Lino Brocka (1939-1991) is the most famous and respected film-maker to come from the Philippines. Over a long and prolific career (sometimes making as many as 6 films in a single year), this former Mormon missionary attracted controversy in the era of Ferdinand Marcos (which ended in 1989) for the subject and style of his best films. However, when the revolution toppled Marcos and brought the popular Cora Aquino to power, Brocka remained critical and skeptical, this time attacking the sentiments behind uncritical acceptance of “good regimes”.
In this interview (republished from Asian Film Journeys: Selections from Cinemaya, 2010), taken a short while before his death in 1991, Brocka reflects on his career, his films and the political reality of the Philippines.
At Cannes two years ago, you issued a press statement on your very controversial film Ora Pro Nobis (Fight for Us) – what provoked this?
Frankly I had been quite shocked to find that the situation in the Phiippines had hardly changed after the Revolution. During the last regime I made a movie against the Marcos administration, Bayan Ko (My Country), and got into trouble. Now I found it was the same situation. The present administration spoke about democratic space but it seemed that space was becoming smaller and smaller. It has become quite difficult to make serious movies – anything that would be critical of the government. The accusation against me after Ona Pro Nobis was that I was out to destabilize the Aquino government. So I issued a press statement saying we had marched in the streets for plurality of opinion. But even some of my friends, whom I marched with, said, ‘Why couldn’t you criticize constructively?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, “criticize constructively”?’ In other words, everyone was into this, ‘Give her a chance, give the administration a chance.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, give her a chance when thousand of refugees are streaming into Manila?’
I know them: I’ve been hiding them. One of them said, ‘Well it’s not only you who have been critical. There have been others who have been vocal.’ One of them who has been in the government, in the opposition, said: ‘Look at Sister Tan.’ Sister Tan was a nun who was very close to President Aquino before the Revolution. After the Revolution she was thoroughly disappointed and disillusioned so she spoke out. She was made an example to me. So I asked what she is doing now and they said, ‘She had day-care centers.’ That’s what I guess they meant by constructive criticism! ‘She now has day-care centres.’ So I told this person, ‘I am not a nun!’
I think censorship at this moment is as bad, if not worse than it was during Marcos’ time. It’s more hypocritical. That’s why I say it’s worse. We’re now into the decent, the holy and the wholesome instead of the good, the true and the beautiful.
Isn’t Fight for Us a continuation of what you have been doing in the past?
Yes, but it also came out of my disillusionment; I was angry and disillusioned when I saw those refugees. It was personal experience and I happened to come into it accidentally. I had read in the papers that the University where the refugees were was raided…
The background is that after the Revolution, when Aquino came to power, we were shocked when she gave her sanction to the organization of the vigilantes. These vigilantes are para-military groups. They are private citizens who were organised as part of the anti-insurgency campaign. These groups – more than 200 of them – are spread out all over the Philippines. They are identified by the colour of the bands they wear. If they wear a white band, they are called by one name, if they wear a green band they are called something else. What they do is actually help the military. They go to villages and barrios and recruit members. If you don’t join them you are suspected of being a sympathizer or a member of the New Peoples’ Army. And what has happened is that most of the people in these villages are caught in the crossfire between the military and the New Peoples’ Army. Because of that there has been a lot of killings from both left and right, a lot of rapes and a lot of children getting killed.
A famous case very well known in Philippines happened four years ago. In seven or eight villages, people decided to leave. They went to Manila thinking that they would have security. It’s a metropolitan city and they have relatives in Manila, so they just decided to go there. It was not as if they organised themselves. No. They just left because they were so scared of these vigilante groups. They came to Manila and they found themselves together.
Somebody said, ‘so and so is here’, and they met and decided to band together. They were really refugees.
