May 19, 2008, Monday, was the third death anniversary of Pilar Brocka, the mother of internationally acclaimed Filipino director Lino Brocka.
Tomorrow, May 22, 2008, is the 17th death anniversary of Lino himself.
To commemorate these events, I am posting a storyline that I wrote sometime in 1998, seven years after Lino died. This was written “on spec” (as we say in the biz, meaning, with no down payment), and was commissioned by an Asian-American festival organizer. The film, meant for international release, never got made.
Ka Pete, screenwriter, with Lino Brocka in Cannes, 1989,
when Orapronobis (Les insoumis in the French-subtitled version),
was shown out of competition.
I'm not sure now, though, if this photo was taken in Paris,
outside a theater where the film was shown commercially.
Jose F. Lacaba
WE COULD START with the car accident in 1991. On a deserted, dimly lit city road sometime after midnight, a speeding car swerves to avoid hitting a motorized tricycle that has suddenly materialized from a side street, and crashes into a lamppost. The tricycle disappears where it came from, but a passing car stops and its passengers pull out the accident victims. The man in the front passenger’s seat is obviously dead. The good Samaritans recognize him: “It’s Lino Brocka.”
Flashback to 1977. Lino Brocka, 38, is recognized as the preeminent film director of his generation. He is a child of the commercial film industry, but in the past three years he has been rebelling against the industry—and often succeeding, making highly personal low-budget independent films that have won both critical and box-office acclaim.
This same year, a Frenchman whom we shall call Jean-Paul, a sometime film director who unofficially serves as talent scout for various European film festivals, currently on the lookout for Third World and especially Asian films, comes to Manila and sees Lino’s latest picture, Insiang. The subsequent showing of the film in the Director’s Fortnight of the Cannes filmfest marks the beginning of Lino Brocka’s cult following in the festival circuit.
It is during his colorful interviews with the international press that we get glimpses of Lino’s background: he was born out of wedlock; his father got murdered by political enemies; his mother, a schoolteacher, was forced to work as a taxi dancer to support her two sons; as a boy he sold food and flowers in the streets, and sang and danced to attract customers; as a young man fresh out of college he joined the Mormons and was assigned to a leper colony in Hawaii; on his return home he worked as script supervisor on American B movies made in the Philippines.
Insiang’s Cannes premiere is also the beginning of a stormy relationship between Lino and Jean-Paul, who becomes both Pygmalion and Svengali to his “discovery.” In the next dozen years, Jean-Paul will be instrumental in bringing more than a dozen of Lino’s work to international film festivals and to the attention of international film critics. His enthusiasm for Lino’s films is undeniable. But at the same time Jean-Paul, ethnocentric despite his cosmopolitanism, wants to make sure the Brocka films will be acceptable to Western tastes. One condition for international exposure is for the films—originally made for the Filipino mass audience of peasants and proles (the Filipino elite at this time prefers Hollywood productions)—to be re-edited, trimmed to manageable length to make their pace less leisurely, and even to be re-scored, if the music is thought to be much too exotic or nativistic. On a number of occasions, Jean-Paul does the re-editing himself.
IN THE BEGINNING LINO COMPLIES with Jean-Paul’s wishes without question. Surprised, but flattered, by the international interest in his films, he is grateful to Jean-Paul for making that interest possible. Towards the end, however, already a veteran of international film festivals where he meets other directors from West and East, North and South, he begins to agonize over and be angered by the neocolonial implications of his pliancy. He is struck by something an African film director says at an international film conference: “The Western critics complain about the slow pace of my films. But what you see in my films is the pace of my country. It is the pace of Africa today.”
Lino’s international success also puts him on a collision course with the Philippine government. It is a time of martial law. When Lino’s films are shown in Cannes and in other festivals, the international film community gets to see the Manila slums that the Marcos dictatorship has taken pains to keep literally hidden behind high wooden fences, away from the prying eyes of tourists and foreign investors. Imelda Marcos, who is not only the First Lady of the country but also the governor of Metro Manila, summons Lino to Malacañang Palace, upbraids him for his obsession with slum dwellers, and urges him to make films about “the true, the good and the beautiful.” Lino agrees to direct a segment of a government-produced film about Philippine history; the film is never shown.
In 1980 Lino has a second entry in Cannes—Jaguar, the first Filipino film to be entered in competition, and perhaps the first to show the enormous garbage dump in Manila that would come to be known as Smokey Mountain. To divert attention from the film, Imelda dispatches a delegation to Cannes. It hosts a lavish “Philippine night” to which Lino is not invited, and in which Jaguar is not once mentioned. The following year, to counter the impact that Lino’s films have made in France, Imelda establishes the Manila International Film Festival. Workers rushing to build the Manila Film Palace get buried in quick-drying cement when a part of the faulty structure collapses. In order not to delay the filmfest opening, the dead are left buried in the cement; exposed limbs and torsos are simply sawed off. Afterwards, Catholic priests and shamans of ancient native religions perform exorcism rites in the film palace.
At first Lino’s resistance to the dictatorship takes the form of opposition to film and media censorship. But increasingly he is drawn to overtly political protest, joining demonstrations and organizing concerned artists against secret Marcos decrees that impose the death penalty on anyone joining anti-government demonstrations. For Lino, this is a time of living dangerously. But he is also a bundle of contradictions, and his new militancy is a source of some amusement to his associates in the theater group that he heads. They remember that not too long ago he launched a witch hunt against presumed leftists setting up clandestine anti-government cells within the theater group.
