing in the world. They are the very shadows of evil.
Reacting to the popularity of this video in 2012, Mon Casiple, then executive director of the Institute for Political and Economic Reform, seemed prophetic in the assessment that he gave, where he underlined what could be causing this rash of revisionism: “We did an analysis of the textbooks in the Philippines. For the period covering martial law, there was a deafening silence by the textbooks on the human rights violations. They treated it like an ordinary period of any presidential term. Edsa was never given a special place.” In other words, generations of young people after 1986 have never been properly taught about the evils of Martial Law.
Casiple also said that Buchokoy’s video tapped into the yearning and frustrations of the youth for a better life, and that after hearing all the promises of EDSA from older generations, many young people might be feeling alienated: “They see that there are the same problems like corruption. What tie them together are aspirations, but there is a twist. They go by the results, not the process. If that trend is not reversed, in a few years, we will have a majority of voters who did not go through that period, and who therefore, will be susceptible to videos like this.”
Well, it took only three years. Now, too many young people—especially those of the generation born after EDSA—think that Marcos was a maligned hero. That rattles me.
Because he and his wife Imelda were never heroes, and their evil in fact took many gradations—depending entirely on who they could easily dispose of. The great writer Nick Joaquin, for example, absolutely detested Imelda Marcos and only accepted the National Artist for Literature award from her as an instrument to free the poet and journalist Pete Lacaba from jail. But after being thus honored as National Artist, Joaquin used his position to work for intellectual freedom. It is said that in one ceremony held at Mount Makiling, which was attended by the First Lady, Joaquin gave an invocation to the mountain’s mythical maiden, and used it to talk about the importance of freedom and the artist. Imelda was not pleased. After that incident, he was excluded by the Marcos regime from speaking in many important cultural events. Joaquin nonetheless was given better treatment because of his literary stature.
Other writers, less legendary than Joaquin, fared worse. There’s the poet Emmanuel Lacaba, Pete’s brother. Ed Maranan writes about him once: “Acclaimed while still alive as one of the best Filipino writers of his generation, Eman Lacaba and his guerrilla comrades were killed and disposed of [on 18 March 1976 in Davao del Norte] with the brutal dispatch and cruelty that became the trademark of the Marcos constabulary. Days after receiving information that Eman was with an NPA group that had been slain by government troops and hastily buried in an unmarked grave, relatives and friends were finally able to reach the Tagum municipal cemetery in Davao escorted by soldiers. Mendez Ventura recounts the discovery: ‘The cemetery caretaker led them to a paupers' grave where he remembered having seen four bodies dumped side by side, minus coffin or wrapping paper, about two weeks before. The grave was shallow, the better to dig out any corpse a relative might wish to claim. Marks of his friend's posthumous degradation drove Freddie (Salanga, another writer) to near-hysterical tears. Eman’s hands and ankles were tied with rope, and the flesh on his back had been macerated by the rocky terrain over which he had been dragged like a dead cow.’”
But that’s a rebel, you say. He was with the NPA, you say. Well, then, consider the case of 14-year-old Luis ‘Boyet’ Mijares, the son of Primitivo Mijares who worked for Marcos before he got the ire of Kokoy Romualdez, Imelda’s brother. Mr. Mijares exiled himself to the U.S. and wrote a scathing expose in a book titled The Conjugal Dictatorship. He later was made to disappear—one of our desaparechos. On May 1977, the body of his teenage son Boyet was found dumped outside Manila, his eyeballs protruding, his chest perforated with multiple stab wounds, his head bashed in, and his hands, feet and genitals mangled—Marcos’ punishment to the family.
But things were good under Martial Law, you say.
