NEW YORK CITY—The last week of October was quite a week, with cultural fare that provided a fitting climax to Filipino American History Month. Among them were the weeklong screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, of Lino Brocka’s powerful classic “Insiang,” in its restored version undertaken by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata; the nationwide (though limited) release of “Heneral Luna”; and “Voicing the Ancestral Sacred,” a concert featuring Grace Nono and an ensemble of musicians and composers at the Asia Society.
Brocka’s work, with a screenplay by Mario O’Hara and Lamberto Antonio, was released in 1976, often described as the annus mirabilis of Philippine cinema. Not for the fainthearted, the film tells the story of a twisted ménage a trois set in the slums of Manila. With its themes of betrayal, revenge, and endemic desperation, “Insiang” looks unflinchingly at the social conditions that underscore the lives of the dispossessed. With a tight acting ensemble that features the veteran Mona Lisa, the luminous Hilda Koronel, and a surprisingly convincing Ruel Vernal, the film is well within the neo-realist tradition, not one to have warmed the cockles of Imelda Marcos’ heart, the wife and partner of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. As the once and future czarina of the republic, Imelda had ambitious plans to have Manila host an annual film festival to rival those at Cannes and Tokyo.
Unfortunately, her views on what Philippine film should be tended towards the propagandistic and the sentimental. Her favorite flick was said to be “The Sound of Music.” She believed that Philippine films should inspire its viewers to want to become Filipino just as seeing the Trapp family traipsing through the Alps made us all want to be wholesome, ruddy cheeked Westerners. No one viewing “Insiang” will likely wish to traipse through garbage landfills such as Smokey Mountain or the fetid alleys of Manila’s slums. Almost 40 years since its release, Insiang still hits you in the gut, especially with that stunning slaughterhouse scene that opens the film. Brocka was unrivalled in his unflinching yet compassionate portrayals of the poor and the powerless.
“Heneral Luna,” directed by Jerrold Tarog and reportedly the highest grossing Philippine film with a historical theme, is the official Philippine entry to the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Should it be accorded that honor, it will constitute yet another milestone for the film. Produced by the indie outfit Artikulo Uno, “Heneral Luna,” (my late brother Henry was one of the screenwriters) has generated a lot of buzz, most of it positive. Even the few negative takes indicate that it’s spurred quite a bit of discussion and debate not just on the film’s historical context but on its indictment of contemporary Philippine society—issues completely absent from the otherwise modestly favorable New York Times review.
As part of a series of programs around the Asia Society’s ongoing “Philippine Gold” exhibition (well worth viewing), “Voicing the Ancestral Sacred” put the spotlight on traditional chants from different regions of the archipelago, from Maguindanao and Lake Sebu to Bukidnon and Agusan, from Manila and Bulacan to Kalinga and Cagayan, from the Bicol provinces to Palawan. Studying and recording these chants has been Grace Nono’s mission for so many years—she has a doctorate in ethnomusicology from New York University.
The chants constitute a priceless repository of tradition and tribal history, part of the lifeblood of diverse peoples and in danger of being forgotten in today’s increasingly homogenous planet. The evening’s performances brought together the multi-instrumentalist and Manileño Bo Razon, Faisal Monal from Sultan Kudarat on the kulintang, Charles Wandag from the Kalinga highlands on the lute and gongs, and Nono, who uses her voice the way a skilled muezzin issues the call to daily prayer. Interspersed with each skilled musician recounting how he or she learned their art and craft, with slides of their respective teachers projected on a screen, the chants ranged from the mournful to the celebratory and meditative.
The night ended with the gong ensemble of the Cordilleran BIBAK (Benguet, Ifugao, Bontoc, Apayao, Kalinga) coming onstage and leading performers and audience alike in a rousing finale. In music, vita et veritas.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2015
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