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.