Filmmaker Gil Portes (1945-2017)

Gil Portes: Loving cinema until the end
Francis Joseph A. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - May 27, 2017 - 4:00pm

MANILA, Philippines - Writing about films is never easy.

It is that misconception that films are just entertainment that grants the vocation some semblance of glamour. It gives an impression that critics are paid to get entertained; that they pass judgment on the industry of hardworking artists who are simply eager to provide the public some form of diversion from their difficult lives. What is usually missed in this analysis is that critics expose their tastes, thoughts and temperaments for all the world to read — they, too, are bound to be judged, not for their stories or fictional characters, but for bearing their souls in evaluating the art of others. They are heckled, called foes by those who just want to go to the movies to have fun. They go to events hoping hope that everybody else — whether movie fans they might have offended with a review or filmmakers who might have endure his film being reduced to a constellation of fancy adjectives that all mean “horrible” — will just be civil.

So there I was with those thoughts on my mind, pretending to be sitting comfortably, laughing as my other co-panelists were spewing jokes just to keep awake while waiting for veteran filmmaker Gil Portes to come in and pitch his movie. It was close to midnight, and we were all tired, but we were also young, or at least younger than the director who has already proved himself a legend with films like ‘Merika (1984), Saranggola (1999) and Mga Munting Tinig (2002). He came in with his trademark hat and cane, and also the biggest smile in the world. He greeted each and every member of the panel, and gave me a compliment on my weight loss. He had every reason to bypass me and treat me with coldness, considering that I had written negatively about his recent features; but instead, he greeted me like a fellow human being, not a critic of his works. Maybe he was just being professional since his next project hinges on our collective approval but still, the gesture of humanity, given his legacy and stature, was reassuring.

What was even more reassuring — and in a way, humbling — was his very presence there.

Portes started his filmmaking career by pitching a story about poor Filipinos entrusting their lives to lotto to a dear friend. He wasn’t a dreamer fresh out of film school. He was already quite accomplished, having directed various drama anthologies and documentaries for television. However, he was still selling his story, perhaps because he knew that if he’d gone the route of major studios back then, he wouldn’t have made his film the way he truly wanted it made. The story he pitched to his friend would eventually become Tiket Mama! Tiket Ale! Sa Linggo ang Bola (1976). He would later on work with Vilma Santos in Miss X (1980), about a sex worker in Amsterdam, with Nora Aunor in ‘Merika, about a disillusioned immigrant in New York City, with Dolphy in Markova: Comfort Gay (2000), about a gay man who suffered under the hands of Japanese oppressors. He made outstanding thespians out of Epi Quizon in Markova: Comfort Gay, Mylene Dizon in Gatas: Sa Dibdib ng Kaaway (2001) and Alessandra de Rossi in Mga Munting Tinig. He gave filmmakers like Adolfo Alix, Jr., Senedy Que and Mike Sandejas their initial experiences in filmmaking. In other words, he can do away with pitching, but there he was, hand in hand with other dreamers decades younger than him, eager to tell his story, hoping that the panel would find it interesting enough to bankroll.

By the time Portes presented, we’d sat through dozens of pitches and witnessed filmmakers fresh off their first or second features visibly expressing impatience and annoyance as we went about asking our questions and expressing our hesitations. Portes, however, was different. He was animated. He was clear in his vision and told his story with infectious passion. He never made us feel that he had been waiting for hours for the opportunity to convince us of his project’s viability. He was a true professional. In that room, where he and his project were to be judged, he was vulnerable but never converted that vulnerability to defensiveness or a stage to grandstand. He knew his place, and that place was the same place where everything started, the place where all he has is a story and a group of people he has to convince.

In many ways, Gil Portes represents the ideal Filipino independent filmmaker.

Despite having had a taste of working for major studios, he still went back to scrambling for funds just to make the films he wanted to make. He is a perennial attendee at almost all indie film screenings, perhaps trying to make sense of how narratives are evolving, perhaps just to imbibe the energy of the youth who are now making a mark in the community that sees him as a stalwart figure, or perhaps just to be a critic of other artists’ works. Whatever his reasons are, he was there, and his presence, his devotion of one or so hours of his twilight years to watching films that aren’t his is a beautiful reminder that while not all films are made equal, while we are all seated together in the dark, basking under its light, we, whether we’re filmmakers, critics or just moviegoers who want to escape to a world where his problems are distant, are ell equal, all beholden to our love for cinema.

Gil Portes watched cinema until the wee hours of the morning. He made cinema until he no longer couldn’t. I don’t think it will be far-fetched to claim that he truly loved cinema. If only for that reminder to continue loving cinema for whatever it is and whatever it will become, when we also have to pave the way for those younger than us: thank you.

 

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