August 29, 2020

Influential films during my formative years

Raise The Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou (1991)

 In an online lecture on improving the filmmaking skills of young Bangsamoro filmmakers two weeks ago, I was asked by an aspiring filmmaker what films were influential to my development as a filmmaker and writer on cinema. There was a deluge of questions and I feel that I was not able to answer this particular inquiry. 

Now pondering on the question I can divide a list of films into two timelines: my formative years from 1994 to 2009 which account for my university days to film school, my first short film to the year before I made my debut feature Limbunan; and my journey as a feature filmmaker and an active writer on cinema from 2010 onwards. For this post I will enumerate the films that helped cement my resolve to enter the world of cinema. I was preparing to become a medical doctor prior to this in fulfillment of a childhood dream.

While attending university in Davao, access to films was limited to what was available on VHS rental, mostly Hollywood flicks and the latest Tagalog flicks, and the films available in the university library like Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941).

It is said that the forbidden is a seductive thing. When the Philippine censors banned The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) for its nudity, there was an uproar in Manila which consequently lead to the lifting of the ban. Somehow the ban created publicity for the film it upped the curiosity of people leading them to watch it in cinema houses. I saw the film in a standing room only screening and fell in love with it for the performance of its leads (who could forget Holly Hunter's performance when her husband cut off her finger), the lush cinematography and brilliant direction. Later the novelist and poet Danton Remoto gave me a book containing the screenplay of The Piano as a gift.  

Jane Campion, The Piano (1993)

My glimpse of earlier cinematic gems came in 1995 when Mowelfund Film Institute organized the World Cinema Centennial Film Festival in Manila. In the festival I saw what I consider 'The Trifecta', the three films that shook me to core. These were Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953), 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963) and Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971). I was enthralled by the slow pace of the films and the philosophical questioning on mortality, beauty and the nature of our own being. 

In 1997 the Cultural Center of the Philippines organized a tour to encourage the formation of Sineklab or film clubs in the regions. The tour screened Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948), Raise The Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991) and Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988). De Sica's film offered me one of my first lessons in intertextuality as some of the composition in the film were derived from classical paintings. Zhang's film stirred something personal in me. I am familiar with polygamy as my grandfather had many wives. Although back then I was not privy with the jealousy and perhaps a conspiracy of wives to race to the top but it gave me a picture of what could be. Cinema Paradiso on the other hand validated my love for cinema with that end sequence forever haunting me.

The Scent of Green Papaya, Tran Anh Hung (1993)

During that tour I was introduced to Southeast Asian cinema with The Scent of Green Papaya (Tran Anh Hung, 1993). By now I realized that I am drawn to slow films and loved every moment of the film. With its rich visual details from close up of papaya seeds to the slow motion of the camera from one part of the house to another film, it became the visual peg for my debut film many years later. I also saw Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai, 1997) and was hypnotized by its cinematography capturing both longing, desire and alienation. Never before did I realize that sadness can be so beguiling. 

I went to film school in Manila in the summer of 1997. My access to films grew not only from the school library but also to what has become an all-too-important store in Greenhills, a center of film education of some sort, that sold bootleg VHS copies of films. I bought 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959) that would later introduce me to other French New Wave auteurs, Color Trilogy (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993-1994) which expanded my notion of cinematography as well as the moral ambiguity of characters that defied the clearcut distinction between good and evil in standard mainstream flicks, Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) which had a profound effect on me for its exploration of the psychology of characters manifesting in very beautiful and surreal images, and Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) which taught me storytelling techniques as well as opened my eye to film criticism.

400 Blows, Francois Truffaut (1959)

As a fan of the late River Phoenix, My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991) holds a special place for me. Loosely adapted from Shakespeare's Henry IV, it gave me an idea to explore classic literature as a rich source of stories that can be translated to contemporary sensibility. My filmography would be filled with works that have been influenced by literature. 

Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry, 2000) taught me that no dream is small. Raised in the rustic town of Pagalungan, Maguindanao, I saw my own struggle in Billy, in a town that does not understand the complexity of our desire, anxiety and restlessness to be something else outside of the norm  –be it a ballet dancer or a filmmaker. As Lupita Nyongo said in her Oscar speech, all dreams are valid. Billy Elliot is a testament to the validity of dreams.

