Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jose F. Lacaba receives lifetime achievement award

For the 40th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law, a belated reposting of a piece I wrote on one of the dictatorship's more hardcore adversaries:

Jose "Pete" Lacaba receives Lifetime Achievement Award from the 10th Osian's Cinefan Film Festival

Sincerely hope he had the chance to visit the Taj Mahal in nearby Agra. Shah Jahan's monumental tribute to matrimonial love (actually it's less romantic when you learn that Mumtaz Mahal (hence the name) was his favorite wife, and that when his son Aurangzeb deposed him for overspending and imprisoned him in nearby Agra fort to spend the rest of his life gazing at his great love's tomb marker, he had his harem to console him in his loneliness--but still).

The article goes on to mention Lino Brocka, for whom Lacaba penned many of Brocka's best-known works--Jaguar (1979), a superbly structured drama based on Nick Joaquin's news article "The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society," and featuring great noirish cinematography by Conrado Baltazar; Bayan Ko (My Country, 1985), which took genuine courage to write during the last few years of the Marcos dictatorship; and Orapronobis (Fight for Us, 1989), which took courage of a different kind, saying that the then hugely popular Corazon Aquino (not a dictator, but she had so little control over what was happening it was practically chaos) was "worse than Marcos"--an accusation currently being leveled against present president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

Written during this period as well was his one screenplay for the Philippines' one genuine genius filmmaker ('genius' with all the virtues and limitations the label implies), Mike de Leon: Sister Stella L. (1984)

What to say about the films? Lacaba has a strong voice in his scripts, I submit, so strong that otherwise powerful personalities like Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon (and if you think the reclusive de Leon doesn't have a powerful personality, ask the men and women (especially the women) who act or work for him) are subsumed under his intense, no-nonsense sensibility. Melodramatic Brocka becomes coherent and even understated (?!); De Leon loses the baroque edge of cruelty of his more personal works (Kisapmata, 1981; Batch '81, 1982). I don't believe the films show either director at their very best (they become, I submit, Lacaba's translators to the big screen), but they are strong, well-shaped pictures--superb examples of agitprop--with an electric political awareness and unselfconscious modesty I wish I could see more often in other Filipino films.

Lacaba does when given the opportunity to do so (which doesn't happen very often--his filmography is relatively spare, compared to more prolific Filipino writers) uplift the work of almost any other filmmaker. Chito Rono, for example, was inspired to create what I would consider his masterpiece from Lacaba's script for Eskapo (Escape, 1995)--the early scenes of paranoia and fear, when Marcos' freshly declared Martial Law hung silently over every Filipino head, are unmatched in any of Rono's other pictures (or almost any other picture in Philippine cinema, for that matter).

With filmmaker Tikoy Aguiluz, I submit they brought out the best in each other. For Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan, 1997) Lacaba wrote what I thought was an honest, beautifully spare historical drama, perfect for Aguiluz's no-budget guerilla-style filmmaking (full disclosure: I wrote a draft of this film (a rather improbable affair full of conspiracy intrigues and arnis combat and scenes of Rizal exorcising the demon out of a possessed woman, of which only a little of the dialogue and even less of the plot was used)). For erotic noir thrillers like Tatsulok (Triangle, 1998) or Segurista (Dead Sure, 1996), Lacaba brought tautness to a well-structured plot that Aguiluz (and Aguiluz's longtime collaborator, writer-editor Mirana Medina-Bhunjun) exploited for maximum tension and (thanks to Aguiluz) memorably unglamorous eroticism.

Bagong Bayani (Unsung Heroine, 1995), about the trial and execution of Singaporean domestic worker Flor Contemplacion, is part dramatized footage, part documentary, almost all masterpiece--an innovatively structured film (Aguiluz claims the inspiration was Ian McNaugton's And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)) sprinkled with Lacaba's no-nonsense dialogue (Lacaba once said he strove to write the way people talk), dealing with an urgent Filipino issue (the plight of our overseas contract workers--source of much-needed foreign currency, backbone of our fragile economy, target of an endless number of employer abuses).

One remembers the film for the power of the dramatized scenes (Contemplacion's farewell to her family) the power of the documentary footage (the interviews of various overseas workers and Singaporean citizens), and for the image of Flor pressing hand against window, trying to feel the touch of her children's hands through the glass. A great film, easily the best of the collaborations between Lacaba and Aguiluz (arguably, Lacaba and anyone).

Congratulations, Pete; you deserve the honor many times over (not to mention the financial rewards--Hollywood rarely pays its writers well, much less the Philippine film industry). God willing we'll get to see more of your work, and of the same rare calibre, for years to come.


Ka Pete said...

Marra and I did go to the Taj Mahal. It was a long and exhausting trip from and then back to New Delhi, but well worth it. Actually, I had seen it more than 20 years ago, the first time I went to India (as a journalist, to interview Yasser Arafat). Sinamahan ko lang si Marra this time around.

Wow! I didn't realize that I had such a "strong voice" that even Brocka and de Leon are "subsumed" under my "intense, no-nonsense sensibility." This is heady if double-edged praise. In receiving the Aruna Vasudev lifetime achievement award last Friday, I was realistic enough to admit that the screenwriter hardly ever gets such an honor, since critics see the film as "a film by" the director, and audiences generally notice only the stars.

Best regards.

Noel Vera said...

Glad to hear Marra got to see the Taj.

It's double edged praise, all right, Pete, but look at it this way, at least from where I'm sitting: I can't say that of most if any other Filipino scriptwriter. I just keep noticing that the films you write for different directors seem to share a common sensibility with each other more than they do with the respective directors' previous works.

That said, more power. And if I use the word 'agitprop' I mean it in a half-admiring, half-appalled way (yep, double-edged again): been looking at the works of Peter Watkins, and feeling similar reactions.