Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When people moved mountains

October 2008 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the National Citizens' Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel). National what? you might ask. In 1983, the assassination of Marcos oppositionist Ninoy Aquino wasn't the only big thing to happen in the Philippines. The year also saw the advent of probably the biggest volunteer movement in the country, perhaps in Asia. Namfrel was born as a non-partisan citizens' response to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who at that time was planning to hold an election to validate his rule. In the 1984, and especially in the 1986 elections, Namfrel was able to mobilize about half a million volunteers, to ensure that the elections will be clean and honest. It is impossible to encapsulate in a few sentences what Namfrel volunteers went through during those troubled times -- harassment, coercion, violence, death, to name a few -- just to make sure that the will of the people was respected (it largely wasn't). Businessmen, housewives, students, priests, nuns, socialites with their Evian water bottles, all of them staked their lives guarding ballot boxes and watching over the counting, asking for nothing in return, only with the hope of democracy in their hearts after decades of tyranny and oppression. The Namfrel volunteer movement precipitated People Power: without Namfrel's courageous volunteers, the revolution might not have happened. In 1986, the Filipinos were the toast of the free world, the People Power revolt inspiring revolutions to this day, and Namfrel getting nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and spawning similar organizations and soundalikes throughout the world. More importantly, the Namfrel volunteer movement proved once and for all that the Filipinos were not indolent -- as our Spanish conquerors had the world believe -- but were true citizens of their country, masters of their destiny. The Namfrel volunteers showed the world what Filipinos were really capable of when it comes to nation-building.

But of course at that time I didn't know these things. I was 6 years old in 1983, and the only memory I have of those days is us students going around town in the province wearing yellow shirts and chanting "Ninoy, hindi ka nag-iisa (you are not alone)." Who knew we were already activists when we were kids. But it didn't end there.

Ten years ago today, I first walked through the doors of Namfrel to work as a member of its national secretariat. It was my second job; right out of college I worked on a project in UP but that didn't last because of the Asian financial crisis. Like many good things that have happened to me, my applying for a position in the organization was an accident. One afternoon I boarded the bus for home after a soul-deadening day attending a recruitment-slash-orientation seminar for a marketing job for a still-secret product -- which turned out to be Encyclopedia Britannica (the big reveal involved a pretty, fair skinned sales agent unfolding a gigantic brochure for the complete set!). On the bus I was seated beside one of the attendees of the seminar. She was from my university, and I asked her if she's gonna take the job. To my disbelief she said yes, because according to her it was the practical thing to do. Turned out she had a friend who was working for Namfrel, and she was applying for a position there, but since she's taking the encyclopedia gig, would I like to have their number so that I could give them a call?

When I applied for the job at Namfrel, it was not because I was nationalistic or because I cared for democracy and all that. Well, I had those in me, having come from UP. But I applied simply because I needed a job. Money. Livelihood. I come from a middle class family with their very middle class values. Their idea of success is having a "stable job," preferably in a famous company, parking cars in front of the house for everyone to see. Nothing wrong with that, knowing how the generations before me struggled with poverty at the turn of the 20th century, and how they tried to pick themselves up after the war. But working for an NGO? I don't think they ever understood it. Nothing hurts more than your family not sharing the pride you feel for yourself and for the job that you do. (Still does. I spent more than five years in Namfrel and a couple more years employed in other NGOs). Worse, some of them are even Marcos loyalists.

It is easy to think that the first batch of Namfrel organizers and volunteers were pro-Aquino, though they were sworn to non-partisanship. It is easy to say that because at that time, everybody who considered themselves pro-democracy--meaning against Marcos--had to be pro-Aquino. Cory, Ninoy Aquino's widow, did not win because of who she was. She won because of what she symbolized. But at that time it wasn't really Marcos vs. Cory. The 1986 election wasn't really KBL vs. UNIDO. It was -- and sadly, still is (the Philippines still not having a mature political party system) -- more like good vs. evil. How else to explain the heavy presence of bishops, priests, and nuns in the polling precincts, counting centers, and in rallies? The separation of church and state is a desirable idea, but it cannot really be applied to the Philippines, at least not yet. Do you really expect the priests and nuns to stay idle when they see their flock being cheated, oppressed, or beaten to death?

