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Remembering Celso Ad. Castillo, 69

Celso in an old picture on the set of Return of the Dragon in La Union.

MANILA, Philippines - The filmmaker associated with several award-winning films (Burlesk Queen, 1977; Asedillo, 1971; Ang Alamat ni Julian Makabayan, 1979) passed away last Monday, Nov. 26 in his hometown in Siniloan, Laguna. He was 69.

Undoubtedly one of the original and most-awarded filmmakers of his generation, Celso Ad. Castillo has written five books on filmmaking and on his art and life. Before his death, he was doing post-production work on his new film, Bahay ng Lagim (his first digital movie) and hopefully, he could work on a new project titled Dungis. Also in his mind was a remake of the award-winning, if not controversial, Vilma Santos-starrer Burlesk Queen.

A week before he moved on, he was announcing the launching of his autobiography which he said will hit the bookstores in two days.

Obviously, no such book-launching will take place.

Nevertheless, Celso told this writer last September a week after his 69th birthday that the book was a no-holds barred story of his life with colorful details of some interesting transitions in his life. Like the year he embraced the Muslim faith and was renamed ArifAmiruddin bin Abdullah.

A fellow Muslim, Jeff Fernandez, posted this comment on Facebook: “We Muslims upon hearing of someone’s death we say, ‘Inna Lillahi Wa Inna Ilaihi Raji Un,’ that is to say, ‘Verily we are from ALLAH, and to Allah is our return.’ So long brother in Islam, Celso Ad. Castillo.”

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One of the first Filipino filmmakers to invade foreign film festivals abroad with such output as Burlesk Queen and Alamat ni Julian Makabayan (Berlin Film Festival and World Film Festival in Montreal) and Nympha (Venice Film Festival), among others, Celso The Kid returned to his hometown Siniloan, Laguna where he led a quiet life while working on his autobiography.

‘Film was my dad Celso’s life,’ says his son Christopher. Left: Cover of the filmmaker’s autobiography. His death overtook the book-launching on the week it was supposed to hit the bookstores.

Close kin of the filmmaker reacted with unbearable loss but resigned to the fact that the whole life and family of Castillo revolved around film. 

The firstborn son of the late filmmaker, Christopher Ad. Castillo, who is based in California, said the first thing he did upon learning of his father’s death was to go the movies and watch the film, Lincoln.

Once inside the theater, he cried.

“As the images flickered on the screen, as Lincoln fought for the future of humanity, I saw my father fighting all his life for his vision, his morals and his values. He was going to make the films he wanted to make. No matter the personal cost. He was The Kid, The Messiah, the Philippine’s first truly independent and renegade filmmaker. The man who was larger than life.”

Christopher said he was obviously destined to follow his father’s footsteps, not “to eclipse him” but to be the best that he could be.

He added that he and his father had spoken recently about some exciting things that the future was going to bring. His project with producer Alemberg Ang was short listed in the upcoming Cinemalaya 2013 and after he finished his interview with the selection committee, the excitement that he might have a chance to work with his father once again dawned on him. “But this time with me in the director’s chair and he as an actor.”

Recalled Christopher: “Our last talk was about the long-awaited and much-anticipated Ang Lalaking Nangarap Na Maging Nora Aunor which was to be his swan song, a tribute to his love for Philippine cinema. He would be Salvatore in Cinema Paradiso. I was going to write it for him.”

He said he also remember the night in San Francisco two decades ago when for the first time, his father explained to him why their family broke apart.

“We were living in Las Vegas at that time when he came to join us for good but decided to leave after a couple of months back to the Philippines. He told me that he made the hardest decision of his life. He had to choose between his art and his family, and he chose his art. And from that decision came some of the greatest films cinema has ever seen.

“I have never begrudged my father for what he did. I have never questioned his love for us. I have always understood him and felt sadness that he was put in that situation. No one should ever have to make those kinds of decisions. But all of us in his life have always competed with the characters in his head and stories in his mind. Film was his family. Film was his life. And we are all the better for it. To some people, he was the greatest filmmaker of his generation. To me, he was simply a wonderful father. I will truly miss him until I see him again.”

Another son, Patrick Ad. Castillo, said he woke up Monday morning only to be told by his sister that his dad had passed away.

 That same night, Patrick said he dreamed of his father. “I kept seeing dad’s face like it was a slideshow. I never remember my dreams and can’t remember anything else in my dream last night besides seeing dad’s face. I know he reached out to me and I appreciate and will always love him for that. Thank you for the gift of life. Thank you for being Celso Ad. Castillo, my father. I love you.”