There is this State University which was being run by someone who was a political detainee during Marcos’ time because he was suspected of being a Communist. After the Revolution he was reinstalled as President of the State University. He gave shelter to these 2000 people and he thought nothing of it because after all it was the Aquino Administration. One day the whole place was raided. They picked up twenty-six men and the President was ambushed twice. Nobody doubted that it was the military – the death squads. He was in the hospital, and he was called to get help to get out the refugees because it was very dangerous for them to stay in the University after it had been raided; there was no protection because there was no police in the University. So the University of the Philippines, another State University where they had militant and activist students, decided to transport the refugees to their University. There was protest and of course, I was part of the protest group. As a matter of fact, when this happened, I was having a pre-production meeting because we were to start shooting in the afternoon. The camera van, a jeep and my whole staff was waiting. I told them it won’t take long, about an hour. What happened was that I cancelled my shooting that day and the next few days, and we ended up transporting hundreds of families.
Then there was a marathon thing at the Supreme Court and in the middle of all that what happened was the most shocking thing for me.
Mrs. Dellosa, whose husband was shot, was a school principal and she started talking. So right there and then, there was a senatorial hearing. And this woman went on talking, perhaps emboldened because the senators were there, and people and lawyers. But military groups were also there. I too was there because I was in charge of the transport. And then she started talking. I whispered to the daughter of this Senator who was a human rights campaigner, ‘I think this woman is in danger’, because her account was being taped in front of all the military officers. And they were arguing with me saying, ‘Lino, we cannot do what do you suggest’, because I was saying, ‘Let’s just hide them, they’re in danger.’ And they just said, ‘Ah, you and your movies. You think it’s a movie.’ I said, ‘No. It’s just like during the time of Anne Frank. We have to hide them.’ And they said, ‘Ah, you’re being too cinematic, too dramatic.’
Sure enough, the next day, after the hearing, at 12 noon, in the middle of a busy street in front of the Supreme Court, six cars suddenly appeared and pulled Mrs. Dellosa inside. (The young boy holding onto her in the film is me.) I held onto her and the car and these guys gave me a blow (to make me let go). They had white bands and they cleared the area in full view of the hundreds of people who of course, didn’t do anything. That night we evacuated more than 200 families! There were policemen downstairs, security officers and all that. How we did that is that the refugees were on the fourth floor of the students hostel and we were taking care of them. They came down two by two – the bathroom was downstairs and they were supposed to be going to the bathroom. It was a whole strategy. I couldn’t believe it myself, it was like a movie! The students had cars outside and two by two, three by three, we got them out. By 4am in the morning there was no one left in the University. And they are still hiding up to now. I hid sixteen of them – kids and the children of Mrs. Dellosa. Out of the 26, 12 have been recently released. The others have been rotting in jail for the last five years. It’s still going on.
I don’t care what the Aquino administration is saying, but I know the facts. That is why I say, in spite of the hopes generated by the Revolution, this problem still exists. So my question to them is: I love Cory. I fought for her. We all fought for her. But what do you do? You just close your eyes and say, ‘give her a chance’?
My God, it’s the fifth year now and these people are still in jail. Of course, those are the groups we know. But in the provinces, we still have refugees. And in some areas, they don’t even have refugees any more because those people are in the mountains. They’re not scared of the military, they’re scared of the vigilante groups, the ones on patrol. If you go to the South, they will tell you they’re used to bombings, and that is the saddest thing in my country right now.
How did the press react to the film and the ban on it?
They just crucified me, saying I was playing the role of a persecuted martyr, of a persecuted artist. ‘Doesn’t Mr. Brocka know that it is no longer Marcos’ regime?’ ‘Mr. Brocka seems to think we are still under Marcos,’ and that I was trying to sensationalise it because I was a publicity-hungry director and that the only way to make a dent in the international film scene was to make movies that were controversial and that ‘whether it is Aquino or Marcos, Mr. Brocka would still…’
But didn’t the press understand what was going on in the country?
