Friday, July 22, 2011


I had a good week. I spent most of my weekdays inside the various venues converted into screening rooms at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. This week I was not a filmmaker: I played the role I love best. I became a movie fan.  Better yet, I partook of a feast.  That is the celebration of the best of Filipino cinema today.

To those harbingers who make pronouncements that Filipino cinema is dead, the Seventh Cinemalaya Film Festival did not only prove them wrong but rather asserted that it very much alive but reinventing its form and content.  

For those who still believe that the Filipino filmmaker is not worth the P150 to P300 spent on movie tickets, we care not to argue.  

Yes, there is happiness in wearing 3-D glasses and enjoying the spectacle of First World cinema technology.  But that is tantamount to a thrill ride, similar to a significant human experience obtained from a few minutes on a roller coaster. It is a reassurance that we are living in the 21st century with all the gimmickry and gadgetry defining our quality of existence.

To each his own: we have distinct definitions of happiness. Cinema should offer wide enough a range to cater to a spectrum of appetites. There should be enough room to appreciate Tilda Swinton in I am Love as well as Kristin Stewart in the Twilight franchise. Inasmuch as there should also be room to shriek in ecstasy watching romantic comedies as leave room for the gasp in watching films like Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang or Himala. There should be room and choices for everybody. The imbalance arises when only a specific kind of movie becomes the staple diet for everyone. This is when the audiences start looking for better options --- and the operative word is choice.

Deprive people of choice and they will lose faith in what you can and have to offer all together. Apparently that is what happened to mainstream or commercial filmmaking in the Philippines for the past five years. We have simply been deprived of choices.

But that seems to be slowly changing. What is significant about the emergent Filipino cinema is that the boundaries between independent and mainstream filmmaking are slowly dissolving.  

The astounding attendance of Cinemalaya screenings this year --- extended to two movie houses in Greenbelt --- manifest widening patronage that was once assumed to be an insignificant niche audience.  Suddenly, you do not only see ComArts students required by their professors, cinema buffs and Pilosopong Tasyos, or even members of that small yet loquacious community of indie filmmakers crowding the main lobby as well as the venues outside the Little Theater and Huseng Batute at the CCP.  Now you have everyday people who literally went out of their ways to go to Roxas Bouleavard to watch these films.

Much to everyone's surprise and jubilation, 90% of the tickets were sold for most of the screenings, including the ones at Greenbelt.  Two New Breed entries, Marlon Rivera's Ang Babae sa Septic Tank and Erick Salud's Ligo Na U, Lapit na Me were running on sold-out theaters so much so that Cinemalaya had to accommodate extra screenings just to fill out the unwavering demand.  

Now is that not reason to celebrate?  OK, admittedly Ang Babae sa Septic Tank --- the biggest hit of the festival --- is a showcase of the comic genius of an actress named Eugene Domingo. Her marquee value alone can fill up any theater after proving her worth through years of dedication and determination. Even in the mainstream scene, Eugene Domingo is already an A-Lister.  Adding the sharpness of wit in Chris Martinez' script and the impressive directorial debut of Marlon Rivera, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank is one kind of indie movie that is shamelessly and definitely commercial without insulting the intelligence of its audience or pandering to the law of the least common denominator in taste. 

For Eugene Domingo, like Cherry Pie Picache, Tessie Tomas, Mark Gil, Alfred Vargas, Marvin Agustin and other dedicated performers, Cinemalaya has become a venue to push their craft so much further than what is permissible in mainstream cinema --- or, God forbid, telenovelas. As one of these actors bluntly put it, appearing in an indie movie (yes, even with that exaggerated metaphor of being fed only Skyflakes and cat food)is an act of liberation ... if not affirmation that they have talent beyond autopilot acting required from other venues.

But consider Ligo na U that stars an extremely competent but underutilized Edgar Allan Guzman and an indie darling named Mercedes Cabral. Here is an example of a movie that allegedly cost only P1.8M and has become the second highest grossing Cinemalaya entry this year.  Based on a novel by Eros S. Atalia, Ligo na U did not depend on a major star to give wind to its sails. Rather, it is the strength of the material, the crispness of the script and upbeat direction that has sold this movie to the audience it was targeted to entertain.

