Cinema on martial law

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

A generation after the declaration of the Marcos martial law there is an insidious campaign to rewrite that dark period of Philippine history. Marcos turned the Philippine economy from the second richest in Asia – next to Japan – to the economic “sick man” of Asia at the end of his martial law reign. We are again hearing the Marcosian message that in order to “save” democracy, Marcos had to kill democracy.

Books have been written about martial law; and, the oppression, tortures and human rights violations of that period. Perhaps, for the millennials and the new video-oriented generation, another way of understanding the oppressive environment of that period would be by watching the movies that were made during that period; and the movies about martial law which were produced  after the People Power revolution.

Before martial law, Philippine cinema was dominated by romantic musicals, fantasy movies, komik based films and teenage romances. When Marcos declared martial law, all aspects of mass media – including film – were subjected to political censorship. Guidelines were issued including no attack on corruption or on any action or aspect of government. 

For media and the film industry, it was the worst of times. But, in one strange way the martial law era became also the “best of times” for cinema. Some observers have even said that Philippine cinema reached some kind of artistic peak during the 1970s. It was the flowering of cinema “realism” as directors and scriptwriters sought to depict life under martial law, during the 1970s, while trying to stay away from the clutches of the censors. It was a creative challenge that showcased the best of directors like Lino Brocka, Behn Cervantes, Ishmael Bernal, and Mike de Leon. After the end of the Marcos martial law, several directors came out with movies about that period. There were new names that came out like Chito Rono and Joel Lamangan.

For the millennial generation who want to learn more about the relevant films during the martial law period, I would highly recommend the book Re-viewing Filipino Cinema by Bienvenido Lumbera, National Artist for Literature. I have not seen all the films during and about martial law. But, I remember those that I would highly recommend.

Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag is one of the best Filipino film I have ever seen. It was produced in 1975, at the height of martial law. The film was directed by Lino Brocka, still the best Filipino movie director, based on the novel In the Claw of Darkness by Edgardo M. Reyes. The movie has a simple plot. Julio, a provinciano, arrives in Manila to look for a childhood sweetheart – Ligaya who was lured to the city by a Mrs. Cruz. He finds a job as a construction worker and eventual discovers that Ligaya is working as a prostitute in a brothel. The two meet and plan to escape and return to the province. But Ah-Tek, the brothel owner discovers their plan and causes the death of Ligaya. Joel stalks Ah-Tek and kills him. He is in turn chased by a mob who witnessed the crime and is himself killed.

Because this is the martial law period, symbolism was the creative tool used by directors like Brocka. Julio Madiaga is the Filipino common man trying to patiently eke out a living and resorting to violence out of desperation. Ligaya Paraiso is the Inang Bayan, the Filipino concept of the motherland. Ah-Tek is slang for atik, the Tagalog slang word for cash which symbolizes greed and corruption.

Dekada 70 was produced in 2002 but is about the story of a Filipino family during martial law. The essential story is about Amanda (Vilma Santos) and Julian (Christopher de Leon) who are raising their five sons during the repressive dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. The parents are apolitical but their sons turn to various forms of activism as a result of life under martial law. Eventually, the family becomes the victim of extremist violence and Amanda soon becomes a dissident. The film director was Chito S. Rono.

Sister Stella L. was produced in 1984 when martial law was being publicly challenged on the streets of Metro Manila and all over the Philippines. I remember that when I watched it, I was surprised that Vilma Santos had accepted the role. She was then considered as the most glamorous star of Philippine cinema, and her role in Sister Stella L. was so different from her usual movie roles.

Sister Stella Legaspi is a pacifist religious who is challenged by an older colleague and a concerned journalist to respond to the injustice being perpetrated on a group of factory workers. She leaves the convent to help the workers and to preach the teachings of Christ. She joins the workers in their picket line when they go on strike; and, she begins to identify with them. Then the workers’ leader is abducted, tortured and killed by para-military agents.  Sister Stell L. and the journalist rally the workers and resolve to carry on the fight. 

Perhaps, there should be a Martial Law Film Festival that can showcase all these films. The other movies that I would recommend are Sakada, directed by Behn Cervantes; Batch 81 by Mike de Leon; Bayan Ko, Kapit sa Patalim by Lino Brocka; Eskapo by Chito Rono; Sigwa by Joel Lamangan; and Batas Militar.

There is no question that in today’s digital world, people – students, laborers, rich, poor – prefer film to reading books. Film has become the most powerful means of recreation; but, they can also be a means for education. Film may be the best medium to teach millennials and future generations about the true and unrevised version of Philippine history.

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Young Writers’ Hangout for Kids & Teens on October 7 and October 21 (1:30-3pm/independent sessions). All sessions are at Fully Booked Bonifacio High Street.  For registration and fee details text 0917-6240196 or email [email protected].

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