Half of the press understood; but you see, others were still beholden or were Cory sympathizers – we still have them. We have one of the freest presses in the world but also one of the worst… Now the topic in Philippines is developmental journalism as opposed to ‘envelopmental’ journalism, which has come to mean put money in envelopes for certain favours, certain write-ups. Or it doesn’t even have to be in envelopes. You can be appointed to a position and things like that…
Did Mr. Aquino see the film?
I don’t know.
But of course, this is not the first political film you made?
Well, no, that’s it! That is why nothing has changed. They tried to stop me before – in other words, when they started telling me that I was playing the role of a persecuted martyr, that I wanted to grandstand, that the only way to make it abroad was to make movies about misery, you know, the usual things. I really didn’t feel like answering because these are old charges. I went through this for years under the Marcos administration. I even got jailed for it. The only things new about these charges are the people making them. These were the same people we marched with in the streets. That’s the only new thing about them.
Tell us about the past and the films you made which got you jailed?
Well, mainly they were about… the misery! And Imelda just did not like to see Tondo – didn’t like to see dirt, didn’t like to see poverty and all that. She said, ‘Lino, you as a director should be part of nation building’, and I said, ‘How do you go about it?’ She said, ‘In nation building, we start with image building. So you show the true, the good and the beautiful. Look at Hollywood. When you watch a Hollywood film, you want to become an American. Why? Because they show a lifestyle that you want to aspire for.’ Of course they didn’t say anything but I thought, ‘Did you see Midnight Cowboy? Did you see Fat City? Did you see some of those movies?’ But I guess she was just referring to the ‘Hollywood’ movies. So she said, ‘Why can’t we make movies which when the Americans see, they say, ‘We want to be like Filipinos’? Why do you have such ugly people in your movies? Since we have so many tourist spots, I am willing to help.’ So I answered her, ‘But I am not out to make a movie for the Department of Tourism. I am not part of the Ministry of Tourism.’ At that time she was at her height, and on the road from the airport she planted trees and she put up walls, painted them white to cover up slums and poverty so the tourists would come to Manila would not see all this. But I told her, ‘My job is not to photograph those walls that you put up. My job as a director is to go through and find out why they’re poor. It’s to ask questions.’ But she didn’t like that.
She found my movie Jaguar very depressing. I told her that she didn’t understand it. You see, that guy who was a bodyguard (Jaguar means guard) had always dreamed of being rich. In the end he kills someone in defence of his employer who tells him, ‘Don’t implicate me. I will send your brothers and sisters to school’, etc. At that point Philip Salvador, who played the role, tries to strangle him. And I said that was because he was speaking in the only language he knew. ‘I am not advocating violence’, I said. What I am saying is that when things don’t change there is only one option for the poor and that is violence. The point of the movie is not whether he gets out of the jail or not. For all I care he’s going to rot in the jail for the rest of his life. But in that one brief moment he spoke out. He who was so weak and so lowly and humble, finally found his voice and spoke in the only language he knew, the language that was taught to him by the system, the system that oppresses and the system that corrupts. So I have the scene in which he goes, ‘Aaargh.’ Of course, they took him to jail. It’s Jaguar realizing he is entitled to certain rights. He’s not a dog, that’s what he was saying through the last act. I don’t have to state it. And you know what she said, ‘Yes, I understand but how many of us intellectuals understand that?’ I am quoting her! And I said, ‘I think you underestimate the audience. I think they understand what I am trying to say, they respond to it.’ Then she said, ‘People criticize me for wearing my diamonds. I wish I could wear ordinary clothes – jeans and so on; it is much more comfortable. But why I wear these diamonds and dress up like this is because people like to see what they aspire for.’ And I answered her, ‘May I be candid also? I don’t think they aspire for diamonds. They are only asking for three meals day…’
And now what’s happening in the Philippines is almost as bad. It’s such an irony for everyone to be talking about the democratic space. When this thing about the refugees happened, I wrote an open letter to President Aquino. I had the right to talk because I was appointed to the Commission to draft a new Constitution; we were forty-eight. During the discussion, ten of us walked out, including Sister Tan. They tried to talk to us: they said it would be embarrassing if we left and so on. The other nine said, ‘Ok Lino, let’s make the most of it. If all of us walk out nothing will come out of it and we can’t have everything.’ But I said, ‘No. In the beginning I was ready to go along with you because you kept telling me this is the way to do it,’ etc. So I kept quiet and went along. But when there was this accusation about destabilization and I realized what was happening, I told them I went along because I didn’t know anything. ‘I left it to you veterans, you know more. I come from the movies, the theatre, and you told me this is the way it works and I said fine.’ But now I said, ‘No more. When it comes to people’s rights and welfare, then there should not be compromise because people need us now.’
