Maryo J: Poet of the cinema

Nenet Galang-Pereña - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - “Prophets and poets are special people, because their genius is to see what is extraordinary in the ordinary, and their gift comes from God,” multi-awarded director of TV and cinema Mario J. delos Reyes thus witnessed to his audience of academics and cineastes at the first UST Siningkwentro, a national conference on arts and literature, where masters like Lisa Macuja-Elizalde (dance), Raul Sunico (music), Michael Blanco and Jun Martinez (painting), Amihan Bonifacio-Ramolete (theater), Michael Coroza (literature), Jeff Canoy (broadcast  media arts), Luis Ac-ac and Leandro Baldemor (sculpture) shared their passion and contribution to what Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) artistic director, Chris Millado, in his keynote address, referred to as the vast repository of Philippine art and culture.

Direk Maryo’s childhood fascination with mimesis started in the playlets he produced with his parents’ housemaids as dramatis personae, for which he charged his playmates five cents. “But I would also ask my poor mother (Lourdes Jorolan of Alicia, Bohol) to buy a whole batch of ensaymadas so my playmates would have snacks while watching my production… so nalugi na lahat, basta matuloy lang ang palabas,” he confides laughing, his merry eyes reduced to slits. This continued until his elementary grade days in Letran, an exclusive boys’ school, where he played the role of the Virgin Mary. In high school, he brought the theater to Our Lady of Guadalupe Minor Seminary, where his priestly ambition was decimated, “nagulo na,” he laughs some more, his ample frame shaking with glee.

He then went on to the University of the Philippines for a degree in Mass Communications, and plunged deep into theater, TV and movie directing. And he never looked back, bringing into his art so much creativity and character, as veteran actress, Dr. Rustica Carpio, fondly remembers, after working with him in Don’t Cry for me, Papa. Tita Rustie has everything good to say about him: “A gentleman of the first order, he never loses his temper, and moreover, brings film scholarship to the set.”

He might have abandoned the church vocation, but his oeuvres still resonate the spiritual. His inspiration for Bamboo Flowers came during the recessional of the Mass, with the singing of Give thanks. The film, shot mostly along the scenic Loboc River in Bohol, wherein we took our three young sons for a cruise one summer as part of their patriotic education, is about the resilient bamboo plant whose flowers bloom when it is about to die — a metaphor for the Filipinos’ fortitude and abiding faith despite the demise of their traditional way of life. Last year, direk Maryo was among 12 veteran filmmakers who received grants from the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) to join the annual Sineng Pambansa, a flagship program, whose basic mission is to revitalize the Filipino film industry by encouraging and supporting the production of high quality films, and by promoting the works of Filipino filmmakers to a wider public through national and international film festivals.

The prophetic role of independent cinema (indie in colloquial) directors is what makes direk Maryo’s brave heart beat faster these days. He explains: “Sometimes, the filmmaker wants to tell a good and viable story through film, without the pressures of capitalism breathing down his or her neck. And this is what independently-produced films give to the artist: The freedom to be experimentally creative, to show images without prejudice and to tell a story without censorship. Independent cinema is there to push certain boundaries, challenge the canon of aesthetics and raise the viewers’ consciousness about topics not usually presented in mainstream media. But who will fund such a thing? Only a select few. Who would want to fund an art work that challenges the cultural norms where it belongs? Yes, here in our country, artists are stuck with rocking the boats only at the shoreline. When will these ships sail?”

But all is not lost, direk Maryo says. “Today, it’s a different scenario altogether. We now have both the public and the private sector entering the picture. With structures like the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) supporting the screening of cinema from the regions, we get to see many films made outside  of Manila. Funding systems like the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival, ABS-CBN’s Cinema One Originals or TV5’s Cine Filipino digital film competition give the much needed break to new filmmakers to tell their story through digital film while giving veterans like me the chance to explore our creative minds some more in certain funding divisions. Commercial cinema chains now open up their theaters to showcase homegrown independently-produced films. There are so many venues and so many chances for Philippine cinema to blossom again these days, thanks to the advent of digital technology. And that makes filmmakers like us very happy.”

Happy indeed is this director, who, in his poetic role as troubadour, has megged icons like Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos (he finds Kris Aquino a challenge for health reasons and Sharon Cuneta a dream yet to be realized) in his early years; raised the bar for youth-oriented films with milestone markers like High School Circa 1965, Bagets, Bongga Ka Day and Annie Batungbakal in his prime; reified hope in dramas like the FAMAS award-winning Magnifico, the 25-international festival favorite Bambo Flowers and the soon-to-be-aired Niño from the GMA Telebabad primetime block, (about the friendship between a special child and the beloved Santo Niño or Christ child) in his maturity. 

After his lecture, over a cup of coffee with UST Literature and Humanities Department chair, Dr. Luz Lopez-Urquiola and Siningkwentro conference director, Asst. Prof. Janet Perez-Grajo, direk Maryo reminded why cinema masters like him are akin to prophets and poets: They rage against the dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas once wrote. With image, sound, movement, and story as provocative constructs of his craft, he will not rest until he has seduced all our senses and told his truth, as only poets and prophets can.

In parting, he  pleads: “Filipino films are the products of our culture and are thus part of our heritage. So please, continue being proud of this legacy, and let’s support each other by upholding this thing we value so deeply — this thing called the Filipino film.”

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