There’s gold and there’s gold
NEW YORK—Its title is an ironic take on the revisionism wholeheartedly propounded by the namesake son, now president, of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorial regime: “The Golden Years: Weighing Philippine Martial Law 1972-1981.” That, says Victor Barnuevo Velasco, is the idea behind this touring exhibition of photographs recently opened in Queens, at the Bliss on Bliss Art Project, a not-for profit space founded and run by the visual artist Ged Merino.
During the last presidential campaign the Marcos-Duterte tandem, through its well-funded social media trolls and influencers, touted this alternative reality, to one of the darkest periods of modern Philippine history, as “the golden years,” when life was supposedly a bed of roses rather than of thorns. Apparently convinced, millions of voters, especially those too young to remember what it was really like during those years, voted them into office.
These photographs, according to Velasco’s notes, “were taken in situ—documenting history as they [sic] happened. They were transmitted to the US, distributed by photo agencies, and published in American newspapers. As independent witnesses—without the convenience of the Internet and free from modern digital manipulation—they attest to the criticality and consequence of photojournalism—of witnessing. They also validate that distance immediately provides perspectives and objectivity that often come only with the passage of time.”
The exhibition presents a damning tableau of the era’s stark realities: peaceful and chaotic protests, suppression of civil liberties, the regular exercise of state violence through such brutal methods as extrajudicial killings (idiosyncratically termed “salvagings”), and the rise of armed insurgency. Martial law was lifted in 1981, but by then Marcos Sr. had put into place the administrative tools needed to rule with an iron fist, backed by a compliant military—and Washington.
Coincidentally, beginning November 1 and running until November 30, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting “Mike De Leon: Self-Portrait of a Filipino Filmmaker”—a complete retrospective, the first in North America, that not only includes all his feature films and shorts but also a selection of rarely seen classic LVN movies. De Leon is the grandson of the late Doña Sisang, who in 1938 founded the legendary LVN Pictures, the preeminent dream factory during a golden (real, this time) age of Philippine cinema, before the breakup of the studio system partly due to the rise of indie outfits. He now controls the LVN archives. https://press.moma.org/film-media/mike-de-leon/
The cinematographer in 1975 of Lino Brocka’s powerful Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon)—included in the monthlong program—De Leon came into his own as a filmmaker with his 1976 debut feature ITIM (The Rites of May), with a restored print that premiered at Cannes earlier this year.
In his curator’s notes, MoMA’s Josh Siegel describes De Leon as “one of Filipino cinema’s most fiercely political and dramatic storytellers,” his works “mix the genres of melodrama, crime, supernatural horror, slapstick comedy, and the musical with blisteringly critical stances toward his country’s history of corruption and cronyism, state-sponsored violence, feudalist exploitation, and populist machismo: the festering legacies of the nation’s colonial past made even more purulent by the dictatorships of Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte.”
Of De Leon’s films with a decidedly political and subversive bent, Kisapmata (The Blink of An Eye) is the most compelling, a gut-wrenching portrayal of a family ruled by a tyrannical patriarch who happens to be a cop. Vic Silayan is brilliant in his portrayal of the malevolent father. While violence is rarely portrayed and only towards the end, its threat permeates the working-class household as a poisonous fog. Based on a true crime story by Nick Joaquin, “The House on Zapote Street,” which he wrote under his journalist’s pen name, Quijano de Manila, the film makes no overt reference to the political climate. It doesn’t need to.
Filmed at the height of martial law and even screened during Imelda Marcos’ extravagant boondoggle, the 1982 Manila International Film Festival at the ill-fated Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Film Palace, Kisapmata points the viewer to the larger implications of a deadening—and dead-end—autocratic society. Mike De Leon writes, “That the film was interpreted as an allegory of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos was no coincidence, though the crime happened in 1961. Nevertheless, many elements in this allegory were present in the original story. The policeman was an Ilocano, and so was Marcos. He ruled with an iron fist and subjected his family to unmitigated terror, just as Marcos did to the country.”
His Bayaning 3rd World (Third World Hero) in contrast is a playful, albeit insightful, meditation on how to create a film about the country’s national hero, José Rizal, that goes beyond the standard hagiographic biopic. Two filmmakers ponder various approaches, including imagined conversations with the man himself, the women in his life, and the Jesuit clerics who may or may not have convinced Rizal to retract his fervent opposition to the Catholic Church. With its seemingly irreverent take, the film actually increases our understanding, and appreciation, of Rizal, not so much as an icon, though that he is, but as a living, breathing, complex human being.
MoMA’s program is especially notable for the inclusion of classic LVN films of different genres. Few of the prewar pictures survive, so here is a rare opportunity to see some of those that did. Lamberto V. Avellana has the lion’s share, with Anak Dalita (The Ruins), Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life), and Pag-asa (Hope)—all worth seeing, except, perhaps, Huk, that, with its feverish anti-Communist theme, is a bit too Cold-War propagandistic.
The jewel here is Biyaya ng Lupa (Bounty of the Earth). Released in 1959, Biyaya revolves around a rural family that tills and flourishes off the land. The family leads a kind of Edenic existence—the father is Joséand the mother, Maria—when their way of life is threatened by “the corrupting influence of the big city,” as De Leon notes. Heartfelt and lyrical, with a courtliness, even poetry, in the dialogue, it is as moving and incisive as Brocka’s Maynila, where most of the action takes place in the big bad city that becomes as much a character as its protagonist.
The Queens photo exhibition and MoMA’s film series: a fall harvest of genuine gold.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2022