Now I realise why they let us rant and rave. We speak to the galleries and it brings tears to the people’s eyes. The problem with us is that we love to hear ourselves talk and when they applaud us we congratulate ourselves. But the problem is: what happens when it comes to voting? Now I understand politics. They’re dirty and they play dirty. Our problem is we’re so open. We wear our hearts on our sleeves; they see us bleeding. We cry and we fight for people.
And that’s why I am not going to go into all of that. I am just going to make more movies. I think I’ve made more than seventy or eighty. I used to make three or four a year, but of course during the anti-Marcos protests, I slowed down. There was a time when during two years, I didn’t make anything at all. We were out in the streets, protesting and marching. Now I’m averaging four to six movies a year.
How do you organise yourself to make that many movies simultaneously?
A lot of it depends on pre-production and I have the same staff. Most of the time I used to wake up early in the morning: like the call is at 8am, I should be shooting at 9am. But since many of the big stars I’m working with right now don’t wake up until noon, I usually start work at about one in the afternoon, stopping at 2am-3am in the morning. So, from about 10am to 12am, I edit the rushes I have shot the previous day. By the time I finish the shooting I’ve almost finished the editing.
Do you have a team of writers you work with? Is it always the same writers?
Depends on the kind of movie I am making. If it’s melodrama I have several writers. If it’s politically relevant – the serious ones, the ones that get me into trouble! – then I have one or two who have also gotten into trouble. They used to be in prison! But I am doing mostly melodramas. So there’s three or four writers that I work with. And of course, I do a TV show also.
So, two days for one movie, I sort of spread it out. For the ten days I spent here (in Singapore, on a festival jury) the producers were aghast because in ten days I could have finished more than half a movie. They said, ‘My God, Lino, instead of going there for prestige and all that, this is money.’ I said, ‘No, I have to go, I’ve already accepted. I want to see Asian films. I want to know what’s happening there. At least I don’t have to go to Paris to see them – I am very happy’
I’m very open because I am a movie-goer. I love films, I love those violent, action-packed Hong Kong films, the way they are edited, the way the action scenes are choreographed, they are just fantastic. But in my case, in my country, it pains me that we import about 500 foreign films and we make about 150 local films and they’re complaining about the one film I made!
Well, it shows the power of that kind of cinema.
Precisely, because of that I’m going to make two more.
In the seventy or so films you’ve made, most have no political or social comments.
No, and I am not apologizing for them. Before I start these movies. I meet with the cast and the crew and tell them that we are going to do a soap.
Why do you do these?
It’s a choice. Either you get out of it or you join in. I told my writers, ‘Here we are talking about developing an audience and we shy away from the C-movies, we look down on them, we call them bakya movies – “bakya” is the word for the masses, it means wooden shoes, wooden clogs. The term was coined by a director in the 50s. You know you have a big hit when you hear the sound of the wooden clogs; it means people are lining up and the term has stuck to mean what is low, what is cheap, the hoi polloi, the proletarian, the pedestrian, the philistine. The people who have been to the University, the yuppies, the professionals, the intellectuals and the pseudo-intellectuals, art dilettantes, etc. look down on such movies because they say it’s baduy – that means, sort of common, tasteless, provincial. They call it promdi also – meaning from the ‘province’. There are some writers whose reputation precedes them – Ricky Lee, Pete Lacaba and others. They were serious journalists and I said, ‘Look, we keep talking about trying to improve and help develop the industry. We can’t do that, if we just stay away and look at this as if it’s beneath us. And we cannot tell the producers we are not going to do this because it’s so baduy, it’ so bakya.’
