‘Burgos’: A film with a deep back story

Teodoro Jose Joaquin
Edita Burgos' story also highlights activist roots of filmmakers, with nuanced turn by Lorna Tolentino and Rocco Nacino

COMPELLING STORY. Edita Burgos with Lorna Tolentino and Rocco Nacino. Photo courtesy of CCP

MANILA, Philippines – Joel Lamangan’s “Burgos: A Mother’s Love” aims to impart a more intimate picture of the Jonas Burgos case through the immediate mass appeal of cinema.

The April 28, 2007, abduction of Jonas Burgos by Army operatives has served as a torchbearer in the cause to bring justice for the desaparecidos (the disappeared).

This otherwise already dated legacy from the Marcos dictatorship was carried on with impunity during Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s presidency.

READ: Jonas Burgos: Trapped in a web of lives

That Jonas Burgos is the son of the late Jose “Joe” Burgos Jr., the icon of press freedom, further invests a sad resonance in this legacy that has become GMA’s in the post-Marcos era. It is a legacy still without closure in the present administration.

There has been some breakthrough early this year, also partly from President Aquino’s prodding, in the quest of Edita Burgos, Jonas’ mother and Joe Burgos’ wife, to find a resolution to her son’s disappearance. Yet these developments have been left hanging.

With Mrs. Burgos’ consent, Joel Lamangan’s film is yet another earnest attempt to seek closure, in keeping with the democratic milieu that is so far the letter if not entirely the spirit of the second Aquino presidency.    

READ: ‘Burgos’ marks Cinemalaya premiere

“Burgos: A Mother’s Love” is scripted by the director’s fellow Marcos-era political detainee Ricardo “Ricky” Lee.

Apart from Jose “Pete” Lacaba, the renowned journalist, poet, and screenwriter who also survived the atrocities of Marcos’s martial law, Lee and Lamangan are the perfect team for this project — shaping into a palpable story what could otherwise already be, to the public, a yellowed folder of news clippings on the Jonas Burgos case.

In an interview with this writer, Lee said he took a 7-year hiatus from writing for film while he concentrated on finishing his long-overdue novels.

The “Burgos” script, for Lee, is like reuniting with an old flame.

Lee said he did some tweaking in his screenplay, based on his interviews with Mrs. Burgos, for dramatic effect. But everything you see in the movie took place in real life.

Mrs. Burgos has expressed admiration for Lamangan’s “obsession” to do the movie.

As an actor, Lamangan has a sharply contrasting persona — the loud-mouthed, gossip-prone gay bugaw in Ishmael Bernal’s “Working Girls” (a politically incorrect stereotype today, even if one still encounters such people), as opposed to the serene spirituality of his solitary introspective priest in “Himala,” Bernal’s greatest masterpiece.

Lamangan’s films shuttle between these two cinematic personalities — more toward his “Himala” persona of late, as it is plain to see in “Burgos” and his other politically charged film this year, “Lihis,” also scripted by Lee.

Then, there are his performances as a brutal fascist in Lino Brocka’s “Orapronobis” and other films.

During the heady early 1970s, Lamangan was a member of the leftist Kabataang Makabayan, while Lee was a staff writer for the Pilipino edition of the “ Philippines Free Press” on Lacaba’s watch.

When martial law was declared in 1972, Lamangan and Lee found themselves in the military’s “order of battle.” Eventually they were caught and made to endure what Lacaba from his own experience describes as “cariño militar.”

Alongside his decidedly light-hearted work such as the gay-themed comedy “Pusong Mamon” (1998) — a notable early collaboration with Lorna Tolentino that is remarkably frank in its sexuality, more than a decade before “My Husband’s Lover” — Lamangan would make films like “Bakit May Kahapon Pa?” and “Sigwa,” which were also as politically charged as “Burgos” and “Lihis.”   

“Lihis,” which stars Joem Bascon and Jake Cuenca, has the added crucial plot point of a gay relationship in the communist underground movement. From the trailer alone, this promises to be a frankly erotic film, making “My Husband’s Lover” something like “Sesame Street” in the catalogue of LGBT cinema.

