Our movies should be world-class

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - January 4, 2015 - 12:00am

I had the pleasure of sitting beside Sen. Grace Poe last fortnight at the necrological rites for the late Abdulmari Imao at the Cultural Central. I managed to have a few words with her, asked what had happened to Roosevelt Street house where Fernando Poe Sr., her grandfather, used to live. I visited the movie star in that house twice in the Fifties when I was with the old Manila Times.

Sen. Poe said that it was sold after the death of her grandfather. I told her that I hope she will be interested in cultural development for there are so few of our political leaders who are,  maybe because they don’t realize that culture itself is the precursor of development. President Aquino, for instance, has all the time to attend a popular Sergio Mendez concert but has no time for any of the presentations at the Cultural Center. Too, the government TV Channel 2 often presents Japanese travelogues and those religious crusaders when such slots should depict our culture, our history.

Sen. Poe once headed the board of censors; she also majored in political science in an American college. She is therefore intellectually equipped to promote culture as political development. I hope she will have time to assist our movie makers not so much as a politician but as the daughter of Fernando Poe Jr. and heir to the legacy left by his very popular father.

I am sorry to say, though, that I never met him. He had typed himself as a macho defender of the wronged and the oppressed. At the very least, I liked one of his pictures very much — that movie with Sharon Cuneta where he played the role of her bodyguard.

The Metro Manila Film Festival has ended and the major prizes went to the film Bonifacio, starring Robin Padilla. I have not seen the film so I cannot comment on it but I have seen similar movies based on our history and historical figures. I have yet to be impressed.

In making judgments about our movies, I will not cite my bonafides as critic. I will just say that movies, domestic and foreign, have fascinated me since childhood to this decrepit age.

In that small town where I was born and where I grew up, the first movies I saw were black and white and silent — the comedies of Charlie Chaplin, the cowboy films of Tom Mix and Bob Steele. Our movie theater was actually a big grain storehouse, a camarin. It had only one projector and after each reel was shown, the lights would be turned on. The love scenes were accompanied by soft melodies played by the town’s four-piece brass band and for the fight and chase scenes, the music was jaunty, the pasa doble.

In the afternoon, I went around the town in a calesa with billboards of the movie on its sides and me beating a bass drum inside. With five other boys, we swept the camarin clean before the screening and after our chores, the manager stamped our palms with red ink — our pass to the movie. Once, forgetting that my palm was already stamped, I went to the creek beside the movie house for a swim. The stamp on my palm was erased and I had difficulty convincing the gate keeper that I was privileged to see the movie.

Then came the movies with sound and the first I saw was Elsa Oria’s Bituing Marikit. Shortly after, in 1938, I went to Manila to attend high school at the Far Eastern University. My fondness for the cinema, American and Filipino, was heightened. From my meager allowance, I saved so I could see a movie every week, not in the expensive first-run, air-conditioned theaters but in the non-air-conditioned second-run theaters which always showed double features.

The first-run, air-conditioned theaters that showed exclusively Philippine movies were the Grand at Rizal Avenue and Life at Quezon Avenue; Life is still there but is no longer a movie house. At Plaza Santa Cruz were the Oro and the Tivoli; they also showed serials like The Drums of Fu Manchu and The Lone Ranger. The first-run theaters that showed only American films were the Ideal, the Avenue and the  at Rizal Avenue and the Lyric and the Capitol at the Escolta. They charged 45 centavos for matinee (9 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and the regular 55 centavos from 2 p.m. to the last full show at 9 p.m.

Close to our accessoria at Rizal Avenue were the second-run theaters, the Apollo near Bambang, the Alegria near Tayuman, and the Noli and the Lotus near Blumentritt.

I saw them all: Norma Blancaflor, Arsenia Francisco, Corazon Noble, Carmen Rosales, Rosa del Rosario, Rogelio dela Rosa and his brother Jaime, Angle Esmeralda, Ely Ramos, Leopoldo Salcedo, and of course, Fernando Poe Sr. Exequiel Segovia who played tough guy roles was a neighbor across the street.

During the Japanese Occupation, without American movies coming in, the first-run movie houses became full house venues for drama wherein some of the movie stars themselves acted in plays that were sometimes adapted into Tagalog from the classics. That was one exhilarating development during the Occupation — the legitimate stage for the masa. I do not think it likely that it will be repeated.

