Category: jorge arago

Towards A Culturally Evolved Alternative

(1943 – 2011)

People power in 1986 restored to Philippine society the “democratic space” which had been previously occupied by the running dogs of martial law.

But as in previous turnovers of power in our society, that space has been hogged by the elite and its own running dogs, to the exclusion of particular groups: the teacher-student, the art-media and the scientific communities.

This is a call for these sectors to come together and identify their choices as the unacknowledged advance guard of modern development in our society. These groups have a significant role to play in the context of the evolutionary path that the Filipinos have taken. They reject the revolution proposed by the Left, the divisive fundamentalism in the South, the chronic opportunism of traditional politics, and the apathy of an unknown number. They have not lifted us from poverty and are not likely to do so in the context of the environmental degradation that backdrops all human activity today.

Artists and media practitioners, teachers and their students on all levels, scientists and research-and-development teams in academe and the private sector have the skills, training and intellectual apparatus to cope with the effects of globalization. For far too long now they have been non-entities lumped under so-called “civil society”, their voices lost or without effect in the competition among NGO‟s fighting for a proliferation of uncoordinated interests.

They also have the potential to counter the entry in the political arena of forces which threaten to bring us back to dark times. These are the many religious groups who propose themselves as alternatives to corrupt leaderships. Swept up by disaffection with the so-called higher moral concerns of the traditional church, they betray origins in the same configuration of exploitation in conditions that existed before.

Now is the time for artists and scientists and academe to come together and create a concrete democratic and unifying basis for mutuality in our society that will guide development that is in step with the development of the rest of the global community, while using distinct Filipino methods, skills and talents we have painstakingly evolved through all the regimes under which we have worked.

ishmael bernal’s dream film on the luna brothers

on this the national artist’s 77th birthday, as the film Heneral Luna continues to drive a rare national conversation on philippine history and heroes, here are some notes of jorge arago on a film that ishmael, until his last days, dreamed of doing.

Progress was slow on [Bernal’s] research for a film about a Filipino painter by the name of Juan Luna, whose brother Antonio, a general, was assassinated a hundred years ago last June, when Filipinos were somewhere between revolution and war. The date is important for us, for that was when the amerasia in our show-biz hearts got started. Admiral George Dewey had brought a cameraman along and I reckon that he must have gotten some interesting footage — of the Spanish clergy begging the Yanks to spare the noble and ever loyal city that today is a golf course; of the indios curiousos who crowded the shoreline of Manila Bay and for whom Admiral Dewey had his band play La Paloma and other Hispanic turns towards late afternoon while he sipped tea in the tropical heat which must have been intolerable for men in uniform; of the fury (in the absence of a sound-camera) of a predetermined battle with remnants of the Spanish armada, in which Admiral Dewey’s superior fleet suffered one casualty and that as a direct result of the humidity.

… The story of the Luna brothers is the stuff of pure cinema and lies at the very roots of our little explored Amerasian amnesia.

… Juan Luna painted in the classicist style of a time when the impressionist movement was catching on; he killed his Creole wife with the precision of a pointilist and his mother-in-law (who paid for half the rent on their Paris villa) with the inclusiveness of a socialist realist. It was also considered a sensational crime of passion triggered – as the French judiciary would conclude after a trial in which a French servant was star-witness – by culturally conditioned insanity, which was apparently the first time the idea was bandied around. The culture bit is interesting. It was no sub-culture, as we frequently refer to the world of drug-dependents; no “third world”, as the technocrats over there have gotten into the habit of referring to us island-dwellers and other infinitesimals over here.

At any rate, the fellow was acquitted and, after a reclusive period when even Jose Rizal – poet, physician and propagandist of his time and a hero of ours – hesitated to communicate with him and left him well enough alone, responded to a summons from Filipinos who had just successfully mounted a revolution against Spain but now in the face-saving transition confronted foe-and-ally alike in the visiting forces of America. Luna accepted the diplomat’s job of advocating independence from the lion in his den. He was in Washington when he learned that his younger brother Antonio, hypertensive commanding general of the self-same Filipino revolutionists had been assassinated by another faction of patriots.

