Category: books

ProBernal AntiBio is the best Filipino film book of the year, maybe of all time

Jessica Zafra

I got my copy from Butch Perez at lunchtime, opened to page 1, and did not stop reading until I finished the whole book. So no work was done today, and it was a day very well spent.

Intelligent, wicked, sometimes vicious (Bernal did not spare anyone, especially himself), this anti-biography is presented as a wide-ranging conversation between filmmaker Ishmael Bernal and his closest friend, the scholar and screenwriter Jorge Arago. Mercifully many of Bernal’s targets are long-dead, because he murders them.

Read on…

Reliving Ishmael Bernal

Alfred A. Yuson

As a triumph of memory, happenstance, superb editorial work and design, it’s the most fascinating local book I’ve held in my hands of late — and it isn’t because I personally knew the subject, as well as the three co-authors (two of them posthumous).

Pro Bernal Anti Bio is a 392-page softbound book in a handsome square format that allows the running main text to share space with marvelous marginalia from a legion of friends, writers and film people who had enjoyed association with the legendary film director Ishmael Bernal, who passed away in 1996 and was conferred the National Artist award in 2001.

Published by ABS-CBN Publishing, Inc. and launched on Nov. 25, it credits three co-authors: the subject himself, his life-long buddy Jorge Arago who passed away in 2011, and Angela Stuart-Santiago, in whose hands this testament to entwined lives, creativity and a memorable milieu became a labor of love enhanced by pluperfect strategic decisions.

“Ishma” or “Bernie” had asked Jorge to start preparing his biography, one that would focus equally on the biographer’s own life and their partnership. Jorge began to call it an anti-bio, and sporadically wrote essays that would frame the project. But time overtook them both, with a fire that hit Arago’s home laying waste to invaluable records.

Perhaps sensing his own mortality, Jorge tried to pass on the task to his friend Angela, who initially dismissed the daunting demand. Yet she found it falling squarely on her lap upon Jorge’s demise, especially when she learned that he had left sole access to his remaining private records.

Her “Pretext” introduces the book:

“The conversation between National Artist for Film Ishmael Bernal and rogue scholar Jorge Arago is mostly contrived but the words and sentiments are totally theirs, the threads fashioned from their own stories, published and unpublished, over the years.

“It’s a tell-all of a life lived to the hilt, fiercely forthright and critical but also gay and subversive, ironic and irreverent, sparing neither self nor nation, mothers nor lovers, art nor culture nor language, Marcos nor Cory. Friendly fire, as it were, in guerilla wars waged by two leftist intellectuals against ‘middle-class totems and taboos, innocence and igrorance.’

“I chime in now and then from the margins along with a cast of family, friends, artists, and critics in cameo roles. My backstory of the bosom buddies and the making of this anti-biography comes after, and Patrick Flores packs up with a paean to Ishmael’s ‘Awareness, Abandon.’”

Ishmael’s handwritten journal started in 1994 and Jorge’s essays form much of the conversation, with Angela allowing Jorge’s structural concept to hold sway in the early going. It starts with Ishma’s departure, then quickly flashes back to the start of their friendship in UP Diliman, cohabitation in a Malate apartment from where they published the counter-culture magazine Balthazar, and Ishma’s disastrous start as a movie director.

Covered as well in this period, from the 1960s to the ’70s, are the brief success with the bohemian When It’s A Gray November in Your Soul café on A. Mabini St., Ishma’s scholarship in France and film studies in Poona, India, his film reviewing days with The Manila Chronicle, aborted first film project, and breakthrough as a director with the critically acclaimed yet commercial flop Pagdating Sa Dulo.

He was lucky to have followed it up immediately with Daluyong, on which he writes:

“I was in the news a lot as — I don’t want to say it — the threat to Lino Brocka (the competition between us was always friendly). Considering that I had just had a box-office flop that was dubbed ‘artistic’ or ‘serious,’ I think the producers took a gamble. I could have given them another flop, but I didn’t.