Working for Namfrel was no walk in the park. It was tough. During election period, our work involved organizing provincial and municipal chapters, and setting up the nationwide parallel vote count, not to mention all the paper work that had to be done to set up such a count (preparing for one could take a year). In between elections, we worked for electoral reform advocacies, specifically the automation of Philippine elections. That entailed a mountain of tasks, including briefings of key publics, filing an impeachment complaint, plus the requisite congressional hearings. Most days we'd go in in the morning without knowing what time we'd be able to go home (I once reported for work at 9 in the morning and was able to go home at 3 in the afternoon, the next day). What's tougher, we didn't have money. Many NGO workers we met seemed to be rolling in dough, but not us. Namfrel doesn't ask for donations or financial assistance from foreign agencies and companies; everything is locally sourced -- truly, Filipinos for the Philippines. The same self-imposed rule applies to the local volunteer chapters, who have to source donations for their own local operations, getting next to nothing from the national office. This is how Namfrel is set up, the concept of bayanihan at work, relying on your neighbors to get things done. But what this meant was, most of the time, we got our meager "salaries" late, almost no benefits, and overtime pay was unheard of. Sometimes we had to borrow money from family and friends just to be able to go to work? Why then go to work? Because if we didn't, nobody else would do what we were doing. Challenges like these truly created a bond, a camaraderie among us staff members, that I always try to look for (but fail) whenever I take on another job or join another organization. We would drink together, watch movies together, feel angry or stressed out together, even run out of money at the same time. But we had each other to rely on, so it was ok.

But frankly, our small sacrifices were nothing compared to what the volunteers had to do out in the field. They had to get all these people to work for nothing come election time, when candidates were doing the same but with a fee. They had to liaise with the election commission, the teachers, the police, schools, potential donors. They had to rent boats, sometimes helicopters, out of their own pockets, to get election returns from far-flung islands. They had to deal with intimidation, violence. To look at Namfrel volunteers is to look at commitment, zeal, selfless love for country. Yes we in the office didn't have money, fancy computers, we had to use scratch paper because that's what we had most of the time, but our "problems" seemed puny compared with what the hundreds, thousands, of volunteers had to do. They had to move mountains. That is why when there are people out to discredit Namfrel or try to tear it apart, we take it personally. To do so is to slap all who have shed tears and blood for the organization's cause.

Steering the ship during our time was Jose Concepcion, Jr., Joe to his friends, Joecon or JC to us. Many people will agree that Joecon is (still) probably one of the toughest bosses one could ever have in the country. The man has reduced employees and trainees to tears, to resign from their jobs pronto, because of his work ethic and his personality. Joecon had been Namfrel's prime mover, its voice, since inception. There were others of course, but no one has put his stamp and identity more to one organization than JC. For many people, Namfrel was, and still is, Joecon. He was easy to dislike, but we stood by him because at the end of the day, after the anger, frustration, and tears, we still respected him because of his love for the country and commitment to democracy. He remains one of our personal heroes.

When we were kids, we always dreamed of one day changing the world. In Namfrel, we would wake up in the morning and realize we were making a change. Most of us in the secretariat have gone our separate ways, like volunteers going back to their own lives after doing election work. But I believe all of us -- staff, volunteers -- still carry Namfrel within us. A few years ago, a newspaper said that Namfrel is now but a shadow of its former self. Maybe. Namfrel has ceased being just an organization. It is now an ideal that we seek and try to uphold in the things we do, wherever we are now. We look for it in the jobs that we seek. We look for it in the people we work with. We try to organize something like it in the countries that we go to. We hope to replicate it in our communities. We hope to see it in the people we elect, and the people who should be serving us.

Yes, Namfrel is probably just a shadow now. But it is not dead.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Europe, endless

Just spent the last five days watching movies at the Cine Europa film festival at the Shangri-La Plaza, which will run till September 21 (see schedule HERE). This is the 11th year of the festival, showcasing (supposedly) the best films from the European Union. Hmmm. I'm not sure. I've seen ten films so far but almost all of them were shockingly average. A friend of mine wondered what has happened to the festival. In the past, I would go to festivals like this, see the likes of Death In Venice, The Grand Illusion, and A bout de souffle, and get inspired to become a filmmaker myself. I'm not sure if anybody will get inspired after seeing that icky horse movie from Germany. Only three films I've seen so far in the festival have stuck in memory: Susanne Bier's "After The Wedding" from Denmark, nominated last year for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and showcasing fine acting from Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre from 2006's Casino Royale). The others are the entertaining "Vitus" from Switzerland, and "The Paper Will Be Blue" from Romania.

