Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Being true to one's self

This is my column today.

Nice guys finish last. I have always found this admonition objectionable and I have always gone out of my way to point out to people that being nice is not necessarily a curse. As I always tell my kids, my students, my nephews and nieces and everyone else within my circle of influence: It is okay to be nice.

Being civilized is still and should still be the norm in society regardless of what our leaders say or do.

Apparently, being nice is not only a disadvantage today. It is also considered tantamount to being phony and insincere. Being nice and by extension, being considerate, holding one’s temper and biting one’s tongue in the face of extreme provocation, and generally being tolerant of other people’s shortcomings is now considered the height of hypocrisy. The common expression being used by people today to refer to those who are trying to be nice is “di nagpapakatotoo” (loosely, not being true to one’s self). Others indulge in simple generalizations and label others as “plastic,” meaning fake.

Corollary to this alarming development is the general notion that people who are earnest, take their jobs or their aspirations seriously, or have squeaky clean images are also fake, or “hindi nagpapakatotoo.” It seems we expect everyone to have a dark side and that giving in to this “dark side” is the ultimate measure of authenticity. I beg to disagree.

Two incidents that happened last week got me thinking about this topic. The first one was the whole hullabaloo around the challenges that the housemates in Pinoy Big Brother, the local television version of the Big Brother franchise, were made to go through last week. The second happened over the weekend in Cebu City as an offshoot of the Presidential Forum held at the Cebu International Convention Center last Friday, which was the hot topic of discussion in various Cebu media until yesterday.

In case you are a certified Kapuso, the type who doesn’t give a flying fig about the goings on in local television, or someone who has tuned off from the current season of PBB early on, what follows is a quick summary of what Big Brother made the housemates in that glass house go through last week. Former housemates (those who were already evicted by the people through text voting) were asked to come back to the house to torment the remaining housemates. The title of the challenge given to the former housemates said it all: Resbak Attack (loosely, retaliatory attack of the avengers). The former housemates were allowed to do anything and everything to torment the remaining housemates including taunting and vilifying them in public, even physically accosting them hoping to provoke them into retaliating physically.

The result was a few days worth of drama as the remaining housemates valiantly tried to keep their emotions in check while trying to put up with the physical and verbal abuse that was heaped on them continuously. What the housemates didn’t know was that the abuse, euphemistically known as a challenge, was supposedly designed to make “who they really were” surface. The whole point was supposedly to unmask the real personality of each of the remaining housemates.

I have no problems with challenges designed to encourage people into displaying competencies, behavioral patterns, values, attitudes, etc. Business organizations regularly conduct such interventions in team building activities, management training, and even in manpower selection. There are, however, ethical considerations that need to be taken into account. First, the people conducting the interventions need to have the necessary skills. Second, the intervention needs to be an empowering experience, which means that there cannot be room for negative or abusive challenges. Third, that sufficient processing of the intervention including the possibility of coaching is conducted immediately after. It remains dubious if these considerations were addressed by PBB.

The ethical considerations notwithstanding, what I really found disheartening were the efforts to deliberately provoke the housemates to break down—as in make them boiling mad, cuss publicly, cry or go into hysterics, even get physical and dirty—for them to be judged as finally being true to themselves. According to the PBB people, one can only qualify as being true to one’s self—one can only aspire to be labeled as totoo (real) and nagpapakatotoo (sincere, honest, truthful) if one allows himself to give in to his or her emotions. What the people behind PBB seemed to be saying was that having good coping mechanisms, showing fortitude and determination, being generally nice and unwilling to play rough and dirty—well, all these are not in keeping with who we really are or should be.

Well, excuse me, Big Brother, but I object. Being nice, patient and having the will and moral courage to behave in a civilized and mature way on public television despite extreme provocation is actually the more important facet of one’s personality; it should be what counts. It’s when people are able to do to rise above their shortcomings rather than wallow in these when maturity happens. Of course these behaviors don’t create the emotional fireworks that bring in the ratings so I can understand PBB’s skewed logical deductions. The thing is that they should stop trying to pass off what they do as lessons in human development.

I was in Cebu for the weekend, site of the most recent forum featuring the 2010 presidential candidates. The buzz everywhere in Cebu was about how the so-called presidentiables performed. As can be expected, what ensued after were comparative analyses about the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and the inevitable attempts to salvage or conversely, boost the image of the candidates.

Everywhere I went (I was in far too many taxicabs, all of which were also tuned in to various talk shows) the discussion centered on who among these three candidates performed better: Noynoy Aquino, Gibo Teodoro, or Dick Gordon. Erap Estrada figured in the discussions but only as comic relief. Strangely, there was hardly any discussion about Manny Villar—it’s as if he didn’t register in the radar at all.

I am not going to go into whom the Cebuanos thought performed better and why—that would be another column. What struck me, however, was that in many of the discussions the notion of who was “being true to himself” inevitably cropped up. For example, the consensus I kept getting was that Erap Estrada virtually made a fool of himself in the Cebu Forum but many people thought he was just “nagpapakatotoo.”

In the same light, attempts to analyze the candidates’ performance during the forum inevitably zeroed in on who was more authentic than the others—again, notions of who was “nagpapakatotoo” and who wasn’t. Unfortunately, many shortcomings—such as inarticulateness, braggadocio, seeming incompetence or ignorance—also somehow got lumped and justified under the heading of “nagpapakatotoo lang.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Unsweetened truth

This is my column today.