The bottomline is: with a good material, great script and direction ... the star value becomes peripheral if not incidental. The real star of the film is the film.

Then consider two of the best movies among the New Breed Section: Lawrence Fajardo's Amok and Loy Arcenas' Nino.

There is absolutely no way that any commercial producer, regardless of lofty intentions and messianic delusions, will ever invest their money in movies such as these.  

Why? Because focus groups will allegedly not understand and therefore not give high scores to ensemble pieces whether they take place in the busiest corner of EDSA and Taft Avenue or especially in an old decaying residence of an age lost and irretrievable. Why? Because neither movies fall within the template of what is considered commercially viable or that pre-conceived recipe for a project to have strong chances of being a box office hit.

But these two films represent the best of what Cinemalaya had to offer this year.  Fajardo's Amok is a marvel of filmmaking, rich in its grit and never sensationalizing its subject matter in observing an orchestra of characters moving around a busy urban intersection.  Amok never went the route of poverty porn --- the kind so wonderfully spoofed by Babae sa Septic Tank --- that has characterized the trademark of Pang-international Filmfest Ito!  Instead, this complex and intricate ensemble piece is so beautifully acted by well-honed actors especially Mark Gil and Dido de la Paz who deliver performances with such rawness and courage. Bravo!

Then there is Nino, Loy Arcenas' eulogy to the death of an age of manners and propriety, an epilogue to the Filipino delicadeza and amor propio as he studies the final blows in the deterioration of once respected but now highly dysfunctional family.  Whereas Amok is about grit, Nino is all about gentility ... about culture.  Whereas Amok reeks of the rap music being sung by young boys peddling their cigarettes and candies in the streets, Nino is about a faded opera singer --- wonderfully portrayed by Fides Cuyugan-Asencio --- as she musters all her courage to sustain herself while being completely aware that she has outlived her use. I am so ... overwhelmed.

Where else but in Cinemalaya can you get such a joy to watch two films such as these?  Where else but in this festival of independent films can we assure ourselves that ... yes, Filipino film is still alive and reinventing itself in a language that has always been understood but never quite spoken because of blatant obsession for commercialism.

Where else but in Cinemalaya can you get to watch a film as lyrical as Aureus Solito's Busong or discover that Rocco Nacino and Paolo Avelino are such promising young actors in Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa whereas you tend to dismiss them as beefcake and pretty boys on tv?  Where else but in a festival such as this can you find brilliant performances by Art Acuna, Sharmaine Centenera-Buencamino and Raquel Villavicencio in Nino, Cherry Pie Picache and Bembol Roco in Adolf Alix's Isda, or JM de Guzman and Kean Cipriano in Babae sa Septic Tank?

Where else can I be assured that there is an entire generation of new, brave and brilliant filmmakers just waiting in the wings to bring Filipino cinema to new heights?

There is only one true Filipino film festival ... and it is called Cinemalaya.  And that is why I am ecstatic. That is why I am celebrating.

Friday, July 15, 2011


The rains were relentless last Saturday.  But that did not hinder the friends to gather around his bedside at Medical City.  He checked in the day before and was supposed to leave Sunday to go back to the Villa but the doctors asked him to remain for another day for more procedures.

The friends have made arrangements to proceed to the hospital in the early afternoon.  And we all came, somewhat surprised to find other pals there to share the visiting hours with our ailing buddy.  

We were warned by those who saw him earlier that his looks revealed his sad condition.  We were told to brace ourselves because his features were so different now.  The sickness had practically drained him of his life.

We were also told by another friend, his cousin, that the doctors have already stated that there was nothing more humanly possible that can be done. It was only a matter of time.  And that was why we all gathered in that hospital room that rainy Saturday afternoon. 

We were aware that our time together with him was coming to an end. We wanted to be there to assure him that we were all there for him. 

So it was not surprising that we suddenly filled the room with so much chatter and laughter. We all agreed that this was going to be a happy occasion ... a get-together that so resembled the many we have had in the past under better circumstances.  Tears were not allowed. Not in front of him.