Funny thing about the Cine Europa is, it seems to attract a lot of strange moviegoers (is it because it's free?). I've written about this last year (HERE), but this year, there was this guy who kept mumbling to himself all throughout a movie; senior citizens who not only say "grabe, ang bastos!" ("How disgusting!") during sex scenes, but also feel the need to chat all throughout the screening; and the like. And it's also during Cine Europa when people always seem to be coming and going during screenings. It's like, "oh, it's not Hollywood," and then go out. Had I charged five pesos for every person who went up and down the aisles during The Paper Will Be Blue, I would have had enough to buy me a decent meal at Clawdaddy. What's up with that? It's not only annoying and distracting, but also disrespectful. Is it because it's free that people think it's okay to be rude?

Still, the festival is a success. Most of the screenings were packed, and some people had to be turned away because there were no more seats. For those who have not been to such an event and are intimidated by subtitled films, fear not! I've been going to film festivals like this for fifteen years, and for your convenience, I've made a simple guide for people who want to widen their horizons and inject some "culture" into their lives.

Presenting, my Idiot's Guide to European Movies:

1. German films - if they're not made before World War II or in the 70s, they generally suck

2. films from the UK - cool and hip, unless they're from, or about, Ireland then they're just dreary

3. films from Russia, Romania, and other eastern European countries - political, and almost always interesting. Also, as heavy as a hundred iron elephants.

4. French films - almost always have people taking off their clothes; that, or full of characters that are too introspective for comfort (or both). The best French films were made before World War II, and in the 60s--the French new wave. (If you wish to know how brain hemorrhage feels like, may I respectfully recommend Godard).

5. Spanish films - quirky and/or fun. Also, lots of sex, but they do it without moping first or becoming existential, unlike the French.

6. Italian films - they have the most gorgeous people. 'Nuff said.

7. films from other parts of Europe - either they're gloriously experimental, or will bore you to death, or just pure vanilla. Your call. (Check if they won awards or something). But if it's by Paul Verhoeven, then it will be full of sex Sex SEX! Clear your calendar.

* * * * *

The next major film festival will be the 1oth Cinemanila International Film Festival, which this year will showcase some of the best movies that ever came out of the Directors' Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival. However, the big question on movie buffs' minds is not what will be shown, but whether Martin Scorsese is coming! Help convince Marty to drop by Manila by visiting this blog. See you in the queue folks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival: Cabiria (1914)

Italy concluded this year's International Silent Film Festival with last night's screening of Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914), a truly gargantuan epic that is said to have inspired D.W. Griffith to turn Intolerance into the mammoth production that it is. Cabiria is the granddaddy of all those massive movies from the silent and sound eras, the Metropolises, the Ben-Hurs, the Cleopatras, the Titanics and the like. It is in this movie that the dolly was used for the first time in filmmaking. It has spectacular sets, great costumes, fantastic cinematography and special effects. (Read Roger Ebert's take on the movie HERE.)

It also has an almost inscrutable plot, tons of characters, and sometimes moves in a glacial place that this epic actually almost made me sleep (and to think a three-hour version is being primed for release in the near future). The acting is also as big as the sets, but of course a 94-year old movie should not be judged according to modern standards. For its significance alone in the history of cinema, Cabiria is a must-see for all film lovers.

As if to compensate for the challenging-to-watch movie, DJ Caliph8 did a very eclectic live score, like a cross between Wagner, Strauss, and U.N.K.L.E., with funk, jazz, big band, and sci fi thrown in.

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival was a mixed bag, with excellent films and one or two clunkers. But I think this is one very important film festival that many people should attend, simply because the silent era produced some of the best movies ever made, but most people do not know about them because they are largely unavailable anywhere. I'll be lining up for next year's edition. A good show is worth repeating.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival: Die Austernprinzessin (1919)

Probably the best movie so far in this year's edition of the International Silent Film Festival is Germany's The Oyster Princess, a hilarious romp from 1919 directed by beloved film master Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch was known for his so-called "Lubitsch touch," a combination of a distinct filmmaking style and choice of material that made his comedies both classy and subversive at the same time. Try to watch "The Shop Around The Corner" (remade years ago as the tame "You've Got Mail") which starts as a light romantic comedy, but scratch around the surface and it's actually quite a dark film. A full-on laugh-out-loud Lubitsch movie is "Ninotchka," one of my favorite movies of all time, in which American playboy Melvyn Douglas tries to woo KGB agent Greta Garbo to hilarious effect.