… Juan Luna died in Hongkong enroute to Manila. He came home to be with the dead. An uncle of the painter’s wife is a most distinguisHed scholar in Philippine history who travelled with the Americans at the turn of the century, monitoring and auditioning a variety of talents (for an ongoing shoot of the New Governmental Organization) in the course of a pacification campaign that did not bother to look into the preceding Spanish sequence and wouldn’t teach Americans enough to enable them to avoid Viet Nam. He’s supposed to have said, according to one probably apocryphal anecdote, that he understood why some men would want to kill unfaithful wives but why a dead-shot like Juan should include his mother-in-law was perplexing.

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…

why i am against a department of culture

ishmael bernal died in june 1996, sick and broke and disheartened.  there were many more films he wanted to make.  top of the list were feature films on antonio luna and gregorio del pilar, but producers were never interested, not in marcos’s time or in cory’s or in fvr’s.  post EDSA, when remorseless censorship of movies continued to be the norm and the economic downturn led producers to invest mostly in cheap and surefire formula movies, the phone stopped ringing, bernal said.  he tried teaching (film-making in u.p.) but the pay was a pittance (80 bucks an hour) so he turned to directing commercials — detergent queen, he called himself.  in the final years of his life what kept him sane, what gave him something to do, was Kasalo, the small carinderia he ran with poet tom agulto and his wife carmie, which became the favorite hang-out of kindred spirits, and where, as artistic director, he staged small shows every monday, e.g., an excerpt from the musical noli me tangere, elizabeth oropesa reading feminist poetry, and the like.  pitifully small stuff for very small audiences, but that’s what bernal was reduced to, that great filmmaker-turned-activist who could have been making consciousness-raising eye-opening films for the movie-going public and earning for the country international recognition with films that go beyond poverty porn.  when government named him national artist in 2001, i could only regret that it came ten years too late.  given his body of work, why didn’t they value and honor him while he lived.  maybe then he’d still be with us.  maybe we’d be the wiser for it.

nonoy marcelo died in october 2002, sick and broke and disheartened, his magnum opus, the manuscript Malabon, a history of his beloved town from pre-spanish times (7th century AD, if memory serves) all the way to EDSA 86, unpublished, till now.  i know of it only because back in the late 90s, he asked me to edit his text that was deeply and widely researched, lovingly written in his unique prose, serious and comic at turns, and fully, wonderfully, illustrated in vivid color.  his hope was that it would inspire other artists to write, even make movies, about their own towns and provinces, awaken an interest in history and roots.  he said he had approached the national commission for culture and the arts (NCCA) for funding, but was unsuccessful — i’m not sure now if the project was rejected outright or if conditions were set that were unacceptable to nonoy.  by the time i became part of the project, he had gotten some funding from the munipality of malabon, hurray, except that they wanted an extra chapter that would drum up the incumbents and their programs kuno.  jorge arago joined the team then, and he and nonoy tried their darnedest to humor the poiticos without compromising the work.  and. it. got. stuck. there.  arggggh.

jorge died in december 2011, sick and broke and disheartened.  he left behind two unfinished works, the long-awaited bernal biography & filmography and a historical novel on binangonan, no doubt inspired by nonoy’s Malabon.  without a sponsor, the bernal project was taking forever; he was always dropping it when paying jobs came along.  he always hoped to get some funding but hated having to go around begging.  again, given his body of work, in film, television, and print, it’s the saddest thing that no one, not government, not rich and powerful friends, ever cared enough about the bernal book to subsidize jorge’s efforts and help get it done.

so i ask : would this proposed department of culture, for a change, be interested in, give priority to, projects such as those of ishmael, nonoy, and jorge, projects that are politically and culturally significant, indispensable to the determination and articulation of a national identity that goes beyond fragmented and divisive stereotypes?

the proposal admits that we filipinos lack a sense of identity…

MORE THAN A CENTURY after its liberation from colonial rule, the Philippines continues to be a fractured entity, its people torn apart by deep economic, social, and ethnic divisions. This disunity has prevented it from achieving its potential as a modern and progressive nation, imbued with purpose, hope, and determination. Parochialism, violence, and self-interest continue to dominate political life, and, along with a lack of a critical consciousness of the past, persistently thwarted substantive and sweeping reform. These divisions have been exacerbated by the absence or the weakness of a unifying culture, of a way of thinking as one nation made up of diverse tribes, regions, clans, faiths, and economic classes but bound together by history and geography in common causes. Colonialism fragmented the Filipino people; but neither did freedom and democracy succeed in forging them into truly one nation.