Lino’s political activity does not stop him from making movies. He is a prolific director, on two occasions making as many as five pictures a year. When his own film company goes under as a result of litigation, he evolves a strategy for survival in the highly commercial industry. He makes the box-office formula hits that the producers want him to do, always bringing them in on time and on budget. In exchange, he gets a chance to work on his own projects every now and then, taking a cut in his fee whenever necessary.
In his films he often lashes out at hypocrisy, and in his personal life he begins to shed his inhibitions and comes out of the closet. During the making of a documentary on his life, he openly proclaims his gayness for the first time. On a visit to the States, a Filipino friend of his who has contacted AIDS dies in his arms. Fearing for his life, Lino has himself tested. He gets a clean bill of health. That does not stop him, when he comes home, from frequenting the gay bars where he discovers a “macho dancer” whom he recruits into the movies. Perhaps he becomes this young man’s lover. It is this young man who is driving the car in which Lino dies.
When the exiled politician Ninoy Aquino decides to come home, Lino joins demonstrators who defy a government ban by welcoming Aquino at the airport. Lino is thus one of the very first to find out that Aquino has been assassinated—shot dead by government troops while coming down from the plane. With the Aquino assassination, the country explodes. So does Lino. Practically every day there are massive protest actions in which tens of thousands take part, and Lino is in the thick of them, delivering incendiary speeches, being tear-gassed and bludgeoned by the riot police, finally being arrested during a transport strike and incarcerated for a couple of months. Actual demonstrations are incorporated in Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (My Country: In Desperate Straits), another Brocka film that makes it to Cannes in the competition category, and government censors pounce on the film, banning it from exhibition for a number of reasons. Lino goes all the way to the Supreme Court to fight for his film, and in November of 1985, more than a year after its Cannes premiere, the Filipino audience finally gets to see it.
By this time the Marcos dictatorship is on the verge of disintegration. Barely three months later, in February of 1986, a fraudulent election encourages a military mutiny, which in turn triggers a peaceful popular uprising in which nuns stop tanks with nothing more than rosaries and flowers. Lino rushes to the barricades without hesitation. On the fourth day of the festive uprising, the dictatorship falls. Lino and his gay confreres dance in the streets.
Throughout all this, we continue to show developments in what is getting to be a love-hate relationship between Lino and Jean-Paul. There comes a point in the relationship when the Frenchman intervenes even in his protégé’s political and personal life. Wanting to cement Brocka’s reputation as a world-class director, Jean-Paul urges Lino to slow down on his political activism and cut down on his night life and concentrate on his filmmaking. There is a shouting match, and for a time Lino refuses to talk to Jean-Paul. But after the revolution, things are patched up, and Lino—who has been appointed to the Constitutional Commission by the new government of Corazon Aquino—agrees to do a film project brokered by Jean-Paul, who conceives it as the vehicle for getting Lino the long-awaited top honors at the Cannes filmfest.
BY THE TIME THE PROJECT gets going, Lino has become disenchanted with the new government he fought for. He resigns from the Constitutional Commission when he realizes it is dominated by unreconstructed landlords, loggers, militarists and the old political elite, who are working mightily to restore the oligarchic status quo ante instead of moving forward to greater democratization. Soon after, he is helping refugees displaced from a southern province by paramilitary vigilantes, getting them sanctuaries in Manila. He gets the shock of his life when one of the refugees, a woman he is escorting, is abducted right outside the Supreme Court, apparently by government agents. Lino’s disenchantment is evident in the film he makes at this time, known in the Philippines as Orapronobis. The making of this film also marks his final break with Jean-Paul.
Although shot entirely in the Philippines, Orapronobis is financed by a French company, and Jean-Paul serves as line producer, film editor, and script adviser. In this role, he intervenes in various aspects of production, ordering Lino to re-shoot scenes or replace actors, making suggestions about camera angles. Lino reaches his breaking point, yelling at Jean-Paul: “Stop making your film! This is my film!” Lino prevails upon the French producers to fire Jean-Paul. But the Frenchman, whose influence in Cannes Lino has underestimated, has the last word. Orapronobis is placed in a special out-of-competition category; Lino is therefore not in contention for any award. The Golden Palm goes to sex, lies and videotape.
The interaction of First World and Third World, colonizing power and colonial subject, is one of the main themes that could be explored in telling the story of the relationship between Lino and Jean-Paul. It is not a simplistic relationship of exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed, because the native is victim and beneficiary at one and the same time, the foreigner is bully and benefactor at one and the same time, and both are consciously using and manipulating each other for each one’s personal interests and ambitions. (In a reversal of the colonial paradigm, Lino at one point even secures Philippine financing for a made-in-the-Philippines art film written and directed by Jean-Paul, who apparently cannot obtain financing for his personal projects in his own country.) At the same time, a genuine personal friendship does develop between the Pygmalion and his Galatea, before it turns sour in the end.
In the end we return to 1991. Mourners are pouring into a small university chapel and filing past Lino’s coffin to pay their last respects, the way they did when Ninoy Aquino lay in state in a cathedral. Weeping movie extras put up a streamer saying that with Lino’s death they have lost their foremost defender, the man who made sure they got fed and paid on time. Film superstars mingle with political activists. The gay community comes to the wake in full force, and the armed underground Left sends a message extolling Lino’s courage and his contribution to the liberation struggle. The supreme irony, however, is that Imelda Marcos sends flowers, but Cory Aquino, who has never forgiven Lino for walking out of her Constitutional Commission, does not.
The funeral march is a long one. It is almost like a protest march. The mourners are singing the protest song “Bayan Ko” (My Country).