As someone who firmly believes that dessert is the whole point of any meal—I am one of those who see the main course as just a prelude to dessert—I am concerned that the price of sugar has spiraled seemingly out of control since Christmas. As of last week, a kilo of white sugar was retailing between 50 to 60 pesos in certain public markets, quite a big leap from where it was during the holiday season, which was at 40 pesos.

We are told the runaway price of sugar is temporary, caused by an artificial shortage. Someone actually said on public television that the shortage was caused by the supposedly high demand for sugar during the last holiday season. Yeah, blame the people for pigging out on leche flan and brazo de Mercedes.

Government, as can be expected, has tried to diffuse adverse reaction to the situation by insisting that there is no shortage. Yet in the same vein, Agriculture Secretary Yap has announced that the government is importing tons of sugar and that the shipment is expected to arrive in May. Talk about mixed messages!

The reality, however, is that the sugar shortage is a phenomenon that is not unique to the Philippines. Major corporations in the United States sounded the alarm August last year, even going to the extent of threatening mass layoffs if government didn’t address the impending shortage more effectively. In countries such as Pakistan, the sugar shortage has reached alarming levels —an article I read in an international magazine reported that a kilo of sugar could only be bought in the black market at a cost equivalent to a full day’s wage.

The global shortage of sugar is caused by many factors. Climate change affected sugarcane plantations in many countries. Also, most sugarcane harvests in major sugar producing countries such as Brazil have been diverted to the production of the bio-fuel known as ethanol. Most experts believe that the global shortage will last until end of 2010. Around that time, I suppose authorities would have learned to manage the global supply, people would have been weaned from their sugar addiction or would have gotten used to artificial sweeteners.

All these are distressing to sugar addicts like me. Of course it is possible that I represent a minority. Perhaps there are very few people like me who suffer from severe withdrawal syndrome if they don’t get to visit a pastry shop or who goes into panic mode upon discovery that they have just wolfed down the last chocolate candy bar in their refrigerator. Perhaps most Filipinos don’t really care if the price of sugar hits 100 pesos per kilo. We’re certainly not seeing people protesting in the streets despite the fact that prices have almost doubled in barely a month’s time. We are not seeing politicians scrambling all over themselves to register their opinions in the public’s consciousness.

The seeming apathy is understandable. Sugar does not rank high up there in the list of commodities because we don’t consume a proportionate amount of it compared to, say, rice or pork or chicken. But then again, sugar is actually an indispensable part of our lives—I actually know quite a number of people who can’t function normally unless they have had their coffee and sugar fix. Most of our merienda fare is actually sugar-based and most Filipino kids are actually fueled by sugar. I am sure things will get dicey if the price of sugar continues to rise and the shortage begins to impact on the cost of certain staple food such as banana cue and ice candy.

Of the many reactions to the impending sugar crisis, the one I liked the most was that of Vice President Noli de Castro. Responding to a question posed by a television reporter who obviously was angling for a provocative statement by the way she asked the question, the Vice President retorted nonchalantly “People should use less sugar then.” The advantage of someone who is not running for an elective post is that he can speak with candor and sincerity, as he does not have to pander to populist notions or try to please as many stakeholders as possible.

Of course, the government should make sure that there is healthy balance between supply and demand of most commodities. That’s its job. We should ensure that there is ample supply of sugar for those who are dependent on the stuff.

But perhaps the shortage can also be used as a great opportunity to strongly remind people (like me, I must add) of the harmful effects of sugar. I know. Sugar consumption has become a social issue such that some people actually think their ability to turn up their noses on the stuff is a reflection of how virtuous they are. But there is no denying the fact that excessive indulgence in sugar accounts for many of the major health problems plaguing the world today. There’s obesity, diabetes, hypertension, even hyperactivity among children.

I don’t recall the actual statistics now but most experts have predicted that a certain percentage of our kids today will be diabetic by the time they reach a certain age. When we consider the enormous amount of sugar we feed them everyday—from candies to softdrinks and juices, even to sweet spaghetti, the prediction makes sense.

I am aware that are there studies now that point out that sugar is actually the healthier alternative compared to synthetic sweeteners; that the negative consequences of ingesting the real thing made from sugarcane is actually less toxic. For a while there, rumors about how certain artificial sweeteners were carcinogenic persisted. Companies have since come up with better, supposedly healthier sweeteners as options although there’s a whole group of consumers out there who insist that the supposed safety of these sweeteners are not 100 percent guaranteed—nobody really knows the long-term harmful effects of these artificial products.

So when we come to think about it, it’s ironic that our choices have been narrowed down to which one is the lesser evil. A friend told me that this is the sad fact about life in this millennium—most of our choices boil down to which evil we can live with. It’s a choice between a lifestyle devoid of sweet things or longer life. Between diabetes and crankiness. For people like me who are desperately trying to get weaned from a sugar addiction, this is a dilemma that we face every minute of our existence.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A mother's love

This is my column today.

A riveting sidebar story to the whole Jason Ivler caper involved Marlene Aguilar, the fugitive’s mother. Up until last Monday, Aguilar projected the image of a grieving mother, the stereotypical Mater Dolorosa who shed copious tears on public television, at turns appealing to her son to surrender to the authorities and blaming everyone else for her son’s tragedy from Uncle Sam to allegedly overzealous government authorities. It was easy to empathize with her and I know many did.

Everyone can relate to a mother’s grief; after all, everyone has a mother and mothers by nature are supposed to be nurturing, fiercely protective of, and are supposed to have unconditional love for their children.

