Exploring what makes a Filipino tick (Part 3)

Ian Gill
Two artists are exploring the national psyche in fresh and different ways. Carlos Celdran is a performance artist who leads walking tours around Manila’s historic areas. Dante Mendoza is an independent filmmaker who uses ‘ultra-realistic’ docudramas to portray social issues.

MIXED RACE, LIKE IT OR NOT. For Carlos Celdran, 'Our originality is in the mixture.' All photos by Andy Maluche

[Continued from part two published on January 24]

MANILA, Philippines – A mustachioed, mild-mannered man of 52, [Brillante] Mendoza knows how the poor live.

The youngest of 8 children in a family of humble background, he is from Pampanga, a province just north of Manila. His father was a rice farmer and his mother ran a carinderia (a local buffet-style restaurant).

His family is conservative – his sisters have walked out on his movies, asking why he shows so much nudity.

Mendoza came late to the movie business. After studying Fine Arts, majoring in Advertising, at the University of Santo Tomas, he spent 10 years in advertising, mostly as a production designer. In 1982, he got a scholarship to study Filmmaking at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Even so, he didn’t make his first movie until 2005 when he was 45. Since then, however, he has been turning out an average of two movies a year.

In 1991, the same year that the American forces left, parts of Luzon (especially Pampanga) were devastated by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that drowned surrounding lands with lahar (volcanic ash). In his beautifully photographed 2006 film “Kaleldo” (Summer Heat), set against Pampanga’s sandy plains, Mendoza shows what happens to a widowed father and his 3 daughters when the family’s wood carving business falls on hard times following the Mt. Pinatubo explosion. 

Religion features prominently, especially the accident-prone church wedding of the youngest daughter that takes up the early part of the film. Despite the characters’ religious beliefs, Mendoza shows how values and financial pressures can collide, with morality the casualty.

The youngest sibling complains that she was sent only to a computer school whereas her older sisters attended private school. In consequence, when she marries into a more prosperous family, she is treated with disdain. The second daughter, while securing a loan for her father, has a brief affair with the bank manager which wounds her already-shaky marriage; the 3rd daughter is the most loyal and hardworking of the children, but she is bullied and treated with contempt by her father because she is a lesbian.

LOVE HIM, HATE HIM. Brillante Mendoza says he doesn't really get affected

In another Pampanga opus, “Serbis” (Service), made in 2008, Mendoza looks at how lean times affect a family operating a dilapidated pornographic movie house. Religious beliefs, symbolized by Easter church services and self-flagellation, are juxtaposed with vignettes of hypocrisy. The grandmother has filed an action against the bigamy of her husband, yet accepts that male prostitutes are servicing gay clients in her movie house. 

One typically explicit Mendoza scene that has caused people to walk out shows a young man lancing a boil on his butt by pressing a bottle upon it. Asked why he includes this, Mendoza says it is the way the poor treat boils, especially in rural areas, and it symbolizes the hard time his girlfriend is giving him.

Mendoza does not confine himself to urban issues. His second film, “Manoro” (The Teacher), draws attention to a minority community, the Aetas, the mountain people who were displaced by the Mt. Pinatubo disaster. Once again, the visuals are striking as his cameras follow a teacher and her father along a mountain trail in search of her missing grandfather.

The teacher performs a valuable role during elections by instructing the illiterate how to fill in voting forms. But the movie shows that all her efforts are useless, anyway, as voting papers are bought or thrown away.  

In his short career, during which he has directed 10 movies, Mendoza has generated intense controversy. 

His 2009 film “Kinatay” (Slaughtered), about a drug addict-prostitute who is beaten up, murdered, and chopped to pieces, enhanced his “love-him-or-hate him” reputation. One American critic described the work as “repellent yet grimly compelling” while another said it was a “prurient and excruciating viewing experience that makes the audience partners in crimes of inhumanity.” Yet the film also won him the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

He was under pressure from both Muslims and the military to make sure they were not unfairly presented in his movie, “Captive,” based on a real-life hostage taking event in the southern Philippines in 2001. Sitting in his office with shelves full of awards, Mendoza shrugs off such controversy. “I don’t get affected by either recognition or criticism,” he says. “I am more interested in the issues and real stories and just do my work as a filmmaker.”  

Watch the trailer of ‘Captive’ here:

Mendoza sees film as a powerful medium to “change the mindset of people, to change society.” Thus, he is disappointed that, for all the awards his films have garnered abroad, they have received little official recognition at home. 

This may not surprise some, considering he highlights the worst aspects of his country. The government has provided modest funding, but he says this has been mainly in response to media criticism that they are not doing enough to encourage indigenous talent. As a result, Mendoza relies heavily on overseas financing for his projects.

Just as disappointingly, his works have not been box-office hits at home. He holds up a mirror to Filipinos — but they don’t want to look, he says. Like the characters in his movies, Filipinos are generally so busy struggling to survive that, when they go to the cinema, “they want only entertainment and prefer melodramas,” he says.  

ESCAPIST? In Mendoza's opinion, Filipinos don't like seeing their lives mirrored in the movies they watch

Despite puncturing rosy myths of the past and portraying the dark side of the present, both Celdran and Mendoza remain optimistic about the future. Mendoza says the current administration of President Benigno Aquino III, which has replaced several key officials on corruption grounds and is pushing for a family-planning bill, is moving in the right direction to lessen the glaring disparity between rich and poor.

By the mid-20th century, Manila was a gateway between East and West and Asia’s first truly multicultural city. The typical Filipino, says Celdran, “had Malay skin, Chinese eyes, spoke Spanish and, deep in his heart, wanted to be American.”

So much of our culture is borrowed from others,” says Celdran. “Even the Philippine national anthem uses the same notes as France’s La Marseillaise, only backwards. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the potpourri of our culture.

“Our originality is in the mixture.” (To be continued) – Rappler.com

(Ian Gill is a freelance journalist who has lived in the Philippines for over 25 years. He is a former staffer of the Asian Development Bank’s Department of External Relations, Oil and Gas News, the Asian Wall Street Journal and Asiaweek. He is writing a book and plays golf, struggling with both.)