Let me put it this way. Marcos’ system of crony capitalism had the illusion of sheen, and it can be said indeed that between 1972 and 1976, the Philippines seemed to be prospering. Its exports were rising, and everybody seemed happy. (This is the “period of prosperity” our revisionists love talking about.) The corruption, however, was deeply entrenched, perfumed only by massive propaganda that declared a “smiling Martial Law” or a “benevolent dictatorship.” But by 1977, world affairs—in particular the start of hostilities in the Middle East—moved in such a way that soon revealed the maggots that were hiding beneath that illusion of prosperity. By 1980, the economy was collapsing, and we owed US$10 billion to the World Bank and IMF—a debt, plus interest, that we are still paying today because of Marcos’ bad government policies. It was the Filipino people who suffered from those policies, not the Marcoses who squirrelled away their kickbacks in secret bank accounts and ostentatious property purchases.
One can honestly say that almost everything that ails the Philippines today you can trace back to the Marcoses. The current culture of corruption? It became systemised under Marcos, with his vast network of cronies, where family and close friends benefitted from the spoils of a nation under paralysis. The current culture of dirty electioneering? It sprang from the never-before-seen massive frauds in the elections of 1972 and 1978. The current problems in Mindanao? It sprang from the Jabidah massacre, in Marcos' crazy bid to get Sabah from Malaysia. The longest-running communist insurgency in the world? Marcos’ shenanigans strengthened it. The current Aquino administration’s apathy towards the arts and culture? It seems to come from a genuine desire to counter Imelda’s twisted sense of “love and beauty.” The current marriage of showbiz and politics? Think of Imelda singing in all of his campaigns, and see that as the instance where see the cementing of the idea that you don’t win Philippine elections by platform or service; you win by entertainment.
Of course, all of the above will be denied by the fervent Marcosians in our midst. They are playing the literal Devil’s advocates—and they know how to twist things, the way Imelda has been twisting things all her life post-exile. “Not a single person was killed during Martial Law,” she candidly tells the camera in Ramona Diaz’s 2003 documentaryImelda. And you know she’s lying through her teeth—but she believes wholeheartedly her deception.
Let them be.
Let us remember, but let them be. One rule for sanity is to never argue with fools. When they sing their lies, don’t respond. Just whistle. But remember.
Watch Batas Militar (below), still the most compelling documentary about Martial Law ever. If you are a Filipino and you love this country, you owe it to yourself to watch this at least once in your life. Those interview clips of Imelda's strange pronouncements juxtaposed immediately by images and sound that underscore her delusions and lies still make my blood boil.
And read up and wise up! There's a rich literature on the Martial Law and its aftermath. Don't let cultural amnesia take over for good.
"What disturbed me, however, was quite a number of callers wondering what was so wrong with martial law. They had heard from their parents and/ or other 'oldies' that people were disciplined during that time, rice was cheap, gasoline was cheap, movies were cheap, the poor were less poor, life was generally easier. According to his parents, one said, prices were fairly stable then, the price of beer didn’t stray very far from the price of rice the way it did now. I said that was true in part. But underneath that lay one of the greatest deceptions of martial law. If art, as Picasso said, was the lie that revealed the truth, then martial law was the truth that revealed the lie. True enough, food was more plentiful then, things were much cheaper then, inflation wasn’t rife then. But all that was paid for by the sacrifice of future generations. Specifically, all that was paid for by the billions of dollars in loans Ferdinand Marcos got from foreign banks, much of which he, his family, and his cronies stole. Which debt doomed future generations to servitude: Which debt we are paying for now. Which debt our children and their children will be paying for tomorrow. Indeed it was paid for by the sacrifice of the generation of that time. The small comforts came alongside huge discomforts, or indeed epic deprivations: the deprivation of lives, the deprivation of freedom, and the deprivation of hope. Martial law robbed this country of its wealth: It was during that time that this country’s forests disappeared. Martial law robbed this country of many of its best and brightest: It was during that time that the youth who had taken to the hills were killed. Martial law robbed this country of its future: It was during that time that the country embarked on the path to becoming the sick man of Asia, subsequently to be left behind while the rest of the continent advanced."