Celso’s nephew, Djonas Castillo, said his famous uncle was a son, a father, a mentor, a brother, an uncle, a grandfather, a godfather, a husband, an artist and a legend. “At two in the morning, I was holding my uncle’s lifeless body. Thank you for the smile, the laughter, the jokes, the lessons, support and movies you shared to us, and your contributions to Philippine Cinema. I am really lucky to be your nephew and godson. May you rest in peace!”

In a last interview with this writer, Celso talked about his return to his hometown in Siniloan, Laguna.

Celso said he had had enough of the big city since he started schooling at Legarda Elementary School, high school at FEU and college at Manuel L. Quezon University, where he took up AB Literature. His journey to manhood, he said, was largely shaped growing up in Quiapo, Rizal Ave., Escolta and other parts of Metro Manila.

On the other hand, he also lived overseas in California, Nevada, Hawaii and Malaysia. “It’s been a long journey,” he admitted. “I just felt it was time to come home. I am enjoying my life in Siniloan totally where I am totally de-stressed and spared from the daily pressure of living in the big city.”

Indeed, the multi-awarded filmmaker has come full circle with 64 movies to his name, most of them getting citations in awards ceremonies.

Among his landmark films, he singled out Nympha as one of them.

He explained: “In Nympha, I was dealing with a movie hovering between art and pornography. Directing sex movies is the most difficult because you have to arouse libido without offending the sensitivity and sensibility of your audience. That was my first real effort to test my innate creative artistry. I exerted 100 percent of my creative energy and it paid off.  It was hailed as truly artistic, a box-office smash and elevated me to a new level as a filmmaker.”

Another favorite was Asedillo starring the King of Philippine Movies, Fernando Poe Jr.

“In this film, I was working with the King of Philippine movies at the age of 26 and had to prove my worth as a director to earn his respect.  I also wanted to prove my versatility as a film director and that I could come up with a film of an epic scale. FPJ won the FAMAS Best Actor in this movie and the film was cited as one the 10 best films produced in the Philippines in the ’70s.”

His 1977 film, Burlesk Queen, won 10 out of the 11 awards of the 1977 Metro Manila Film Festival but the results were contested by Lino Brocka and defended by juror Rolando Tinio (now National Artists for Film and Theater), respectively.

He reflected: “I wanted to vindicate myself as a filmmaker in this movie. The media referred to me as a reluctant artist and a filmmaker who has yet to arrive. Not only did the film run away with awards. It was also the top grosser. It broke the myth that quality films don’s make money in the box-office and commercial films don’t win awards.” 

Celso described the filmmaker then and until he passed away.

“Artists are not born overnight and in the same manner than wine tastes better with age. It takes years for a Johnnie Walker whiskey or a Jack Daniels bourbon or a cognac or champagne to be fully satisfying in your palate. A filmmaker goes through the same stages. As a result, a mature filmmaker can dissect life to its fullest.”

Born in Siniloan, Laguna on Sept. 12, 1943, Celso was a comics writer before he became a filmmaker and with the help of his father, put out a comics magazine where he wrote all the stories using different names. A movie producer commissioned him to write a script on the character of James Bandong, named after Britain’s superspy. The film made money and it was followed by a sequel, Dr. Yes, 1965, a spoof on the British film, Dr. No. He wrote and directed his first movie, Misyong Mapanganib (Dangerous Mission), in 1966.

Celso won the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) awards for Best Director and Best Story for Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (When the Crow Turns White, When the Heron Turns Black) in 1978, and also won the Urian awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay for the same picture.

He won the FAMAS Best Director trophy again in 1985 for Paradise Inn, a Lolita Rodriguez-Vivian Velez starrer. He also has a FAMAS Best Supporting Actor award, for Sampung Ahas ni Eba (Ten Snakes of Eve), in 1984.

When asked what chapters in his autobiography would be of interest to filmgoers, he answered, “The early chapters will be very interesting because it depicts my early childhood and the circumstances that molded and shaped my innate talent as an artist. Equally interesting is how I managed to get through with my first shooting day as a movie director and my encounters with FPJ doing Asedillo and the making of Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak and Paradise Inn. The last chapter will be very interesting, too, as it delved into my life as a father and as a filmmaker. Because at the end of the day a question still persists: After a long journey, was everything that I went through as filmmaker all worth it?”

Asked what it would take for an aspiring filmmaker to make it in this country, Celso replied, “There is no way this country can shape you to become a good director. The level of comprehension in art is low and the arts are the government’s last priority. You don’t need to go abroad to become a good director. Just keep watching movies and better to study the works of film directors. These exposures are better than going to film schools.”

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