The best thing I think is for us to work there on the same level. I went to the producers and said, ‘How much do you pay your C-directors? What is your budget for these movies? (I’m talking about the very commercial films, the sex films and all that).
And I said, ‘OK, give it to me. I’ll do it. And I’ll do it better.’ And so, that started me on the commercial mainstream.
And I called the writers and said, ‘Let’s do it and we’ll do it better.’ Ricky Lee said OK, so we did it, and that’s why in my filmography you have titles like White Slavery, Strangers in Paradise, Adultery... And I will not apologise for those movies or say I wish they were better forgotten. No, we had reason to do them.
Even now there’s a certain attitude towards local movies as opposed to foreign films. There are certain houses in big shopping districts, for example, which do not show local films. But that is changing and I guess the first movie I made helped change that attitude.
My first movie, Wanted: Perfect Mother was an imitation of The Sound of Music which was the most popular film in Philippines at that time.
Let’s just take it from the start. How did you get into the world of filmmaking?
I was in the theatre from my University days, a member of the UP (University of Philippines) Dramatic Club and there was the Philippines Educational Theatre Association. We organised a theatre that was supposed to build towards a national theatre. This was in the midst of all the search for identity, nationalistic reaction against too much westernization, etc. One of our activities, aside from presenting stage plays, was doing workshops all across the country. These were grassroots community theatre groups, using theatre as an educational tool, for people to discuss their problems. It was not just entertainment, it meant doing original plays. Our workshops lasted for 2,3,4 days among peasants, labourers and farmers. And we discovered that it was best to use theatre for people to speak up. You know Filipinos are very shy and scared.
This was under Marcos. Was there no censorship?
No. In the early years they were a little lenient, because they felt it was not a mass medium. They were more concerned about media in terms of movies, TV and the press. But in theatre you were able to use certain words and ideas. Of course, they caught up with it midway through! We were doing period plays set in Spanish times, but it was basically the same oppression.
Did the people watching understand the correlation between the past and the present?
The people understood it. We were doing the sensuelas; this was an old art form so (the authorities) thought we were doing it out of nostalgia. It looked so ethnic and exotic in all these flowing costumes. And of course, the oppression, the criticism against Spanish rule. But eventually, they caught up with it. Anyway, we were not interested in just presenting plays, although at this time we were also presenting foreign classics in Filipino translation, to introduce them to audiences, to show what theatre can do.
Aside from those experimental stage plays dealing with relevant issues it was also a community development in the sense that the point was basically using traditional art forms and taking advantage of things that are already in the community. In the Philippines we have Holy Week, when we do a Passion Play. It’s very Filipino with people being nailed to the Cross, a whole week of solemnities and processions, etc. So we contemporarised it. We’d go to a place and conduct a workshop and the people would act it out. The character of Christ takes a different form; we still have the Christ figure but say, in a rural area, Christ becomes a farmer. In an urban area or a slum, He becomes a labourer. And we would have masks. In other words you take something they do year after year but it’s not the usual Christ figure with satin robes and long curling hair. It’s now theatre. The capitalist has a mask – which is nothing strange because we have during our parades and many other religious activities. And it becomes so much more exciting because they add things to the play, things they can say under the disguise of the mask. They cannot be singled out as critical of the government, or critical of an abusive mayor or of a church that is indifferent because now you have the mask; it’s play. Aside from the children’s theatre we were trying to organise, aside from the plays for people who want to see plays for entertainment, aside from the creative drama workshops, we had teacher training programmes. We couldn’t go all over Philippines, so every year we would have summer workshop where we asked different schools to send their teachers. And they did it because it was part of their cultural activities. So they would send teachers and some students who loved theatre. We would provide training, for a small fee, for six weeks. And then they’d go back and do their own plays. This went on for years and we were very successful. And when I got into the movies I thought that this is what I’ll do.
