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Crash of the colosseum: A festival of death - HERE'S THE SCORE by Teodoro C. Benigno

Dogs somewhere in my mind howl when I remember. And somehow there is also the sight of long-beaked vultures waiting to swoop. Marcel Proust it was who said that memory could be either voluntary or involuntary. His was an extraordinary mind which could descend on events long in the past, merely at the drop of a shred of song or the sweet smell of a galette. When Proust wrote his classic, ever evoked novel A la Recherché du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), events in his memory were often provoked by a "stream of consciousness." And related allegorically.

Well, I did feel that way more than a week ago. There was Imelda Marcos, if memory serves, flaunting that day 20 or 21 years ago when she staged international film festivals. Manila was a Mecca that attracted film stars and celebrities largely from Hollywood, among them George Hamilton, suave, silken and smooth, often at the side of Imelda. I never liked Hamilton. He was to me a poseur, an inveterate social climber who frequented the White House escorting lavishly-draped daughters of the rich.

Yes, there was Imelda Marcos, the wife of the dictator. And there too just a week ago was Irene Marcos-Araneta, now caught in a spider’s web of her own making, so we are told. There is reportedly a video footage of her and her husband Greggy in the heavily-guarded purlieus of the Deutsche Bank in Germany. They were allegedly seeking to launder the unbelievable amount of $13.2 billion from its earlier hiding place in a Switzerland bank.

No, we won’t tarry.

The closets of my mind opened as though blown by a gust of wind. I was a foreign correspondent then, head of the Agence France- Presse Manila bureau, when the construction of the Manila International Film Festival building (a gaudy imitation of the Colosseum in Rome) was in full swing. Construction was behind schedule. Imelda was a woman possessed, a Medea perched atop a broomstick, screaming at thousands (yes, thousands) of workers working around the clock to go, go, go. Imelda was enamored of huge, handsome buildings bearing her signature (edifice complex, they called it) as much later on, a Joseph Ejercito Estrada blew mansions for his mistresses from his magic hands.

* * *

Construction on the quick was bad. That Colosseum building had to hold, its steel girders to be heavily wrapped in cement, as well as its floors, beams, awnings. But the workers did as they were told. The First Lady was an orchestra conductor whirling around with her baton piercing the air like mad, drawing cymbals and drums and the shriek of trumpets.

What happened had to happen. Construction was on a 24-hour basis, not allowing enough time for the cement to dry and consolidate. The third floor collapsed, pouring down, down, down all the way to the ground floor. Hundreds were buried in the cement debris. Thousands? Nobody in authority knew about the tragedy at the time, not even Imelda. Betty Benitez, a high priestess of the film festival, was immediately notified by telephone. Her instructions were to rope off the place, not to allow media to penetrate. It was martial rule, remember? This scandal had to be kept secret.

But Ms. Benitez (wife of Jose Conrado Benitez, then a close-in counsel of Imelda) nor anybody else could hold back the foreign press.

What they saw was a page torn out of Dachau, the Polish town that housed the infamous Nazi gas chamber that incinerated tens of thousands of Jews. Instead of gas, withering and tearing the flesh out of the prisoners, cement held the workers in a vise and snuffed out their lives. There were those – a few – who struggled to get out of the now hardening cement, and their heads showed as did part of their shoulders. Nobody among those who survived dared to pull them out. They too would sink.

Pray, they shouted, sing! Oh Jesus, sing! One of those trapped, a young man in his early 20s, sang a love song, a plaintive, haunting love song in Tagalog while another, I was subsequently informed, intoned the national anthem. It was a gruesome way to die, a mass death that predated the tragedy of Ozone, the night club where five years ago hundreds too died trapped by flames and bolted exit doors. Oh-my-God was all we could exclaim at the time. Oh-my-good-and-redeeming God! Mother of mercy! Come give us your healing hands! How could this thing happen?

* * *

It was the exceeding vanity of a woman that was behind this tragedy.

