Diaz-Abaya and the story of my cinephilia

Posted at 10/09/2012 6:07 PM | Updated as of 10/10/2012 3:35 PM

A tribute to Marilou Diaz-Abaya (1955-2012)

I hate to admit it but the first Filipino film I ever paid money to see was Carlo J. Caparas’ "Tirad Pass." It was a school requirement, something I had to write an essay on. I remember the historical drama to be as unremarkable as my bored teacher’s unmemorable lectures. 

Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Cesar Montano on the set of "Jose Rizal."
Photo from the website of the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute &
Arts Center

Prior to "Tirad Pass," I was fed with Disney and Spielberg and I was satisfied. After" Tirad Pass," I was still fed with Disney and Spielberg and I was still satisfied. Caparas’ film did not move me enough to re-think that Philippine cinema was anything but the inane slapsticks, the unrealistic melodramas and the lewdly titled teasers that were then showing in the cinemas. 

Lino Brocka meant nothing to me. Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, and Mario O’Hara were names that will not draw a reaction from me. My private school education and the class insecurities that such education forced upon me --and I am now so ashamed to admit I used to possess -- did not give me the opportunity to be at least aware of those great Filipino artists’ existence. I was ignorant, pleasantly bamboozled by the candy Hollywood has been serving me.

Then "Jose Rizal" screened. It was another historical drama. It was another school requirement. What differentiated "Jose Rizal" from "Tirad Pass" was the very noticeable skill in which it was mounted. There was elegance in the way the film depicted the national hero. It was elegance that was comparable to the many big-budgeted Hollywood period pieces. 

The next year, "Muro-ami" screened. The images that filled up the silver screen were not only grand and beautiful, they were indelible. Cesar Montano, who donned Spanish era-formal wear, was now in rags, readying his overused goggles before recklessly diving into the sea with an army of youngsters. 

A couple of years later, "Bagong Buwan" screened. This was the first time I ever saw Mindanao in the big screen. With the exotic mix of local color and wartime dangers, I was sufficiently enchanted. 

Those films of Marilou Diaz-Abaya gave me enough hunger to seek for more, starting with "Moral."

The very first time I saw ""Moral" was in college, during a film session handled by a Filipino professor who also dabbled in filmmaking. I was already familiar with Diaz-Abaya, having seen and enjoyed her Metro Manila Film Fest entries. "Jose Rizal" and "Muro-ami," however, did not prepare me for the effect "Moral" would have on me. I was immediately enchanted by the palpable intimacy of the storytelling. It left me thirsting for more. 

I searched for "Brutal" and "Karnal," both films treading the same vein. Along the way, I caught Laurice Guillen’s "Salome," Ishmael Bernal’s "Himala" and Lino Brocka’s "Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag."

This was the same time I was obsessing over Wong Kar-Wai and Krzysztof Kieslowski, purchasing with whatever I can save from my humble allowance each and every DVD copy of their films. 

This was also the first time I saw how it was so difficult to be hopelessly in love with your own cinema, with all the Hollywood flicks overpowering the local ones, most of which were commercial junk anyway, with all the readily available foreign films on the latest format and the abject lack of Filipino classics on any format. 

The rest, I guess, is history. 

Mario O’Hara released "Babae sa Breakwater" and I, hopefully along with the five other strangers who bought tickets and saw the film with me, were swayed by the master director’s weaving of native magic, realistic poverty, and novelty songs. Mike de Leon released 

"Bayaning Third World" and I saw how a singular vision, absent any form of studio funding, can produce such a startling piece of work. Maryo J. de los Reyes released "Magnifico" and I saw how a veteran filmmaker working with a then unknown screenwriter can move hearts without traditional histrionics and ridiculous plot movements. Quark Henares released "Keka" and I saw how young directors can infuse new ideas and vitality to an industry that was reportedly in its deathbed. Lav Diaz released "Batang West Side" and I saw how Philippine cinema can do without boundaries set by the Hollywood monster.

I do not know Diaz-Abaya personally. I only know her from the films she has made. 

"Ikaw ang Pag-ibig," her swansong, is a film that I have been struggling to appreciate. It is as beautifully acted and elegantly paced as all her previous works, despite the obvious modesty in the production. The film is very vocal about Catholic faith, to the point of being preachy. It is perhaps the mixture of that quality of the film and my current state of cynicism that left me unmoved. 

Looking back, I cannot help but remember the hopefulness of the film, the way Diaz-Abaya courageously depicted cancer as but a path to greater faith. In a way, one can say that she was already beyond the trivial but nagging concerns of the world and was more interested to what personally matters to her.

Diaz-Abaya left us with films that matter. Her final years teaching filmmaking in Ateneo de Manila University and her very own film school produced filmmakers of various styles and interests like Henares, Marie Jamora, Jeffrey Jeturian, Sherad Sanchez and Gino Santos. Philippine cinema will always remember her as a stalwart pioneer and selfless teacher. 

I, however, will remember her as the filmmaker who chose to venture on, telling her peculiar stories with her peculiar way, in the midst of overwhelming junk.

I may have outgrown my love affair with Diaz-Abaya’s post-"May Nagmamahal Sa Iyo" films with repeated viewings, but I cannot deny their role in my growth as a Filipino cinephile. I cannot deny the fact that it is because of Diaz-Abaya’s faith in the Filipino audience that allowed her to make films like "Jose Rizal," "Muro-ami" and "Bagong Buwan" despite the audience’s clamor for brainless comedies and tired dramas that I saw beyond the unfortunate tropes of a then-failing Filipino cinema. 

She was the motherly gatekeeper to my passion for my nation’s films. Through her ever-distinguished insistence on quality and taste, I got to know Brocka, Bernal, O’Hara, Gallaga, Guillen, De Leon, and so on. 

Thank you and farewell. 

Francis Joseph Cruz is a lawyer and critic. You can follow his blog "Lessons from the School of Inattention."