It’s the blindness to things of historical value that sometimes bothers me—and it is all around us, a kind of cultural malaise that has remained a constant in this forgetful country.
I see this happening in Dumaguete, with the wanton destruction of many beautiful but often dilapidated old buildings that if properly restored would not just raise the cultural cache of the city, but also open it to untapped potential of immense economic significance—like heritage tourism, or like the wise commercial use of retrofitted old houses in the way old European cities like Paris and Rome and Barcelona are able to tie contemporary demands with historical appreciation.
Vigan managed to wise up to this just in time, and now it is a UNESCO Heritage City—but still one remembers the horror story of how many of those old Spanish colonial houses now totally definitive of that city almost ended up crushed under the claws of bulldozers.
In Dumaguete, many of the beautiful sugar houses lining the Paseo de Rizal—the Boulevard for those who prefer to call the stretch that way—are slowly disappearing under the weight of misguided progress. But that’s fodder for another column.
A few months ago, I went on a literary tour of Carcar, a historical small city south of Cebu—a place that seemed to know how to put value on their cultural and historical heritage, given the matter-of-factness of their preparations, and given the evidence of meticulously curated museums that sought to put a firm claim to the importance of the city’s contributions to the cultural and political development of the province of Cebu.
The fact that such a tour could exist—something cooked up by the good folks over at the Cebuano Studies Center of the University of San Carlos—was testament to that foresight by the administrators of Carcar. And so we visited a few of the old houses of its prominent Cebuano writers, and a few of the settings of their short stories and poems and novels. One such was the old watchtower that figured prominently in a chapter in [the Sillimanian writer] Renato Madrid’s novel Mass for the Death of an Enemy: it was the old Spanish era lookout located in Tuyom, a beachside barangay of Carcar that historically figured as the tower from which the townsfolk could keep watch for invading Moro raiders that used to ravage the town on a regular basis.
The watchtower at Tuyom, Carcar
When our tour group got to see the tower itself, it had become a pitiful sight: much of its high coral walls had tumbled down in utter neglect, and its interior was overrun with what looked like the beginnings of a small jungle. One part of its historic walls had become just another structure in an intricate system of shanties that were leaning against it. Somebody had made use of part of its structure to build a pig pen, and another one a post for a clothesline.
It was heartbreaking. Here was a structure of deep historical value, and it was sharing space with pigsties and laundry.
The entrance to the house where Leon Kilat was assassinated.
Going back to the center of the town, we went over to the old house where Leon Kilat was assassinated. It was falling to horrific ruin. And the thought occurred to me: why do we let this happen, and why do we refrain from doing things that could help preserve part of the nation’s patrimony? Why do we allow hapless politicians to destroy a part of the Banaue Rice Terraces to make way for a parking lot? Why did the City of Manila allow a condominium to tower over the Rizal Monument in Luneta? Why is it that until now, Dumaguete has yet to have a museum to preserve its cultural heritage?
I do understand a little bit the source of this blindness or short-sightedeness: the historicity of things is usually a value that is uncomprehended by those who cannot fathom the vital ways with which an understanding of the past contributes to an acute assessment of the present and the future. What people see are just useless old stones; they don’t see the ruin for the historical gold that it is. It takes great education, and a deepness of the soul, to see this kind of value.
In a recent article by Ambeth Ocampo occasioned by the release of Jerrold Tarog’s film Heneral Luna, we get the story of how Juan Luna’s paintings were snubbed by the Philippine government in the 1950s, and how Antonio Luna’s papers were stored improperly and eventually lost in a fire.
“When Andres Luna de San Pedro, son of Juan Luna, passed away in Manila in 1952, his American wife Grace offered to sell the paintings in his estate to the Philippine government,” Mr. Ocampo writes. “The government refused the offer either from lack of funds or lack of interest, and Mrs. Luna packed everything and returned to New York. When she died, the estate passed to a friend named Beth Troster, who eventually also passed away, leaving all the Luna material in a New York attic. One of the lawyers handling the estate remembered the name Juan Luna from a Philippines postage stamp and contacted the Philippine mission in New York, which responded with the same indifference displayed by the government in 1952 that led to this treasure leaving the country. Next the lawyers approached an auction house to dispose of the paintings, and were told that these had ‘no commercial value.’”