A sense of national identity

In short, Filipinos direly need a sense of national identity. This is crucial to the nation’s future, because only a sense of national identity—the sense of a common heritage and a shared past, and therefore a shared stake in the outcome of the country’s present strivings and struggles. The scholar-critic Benedict Anderson has described this imagination of the nation as “a deep, horizontal comradeship… [a] fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die….” This also means a sense of national culture—a recognition of culture as a unifying, humanizing, and modernizing agent.

however, the proposal does not go on to tell how a department of culture would fill that dire need for a sense of national identity.  the proposal only goes on to say all the things it would do, via bureaucracy, to improve our people’s knowledge about, and appreciation of, our “rich, centuries-old cultural heritage drawing on both indigenous traditions and colonial experiences” that would serve as a “spur to artistic creativity” and inspire government toward “correct” and “appropriate” economics and politics.

A serious spur to artistic creativity can inspire and affect similar creative initiatives for agricultural and industrial growth. Properly recognized and utilized, a strong national culture can serve as a vital fulcrum and measure for the formulation of appropriate and significant political or economic policy. Thus, culture can best guide national economic planners on what can better serve the people and help set standards for correct political achievements.

Ideally, a comprehensive and intensive cultural reorientation can set things right. A culturally oriented industry would sell the best canned tuna not only because it is the best and most nutritious tuna but also because it is Filipino. And the Filipino consumers would choose it from among other canned tunas in the grocery because it is Filipino. It will sell abroad because people of other countries would recognize Filipino canned tuna as the best in the world. A culturally oriented Congress will not pass any measure which is anti- Filipino. Just as a policeman would think twice before accepting bribe because it is against his values as a Filipino, a medical graduate would want to stay in the rural areas because he wants to serve his fellow Filipinos.

nice vision, but it’s rather naive to think that such a department of culture (just a more powerful version of the NCCA, it seems) would have even a small a hope of taking us there — i.e., of changing a failed system from within, where vested capitalist interests rule — without a clear stand, shared and supported by the collective, of what is exactly anti-filipino and what is pro-filipino.  which brings me back, full circle, to the question of national identity.

read this thesis presented to the college of social sciences, U.P. Baguio, by April Glory Prodon Herrera and Jayvee Paas Robias: A Study of Filipino National Identity and Nationalism in the Age of Globalization among the Youth of Baguio City (March 2010).

While respondents exhibit a positive personal preferences for things Filipino, these preferences have not yet been lifted to a level of consciousness that would make the manifestation of such personal preferences as expressive of their identity as Filipino, or as charters of national identity. It also appears that ignorance or lack of information on the cultural affinities of ethnic groups and on their membership in the national community is the most problematic area.

The refusal of the majority of the population and especially of dominant groups within the society to confront questions within the society, to confront questions of neo-colonial domination and to gain lessons from the country’s historical experiences will most certainly be reflected in the nature and content of national identity formation especially through the schools. In other words, the colonial and ethnically fragmented character of the nation finds support and is reflected in the consciousness of its members, among others.

what we need at this point is not a culture department but an agency led by filipino psychologists, mandated to draw up a psychological profile of the essential filipino based on empirical studies, historical and colonial past and present, arts and culture, etc., that is, an integrated psychological reading and abstract of the Filipino identity that could be the basis, the starting point, for national discussions and consensus across all regions and islands and tribes toward a conscious psychological sense of identity and nationhood, the better, the sooner, to confront our demons.

as for the “development and propagation” of our national language that this culture dept would promote, ang tanong ko lang naman ay, what national language, the laboratory filipino, the formal filipino language, being pushed by u.p. where foreign words are spelled the tagalog way, no matter how strange and quite a balakid to quick reading comprehension?  or the filipino of television and cinema, of komiks and tabloids, of OPM lyrics and commercials, the filipino that is already being spoken and understood nationwide, so i’m told, that can already be used to begin a discourse, even if only a pointed exchange of information and perceptions and sentiments, for starters, across islands and tribes?

and finally, needless to say, any attempt at forging nationhood, unifying our fragmented selves, across all classes and ethnicities, without a credible and creative and intensive mass media campaign — radio, tv, and cinema being the major purveyors of culture in this country — is doomed to fail.