In the interest of transparency, I will disclose that I am not exactly an objective and disinterested party in this case. I have written in this space about my close relationship with Renato Victor Ebarle, the victim of Ivler’s uncontrollable rage. I am one of those who want Ivler and his accomplices brought to the bar of justice. But most of all, I am of the firm belief that Ivler poses serious risks to the life and liberty of many other citizens and should not be allowed to roam our streets. The fact that he harmed two members of his arresting party last Monday more than proves this point.

Just like others, I had doubts about Aguilar’s sincerity particularly when she started making a sales pitch for her book “Warriors of Heaven.” If we are to believe Aguilar, Ivler’s woes were mainly caused by her supposed unflinching criticism of United States government policies as contained in her book. To be fair to her, I haven’t read the book. I did pick the book up and scanned through it many months ago, long before Ivler murdered Victor Ebarle in cold blood (as many witnesses attested to) and I remembered feeling a little queasy over the rather graphic artwork. The book featured a nude Aguilar on the back cover. I am not saying that a book’s artwork is enough indictment or confirmation of its literary or commercial worth but I have this thing against overt efforts to sell a book through gimmickry such as the use of shocking or prurient images masquerading as art.

At any rate, I had my doubts and was suspicious of Aguilar’s complicity to her son’s cloak-and-dagger operations. However, like most everyone else, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. I think that most people in this country have so much affection for mothers in general that we’re all willing to go the extra mile to accommodate, tolerate, even forgive a mother’s eccentricities. God knows I too have a mother who probably is capable of exhibiting the same flair for dramatics and the same level of obstinacy.

Last Monday’s dramatic capture of Ivler at Aguilar’s house has thrown a proverbial wrench into the discussion. Aguilar has been catapulted from being a mere sidebar to being the main issue. Her actuations are now the subject of intense debate and there’s now this whole discussion over the breadth and scope and the morality and ethics around a mother’s love.

The footages taken prior, during, and after the shootout that eventually resulted in the capture of a wounded Ivler (whose overall appearance and demeanor during the shootout was likened to that of movie icon Rambo) cannot dispute Aguilar’s complicity. She tried to mislead authorities. She harbored a fugitive. She tried to obstruct justice.

I didn’t get to watch footages of the dramatic encounter until the truncated version shown during the evening newscast but a friend who works at a media network relayed his description of Aguilar’s behavior. According to my friend, Aguilar displayed a whole range of emotions and behaviors associated with mothers fiercely protecting an offspring. My friend likened Aguilar’s behaviors with that of other members of the female species of the animal kingdom—from being a hen hysterically protecting her clutch of chicks by screaming and posturing indignantly like an aggrieved victim, to being a tigress ferociously blocking the way to her kitten’s den, to being, in the end, like a forlorn and dejected sloth who had lost a bitter battle to protect an offspring. The footages I got to watch during the newscast showed only snippets of Aguilar’s various transformations as a mother but they were enough to elicit mixed emotions and reactions from viewers.

The question that is foremost in people’s minds is: Were Aguilar’s actions justifiable in the context of a mother protecting her own son?

There are those who have admitted, albeit apologetically, that given a similar situation, they probably would have done the same thing Aguilar did. There are those who have put her to task for failing to do what they say is the ultimate test of a mother’s love: Teaching her child on what is right or wrong and instructing him, perhaps by example, to be responsible and accountable for his actions. There are those, of course, who insist that a mother who tolerates the criminal activities of her children is a criminal herself. Somewhere in between are those who said that they probably would have helped Ivler escape or would have offered continuous assistance such as money or other kinds of resources to keep him alive or safe but would not go as far as directly offer him sanctuary in their own houses.

Quite a number were taken aback by the seeming brazenness of Aguilar as manifested by her decision to actually keep Ivler in her house despite the major manhunt launched by the police to capture him dead or alive. The act seems like a direct insult on the capabilities of the police as if the family was openly taunting the ineptness of our law enforcers. There are unconfirmed rumors that she may have done so not purely out of maternal affection but simply because she had no choice. According to scuttlebutt, Ivler has major emotional issues (his overall demeanor seems to confirm this) and may have posed more harm to other people outside of his mother’s house.

I suspect that the discussion over Aguilar’s behaviors and the social, cultural, even legal and ethical implications of these will be a hot topic of conversation in the next few weeks. I doubt if there will be a consensus. Motherhood is a particularly emotional issue for most of us and I doubt if there is a standard job description for mothers. Aguilar’s behaviors certainly run counter to those of another famous celebrity mother who recently went on public television to castigate her celebrity daughter even going to the extent of saying that her daughter’s cancer was probably God’s way of reminding the daughter of the way she dishonored her mother. Ouch.

Those who think Aguilar’s behaviors are justifiable on account of the fact that she was just being a mother and therefore deserves empathy are best reminded that there is another mother in the equation—Renato Victor Ebarle’s mother. She lost her only son in a senseless, tragic, and brutal way. She also deserves our empathy and support.

At any rate, Aguilar now has all the time and opportunity in the world to shower her beloved son with all the maternal affection she can muster—while he rots in jail.

Monday, January 18, 2010

How politics is killing Tacloban

This is my column today.

I was recently in Tacloban City where I inevitably found myself immersed in pre-election concerns and had a whiff of the stink of local politics.

An unusual spectacle is unfolding in the electoral contest in the city. The incumbent mayor, Alfred Romualdez, is running for re-election. There’s really nothing wrong with his quest for re-election because he has not yet exceeded his term limit. However, his slate includes his father, Bejo Romualdez, who is running for vice mayor. If both win, Tacloban will have a father and son sitting as Mayor and Vice Mayor, respectively.

