Gil Portes, original indie director, looks back at career as he turns 70
(The Philippine Star) - September 12, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Gil Portes believes he was brought into this world, exactly 70 years ago today — the first of two sons of hardworking government employees in Pagbilao, Quezon — to become a storyteller.

As he buckles down to work on the principal photography of what will be the 40th entry in his filmography, the Metro Manila Film Festival entry, Ang Hapis at Hinagpis ni Hermano Puli, he comes to a realization — he understood “cinematic” before he even knew the word.

His hometown was a quiet idyll on the surface but was, in fact, a hotbed of the Hukbalahap communist movement in the late ’40s and ‘50s. In this deceptively bucolic setting, he had a colorful childhood filled with vibrant characters and indelible experiences.

“All my childhood memories contributed to my growth into a filmmaker, although I didn’t know then that I would end up making movies,” recalls the natural raconteur, who can talk for days on end about his boyhood in Pagbilao and mesmerize you if you let him.

After graduating with a degree in Journalism from the University of Santo Tomas, the young Gil worked as a copywriter for top advertising firms AMA, J. Romero & Associates, and Westinghouse.

But at 23, he remained restless. “I was doing well but was not very satisfied,” he remembers. He decided he wanted to make movies, but where to start? One of his mentors in advertising suggested that he try his luck in the television industry.

He was accepted as a production assistant at ABS-CBN. The job was exciting but he struggled financially with the steep pay cut. To get ahead fast, he learned that he needed to study abroad and get a post-graduate degree.

And so in 1969, two months before his 24th birthday and with his mother’s modest life savings in his pocket, he flew to the US to study at Syracuse University. He arrived early, in the summer, to get a job, and found the nearly deserted campus in upstate New York boring.

He craved the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple and soon found a way to get a scholarship grant at the City University of New York, in Brooklyn. There, he earned his masters degree in television and film production after a year and a half.

He came home in January 1972 to a promising job as producer-director at ABS-CBN. Soon, he was assigned his own show, a horror anthology called Limbo. Midway through the taping of the very first episode, the horror of all horrors happened.

“President Marcos declared Martial Law and shut down the station that same day. My directing career was over before it even began!” he recounts with a booming laugh.

With the whole TV industry in limbo, the still-aspiring director turned to the government’s propaganda arm, the National Media Production Center (NMPC), for employment. He spent the next six months boostering for the likes of then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. The work’s only saving grace was the opportunity to learn from the accomplished director, Lamberto Avellana, eventual National Artist for Film.

He was ready to resign when his boss, Gregorio Cendana, offered him another study grant — this time for a 10-month training program at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in the UK.

Upon his return in 1974, he worked at the government station, PTV 4, alongside most of the industry’s top directors. “Finally, I got to produce and direct my own drama anthology, Huwaran,” he says.

The show was supposed to celebrate model citizens in the Marcos regime’s New Society, but instead he managed to churn out episodes about a scavenger, a callboy in Cubao and the murdered publisher Ermin Garcia Sr. Somehow he got away with these deviations from the regime’s ethos of The True, The Good and the Beautiful because, well, Huwaran won the Best Drama Series award from the industry’s Emmy Awards of the era, the PATAS (Pambansang Agham ng Telebisyon at Sining).

By 1976, direk Gil was ready for his debut as a filmmaker. He convinced a friend to finance his first film, Tiket Mama! Tiket Ale! Sa Linggo ang Bola, which dramatized the dreams of poor people hoping to win the sweepstakes jackpot.

“I consider myself the original indie director. Although I also worked for major studios like Regal and Viva, most of my films were independently financed,” he says.

Hermano Puli, a biopic on early 19th century religious leader Apolinario de la Cruz (a Quezon native like himself), is likewise an indie. Going the indie route, while rarely financially rewarding, allows him to “make movies that matter to me personally.”

This is how he earned the distinction among his peers of having the most number of films — three — submitted as official Philippine entries to the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language film category. These are Saranggola (1999), Gatas sa Dibdib ng Kaaway (2001) and Mga Munting Tinig (2002).

Of his personal favorites in his body of work, he names seven, led by Merika, which he considers his finest work. The rest includes the three aforementioned Oscar submissions, along with Markova, Mulanay, Sa Daigdig ng mga Sugapa and Two Funerals.

There’s an embarrassment of riches among his favorite performances in his movies.

The list includes Ricky Davao in Saranggola, Bembol Roco in Sa Piling ng mga Sugapa; John Arcilla in Mulanay; Lester Llansang in Saranggola; Dolphy, Eric Quizon and Jeffrey Quizon in Markova; Nora Aunor in Merika and Andrea: Paano Ba Maging Isang Ina?; Gina Alajar in Andrea and Mulanay; Vilma Santos in Miss X; and Alessandra de Rossi in Mga Munting Tinig.

He also credits much of his success to his favorite screenwriters: Clodualdo del Mundo, Ricky Lee, Tony Perez, Jehu Sebastian, Senedy Que, Eric Ramos and Butch Dalisay.

At the twilight of his career, he looks at the current roster of young indie filmmakers and admires the works of Mes de Guzman, Arnel Mardoquio and Jerrold Tarog.

“I’m not saying I’m ready to meet my Maker. Not yet. God, tapusin ko muna ang Hermano Puli, please,” he quips.

A green cardholder, direk Gil can choose to retire in his New York home and stay with his wife Telly, a college Math professor, and live off the blessings he receives from his two sons, Carlo and Justin, both successful hedge fund managers in the US.

Instead he remains a Filipino citizen in both heart and hearth, staying in a very modest apartment in Quezon City most of the year and visiting Pagbilao often. Why? Because at 70, direk Gil continues to pursue passion projects and vows to make meaningful movies for as long as God lets him.

ACADEMY AWARDS ACIRC ALTHOUGH I ANDREA GIL HERMANO PULI MGA MUNTING TINIG MULANAY NEW YORK PAGBILAO SARANGGOLA
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