After the war, the movie industry was rehabilitated and was led by three studios: Sampaguita, LVN and Premiere. The old stars who survived the war still shone, and new ones joined them. Sometime in the Fifties, I went with Gerry de Leon to Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur where he directed Sawa Sa Lumang Simboryo starring the young Anita Linda, glamorous and beautiful. I watched de Leon work without a script. He was a super craftsman.

In the Fifties, TD Agcaoili wrote a movie column for the Sunday Time Magazine which I edited; he was succeeded by Cesar Amigo; both of them kept me abreast with the saucy gossip and developments in that netherworld. The Literary Song Movie magazine published the lyrics of the latest song hits as well as news and features on Philippine movies; its editors Vic Generoso and Fred Munoz led in the formation of FAMAS, the association which gave awards to the best in film achievement. The founding members, to the best that I can recall, included the writer D. Paulo Dizon, the poet G. Burce Bunao, the actress Rosa Rosal and myself. We sat through screenings at the studios or Sampaguita in Mandaluyong, and Premiere in Caloocan till the wee hours of morning. We did not get any pay.

I see that FAMAS is still around doing its job, the Manunuri, too, as led by National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera, and Nestor Jardin continues his support for the independent movie makers. I was a juror in this annual activity and was pleased with the innovative approach by several young film makers and at the same time depressed by their avant-garde attempts. I hope that their experimentations emphasize narrative flow and clearer more meaningful photography.

The Metro Manila Film Festival continues to illustrate the fascination of the industry with history and its makers. This is very important particularly for a people with almost no sense of our heroic past. The attempt to recreate this past in film must be done with superior intelligence and tenacious craftsmanship and fidelity to historical fact.

I bring to mind the late Marilou Abayas’s magnum opus on Rizal which was produced some 10 years ago. A fortune was spent on that picture; that lavish expenditure is evident in the costuming, in the period sets but very little attention — I am afraid — was given to the script. The film was a terrible bore; I left the theater after 30 minutes.

All of us know the Rizal story. If the film was intended strictly for a foreign audience that was encountering Rizal for the first time, such an audience can possibly sit through it.  What the script writer should have done was focus on an aspect of Rizal’s life that was affected by tension, depict and dramatize that tension — this is the most important element in storytelling, whether with film or words in a book. Tension is what glues the movie goer to his seat, the reader to the page. It is this tension which, alas, is pitifully absent in so many of the films — commercial or experimental — that are produced by our movie makers today.

Accuracy, too, is an absolute so that those who know history will not complain about the absence of factuality in a film. For instance, this scene in that expensive movie about Aguinaldo, those Filipino soldiers shooting the Americans from behind a bamboo barricade — it never happened that way unless the bamboo barricade was mounted on earthwork. The revolutionaries fought from trenches, and most of those soldiers were barefoot. Only their officers wore boots or shoes. Many of them were not in rayadillo uniform, too; they were in their peasant clothes.

One of our best movie makers today is Brillante Mendoza but even he did not pay much attention to details that would have made his films tighter, the tension heightened, the meaning more pronounced. I am thinking of his earlier films whose titles  I can’t remember;  the Aeta family — it looked more like a dull documentary which should have  been better  through careful editing;  the other is about Cherry Pie Picache  as a surrogate mother to a boy being adopted by  an American family. So many little touches could have made it more poignant.

It is true that digital photography and so many technical advances in equipment have made film production a lot cheaper than what it used to be; at the same time, it is now possible for every house with TV to access movies cheaply and conveniently.

Problems still exist though, aggravated by the lack of incentives for development, the dwindling audience in the movie theaters and theater monopolies. How to break into the market, both international and domestic, is indeed a challenge especially for the independent producer.

More than anything, our movie makers need very good script writers and directors who can successfully translate such scripts visually. We have excellent actors and actresses like Nora Aunor who the President refuses to recognize.

I hope that in the near future, with political leaders like Sen. Grace Poe, our movies and telenovelas will achieve international acceptance. This will be possible with government assistance and if our movie makers themselves are primed to lift the taste of the masa—they deserve a lot more than the cheap commercial slop that is being dished out to them.

The example of Korea whose movies and telenovelas now have global currency is instructive. One, Korea’s film makers have government support, and two, their scripts are not written by pulp writers but by their very best, steeped in the literary classics of Asia and the West.



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