I know. This situation is not really unusual in this country. Various permutations of political dynasty exist in this country such as husband-and-wife teams sitting as mayor and congressman or father and son sitting as mayor and chairman head of the Sangguniang Kabataan. But I think not very many families have the audacity to actually want to corner both the posts of mayor and vice mayor of the same city.

What adds to the unusual situation is the fact that Bejo Romualdez is the immediate past City Mayor of Tacloban City and he bequeathed the post to his son, the incumbent. In short, he is settling for a lower position in the 2010 elections. The even more twisted thing is that the older Romualdez has been reportedly telling people in campaign sorties that the situation bodes well for Tacloban because this means that the mayor cannot misbehave since he—the father—is watching him.

That’s not it, yet. It gets even more outrageous. Former sexy actress Cristina Romualdez—Alfred’s wife—is also running for re-election as councilor and has made it known that she wants to win as first councilor of the city.

The electorate has irreverently dubbed the trio the Holy Trinity of Tacloban—the son, the father, and the wife. In a rather twisted turn of events, the Romualdezes have latched on to the joke by using the same as some kind of justification for the anomalous situation. The incumbent mayor has been publicly saying that if Catholics don’t have questions about the validity of the concept of the Holy Trinity, then they shouldn’t question Tacloban’s holy trinity. In Alfred’s words: “If there is a Holy Trinity in the Bible, then Tacloban City has its own trinity. Dynasties have existed since the time of Jesus Christ.”

I almost choked on the scallops I was eating when friends and relatives narrated the above to me. There were more reasons for consternation. Everyone had something juicy to contribute to the discussion about how the political situation in Tacloban City has degenerated to absurd levels.

There are 10 slots available for councilor of the city. There are 40 candidates who filed their certificates of candidacies. It stands to reason that anyone running for the post of mayor would field a complete slate. The Romualdez slate, however, is composed of 15 candidates for councilor. The Romualdezes want to convey the impression that they are so loved in Tacloban there’s a long list of people jumping all over themselves to be associated with them. Fielding 15 candidates for the 10 slots increases the chances of cornering majority of the seats of the City council—a highly contentious battleground in the last three years for the incumbent mayor on account of a very strong opposition—but it also smacks of cheap opportunism. What kind of a leader willingly encourages members of his team to openly fight amongst themselves while he watches benevolently waiting to raise the hands of the victors?

Putting up a brave fight against the Romualdezes is media man Bob Abellanosa; the man who for many years read the evening news for the local television channel. Abellanosa is not exactly the first choice among those at the dinner table but most of them were willing to cast their lot behind the guy firmly believing in the mantra “anybody but the Romualdezes.”

The political situation in Tacloban—something that has bordered on the absurd and the comical—has been simmering under the surface for quite some time now. The Romualdezes have only recently returned to power since they were thrown out with the Marcoses after the first Edsa revolution.

All over the city are tarpaulins of the handsome first couple of the city supposedly proclaiming the achievements they have made for the city. The joke among the citizenry is that whatever achievements are printed in the tarpaulins is unreadable as most of the space has been taken up by the huge picture of the very handsome couple. Some critics gleefully proclaim that that’s exactly the major achievements of the couple—they’ve prettified themselves.

The Romualdezes have been at odds with the Petillas for many years now. The Petillas have held sway over the provincial capitol since the matriarch Remedios Matin Petilla became governor a few years after the Romualdezes’ fall from grace. Petilla went on to become congressman and later on as deputy chairman of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation. The current governor of Leyte is her son Jericho Petilla.

The conflict between the Petillas and the Romualdezes has resulted in competition that has reached almost farcical levels— whatever programs for the common people initiated by the provincial government has been replicated by the city government and vice versa. For example, the province has a singing contest designed to discover singing talents. The city government has its own contest, held just a block away from the venue of the provincial contest. Even the backdrops of the two competitions seem to compete amongst themselves in terms of size. The provincial and city governments also compete in terms of who has the better morning exercise sessions.

The city folk have come to see the competition as akin to the kapuso vs kapamilya contest not only because it has become entertaining but more because it has become quite shallow although most concede that the competition has also somehow resulted in more services being offered to citizens.

The problem is that the competition had become dysfunctional in many occasions such as during the most recent city fiesta when the provincial government and the city government hosted their own festivals. Reports have it that the street dancing related to one festival was rudely interrupted because activities related to the other festival cut through the street dancing venue. During the recent Palarong Pambansa, which was hosted by the provincial government, the city government reportedly refused to allow the use of certain facilities owned by the city.

The result of all these is that there is now a seeming exodus to relocate most businesses to the nearby town of Palo, which already hosts most government regional offices. SM is reportedly building its first mall in the region in Palo and the Petilla matriarch, Remedios Petilla, is now running for the post of mayor of the town. There is also the plan to move the provincial capitol to Palo eventually. If all these happen, Tacloban will most like degenerate into a shell of what it used to be and what it could have become. No wonder “have mercy on Tacloban City” is an oft-repeated plea that’s being whispered around by concerned citizens.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Very showbiz

This is my column today.

Being “showbiz” has come to mean being pretentious, hypocritical, or fake. Thus, to be labeled “showbiz na showbiz” is definitely not a compliment. This is probably the reason why most people try to convey the impression that they don’t give a hoot about the latest skirmishes involving our local celebrities or the latest gossip from the local show business industry. Of course it is possible that they also secretly relish and devour every tiny morsel of salacious rumor about, say, the real reason behind Claudine Barretto’s transfer to the GMA Network or about Paolo Bediones’ motivation for transferring to ABC 5.