How did you get into the movies?
I got into the movies because we were doing television projects. Again it was to reach the mass audience. We took up short stories, award-winning plays and novels and adapted them for television. I was one of the four directors doing it every week. The others were all from theatre. Lupita Aquino, sister of the slain Senator, was the overall technical director. We would work inside the studio.
One of the producers saw my work and called me to ask if I would like to make a movie. And I said yeah. I’d worked on Hollywood bang-bang B-Movies in the 60s. I was handling publicity and promotion for these movies, captioning photographs for the LA office, I was assistant, I was script continuity, I was dialogue coach for all the local actors – I was doing all kinds of work. But of course I quit after two years and went into a mission.
I felt there was nothing doing with my life and that is when I turned to religion. I became a convert to the Mormon Church and was sent as missionary to the leper colony in Molokai (Hawaii). I was completely aghast because, well, that’s another story.
When was that?
It was 1963-1964. I can’t remember now.
I was the first Filipino to be converted by Mormon missionaries who came to the Philippines. They thought that I was a prize catch, so they gave me choice assignments. I was first assigned to Honolulu. There was a special programme in the University of Hawaii on World Religions and I began teaching religion. Unfortunately I started asking questions on what they were doing. I couldn’t reconcile that with the way I had been converted. The head of the Church even came to Hawaii because I refused to cooperate. They said I was fomenting revolution in the Church!
So whether it’s theatre or film or religion, you are the center of controversy!
That’s right! Anyway, I asked a lot of questions and they didn’t like that because some of the missionaries started asking questions also, and it was felt that I was trying to provoke a mutiny and dissatisfaction. One of the missionaries left the Church during my time. I was blamed and sent off to Maui. The same thing happened there too. But I didn’t want to get into trouble any more, and finally I was asked to be sent home. But they could not afford to do that since I was the first Filipino missionary and it would have been a complete fiasco. They decided then to banish me to the Rock – that’s what they called the leper colony.
Where is this?
It’s in Molokai. They call it the Rock because as far as the other Missionaries are concerned, it is the end of the road. There’s nothing to do in Molokai. There’s a Church there, a chapel and that’s it. I’ll never forget when I was brought there. It was twilight and the plane landed on the improvised air strip. The people who were supposed to welcome me were not there. So I just stood and thought, this is where it all ends, and I started to cry. And then a group arrived, all in different stages of deformity – and I was thoroughly scared because of all the things you hear… Anyway, they turned out to be the most wonderful two years of my life. It changed everything about me, working with those lepers. I felt like a burnt-out case. I don’t know if you have read Graham Greene’s Burnt-Out Case. It’s one of my favourite books.
During the two years I organised a drama group with the lepers. I taught them with Filipino dances, I fed them, looked for them, did therapy work with them. We had activities every day. We had to keep it a secret from the missionaries because, of course, they want you to suffer… But I just enjoyed it so much I was crying when I left. It changed my whole attitude because before Manila I was young. When I graduated from high school I thought I was such a genius, the world was at my feet. I was voted the most popular, the most likely to succeed and won all the honours, but when I landed in college in Manila I found out that everybody else also had the same; a thousand other kids from other provinces had also won honours and been voted the most likely to succeed.
I went through all the angst of growing up. I had other personal identity problems as well and so I welcomed the idea of being sent to Hawaii, thinking I’ll never come back to this godforsaken country.