Daluyong became a big hit because it starred big bomba stars of the period: Alona Alegre, Rosanna Ortiz, Ronaldo Valdez, Eddie Garcia. It had enough sex, enough quotable quotes, enough long confrontation scenes and sampalan and iyakan. It had also lots of beautiful clothes and jewelry, beautiful cars, swimming pools, chandeliers, mansions.”

In culling their early memories together, a tongue-in-cheek mode was characteristically shared by Bernal and Arago, with both also questioning the “irrelevant erudition” they had acquired.

At any rate, Ishma turned mainstream, megging blockbuster hits, including a number of “bold movies” and the occasional artistic puzzler such as Nunal sa Tubig (script by Arago), until he peaked in the early 1980s with the controversial and eventually seminal Manila By Night, which became City After Dark when Imelda Marcos voiced out her objections. This was followed by a remarkable series of his best films: Relasyon with Vilma Santos and Christopher de Leon, Himala with Nora Aunor, Broken Marriage again with Santos and De Leon, and the comedies Working Girls 1 and 2 scripted by Amado Lacuesta, in whom Ishma found the ideal madcap partner. They also collaborated on the serious feminist film on abortion, Hinugot sa Langit.

In between were filler films for old producer friends, while the early activism that had helped galvanize his partnership with Arago also resurfaced, with the MTRCB and higher powers-that-be as the bogeys.

No less essential in providing a complete picture of this friendship are the pertinent explications and asides from co-author Stuart-Santiago. Deployed munificently are commentaries from contemporaries, colleagues, writers and film critics.

This roster alone is suitably impressive, counting among others Ninotchka Rosca, Nestor Torre, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Joel David, Jose Maria Sison, Behn Cervantes, Anton Juan, Nick Deocoampo, Ed Cabagnot, Bernardo Bernardo, Mario Hernando, Bibsy Carballo, Ricky Lee, Pablo Tariman, Clodualdo del Mundo, Noel Vera, Rolando S. Tinio, Floy Quintos and Tom Agulto.

The women Ishma became closest to are also given frequent voice: non-showbiz friend Evelynne Horrilleno, film stars Rita Gomez, Elizabeth Oropesa, Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos, and scriptwriter Raquel Villavicencio. In the prime of his careeer, Ishma’s best lady buddy was fellow director Marilou Diaz Abaya.

The book also reveals the writing genius of Jorge Arago, whose quirky shyness would have deprived us of his brilliance if not for the text that is shared here, to wit:

“Since Bernal was conferred the National Artist Award, friends and relatives have not ceased to remind me that the honor calls for some changes in my perspective. I guess it means I cannot repeat Bernal’s considered opinion about who has the smallest tool in the film industry of his time, I must desist from identifying the venerable actor who found an ahas na bingi under his bed, I need crazy glue to prevent me from echoing Lino Brocka’s horrified scream of ‘Ecsta-NO!’ at the sight of a pro-active protrusion that had earlier driven Bernal to rave ‘Ecsta-SI!’ I may not speak, by the same token, about the difficulties he experienced in doing a short film for Amnesty International about the late unlamented Alex Boncayao Brigade and its pet peeves.

“But the National Artist Award itself, especially in the halcyon days BC (Before Caparas), is a safe subject on which I am free to abreact before fungi from Alzheimer’s overrode my memory entirely.”

On Bernal’s part, among his last entries that speak just as formidably of our society is the following:

“I look forward to making a film on the important participation of women in the revolution — Gregoria de Jesus, Marina Dizon, Narcisa Rizal, etc. Ramon Revilla is trying to pass a bill in Congress that will completely exempt from taxes all films about national heroes. If this bill is passed we might see a plethora of Andres Bonifacios and Gregorio del Pilars and Antonio Lunas and Mabinis. I don’t know if this is going to be good for the industry or not. (Laughs) A massacre movie about Juan Luna and that woman! We do have a tendency to overdo things. It boggles the mind.”