The truth is that there are many issues involving local show business that are just as important and deserving of our attention. Television is a powerful all-pervasive medium and many people today spend more time in front of a television than anywhere else. Many children are reared by local celebrities - they wake up and eat breakfast with the hosts of Umagang Kay Ganda or Unang Hirit, they go about their playtime with the various hosts, guests, and performers of the various morning shows. Many people have lunch with the people of Eat Bulaga or Wowowee.

What is happening in show business is an important part of our national life. Some issues may sound trivial and inconsequential to the rich and powerful but they often have far-reaching implications on the lives of the larger population of Filipinos.

Take for instance the raging issue of the day involving the suspension of ABS-CBN’s morning show “Its’ Showtime.” The show is broadcast at around 10:30 in the morning as pre-programming for the noontime variety show so not many people who work out of their homes get to watch the show. But I was on leave last week so I was able to catch some episodes of the show. In fact I was actually watching the show when Rosanna Roces made those controversial statements that got the show in trouble with the Movie and Television Review Classification Board.

In case you have living under the rock in the last few days, what follows is the gist of the controversy.

The format of Showtime, which is really a dance contest, requires the show’s weekly judges to review the performance of the contestants in ways designed to provoke audience reaction. You see, the fate of the judges—whether they stay on as judges or get booted out of the show—is decided on by the viewers through text voting. In the particular episode that got the MTRCB’s attention, the irrepressible Rosanna Roces spewed quite a mouthful about how students should not believe everything teachers say.

The group that had just finished performing was from Calamba, Laguna and the group made such a big to-do with the fact that they were representing the hometown of Jose Rizal, the national hero. Roces then questioned them why Rizal’s full name was Jose Protacio Rizal when his mother’s maiden name was Alonzo. The group was unable to answer. Thereupon Roces shared that she also asked the same question of a teacher when she was young and the particular teacher didn’t give an answer. Roces then delivered a harangue about how teachers are merely “repeaters” (that’s the exact word she used) of information that is found in books. She said she cursed her teacher when she was young and admonished students not to believe everything their teachers said. She gave a lecture about the need for students to do their own research, trawl the net, go to Wikipedia, etc.

Perhaps in an effort to preempt sanctions from the MTRCB, ABS-CBN exercised what they referred to as “self-regulation” by suspending Roces from the show. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it because the MTRCB issued a suspension order on the show. Showtime is now off the air temporarily.

I must admit that I was also taken aback by Roces’s tirade against teachers in general; however, I felt that what was necessary was to put her statements in context. To begin with, Roces’s arguments were actually quite feeble; a lot of what she said could have been disputed easily. I felt that the appropriate action in this particular issue was to refute or rebut Roces’s statements and correct whatever misimpression was made; or to be brutally frank about it, teach her and everyone else not necessary a lesson, but the correct information. Unfortunately, this is not the way we operate in this country. Our natural tendency is to react emotionally rather than rationally. Instead of solving problems in a constructive way, we often opt for punitive measures, which really don’t do anything other than bury the issue and create resentment.

ABS-CBN is now protesting loudly about the supposed lack of due process around the MTRCB’s decision to suspend the show, which is really ironic and hypocritical because it is using the same justification that it failed to practice when it suspended Roces from the show unilaterally, to begin with.

I am against MTRCB’s decision to suspend the show because I don’t think there is anything to be gained from silencing people for saying provocative statements. Pray tell, what is there to be gained from suspending a whole show aside from merely flaunting one’s coercive power to do so? Does it teach people anything? By suspending Showtime, did the MTRCB succeed in correcting the wrong information and faulty reasoning used by Roces?

But I also think ABS-CBN should stop being sanctimonious about the whole thing. The truth is that the way they have formatted the show— including the choice of judges—has been designed precisely to attract this kind of controversy. What did they expect when they invited the likes of Joey Pepe Smith and Rosanna Roces to sit side by side and gave them license to spew opinions and judgments?

And while we are at it, Showtime has actually been courting this kind of action from the MTRCB by giving its head judge Vice Ganda free reign to sexually harass contestants on the show. I am not a prude and consider myself very, very liberal minded. However, in case no one has noticed yet, the sexual innuendos and the teasing that happens in the show— very often involving minors—really constitute sexual harassment.

I wanted to talk about other raging controversies in local showbiz, but as I am running out of space, I would have to reserve them for some other time.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Piety

This was my column yesterday.

I‘ve always wondered what it is that that impels people to plunge headlong into a veritable stampede of a shoving, jostling, swirling barefooted throng of humanity—risking life and limb in the process—just to be able to see, touch or kiss a religious image.

Is it really faith—the absolute, unquestioning kind—that propels them to throw logic and caution to the wind for the sake of sustaining a religious ritual?

Paradoxically, given the millions of Filipinos that converge in Manila January 9 of every year and who submit themselves to the unique rituals around the Black Nazarene of Quiapo—most of which border on blind fanaticism —can we say that we are people with strong faith? Is the increasing number of devotees who continue to perpetuate the same rituals despite advances in information technology and the preponderance of more scientific data that offer divergent perspectives evidence of the power of religion? Or is this one more proof of the growing level of desperation among Filipinos today?