He looked at us from his bed and tried his best to give his reactions and join the conversation. But for most of the time he was listening ... and watching ... and looking at us ... and smiling. He was staring at each and every one of us, as if trying to recollect all the memories shared through years together.

Yes, he lost so much weight. Yes, he complained about the helplessness that accompanies such a fatal ailment so much so that it has been called "the emperor of maladies."  And yes, he was weak ... when he spoke, his voice was much softer ... and not the booming sound that he usually made whenever he wanted to emphasize a point. But there was still much life in him: ever so sharp, so attentive and in control. For that was him.  That was all of him.

Don Escudero has always been the biggest man in any room. He is the giant of my life.

The first time I met him was when I transferred to De la Salle College and landed in Section 5-C.  Don was also in that class. By the time he was in the Fifth Grade, he must have been about five feet eight inches tall. La Salle had a policy that time that we all had to wear khaki shorts until we reached Grade Seven.  That was the only time we were allowed to wear long pants. So Don was this giant among us in short pants.

But even then he was the gentlest of all the kids I have met.  

Whereas everybody was obsessed reading comic books, Don was already discussing Tolkien. Yes, even before Frodo and the Hobbits became fashionable, Don was already devouring such literary works with great gusto.  He was into CS Lewis, he was into history. He was into music ... he was into anthropology. He came from a family that did not only cherish but breathed refinement and culture.  And Don was the inevitable heir apparent.

Despite his size, Don never took advantage of anybody.  He never considered his social station, intellectual or even physical prowess as a reason to belittle others or assert what he wanted. He was, indeed, the Gentle Giant.

He held a big birthday party some time around the last week of January of this year.  He called the event Alive at 55.  At that time, we were not certain about the state of his health although some friends whispered that the cancer had actually undergone metathesis. 

It was almost two years since we heard the news that he was diagnosed with that most dreaded ailment.  The friends gathered around him at that time giving him moral support and encouraging him to give a good fight. His family had always rallied behind him --- so we were sure he was going to go to the battle with head up high and immeasurable determination.  He could draw strength from so many sources.

For a while we believed that the cancer went into remission.  

We were jubilant.  We have known people who have also been diagnosed with the sickness and have survived.  We were certain he was going to be one of them. We could not imagine how his life could be so shortened whereas there were still so many things he wanted to do ... and more he had yet to do. 

Even when he opted to leave the entertainment industry behind to take care of the business of running the villa and resort, he already boasted of achievements that are still unmatched and would find great difficulty to equal until today.  

For how can the history of Filipino cinema be discussed without his brilliant production design of Oro, Plata, Mata or Scorpio Nights or Once Upon a Time?  With Peque Gallaga as director, his visual genius outshone all the others in his field because his was intelligence, scholarship and inherent taste that could not be acquired through workshops or mere posturing.

We were friends all throughout high school and found ourselves together for most of the time in college.

We were both members of the De la Salle Dramatics Guild: I remember Don in a Michel de Ghelderode play, Pantagleize where I was supposed to be a member of the cast but had to back out.  We were more bonded together because of the ComArts program together with Manny Castaneda: I was about to graduate when the program opened in La Salle with Clodualdo del Mundo Jr. I remember finishing all my remaining electives in ComArts courses where we were also joined by the first batch of coeds including Benggot Pe Benito.  

Oh, yes, there was a cross-enrolled student from Saint Paul's College who was beautiful, prim, proper and exceptionally quiet. She sat right behind us in Del Mundo's classes: her name was Charo Santos.

So it was not surprising that after college, we all ended up in the "Industry."  

I got my break to write the screenplay of Oro, Plata, Mata because of Don Escudero.  It was he who brought me to Peque Gallaga so that I can flesh out this beautiful story that Gallaga had as an outline.  If it were not for Don, my professional reputation as a screenwriter would not have been sealed. It was through this friend of mine that I gained the momentum to launch my career as a screenwriter.

Manny Castaneda and I left the hospital at about 5:30 PM.  There were still other friends who remained in the room to keep him company. Tats Manahan and Manuel Genato practically gave all their available hours to be with him since he took a turn for the worse.

As I was about to leave, I gave him that usual wave and said, "You take care!" He was supposed to go back to the Villa the following day.