Lee said he wrote the script for “Lihis” way before “Brokeback Mountain.” Lamangan said this film is based on a true story involving people he knew in the political underground.

(“Lihis” will be shown at the Sineng Pambansa Festival in SM Cinemas starting September 7.)

Overbearing idealism

“Burgos” is a different political film in that it underscores, along with the political background of Jonas’s disappearance, Mrs. Burgos’ anguish as an ordinary wife and mother.

It is simple life stories like this, set against the wide complex canvas of politics, that qualify as compelling narrative, despite the film’s overbearing idealism—which one may well attribute to the activist still raging inside Lamangan.   

Like Cory Aquino to Ninoy Aquino, Mrs. Burgos largely confined herself to the background of her husband’s cause of upholding press freedom amid a dictatorship.

Joe Burgos (portrayed in the film by Tirso Cruz III, decades after his “bubblegum pop” image in the early 1970s) occupies a lapidary place in the democratic struggle against Marcos, for spearheading “We Forum” and “Malaya,” fiercely independent publications that defied the crony press and the dictatorship.

Not a few among today’s renowned journalists evolved from his highly risky enterprise at the time.

In all those years, Mrs. Burgos was practically an invisible if thoroughly supportive presence.

It would take a son’s disappearance, during the post-Marcos era at that, to prod the reluctant Mrs. Burgos into the harsh spotlight of politics.

Lamangan’s film presents us a picture of a tightly intimate family, living a simple life in their modest home in Quezon City or in their farm in Bulacan, which their father has imparted to them. (Joe Burgos died in 2003, some 3 years before Jonas’ abduction.)

It is Jonas, portrayed eloquently by Rocco Nacino, who takes after Joe’s love of the land and also his patriotism and idealism. Jonas, after all, has a diploma in agriculture, whereas his father’s ideals he would take to the extreme against the culture of impunity of President Arroyo’s regime.

Frantic search

In one of the film’s quiet moments, Edita (Tolentino in another nuanced performance) marvels at her son’s similarities with his father — from their loud speaking voice and laughter to their careless way about the house, bumping into chairs and appliances.

This tranquillity is alas shattered by something just as loud and abrupt, the news of Jonas’ abduction in broad daylight at a Quezon City mall.

In their frantic search for Jonas, Edita and her other sons Sonny and JL soon find themselves everywhere, including the underbelly of Quiapo, a common metaphorical setting in Lee’s screenplays.

This, after Edita receives a call that Jonas has been seen roaming this district and sleeping on its sidewalks.

Their search goes as far as a mental institution in Bataan, where, according to a tip, Jonas has been kept hiding amid the military’s pursuit.

This search, in turn, becomes a soul-searching process, in which Mrs. Burgos, a Carmelite devotee, becomes caught between the vow of solitude of her faith and the activist stance of relatives of the disappeared who prod her out of her shell.

This personal chapter leads to a transformation. Edita Burgos turns into a bolder woman, addressing protest rallies and news conferences, firing a shotgun to drive away a gang of rowdy soldiers trespassing her farm in Bulacan.

“Burgos” is something to watch again and again, especially for its catharsis and impact. Perhaps its melodramatic treatment is imperative because this material otherwise qualifies as tract cinema (political cinema) — not at all a genre that brings in huge audiences.

But the audience at the film’s Cinemalaya premiere on August 3 was really quite a crowd. It helps that the film is complemented by star power, and in so wielding this quality, Lorna Tolentino and Rocco Nacino turn in performances that render this film more poignant.

The question remains, Where is Jonas?

Nobody is more boggled by this mystery than his mother.

“Mabuti pa ang ibang nawalan ng mahal sa buhay, may katawan na paglalamayan at ililibing.” Tolentino as Mrs. Burgos says in the film. “May puntod na dadalawin. May katapusan ang kanilang pagluluksa.

(Others who have lost their loved ones are luckier. They can mourn and bury their dead. There is a grave they can visit and an end to their mourning.)

It is hoped that this personal quest will be revitalized through this advocacy film. – Rappler.com

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