The Artist Abroad

One sings, the other mourns

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New York— In its 36th edition, the just concluded Asian American International Film Festival had a number of Philippine and Filipino-American features, including Marilou Diaz-Abaya: Filmmaker on a Voyage, a documentary on the late director by Mona Lisa Yuchengco, and Diaz Abaya’s 1983 feature, Karnal.  The past few years I had been out of the country during the festival but this time I managed to see Benito Bautista’s Harana and Loy Arcenas’s Requieme. The former, a documentary, centers on four musicians: the Bay Area-based classical-guitarist Florante Aguilar, and three heretofore obscure haranistas—Felipe Alonzo, Romeo Bergunio, and Celestino Aniel. The three are practitioners of the traditional form of courtship that, like so many folk practices, is fast disappearing. Arcenas’s dramatic feature is loosely based on the real-life sordid story of Andrew Cunanan, the gay Filipino-American who went on a killing spree in 1997, tallying six murders, including the fashion designer Gianni Versace, before committing suicide in a Miami houseboat.

Way before karaoke, way before texting, e-mail, Twitter, and other electronic modes of chatter, there was harana, a genteel way of manliligaw, or romancing. Like the troubadour of medieval Europe, the haranista would court a young maiden with his singing, either with a guitarist or himself playing the instrument, and invariably accompanied by a couple of his barkada. In the evening, the young man, with his entourage, would visit the home of the lady, and there, outside her window, sing carefully chosen romantic ballads, including kundiman, meant to beguile her into not just opening her the window (the damsel looking on from her ivory tower), but invite them into the house for some refreshments and genteel flirting—all under the watchful eyes of the parents.

In part a voyage to rediscover his own cultural roots, after returning home to bury his father, Aguilar, who had been living and studying classical guitar in the U.S., sought to find men for whom harana was not just a youthful avocation but something they continued to, if not court, sing the songs they knew by heart, even as they labored to earn their daily bread—or rice. After informally auditioning a number of haranistas in the provinces, Aguilar finally picked these three senior citizens for their musicianship.

All three are salt of the earth. Not surprising, given its rural roots and its popularity during its heyday among the peasantry and the working class. (I don’t ever recall ever seeing haranistas in Manila. I do recall tagging along on a few occasions with friends of my older brothers, when they did go a-courting in a small town in Laguna.) The oldest is Alonzo, an Ilocano from Vigan who, in his mid-70s, still earns a living as a tricycle driver. Aniel, a farmer, and Bergunio, a fisherman are in their 60s and from Cavite. Three very different personalities: Alonzo, a guitarist and a singer, whom I found the most soulful, has a quiet demeanor; Bergunio is chatty, expansive; and Aniel, a no-nonsense kind of guy, projects a world weariness.

Each tells his story, of wooing village lasses, winning small-town competitions and practicing their far-from-sullen art even though there was no money in it.  While their stories provide the film with its dramatic material, the much-younger Aguilar is the catalyst and shares some of the spotlight: by turns he becomes their musical arranger, booker, interviewer, and confidant. One evening, he plays in front of a street crowd in Tondo. In the background one can glimpse a statue of Macario Sakay, a general in the Philippine Revolution who was from Tondo and a member of a wandering theatrical troupe before joining the revolution of 1896. Aptly enough, a young man in the crowd requests Aguilar to sing Bayan Ko. He does, and the crowd joins in the singing.  It’s a moving scene, as are the informal musical sessions the three haranistas have with themselves and other haranistas. The Harana Kings, as they call themselves—their first CD is titled Introducing the Harana Kings, with Michael Dadap, the well-known classical guitarist, as a special guest on some tracks—give a concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines and in California as well. None of the three ever dreamt that their devotion to this lyrical and all-but-extinct form would bring them to audiences far larger than their hometown audiences.

The documentary is a moving work, one that will tug at your heartstrings. By no means sentimental (well, perhaps a touch) or mawkish, Bautista’s film has a restraint that allows the silences to emerge, the unspoken truths of hard lives all three have led. None of them are bitter or wallow in self-pity and each is content with what life has handed them, giving their lives a simplicity that is enviable.

Requieme (according to program notes, a play on “requiem” and “kyeme,” gay slang for “a gentle f**k you”) revolves around three deaths—two of Filipinos overseas, and the third, of an old shoe repairer in a working class neighborhood somewhere in metro Manila. As played out on TV news, the corpse of an OFW keeps getting sent to the wrong country by hopelessly inefficient airline, much to the dismay of the grieving widow—and our (guilty) laughter. Likewise, that of the Cunanan-like killer never arrives, as his mother is unable to claim the body for fear of being deported. She is an undocumented foreigner in the U.S. (a TnT: Tago ng Tago, or “perpetually in hiding”). It turns out he and the mother are kin to a local barangay captain, who decides to hold a wake for him, complete with empty casket, ostensibly to boost her chances in an upcoming local election, but as the film progresses, it’s clear that this staged funeral is her way of mourning the disappearance of her gay son—who, spoiler alert, happens to be very much alive and involved in taking care of the shoe repairer’s funeral.

Well-acted and set at a brisk pace, Arcenas’s film, with a script by Roddy Vera, explores the intersections of sexuality and gender identity, the plight of overseas workers, the strength and depth of kinship ties, and the rituals that make of neighborhoods in an urban locale small towns, after all. Quite different from Harana but equally worth seeing.

Copyright L.H.Francia 2013

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