Category: jorge arago

artists and writers for freedom and democracy, circa 1986

katawatawa that on facebook a statement from duterte apologist rebecca añonuevo and other “concerned writers” supporting SEC’s takedown of rappler has been judged “unoriginal” and “pathetic” — as if the statement by let’s organize for democracy and integrity in support of rappler / press freedom were any less pathetic?  read press freedom for what? press freedom for whom?

worse, anoñuevo daw might as well have re-issued na lang a “pro-dictatorship pro-marcos paid advertisement” of jan 28 1986.  LOL.  obvious naman na pilit na pilit ang paghahalintulad ng dalawang isteytments, the cause of SEC vs. rappler being quite puny in comparison with the cause of COWAFD (pilit na pilit rin ang COWARD, guys, seeing as they were more like losers after the fact).  halata namang ibig lang halukayin (at pahiyain? as if?) ang signatories ng 1986 declaration na mostly luminaries, including national artists no less.  though in either case it would be interesting to see the signatures mismo (even if forgeries are a possibility, too, alas).

but thanks anyway for resurrecting the COWAFD (parang covfefe) declaration that reminds of what it was like 32 years ago in the run-up to the snap elections that paved the way to EDSA.  the ad came out 10 days before the snap elections that had newbie cory aquino with former senator and member of parliament (MP) doy laurel challenging the dictator ferdinand marcos and former senator and MP arturo tolentino for the top posts of the land.

the opening paragraphs are obligatory preliminaries, romanticizing diversity of opinions, claiming openness to “alternative national futures.”  nothing on the joys of censorship, of course, rather, on the need to stand up, and be identified, for the dictator.  or else.  or else?

but the whole of it is a precious artifact, a document of historical interest wherein the best and the brightest, our most privileged of artists and intellectuals in the time of martial law, clearly articulated what exactly they feared about the prospect of cory and doy replacing marcos, AND even dared envision an “enlightened and transformed national leadership” under the marcos-tolentino team.

“When great issues are joined in the life of a people and life-and-death choices present themselves in political terms, the writers and artists must take a stand and must not seek refuge and false comfort in total political anonymity.

“We believe that the special presidential elections on February 7, 1986 present us with one of two choices: to reestablish Philippine democracy on a new and more enduring level, with its guarantees of individual freedom and social responsibility, or to risk a future dominated by the spectre of unending social strike (sic; strife?), hate, vengeance and perhaps a bloody fratricide the ferocity of which has never been known in our history.

“The plain and simple fact is that we, as writers and artists, have serious apprehension about the candidates of the opposition. We are apprehensive about the fact that they have nothing to offer than a dubious promise of sincerity and an even more dubious promise to hand government over to an unidentified cadre of advisers. These are no more than niggardly excuses for a lack of a coherent program of government.

“In view of the crises that threaten the economic security and the cultural serenity of our nation, we can only regard such representation from them as symptomatic of a reluctance to come to grips with reality and an indifference to the need for wisdom and maturity.

“As such, this coalition seeks to preserve what has already been achieved in terms of cultural advancement and to proceed further under an enlightened and transformed national leadership equipped to face the pressures of change and advance our national and spiritual progress. We believe that the leadership of President Ferdinand E. Marcos is out only guarantee for survival at this point.

“Indeed, we believe we can best achieve our national interests and realize our aspirations of writers and artists with the triumph of the Marcos-Tolentino team.”

hindi ko iyan nabasa noong 1986.  my parents and i, and my in-laws, too, were big fans of ninoy (dilawan kami noon) so we must have dropped the hans-menzi-marcos-crony-owned manila bulletin by then in favor of the feisty eggie apostol’s philippine daily inquirer.

at kahit pa nabasa ko ang paid ad na iyan, it wouldn’t have changed my mind about voting for cory and doy.  yes, on sheer faith.  there was no paying attention to marcos shrugging off cory as a mere housewife.  e ano kung walang karanasan, andyan naman si doy, a laurel, tutulungan siya, aalalayan siya.  we were so naive.  on that and a lot more.

but so also were the artists and intellectuals, the best and brightest.  naive.  imagine, promising an “elightened and transformed leadership” under marcos, the only one  “equipped to face the pressures of change and advance our national and spiritual progress.”  even, that he was “the only guarantee for survival” at that point.

parang hindi nila alam na malubha ang sakit ni marcos noon.  even if he had been reelected, unquestionably, in feb 1986, marcos was going to be replaced anyway, if not by enrile with the backing of fvr’s integrated national police (honasan had twice postponed that coup d’etat), then by imelda with the backing of ver’s afp.

parang naniwala rin sila sa sariling propaganda about the nation’s “economic security” (matagal nang bagsak ang ekonomiya, na lalong lumubha nang patayin si ninoy, thanks to capital flight atbp.) and “cultural serenity.”  cultural serenity?  susmaryosep.  jorge arago must have sniggered snickered simpered at that, if he really signed it, that is, and he may have.  at the time he and i were putting out environmentalist junie kalaw’s journal Alternative Futures (Vol. III Decentralization).  i suspect that he was responsible for getting “alternative national futures” into that declaration, maybe an ex-deal for his signature, haha.  he was like that.  for the record.

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.