Living with the lepers changed all that; they have such a positive attitude towards life. Then, one day I stood on top of the mountain of Molokai, surrounded all those blind people and all those people with nothing but stubs – if you’ve never been to a leper colony you can never imagine what they mean by the living dead. And I looked at my hands and I said – ‘I can move my hands, I have hands. I’m alive.’ The ironic part is that the moment I realized this, I quit the Church. This was the day I got converted to life. I said, ‘I’m alive and from now on nothing can get me down.’ This is why since that moment nothing got me down. When my actors, for example, feel bad I always tell them, ‘It’s only a movie. We’ll make another one.’ And I guess that attitude has helped me throughout.
I had to talk about my having been in the leper colony because that meant so much to me.
Before we leave this period – one question. What did your parents think of all that you were doing – a Mormon missionary, a leper colony far away, and theatre and film?
My mother cries even now because she feels I could be the richest director in Philippines and we could have had all the luxuries. Others who are less known and less popular, have all these things. And I just say, ‘At least I got you a house.’ And she well, she’s a typical mother. My father died when I was six. I have only one brother.
In the light of your many experiences and the range of films you have made what do you think should be the role of the cinema?
I think art is not just mirroring life, it is confronting people with it. Which means make them aware. It’s not just depicting poverty or showing the economic conditions, the slum, the corruption and the inefficiencies of government, the system. It’s not just showing these things or reflecting them. I think it is going beyond that. Through your film and the story, it is trying to understand why they are poor, why there is corruption, why the system does this more effectively than any other medium, more than statistics given out by Amnesty International because in film, it is visual, it is human drama.
It’s not just to show that they are poor – when I say ‘poor’, it includes everything that the ordinary citizen is going through – corruption, human right abuse, deprivation, and the social, cultural or religious problems that they face. It is not enough to show it – any photograph can do that. When I say ‘confront’, I mean people should understand why they are poor.
I am not suggesting that violence is the only way out. To suggest that is now thought of as propaganda. People should understand film because it is powerful through suggestiveness – a frame, a shot, a look.
But if I understand what you are saying – cinema has to play a social role.
Yes, definitely. Again, I should probably qualify it and put it in the context of the Third World. I hate to say that because I do not like to think of myself as a Third World filmmaker. I only use that to identify where I come from. But within the Third World countries like the Philippines, definitely cinema has a role to play and in my case it’s definitely a social role.
What about cinema as a form of art and artistic expression?
Yes, I’m all for it. But at the moment I don’t think I can afford that. This is why when I see Black Republic, I feel that while we speak about cinema as an artform, we can see that something about the society creeps in. After all, I get my material from the people, from the society I live in. It’s reflected in my film and I use that, as I said, to confront. I’m not suggesting revolution. I’m just taking the case of a particular man caught in a particular crisis.
We’ve always been talking of how powerful the medium is. You know – what cinema can do and all that. But it was only with Ora Pro Nobis that I realized the full impact of film. The whole country was in an uproar. Why? The issue it talked of had been documented by Amnesty International, groups of lawyers, human right groups from New Zealand and Australia and so on. In other words, this was in the papers. The cannibalistic thing about how people were beheaded, their brains eaten, the murder of the priest, it’s all true. It was in all the papers with pictures, it was on television. So when I made the movie a year later and the reaction was so strong, I said, ‘But these are not new things.’ And when the government reacted that way I told Pete, ‘Imagine Pete, this was in the newspapers. They discussed it in the United Nations, they discussed it at Amnesty International which wrote reports and so on. How come they are reacting this way. It’s only a film.’ I didn’t want to respond to their reaction but by crew, friends, said we should have a press conference and clarify things. That’s why I made the statement at Cannes – upon the advice of these people.
There are filmmakers who feel they don’t care about social reality. That film should be like painting, like music, a form of personal expression.
Well, I always say the field is wide. That is one thing I learnt during the protest movement: to fight for plurality of opinion. This is what democracy is all about. In Manila there are theatre groups that put on Broadway plays. Fine. They serve a purpose. There is an audience that likes to see them. By all means. This is what we’re fighting for. I have nothing against Walt Disney films. I enjoy them. I grew up on Hollywood films and I thoroughly enjoyed them – I still do. I am a movie fan and I love those American actors. Anytime these movies are shown I take time off to go and see them.