Just last Sunday I sent him a text message: I apologized for all that noise in his hospital room. I said that we were a bit too rowdy for comfort.  But he replied: "Loved every second of it." I also told him that if he going back to the hospital this week that I would visit him again. He said he would like that.  

I knew he was so happy that his friends were with him and filled that room with such beautiful cacophony.

Don was with me in Berlin to attend the screening of Toro (Live Show) for the Berlinale.  Being part of our production company, Available Light, Don took care of the subtitling of the movie in Amsterdam before proceeding to Germany to join me and the other members of the delegation for the showing of our movie.

That was perhaps one of the happiest times of our lives. Don and I rode the limousine to go to Pottsdamer Platz to attend the premiere screening of the movie. I was not myself, practically dazed out of my wits with what was happening to us. When we boarded the limousine provided by the festival to go to the venue, Don said, "Do you know we are riding the most expensive Mercedes Benz car there is?" I looked at Don and said, "Really?"  And he said, "Yeah, really."  And we both laughed.

Don Escudero was also beside me when we marched down Mendiola condemning the Arroyo administration's banning of Live Show. He was by my side, together with other directors from the Directors Guild of the Philippines, who chose to come to my defense.  

Don never left my side ... from moments in heaven ... down to the challenges of hell. How many of us can boast of having friends like that?

Last Monday evening I received word that he was not allowed to leave the hospital to go home to the Villa.  He took a turn for the worse. No, it was the worst.  In so many words, my friend was dying.

It was much too soon, much too fast. We were back at the hospital. We knew that it was only a matter of hours. And we all said our prayers and our goodbyes.

We could not explain why the deterioration was so fast. It was only two days ago that he was still laughing with us. That afternoon, he was still entertaining friends and --- yes, talking about one of his favorite songs, "Shiver Me Timbers" as interpreted by Bette Midler.  He was still in control, making decisions as to what kind of respiratory aid he wanted. 

Tats Manahan said this was an answer to all our prayers. We did not want him to suffer. We did not want him to go through what we heard are the horrors that cancer victims undergo during the last leg of the battle.  And God answered our prayers: He took him home with much less pain than we all feared he would encounter.

When he left, he was surrounded by the family who adored him and who he loved so much ... and the friends who loved him so greatly.

Tomorrow, we shall say our final goodbyes to our friend.

It hurts. It hurts to say goodbye to someone who has become so much a part of your life ... who was there in each and every step of growing up, becoming who you are ... and eventually settling for the terms of what is called life.

It hurts when you think that he is no longer a phone call ... or a text message away.  It hurts when you suddenly feel this gap, this space in your life. It is like having a tooth extracted ... and suddenly there is this hole in your gums.  You know one day the pain will go away but the gap will remain ... and nothing real can ever fill it again.

But then ... we all must let go ... not to forget but to remember. Remember Don's life in celebration, remember him for all that he was to us.  

As I always said ... before Google, there was Don Escudero, who knew everything.

Don has always been the biggest man in any room.  And his bigness has got nothing to do with his physical size. It has everything to do with his mind ... but more so, his heart. That is why many will miss him ... and he will always be remembered as the Giant who taught us how to be gentle ... and genteel.

Goodbye, Don.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Deadma: (n) a bastardized translation of a Filipino idiom patay malisiya. Referring to the practice of deliberately, consciously if not maliciously ignoring an individual or a group in order to  a) avoid a confrontation, b) express disgust, dismay or feelings approximating such  or c) refusing to accept responsibility for consequences, repercussions or implications if and when a face-to-face situation takes.  Can also be used as a verb to put into action definition given above.

Filipinos are fond of deadma.  As a matter of fact, some have even turned it into an art.  I will admit that I am one of the masters of deadma.  I can enter a room full of people and zero in on a specific creature who I have resolved never to have anything to do in this present reincarnation. Having focused on such a sad life form in a venue where I am expected to embody finesse and even attempts at sophistication, I would rather turn on my deadma mode than be a drama queen.