For that alone, she should be behind prison bars. We do not know really how many died at the collapsed film center. Hundreds? Thousands? No official figures were given. It was all hush-hush. There was no official investigation. Recompense in money was of course given to the victims. Just how much we do not know. But it was a monstrous crime and nothing, not all the money in the world could resurrect the fallen masonry and bring back life to those who died in the ugly grip of cement falling in a stampede.

It may not have been Dachau, or Buchenwald or Sachsenhausen. In these camps, the death of the Jew was deliberate at the hands of a crazed and demented race of Nazis, weaned from the cult that they were supermen, destined with their fuehrer Adolf Hitler to rule the world. But it was the same. Those thousands of laborers who worked the Manila International Film Festival colosseum were driven to their death in the name of a spurious glory to the dictatorship. And his wife. But our story is not over.

Imelda, her daughter Imee, and the high priests and priestesses of the fallen colosseum were worried. Not that they were conscienticized. There were stories that the ghosts of the dead haunted the broken building by day and specially by night, whipping up slow winds that whined and moaned and keened, and voices that rose with a special sound from mounds of cement that hid the skeletons of the dead. Something had to be done. And it was done. They had to exorcise the building, rid it of its ghosts.

And so Imelda and Imee Marcos, if memory serves, had to engage in exorcism rites. Imee was Director General of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. The rites of the cañao had to be brought over. These were Igorot shamans with their chickens and pigs, arrayed in the majestic costumes of their tribe. They twinkled into the colosseum. The cañao rites started at dawn. I sent my top reporter then, Monica Feria, to cover the event surreptitiously. Unfortunately she could not bring a camera for the photo flash would reveal her presence peering at an open window.

The Igorots brandished a tapis, flung and flared it around their bodies in circular motions, flung it outward obviously to exorcise the ghosts. They sang their weird songs, lamentations and hymned prayers to their ancestors. Every now and then they stopped to drink rice wine – basi – then danced and sang again. But to be effective, the lords and ladies of the film festival had to join in. There was a "rice-threshing" peace dance with the tapis always in skirling evidence.

* * *

Around a canoe filled with rice, Imee Marcos, Marichu Maceda and Johnny Litton, among others, danced. They too held forth with the tapis, strange imitative tunes coming from their lips, swaying, their eyes flaring with the mysterious light of Igorot dances, determined the ghosts would go away. Two Igorot medicine women with tattoos led the dance. In between, a chicken would be slit, its kidney and liver displayed. More chickens were slit, more pigs, their innards displayed again and again.

Finally, the signs were positive. The Igorot leaders said the ghosts had finally been driven away. It took days for the cañao rites to be accomplished. There was rejoicing. But there were others. There was, of course, a Latin Mass, Visayan babaylan ceremonies, Chinese exorcism rites with the offering of lugao. But word persists the colosseum remains haunted until today. Strange mysterious winds still hoot with a mute sadness at night, disembodied voices echoing against walls, the smell of death still in the air, not its physical smell, but that of a cemetery, the whitened sepulchers gazing with a sight that will never perish.

There is an eerie anecdote that has also gotten around.

Remember that road accident where Betty Benitez died on their way reportedly to Tagaytay? Shortly after the colosseum disaster? Former secretary of education O. D. Corpus was at the wheel. That was that. The two of them. The press was not free. And details and circumstances of that accident remain enmeshed in mystery. The official explanation was that there was a sharp curve and O.D. Corpus lost control of the wheel. The vehicle crashed. O. D. survived.

But the word that went around was hair-raising. Perhaps not true but at that time, it had the currency of a night owl glaring with wisdom at the passing night. At that curve which led to the accident, the ghosts of the dead at the accursed film festival building reportedly appeared. They were said to be sightless, all dressed in black, but their voices could be heard and their fingers could be seen – pointing like accusing branches of the great beyond.

The Marcoses are still with us. And my hair stands until today.

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