Mr. Ocampo also writes about Juan Luna’s papers and memorabilia, and also that of Antonio Luna’s, which he found neglected in some miserable corner of the old Heritage Art Gallery many years ago when he was still a college student: “While everyone was busy going over the Juan Luna paintings and speculating on the scads of money these would command in the art market, I was allowed to examine the boxes of papers and personal effects of which nobody took notice. In one box, for example, I saw the painting frock of Juan Luna as well as his brushes and palette. In another box, I saw the bloodied uniform of Antonio Luna that was preserved by his mother as a grisly reminder of his tragic death. In another box were architectural plans and all sorts of plaques and awards that once belonged to the famous architect Andres Luna de San Pedro.
“I focused on a box that contained Antonio Luna’s papers—his student notebooks (which came complete with fine drawings of specimens he observed through a microscope) and the papers of his mature life: letters (including a batch of racy love letters from a woman named ‘Paquita’), parts of a journal, official military papers, etc. Since I was then a student on an allowance, I asked to borrow some papers to photocopy. To my surprise, Mario Alcantara, without even asking me to sign a receipt, let me cart home the whole balikbayan box of papers.
“That weekend, I sorted out what I felt were the most important papers and had them photocopied. I had to wait a month for my next allowance to have the rest photocopied. And since I didn’t want to be responsible for the whole lot, I returned it to the Heritage Art Center, where everything was eventually destroyed in a fire triggered by a lightning bolt. It is all quite sad when you think that these papers survived the Philippine-American War and the Battle for Manila in 1945, as well as being consigned to the trash in New York in the 1980s. So much history lost in a freak accident.”
Again, another heartbreak.
When we were doing Handulanataw, the history of art of culture in Silliman University that I edited three years ago, one of the things that constantly made my heart break was getting told that the art pieces and book collections and papers of cultural pioneers we were researching on were gone or were scattered to the proverbial wind: photographs destroyed by flood water, paintings burned and lost or stolen, papers eaten by termites, books relegated to dusty corners of stockrooms where they were being eaten by god-knows-what and pooped on by rats. I found old books owned by Albert Faurot that way. I asked for the manuscripts of one local playwright who had died many years back and was told by the family: “We burned them. We thought they were just trash.” And Sendong, of course, destroyed many, many old photographs.
I have to wonder how come no plucky young local historian is doing some initiative in scanning the old photographs of old families here in Negros Oriental? How come we don’t have a museum that would showcase the works of Jose Laspiñas and Francisco Verano, before they’re eaten away by more termites and neglect? How come no local theatre groups are producing the plays of Bobby Flores Villasis, Amiel Leonardia, Elsa Coscolluela, Ephraim Bejar, and Roberto J. Pontenila Jr.? How come we don’t make concerts of the music of Zoe Lopez and the collected Visayan folk songs of Priscilla Magdamo-Abraham?
I'm currently researching and writing a history of Sillimanian literature, which is going to be my portal for a bigger study on Oriental Negrense literature. It has been a largely unstudied aspect of regional writing, for some reason. This is a piece from 1907, for example, from a page of The Silliman Truth -- which in the 1900s served not just as a campus paper but also as a community newspaper [the first in the province] and as a Protestant missionary publication. This page contains what I think is an unsigned short story in Spanish titled "Una Palabra a Tiempo" [Short Time], probably the first short story published in this province. The Silliman Truth, however, was first published in 1903, predating The Filipino Student Magazine by two years. (That magazine is supposedly the first publication in English by Filipinos). Alas, we don't have copies of the Silliman Truth from that year anymore, but if we do come across any -- and if it contains any literary work in the new colonial language -- we can effectively rewrite the history of Philippine literature in English.
