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a history of his beloved town from pre-spanish times (7th century AD, if memory serves) all the way to EDSA 86, unpublished, till now.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.
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.