I Dont Want To Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming Liang, 2006) showed me how the spectrum of identity and rootedness –from vacillation to being confident in your own skin –is important in becoming what we truly are. 

August 24, 2020

Lessons on creativity and patience from mungbean sprouts


Four days ago I woke up at noon time, a habit I developed since the Philippine government imposed a lockdown all over the country in March to avert the spread of the coronavirus. I suddenly had the craving for lumpia with togue filling. Knowing that togue or mungbean sprouts and lumpia wrapper were not available at the nearest grocery store, and that I was prohibited from venturing downtown due to the barangay clustering scheme that our city government put in place, I rummaged through my kitchen cabinet to look for the next best thing. I found a bag of flour and mungbeans in a jar. Over coffee I Googled “how to grow mungbean sprouts” and managed to do the task in half an hour. I retreated to my home office and started writing entries for my new blog sites. These are writing projects that I started two days earlier in a bid to be productive during the COVID-19 crisis. After all two film projects have been shelved due to the crisis. My creative juices needed to be put in good use.

Yesterday I woke up earlier than usual. I was roused by a phone call from my father who is in our hometown Pagalungan, Maguindanao. He asked me how I was doing. “The summer heat is just too much. But I’m OK. How are you?” I assured him. I’m isolated from the rest of the family since I took residency in General Santos. I want to see my father. But that is impossible in the meantime. From this city I have to pass through two provinces that have imposed total lockdown due to cases of COVID-19. There are checkpoints, and chances are I will be turned away. Only vehicles with essential goods and medical personnel are allowed to pass.

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August 4, 2020

Why are there no writers in the Maguindanaon language

This week an editor inquired if I have any piece of work written in the native language – that is, Tagalog or Maguindanaon – for possible translation and inclusion in an upcoming anthology. I told her that I write in English. 

A couple of months ago, writer Mark Angeles forwarded to me an email from the National Book Development Board regarding the National Book Awards. NBDB was looking for books written in Maguindanaon for consideration in the awards. I told Mark that I could say with absolute certainty that no book written in Maguindanaon has been published in the previous year, and perhaps none ever (unless you consider the 'parukunan' or Muslim prayer manual as one). This got me thinking: Why hasn't any Maguindanaon writer endeavored to write a book in the native tongue? I can only look at my own reasons for preferring English, and not Maguindanaon, for answers.

1. There are only a handful of Moro writers, and ethnic Maguindanaons are just a fraction of an already sad number. Considering the motivation to be read widely, I have chosen English because it is a universal language. We spoke English at home, and read books written in English. My mother forbade us to read Tagalog comics because they were reserved for the servants. There were no books written in Maguindanaon so I learned by observing the language as it was spoken by friends and family members, especially my grandmother.

2. Maguindanaon lacks a standard orthography. "What is that?" can be written as "Ngeyn i namba?" but it can also be "Ngin namba?" I prefer the former. Even with the spelling of Maguindanaon there seems to be no agreement. Maguindanaon? Magindanon? Magindanawn? Maguindanon?

3. The different Maguindanaon dialects can also be problematic. As tao sa laya or 'people from the upstream' referring to people inhabiting areas inward and far from the coast, my vocabulary is different from the tao sa ilud or those in the coastal areas. "Endaw ka pebpawang?" which translates to "Where are you going?" is laya specific. Ilud variation would be written as "Endaw ka bagangay?" Because of this, within the Maguindanaon readership, the number of possible readers of a text written in a particular dialect can become even smaller.

4. Literary language is difficult to study as there is little access to the vocabulary and techniques of Maguindanaon literary forms like the bayok, or to an extent, the dayunday. Old folks who have knowledge of literary language are either dead, senile or dying.

5. How do you find a publisher? Publishing houses have language preferences, and even regional publishers would think twice before publishing a book with a very limited audience. Self-publishing can be explored but what subjects to write about and what genre, how much printing costs and how many people are willing to buy a book should also be considered.

6. How do you find readers? Most readers now prefer English or Tagalog, if anyone still reads. Maguindanaon has been reduced to utilitarian purposes, its potential as a rich literary language unexplored.