Orders for the book, which sells for P900 a copy, may be addressed to

Pro Bernal, Anti Bio — a shout from the grave

it was in 1992, twenty-five years ago to be exact, when ishmael bernal inveigled bosom buddy jorge arago to write him a biography “when the time came” — that is, when his mother was no longer around — tempting jorge with the admonition to “Tell all!”

forthwith, the two started recording a number of conversations on subjects “considered germane to a biography” and ishma started keeping a journal.  he also decided that it would be as much about jorge as about himself.  jorge, who used to drop in on me now and then, was quite excited by the project, and would share (in scandalized whispers) juicy items from ishma’s childhood and adolescence at kung anu-ano pa.

ishmael died in 1996, and his mother a year or so later.  suddenly jorge had a bio to write.  and he did start thinking on it while transcribing four cassette tapes and deciphering and encoding the handwritten journal.  but it slowed him down that it was to be about him, too, and when ishma was declared a national artist for cinema in 2001, and close friends wondered aloud if a tell-all might no longer be appropriate, it gave him the perfect reason to stop, perchance to reboot.

nine years later, for ishma’s death anniversary in 2010, he emailed me the essay “Pro Bernal, Anti Bio” and asked me to post it here.  he said it was the first chapter of the bio.  the last time i saw him was a year or so later, in 2011, at which time he was talking about producing twin CDs (instead of a book) that he hoped to get funding for.

he said that ishma had also considered video as an appropriate medium.  a video bio would be stored in one compact disc of suitable capacity, and a second disc would contain an anthology of film reviews, six screenplays that ishma wrote or co-wrote, an album of photos and samples of annotated working scripts, 60 minutes of scenes excerpted from six feature films and docus, and 30 minutes of interviews with co-workers and associates in the film industry, theater, and political advocacy.

but by the end of the year, jorge was gone, too.  in march 2012, his nanay opened his room in binangonan to me and katrina, bidding us to take everything we could find to finish the book.  an old laptop and a desktop and some USBs had no files on bernal.  but there were heaps and heaps and bags and boxes of papers, from which i salvaged precious stuff: loose and stapled sheets of the tape transcripts (some pages missing), drafts galore of an autobiographical essay as binangonan native, and more drafts of essays that went into “Pro Bernal…” the blogpost.  also we found ishma’s handwritten journal, a photo album of the young ishmael in europe, two huge albums of clippings of movie promos and film reviews, books and magazines on the film industry, and more photos tucked away kung saan-saan.

from a draft essay i learned that a lot of the materials for the twin CDs were lost when the house he had been living in at the time burned down, leaving only what i found in his room in nanay’s house, which turned out to be quite substantial nonetheless.  from Balthazar (a magazine published by the two) and from the newspaper clippings, i gathered pages and pages of direct quotes from the bosom buddies over two decades and a half of writing on showbiz and politics (jorge) and giving talks and interviews on filmmaking (ishma), sometimes talking about the same thing or film, sometimes not, that gave me a light-bulb moment.  what if: a conversation kuno, cut to cut, as in a talking-heads docu, about everything under the sun and moon that mattered to these two gay and brilliant leftists.

it was crazy where their spirits took me as i contrived a biographical narrative via a dialogue of sorts, praying hard that it would work.  katrina sent a first draft to patrick flores for feedback; to my relief, he liked the “quirky” format and suggested that i intervene now and then, add a third layer that could be “more film historical.”

in effect, sa margins lang ako, literally and figuratively, and only for continuity and context, along with side comments of some family and friends, critics and colleagues.  the quirky format is mine, yes, but ishma and/or jorge would have thought of it, too, i have no doubt, if they had lived long enough to see and assess what rich documented (foot)prints they had left behind.