These were some of the questions that were top of mind when I joined the procession of the Feast of the Black Nazarene last Saturday. The feast of the Black Nazarene is the biggest singular religious event in the country. It’s when millions of devotees - mostly men, although the last decade has seen an increasing number of women and children among them - converge in the area around Quiapo to indulge in the frenzy of religious fervor.

I’m not really a devotee of the suffering Christ—I am more partial to empowering images such as Christ in the manger or the Risen Christ. However, I’ve long wanted to experience first-hand, witness with my own two eyes, smell, touch and taste the piety that is palpable in the footages of the procession that we see on television and in various photographs that inevitably gets front page treatment in all national dailies the day after. I also went for some deeply personal reasons, which I can’t go into in this piece.

Most everyone I talked to had the same advice for me when I told them of my plan to join the procession this year: Be careful, be very, very careful. I assured them I had no intention of clambering up the carriage that carries the image of the Black Nazarene nor had I grand illusions of being physically fit enough to compete with tens of thousands of able-bodied people fighting tooth and nail for the “privilege” of holding the rope that pulls the carriage. I simply wanted to be there and witness the procession live instead of watching it on television.

The first thing I realized was that the procession involved not one but thousands of images of the Black Nazarene. Apparently, devotees —individuals and groups—bring their personal images of the Black Nazarene to join the procession. It was overwhelming to watch a long, very, very long procession of Black Nazarene images in varying stages and degrees of suffering. There were images of the suffering Christ lying down, sitting down on a throne, kneeling down, etc. There were images aboard bicycles, pick up trucks, aboard specially-crafted and decorated carozas, and even more images carried in the arms and shoulders of individual devotees. Each of these images received their fair share of attention from devotees who threw towels to be wiped on the faces of the images.

Another feature of the feast that isn’t given justice by media coverage is the extent to which Filipino culture is showcased and celebrated. It is after all still a fiesta so the usual fixtures of a traditional fiesta were still there from food, games, marching bands, etc. I even saw, strangely enough, Chinese dragon and lion dancers going around the various stores of the Quiapo district. As can be expected, the horde of enterprising people hawking all kinds of merchandise from T-shirts, towels, hankies, food, trinkets, etc, were all there as well.

The procession left the Quirino Grandstand early morning. It reached the area around the Liwasang Bonifacio at around 3:00 in the afternoon. The image of the Black Nazarene was pulled inch by painstaking inch by the horde of devotees, slowly meandering through the very narrow streets of the district of Quiapo, finally reaching Quiapo Church at around 11:00 pm, taking about 16 hours to traverse a route a mere five kilometers long. This year’s crowd was estimated at three million, the largest turnout so far. Many pundits attribute the high turnout to the many calamities that struck the country this year.

People who witness the procession on television only see bedlam and anarchy. What is not seen on television is the proverbial method to the madness. There are a whole lot of traditions and rituals that surround the feast and the procession of the Black Nazarene and these traditions and rituals come with their own norms and procedures. Most of the devotees are regulars—people who make it a point to return every year—and these are the same people who collectively bring order to the whole mess. I saw the many ways in which the carriage carrying the Black Nazarene was made to surge forward, the ways to clamber up and “fall” from the carriage, even how to get out alive when trapped in the middle of the stampede.

One veteran I got to talk to expressed annoyance that a lot of first-timers plunge into the thick of things without bothering to learn basic techniques in joining the procession. He said the new devotees are the ones that imperil the safety of many others and cause the mix-ups that delay the procession unnecessarily because they don’t bother to learn about the norms.

The procession was supposed to pass through a predetermined route. As in the previous year, this route was not followed for unexplained reasons. The automatic presumption was that residents of other streets not included in the route set for this year hijacked the carriage in effect forcing a rerouting scheme that would have the procession pass through their streets. Being along the route of the procession is supposed to bring good fortune to business establishments and residents. Who says politics, power, and piety don’t mix?

The procession of the Black Nazarene is a perfect metaphor for the way things are in this country. The whole procession—which has all the ingredients for a recipe called Disaster of Mammoth Proportions —precipitously teeters on the edge of utter chaos and pandemonium. What it is really is a stampede that is constantly threatening to spiral out of control. Yet surprisingly, it never does. The amazing thing is that the whole thing works. That, to my mind, is a miracle.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

In the name of faith











I've always wanted to experience first hand the Feast of the Black Nazarene. Up until last Saturday, I never really had the opportunity to do so. I was warned not to bring valuables. I was also told there would be lots of people so bringing a camera was out of the question.

I brought my cellphone and used it to take pictures.

First realization: The procession actually involves hundreds of Black Nazarene images. Apparently devotees bring their personal images of the Black Nazarene to the procession. These images also receive their fair share of attention from the other devotees who also pass on towelettes and hankies (to children hoisted on top of the carozas) to be wiped on the faces of the images. These towelettes are supposed to have healing powers.





























I took the LRT going to Quiapo. While inside the train I saw the procession still inching its way along Taft Avenue and realized it was going to take hours before the procession would reach Escolta. I had hours to kill so I decided to spend the time going around the Quiapo area.

Most people think that devotees join the procession all the way from its point of origin up to the time it comes to an end. Actually, most devotees simply wait for the procession at
strategic points along the route. While waiting for the procession, they take the opportunity to rest. Some unfurl mats; others bring out food. It's still a fiesta, after all.

Fortunately, there was lots of food being peddled by very enterprising people. I didn't get to take pictures of many of the various kakanin that were available. There was this man who was selling sandwiches - he had a basket of bread and various fillings spread out before him. Buyers could pick what went into their sandwiches. An old woman was selling Thai tamarind.