Besides, there is a certain cheapness --- a contrived kind of unspeakable (but very printable and You-Tube-able) vulgarity in being a drama queen ... most especially when there are pairs of eyes focused on you and waiting for your explosion.  Given the option to make a spectacle of myself (which I am capable of doing if properly provoked or under the influence of tequila) or to do a very good impersonation of Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestley, I choose the higher road.  That is when the art of deadma approximates being educated and not susceptible for blind item discussion in tv shows like Juicy.

But in a business like show business (like no other business), deadma goes beyond the art of creative bitching.  It has become a work practice, a standard which has become acceptable not out of choice but because you can't do anything about it ...except get a lawyer.

Deadma in show business comes in various shapes and sizes --- and is practiced by everyone from the lowest of ranks to the demigods and demigoddesses whose sense of aesthetics have become the barometers of Philippine popular culture today.  Deadma can come in various forms --- and with various reasons --- again ranging from the most predictably basic (i.e., stupidity and bad manners) to the most incredibly contrived (i.e., just plain bad manners that is empowered by money, position and connections and a feeling that you can treat anybody any which way you choose because their careers are dependent on your mood swings). 

Professional deadma is no different from the petty snobbery that is found in social events --- except here, the act of ignoring is associated with the wonderment of forgetting.   

Selective amnesia: (n)a self-inflicted, non-neurological state wherein an individual consciously, conspicuously and deliberately pretends or approximates the act of forgetting selected facts, events, commitments and individuals in order to escape culpability, responsibility and accountability.  However, selective amnesia can be readily cured, usually by actions associated with indignation, litigation or even violence.

Selective amnesia is a more sophisticated term for professional deadma. 

A co-worker gave this most common example: he is an actor. 

He received a call from a talent coordinator, asking for his availability, cost of talent fee and schedule for a regular stint in a television soap opera. They talk price, schedule and commitment. He is asked to block off three days of each week for the taping schedule. However, true to the tradition of most media negotiations at this point in this country--- there is no written contract, no affidavit sealing the premilinary deal --- in other words, nothing binding except the exchange of words spoken or sent as text messages on the cell phone. Everything depends on the legendary "palabra de honor."

And then it happens.  

Professional deadma is when the actor does not receive any follow-up but learns that the production has pushed through and somebody else has replaced him for the role. 

Although there was no argument, no issue, no controversy to disavow the verbal agreement, there was also no follow-up nor notice to the actor to tell him that he was bumped off the project for one reason or another.  And all the while, the actor had blocked off his schedule, accepted no other commitment, and is now caught flat-footed and looking stupid. Also add flat broke.

But when the talent coordinator or production assistant is accosted for not even sending a three-sentence text message stating that he has been replaced for the role, the actor will receive the best sample of rehearsed surprise, overused finger pointing and the lamest apologies ever conceived by organisms so jaded by their work that they are no longer capable of sincerity.

This is when the famous Filipino words, "Akala ko kasi ..." comes into practical use. Also add the most abused and overused, "Pasensiya na po ...". Yeah, right.

Ah, such exhibitions of callousness and lack of consideration go all the way to the top of the heap (except they don't say sorry from the executive offices).  

Almost every one in the entertainment business knows that deadma has been an accepted practice and anyone who dares complain can get himself into worse trouble.  You can wake up to find out that the job promised to you has gone completely kaput ... and that all your hard work has led to absolutely nothing ... and you don't say anything.  You just deal with it like any post-traumatic stress that shall be benchmarks of your career in movies and tv.

In a close knit industry where everyone is a tito, tita, kuya or ate, complaining and talking about commitments are not part of good manners and right conduct.  Regardless of how inconsiderate others have become ... or how you were so badly short changed by a talent coordinator, an executive producer or even the producer himself ... you don't start barking like a crazed mongrel.You don't talk about human right ... you can't be too smart for your own good.

You end up being branded as hard to work with because of an attitude problem.

And what is that attitude problem? You don't give due respect to the hands that feed you ... even if the same hands hit you on the head, slap mud on your face and make you feel like you have no other right aside from taking whatever those hands can give. It doesn't only have to be a humble talent coordinator to show you the deadma works ... even the most respected producers can do the same ... and you simply sit back, sigh and say ... "One day, it will be my turn to shove the crap down their throats."

By that time, you too would have mastered the art of professional deadma.