i am told that people wonder why it is katrina who is out there facing the press and promoting the book, e ako ang co-author?  feeling marginal to the end, haha.  besides, i’m not really into film or culture and the arts, and katrina is, seriously, mentored by jorge no less, and with a graduate degree in philippine studies to boot.  i also never worked with ishma, never spent more than an hour or so with him at a time and always in a group, never met his family, seen only a few of his 50 films, and therefore feel quite unqualified to go beyond what i dare say in the book.  it was jorge whom i knew rather well, with whom i spent hours on end, and that’s in my backstory.

essentially Pro Bernal Anti Bio (2017) is by and about ishmael bernal the national artist.  a shout from the grave, a shout of bernal proportions to the film industry.  i believe it’s for the people he lived and worked with, the artists, the writers, the cinematographers, the editors, the theater and advertising and activist peeps, to speak up and remember, discuss and deconstruct, the better to appreciate and value the legacy of bernal.

adam, ishmael, BBL

had to make a trip to tiaong to pay ameliar — medyo late, so merong penalty, but also got to pay 3 years in advance with a nice discount — and stayed on in the elias house for some days.

it’s been good, this distance from the literary soap opera unfolding, of adam david”s reluctant david to anvil’s glowering goliath.  read adam’s side here:  it would be good to hear, too, from anvil publishing and the two writers, i.e., the complainants/ editors of the anthology Fast Food Fiction Delivery that adam played around with via a randomizer in the spirit of literary criticism.  who would have thought anvil et al could would be so displeased, get so pikon, as though there were no other way to take it, except as an affront, when in fact it raised positive interest in the book — i wanted to get me a copy, see for myself what is fast food about it ba talaga and what the short short stories (around 500 words) of literary fat cats are like.  

the even bigger surprise was, is, the reaction when adam simply took down the website on the dictated day rather than contend with a costly lawsuit: tila na-disappoint ang literary establishment — man up daw!  tila they were really just raring to fight adam in a court of law, and no where else, i guess because in a free and intelligent and sophisticated (as opposed to sophomoric) debate, baka wala silang panalo?  worse, kami raw na pumirma sa statement of support for adam ay mga did-not-know-what-we-were-doing sort of people.  grabe naman.

disclosure:  adam designed my book revo routes, including the maps;  i’ve since come to know him  better through his works posted online.  in his place, i would have taken down the website, too.  who needs the extra aggravation.  ang pikon, talo.

the distance has also been good for my bernal book project.  given minimal distractions —  spotty internet connection and no cable TV in the dining room where  i’m set up with laptop and wifi — i have finally finished a rough timeline of the life and films of national artist ishmael bernal based on clippings of feature articles and movie reviews published from the early 1970s to his death in 1996, clippings contained in huge albums that ishmael himself, and then jorge arago, kept updated, including the goodbyes and eulogies from june to december ’96.  some 200 pieces, along with ishma’s journal and transcripts of taped conversations, that i encoded in the summer of 2012 at the height of my grief over jorge.  next, i  prepare for interviews with some of his  family,  friends, and colleagues, hopefully to fill in the blanks and flesh out the curves.  work in progress, with quite a way to go.

distance notwithstanding, caught snatches of the house of reps’ BBL hearing graced by the president’s peace corps of elderlies and not-so-elderlies.   clearly the hope is that an acceptable BBL will be passed maybe in a couple of months or so, in time for the october filing of candidacy for the 2016 election of bangsamoro officials.   clearly there will be no proper transition period to prepare the bangsamoros to govern themselves. in 2010 the MILF said that upon the enactment of a law creating the bangsamoro autonomous region, they would need a 7-year interim period  to  prepare for a plebiscite, and then for the 2016 elections and self-government.   the palace said  a 6-year interim would do, obviously expecting that a comprehensive agreement and then a bangsamoro law could be churned out in a jiffy.  LOL.  no one foresaw that the president’s best efforts would come to this.  mamasapano aside, a railroaded BBL in the offing, and no transition period to speak of — is there even time for a credible plebiscite?  recipe for disaster.  what else is new.

meanwhile, commiserating with mary jane…