As can be expected, politicians couldn't help themselves. I saw many wearing t-shirts with political messages written at the back. Here were some of them.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Mediocre harvest (part 2)

This was my column yesterday. Just got back from Tacloban City today.

As I wrote in this space last Monday, I watched the three films in the ongoing Metro Manila Film Festival that received some “critical” acclaim. I wrote about I Love You Goodbye two days ago; today I am writing about Ang Panday, the top grosser and Best Picture in the film festival and Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love, recipient of the Gatpuno Villegas Cultural Award, Most Gender-Sensitive Film, and Best Actress for the megastar Sharon Cuneta.

Ang Panday passes off as mythology for some Filipinos, particularly those who grew up reading Pinoy comic books for leisure. Many Filipinos latched on to the epic story of the blacksmith Flavio who fashioned a powerful sword out of a meteorite and in the process saved the world from the clutches of the evil Lizardo. Written by Carlo Caparas, Ang Panday had previously been given life in the big screen by the King of Filipino Movies, the late Fernando Poe Jr. This year’s version has Senator Ramon Revilla Jr. in the lead. A lot of good intent went into the production of the movie and it shows. Revilla said many times on public television that this latest reincarnation of Ang Panday was a tribute to FPJ.

The producers wanted to do something grand, something spectacular. They wanted something like the Lord of the Rings—in fact, they copied lots of scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They tried to replicate Sauron’s headquarters in Mordor and made it the realm of Lizardo, complete with an active volcano spewing lava in the background. They even patterned the character of Geoff Eigenmann from Legolas, and fitted him with bows and arrows.

They also wanted something like the Harry Potter and also copied heavily from the series. They introduced the concept of a prophecy and repeatedly hit viewers on the head with it. It was evident that Philip Salvador tried to fashion his interpretation of Lizardo from Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort; not that he succeeds. They even had dragons and a giant basilisk.

This is the problem with Ang Panday—it is a movie that is saddled with the sheer weight of its grand intentions that it fails to take off at all. Previous version of the franchise had less technological wizardry but they were so much more fun and more importantly, they had heart. This latest reincarnation was so pretentious everyone in the movie—except probably child star Robert Villar and Rhian Ramos—looked like cardboard characters. Revilla looked constipated all throughout the film. Why he won as Best Actor probably deserves a Senate investigation. How Philip Salvador won as Best Supporting Actor is an even bigger question. The only thing more absurd than an actor who cannot act is an actor who thinks he is such a great actor. In this movie, Salvador acts up a storm it is so obvious he wanted to do a caricature of the character. He fails dismally.

The biggest question, of course, is how this movie ended up the Best Picture in the festival. It turns out it did so only because box-office receipts made up 50 percent of the criteria. A movie was crowned as the best because it made more money—now there’s another source of embarrassment.

Ang Panday does not only have aspirations of grandeur. It requires that you not only suspend disbelief, you also needed to check in your mental faculties at the door. The plot has gaps more glaring that Ben Abalos’ version of the ZTE controversy. The movie doesn’t have a sense of perspective—for something so huge, it is supposed to even have an active volcano behind it, the main characters had to search far and wide for Lizardo’s headquarters. The sets are so cramped one feels claustrophobic just watching the movie. And the costumes! This is clearly an aspect of filmmaking that Filipinos still need to pay close attention to.

The supporters of the movie made such a big to-do with the advances in computer-generated imaging employed in the movie. To be fair, Ang Panday did push the frontiers in movie-making technology and succeeds in some aspects. The flying scenes no longer look like the characters were cut and pasted and the explosions look more authentic. But we’re forgetting that technological wizardry does not a movie make. Special effects cannot be a substitute for the thinking process.

Just like Ang Panday, Mano Po 6 also caves in to attempts at being “big.” The movie goes to town with a surfeit of everything—it’s a veritable exercise in excesses. I hate being mean and I truly think that people’s body size should not be used as reason to discriminate against anyone—but it really was difficult to empathize with Sharon Cuneta’s character’s travails in the movie because the megastar just looked so healthy and prosperous. It looked like they had to make the character suffer so much degradation to make her look more believable.

Mano Po 6 is a blown-up soap opera with too much of everything in it, the only thing lacking was the suggestion of incest. The struggle of Cuneta’s character to recover her children was dramatized to the hilt—it became almost like a farce.

She even staged a dramatic picket outside the residences of her antagonists, complete with placards and streamers. She gets incarcerated in a mental institution. There is so much crying in the movie my friends and I felt we finally stumbled on the reason behind the unexplained Ondoy flood. And when Cuneta’s and Zsa Zsa Padilla’s character finally meet to settle the scores, there is the obligatory slapping done not once, not twice, but thrice, capped with a straight jab a la Pacquiao. Someone behind me in the theater couldn’t help but mutter out loud: “Overrrr!”

The in-laws in the film (led by Padilla’s character) are so stereotypically evil and their motivations weren’t explained adequately to diffuse negative perception of the Chinese. How could this film have won the Gatpuno Cultural Award if it perpetuated negative stereotypes of Chinese Filipinos?

The Mano Po series was supposed to celebrate the culture, contributions, uniqueness, etc. of the Chinese Filipinos. The truth is that there is nothing in the film that is distinctly Chinese Filipino. The premise of the story could be transported to any setting; there are no distinct Chinese Filipino traditions, customs, or norms celebrated in the movie. The characters try to speak Chinese, there are some Chinese dances featured in a school program, the characters visit China and walk through the Great Wall. But all these could have been done with and were not really integral to the story.