The Oyster Princess is clearly among Lubitsch's best. A not-quite-aesthetically-pleasing spoiled brat, the daughter of "the Oyster King of America," demands a husband from her father, preferably someone like a prince to one-up another socialite who just got married to a count. The tycoon then gets the services of a matchmaker, who then chooses one Prince Nucki to be a prospective husband. Prince Nucki is a handsome but now financially bankrupt young man, who is seeking a rich woman to marry. Perfect. The guy sends his assistant to check out the woman; she mistakes the assistant for the Prince and demands that he marry her that same day, and the rest is comedy heaven. It's a wonder that in the 60-minute running time of the movie, Lubitsch was able to pack in so many memorable scenes and laughs, like the woman's long-ish bath assisted by about 20 servants as the assistant dies of boredom waiting for her in the foyer; the foxtrot scene during the wedding; the map given to the assistant to find his way around the woman's house; and the oyster king's nonchalant remarks of "I'm not impressed" to everything.

Trust the Germans (!) to put up a good show. To do the live scoring for the movie, they got Noli Aurillo, probably the best "underground" guitarist in the country. I saw him perform live in mag:net Katipunan a year ago, and he was not only virtuosic, but also very hilarious, a perfect fit for the movie. (Last Saturday, he backed Olivia at the 4th Backdoor Ventures Arts & Music Festival.) Aurillo was ably accompanied by the unbelievable team-up of Louie Talan, Kakoy Legaspi, and Wendell Garcia. The score they created was amazing. It was memorable and loads of fun, incorporating a lot of elements (including the theme from Rocky at one point). If they decide to release the score on CD, I'll probably buy it. It's that good.

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival: Visages d'enfants (1925)

France's entry to the 2nd International Silent Film Festival was Faces of Children (Jacques Feyder, 1925). The story is about a boy who loses his mother and has to live with his father's second wife and her daughter. It's a typical stepmother slash sibling rivalry movie, but the twist is that the stepmother is actually a kind woman, a la Sharon Cuneta in "Madrasta." Umm. That's it. I thought the movie wasn't really that special. I kept waiting for something more exciting to happen. Towards the end of the two-hour movie, the boy (both the hero and the villain of the movie), jumps into the rapids in an attempt to kill himself because of shame for a trick gone terribly wrong, and I was like, finally something exciting. The stepmother saves the boy. Happy ending. Fin.

The lovingly restored movie though is beautiful to look at, shot on location in Switzerland. But perhaps the best thing about the screening was the live music provided by the band Yosha. Especially during the first half of the movie, each scene was scored differently depending on the mood of the scene. The band's score was modern, fresh, at least until the middle part when it became same-y, a keyboard riff here, a Middle eastern-ish chant there, drumbeats over here, you get the idea. But still, it was good work. I think they made the movie better.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival: Taki No Shiraito (1933)

Taki No Shiraito (Cascading White Threads), shown in the Festival on August 27, is a 1933 film by renowned Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi (whose eerily beautiful Ugetsu Monogatari gave me the creeps when I saw it years ago in a film festival). In the movie, a succesful "water magician" named Shiraito falls in love with a younger guy, Kin-san, who had to stop schooling because of poverty. In exchange for the guy's love, Shiraito promised to send him to law school in Tokyo while she tours Japan with her troupe. Kin-san also falls in love with Shiraito and he goes to continue his studies, while the woman tries to earn enough money to be able to support him. As is common with traveling performers, the troupe falls on hard times, Shiraito has to stop sending money to Kin-san, Kin-san has to get a job to support himself, and tragedy ensues because of the troupe's money problems. Towards the end, because of wanting to get enough money for Kin-san, Shiraito stands trial for murder, and who else comes to be the prosecutor but none other than the love of her life, who is now a succesful lawyer in Tokyo (shades of Korea's Chunhyang).