In other words there’s room for everything.
What are your plans now? What are you currently working on?
After the trouble with Ona Pro Nobis I decided to make a trilogy and we’ve already made the storyline. I’ve got a development fee for the second, Miserere Nobis (Have Mercy on Us), and for the third I don’t yet have a title but it’s about children caught in the cross-fire between the military and the insurgents.
The second is about what?
The same formula as the first one. About a girl who is a political activist and is detained during Marcos’ time. When Aquino comes to power she is one of those first ones released as part of the promise of President Aquino to set free all political prisoners. After her release she seeks justice because during her incarceration she was raped and tortured. But the man she accuses and charges in court, has now been elected the Governor of a Province. That complicates matters. The storyline has been written. It’s basically a fight for justice, for democratic space and it promises to be quite exciting.
I don’t care what people say about Macho Dancer – I had a purpose while making it. I knew that it is what festivals would want because most of them have a gay programme or some such thing and I wanted it to go to a festival, particularly in the US.
Last year a production company in Brussels asked me to make a documentary about child labour in Philippines – they had got six directors from all over the world to make a docu-drama for the Year of the Child and they suggested I do child prostitutes. It was a chance to do something, though it was only going to be ten minutes. So I said let me think and I’ll call you. I had recently made Macho Dancer with these young boys working in gay bars. It was an off-shoot, though a bolder version, of a project I had done during Marcos’ time for a docu-drama on child prostitutes. Macho Dancer was based on a true story of two boys – one ten years old and the other eleven. The two minutes sequence I shot in the gay bar had bothered me so much that I felt I could not follow child prostitutes around to make a film about them. So I called the Belgian company in Brussels the next day and said, ‘I can’t do it.’
Instead I suggested a film about divers, definitely a dangerous thing to do because the big-time fishing operators are Congressmen. I shot it on another island and, of course, we paid all the policemen, paid almost everybody. It’s about a seven-year-old child diver and to be able to shoot it I learnt how to scuba dive. The series, produced by a Belgian company, is called How are the Children? Its producer is now asking me to do a feature length movie and I intend to do it.
How have Western critics reacted to your films?
Can I be honest? I find them funny. They put meaning where there is no meaning. Of course, there are some good ones but I do find them funny.
It’s very personal. I guess critics are subjective also. For example, in Nantes they were raving about Angela Markado… It is the story of a rape victim – Markado means ‘marked’. She was raped by six men; and after raping her, they tattooed their names on her back. So she looked for them – it’s like The Bride Wore Black, it’s from comics. It stars Hilda Koronel, the beautiful girl I discovered. Anyway she looks for them and kills them one by one. But because of censorship, in the end I had to put an epilogue that she paid for her sins and spent time in jail. It was required by the Board of Censors in Marcos’ time so as not to condone what she did. It was so absurd. I said, ‘you have to put in suspense’ etc., etc., I mention that because when people saw it in Nantes, they were seriously discussing the merits of ‘this beautiful film’. They asked me how it was done, this use of violence, etc. I didn’t know whether to play along with them or disappoint them. Eventually I just said, ‘Well, I don’t know, because nobody thought much it back home and here you are raving about the film! I made it to compete in the commercial mainstream. ‘I never confronted them, they had been so nice. But lets face it, the movie may have certain merits but (did it really deserve) the Grand Prix at Nantes?
Do you think Filipino journalists see your films differently from Western critics? Is there another way of interpreting, of looking?
No, basically the same – putting meaning where there’s no meaning, making out it’s an important film when it’s not. Probably they are influenced by my reputation. They think, ‘Ah, he came from Cannes.’ Etc. I tell them, ‘My God, you’re so impressionable, just because it was written about in Positif, Cahiers du Cinema…!’