I honestly didn't expect the many comic moments in Jerrold Tarrog's Heneral Luna (2015), but the conceit the director takes for this historiographic film is a breath of fresh air in the usually textbookish veneration we give cinematic depictions of historical figures. Marilou Diaz-Abaya's José Rizal (1998), of course, is the greatest example of this genre and its pitfalls -- beautifully shot, exquisitely produced, finely-acted, quite well-meaning and earnest, and dull. The only relative triumphs from that era of moviemaking of this type had been Raymond Red's double whammy of Bayani (1992) and Sakay (1993), and perhaps Tikoy Aguiluz's Rizal sa Dapitan (1997). Needless to say, I prefer to forget the very existence of Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass: The Story of Gen. Gregorio del Pilar (1997) -- but there you go.
Lately, we've had a spate of historical biographies invading our cinemas that gave us the idea that perhaps the historical is back in vogue. Consider Mark Meily's El Presidente (2012) and Enzo Williams's Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo (2014) -- but they haven't exactly signalled a decisive return for a difficult genre to engage in, simply because, as singular pieces of filmmaking, both were utter failures -- one of vision, and the other of execution. When we first heard of Heneral Luna in a spate of marketing that suddenly appeared a few months ago, it did nothing to dispel the quickly sinking idea that perhaps the historical biography was one genre of Filipino film that was worth exploring. Nobody seemed to know how to do it right. Then again, it is a tricky genre to succeed well in film: (1) the history either renders the drama flat -- a problem of a screenplay unable to provide new pulse to the well-known textbook story, or (2) the demands of rendering the specific historical era simply becomes overwhelmed by the tidal wave of contemporary details that revoke a believable rendering of the past -- a problem of production design, where all the clothes usually look too new.
Heneral Luna survives the first test with a screenplay that's deft and poetic. It does not exactly fare well with the second -- but only by the severest nitpicking. There is a visionary power to the film, however, that makes its weaknesses seem marginal. And there are weaknesses: some pacing issues, the curiously unremarkable acting by an otherwise formidable cast of supporting actors, and, well, the existence of clothes [costumes!] that look too new.
Nonetheless, the film succeeds despite these, and succeeds with the ferocity of its titular character -- a tragic hero of the Philippine Revolution, a military genius opposed to the colonisation of the Philippines by America. Our history books tell us about the temper and the arrogance of General Antonio Luna, which perhaps cost him his life -- and the film does not shy away from that depiction: John Arcilla's military general is tempestuous and bombastic.
It is this levity that surprises me the most -- and we had no idea we needed this subterfuge of humor to underscore the wriggly realities of the Philippine-American War.
I like the movie very much. And I love its carefully staged small moments more than the big scenes of political intrigues. (Consider that carefully choreographed meeting of the various personas of the Aguinaldo government at the very beginning of the film and the way the camera takes in the weight of the heated conversation and at the same time introduces us to the key players of this story -- Emilio Aguinaldo, Antonio Luna, Apolinario Mabini, Felipe Buencamino, Pedro Paterno. Consider also the audaciously staged one-take sequence where Luna reconnects with his younger past, and shows us the stages of his growth to become the military leader of the new Republic. Consider the juxtaposition of a guitar solo and the decision for betrayal.) It is, over all, a film that has to be congratulated for being so assured. Above all, it must be congratulated for containing a singular occasion for acting bravura: this is a document of a very powerful performance by John Arcilla, in a star-turn that remains deeply a character actor's shining moment.
The film is wickedly funny, poking fun at things where we least expect them. And yet it is also ultimately sad, the way it distills for us the smallness of our vision as a people, which is our perhaps our greatest frailty. (Was Nick Joaquin right after all?) The movie tells us, in the end, that the greatest enemy of the Filipino is himself. We looked at the steady stream of betrayals we constantly see by the people we elect into government, and we realise that not much has changed a hundred years hence.