And that is when you try to find this movie to find out what happens next. I'm not sure though if the movie is commercially available, but it badly needs a Criterion Collection restoration. It is quite an accessible film even for non-art film lovers (but in truth, many so-called "art films" were not really meant to be such; they're just old and smart and well-crafted, so don't be scared to watch them. But if it's Godard or Ingmar Bergman, I'd understand.)

Bob Aves provided the music, supposedly an homage to Mizoguchi. It's amazing how Filipino traditional musical instruments can sound very Japanese and retain their Filipino-ness. Clearly we have a lot more in common than we think.

3 days of music & arts

I literally waited one whole year for the 4th Backdoor Ventures Arts & Music Festival, held at the SM Megatrade Hall from August 29 to 31 (click the image to see more photos). Last year's edition blew me away, when for the first time I caught live some of the best Filipino bands of the moment. Rock legend Joey Pepe Smith's finale on the second night was the icing on the cake.

This year though, I was not able to go on the second day because it was Eraserheads reunion day. The people who were there on the second day must have had a smashing good time, with bands like Coffebreak Island, The Chonkeys, and again Pepe Smith and Wally Gonzales closing the night. Woohoo!

Still, the first and third days were great, with memorable performances from The Dorques (whose music recalls that of The Jesus and Mary Chain), the psychedelic stylings of Syalam, The Bembol Rockers, the fabulously goth The Late Isabel, and Olivia, a newcomer who is truly a Pinoy Jazz revelation, backed by some of the best Filipino musicians. Two of the most well-received performances were by Kjwan and Queso. For many though, the highlight would be The Dawn, who closed the first day. They performed on the eve of the Eraserheads reunion, and I was (again) starstruck upon seeing The Dawn bassist Buddy Zabala (which always happens to me whenever I see an ex-Ehead).

The music and the musicians were generally great, but I briefly got worried that the Festival seemed to be repeating itself. The band line-up was almost identical to that of last year, the only glaring difference being the absence of Pinikpikan. Even the Halili-Cruz Ballet and Teatro Flamenco had the same dancers (and almost the same repertoire). Heck, some of the booths were even at the same exact spot as last year. The first thing the organizers should avoid is for the event to get boring and predictable. A bit of a shake-up will do wonders to next year's edition, which I am now eagerly looking forward to.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A reunion to remember

After only fifteen songs, the reunion concert of the Eraserheads last Saturday was cut short when lead singer Ely Buendia had to be rushed to the hospital for a still unspecified condition. He reportedly collapsed backstage after singing his last song. Ely has a heart ailment. Almost two years ago, he suffered a heart attack. With the pressure of this reunion concert, with the previous promoter's problem with the health department, and definitely also due to the death of his mom just two days ago, it was all probably too much for Ely to handle. What was supposed to be a 20-minute break went on too long. Finally, Ely's sister Lally came up onstage to tell the audience about what happened. A one-minute silence was observed for Ely's fast recovery. And after that, we clapped.

It was a short but memorable show. Ok, the Eraserheads were never a great live band. Never. It was always about the songs. For many Filipinos, this was the equivalent of The Beatles or The Smiths reuniting. Fans were willing to wait in line to buy not very cheap tickets because it had been ages since those songs were sung to them by one of their musical heroes. The concert was virtually a sing-along. There were times when the audience sang more lyrics than Ely. As usual, Ely looked bored onstage, singing with his shades on, no chemistry whatsoever among the members, but it had always been like that since they became famous. As I said, the fans came for the songs, and they, WE, weren't disappointed. And now that apparently he really was not feeling well, we are ready to forgive as always, not that it is asked of us. Frankly, we would have paid more for less than what we got. Just to see them again together singing those songs would have been enough.

The set list:
1. Alapaap
2. Ligaya
3. Sembreak
4. Hey Jay
5. Harana
6. Fruitcake
7. Toyang
8. Kama Supra
9. Kailan
10. Huwag Kang Matakot
11. Kaliwete
12. With A Smile
13. Shake Yer Head
14. Huwag Mo Nang Itanong
15. Lightyears

The second set we did not hear:
1. Maskara
2. Poorman's Grave
3. Torpedo
4. Trip To Jerusalem
5. Back2Me
6. Maselang Bahaghari
7. Maling Akala
8. Tikman
9. Spoliarium
10. Magasin
11. Para Sa Masa
12. Overdrive
13. Pare Ko
14. Minsan
15. Ang Huling El Bimbo