Mano Po 6 is not really a bad movie; it’s just not among our best.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Mediocre harvest (Part 1)

This is my column today.

Are we really helping the Philippine movie industry by patronizing the annual Metro Manila Film Festival?

It seems the annual festival has become nothing but a money-making venture, an opportunity for movie producers to rake in profits. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making money, of course; producing movies, after all, is still a business venture. But the festival is also supposed to be a showcase of Filipino talent and is intended to advance the cause of Philippine filmmaking. The movie industry was supposed to come out with quality movies as some kind of Christmas offering to the Filipino movie-going public who, in turn, were supposed to show their appreciation by patronizing more Filipino movies. It was supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship.

However, the overall quality of the movies featured in the annual festival has been on a steady decline over the years. This year’s harvest is particularly dismal: Not a single film among the seven entries that make this year’s crop stands out as an example of fine cinema. This wasn’t fair to the many Filipinos who still patronize the festival. Box-office receipts on Christmas day alone reached around P80 million; the top three movies in terms of box-office receipts (Ang Panday, Ang Darling Kong Aswang, and Shake, Rattle and Roll) raked in at least P16 million each in one day.

It seems that by patronizing the MMFF, we are encouraging the production of mediocre films and contributing to the overall decline of the Philippine movie industry. Even worse, it seems we’re encouraging producers from ripping off Filipino moviegoers of their hard-earned money.

One justification being forwarded is that it is only during the festival when Filipino movie producers are guaranteed profit—so we are supposed to just grin and bear it. We’re supposed to just bend over so that Mother Lily Monteverde, the Lopezes, and the rest of the producers can make money? There are many things wrong with this scenario. First, it negates the very essence of what filmmaking is supposed to be about, which is that it is also supposed to be an art form. Second, such a protectionist stance is defeatist in the long term as mediocrity kills patronage; it’s like killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg. Third, we’re forgetting that box office returns are not the only ways in which producers make money from their films.

The reviews—particularly word of mouth —of the movies that comprised this year’s festival were generally lukewarm; even those that tried to say nice things about the films sounded somehow conciliatory. Nevertheless, many among us still trooped to theaters like we needed to see for ourselves just how bad they were. Like I said, the MMFF has become an annual tradition for many; I actually know people who have made going to theaters on Christmas day a hallowed tradition. How else do we explain this insane predilection for sequels? Shake, Rattle and Roll is now on its 11th installment. We’re seeing the sixth reincarnation of Mano Po. Enteng Kabisote may have taken a break this year but the genre is alive and well in Ang Darling Kong Aswang. Even top grosser and Best Film of the festival, Ang Panday is a sequel of sorts.

Given generally bad reviews, I went to the theaters with very low expectations. I still left the theaters feeling ripped off. And to think I watched the three films that were —according to the judges—supposed to have been the best among the crop. If Mano Po 6: A Mother’s Love, Ang Panday, and I Love You Goodbye were the better entries, how awful could the other movies be?

Two words explained why we prioritized I Love You Goodbye over all the other entries to this year’s festival: Laurice Guillen. Guillen is a director known for artistic integrity. Guillen’s track record as director has been consistent as well— she’s only made a few movies and each one of them was a critical success. Surely, directing another love story would be a walk in the park for the director who gave us the incomparable Salome, probably one of the best Filipino movies ever made.

The production values of the film were okay in the sense that we didn’t see underexposed shots or cats and dogs straying into the scenes. I Love You Goodbye coasted along steadily for the whole duration of the playing time; the heartbeat monitor in the operating room where Gabby Concepcion’s character supposedly does his thing as a cardiologist-surgeon showed more activity. Nothing much really happens throughout the film.

To be fair to Guillen, I Love You Goodbye had a storyline that was pitifully threadbare to begin with; there was hardly any complication in the plot with the slightest potential to create fireworks. It seemed they realized too late that the movie was so bland they decided to do a whodunit at the last 10 minutes; which, of course didn’t do anything to the movie other than bring it to an end.

I Love You Goodbye had the kind of story that won’t even make the cut for Maalala Mo Kaya so it’s truly a surprise that Star Cinema turned it into a movie, much more, an entry to the festival. Some emotional wrench was thrown into the plotline by Kim Chiu’s character as the bratty daughter and by Liza Lorena as the snotty and domineering mother, but both characters were so stereotypical and one-dimensional. Besides, they were onscreen less than 10 percent of the movie’s running time. Roughly 80 percent of the movie had Angelica Panganiban on the screen which ordinarily should not have been such a bad thing—she registers quite well and is a fine actress. But there’s only so much of a pretty face we can take.

To a certain extent, I Love You Goodbye reminded me very strongly of Kasal?, Guillen’s first directorial job, which I watched when I was in college but whose images still remain indelible in the recesses of memory. Both movies are love stories bookended with the same premise—a couple on their way to happily-ever-after as soon as they are able to settle unresolved issued with exes and domineering parents. Kasal?, however, had better psychology and thus offered complications one could empathize with. I Love You Goodbye’s only real complication involved Panganiban’s ex (acted out by real-life partner Derek Ramsey). The subplot about a malpractice lawsuit was so benign and inconsequential because everybody saw there was no basis for it.

Only Panganiban’s character was fleshed out—we get a glimpse of why she seemed overly clingy and needy. The rest were left unexplained: why Concepcion’s character seemed distant and conflicted (we presumed the mood swings were caused by some psychological reason instead of bad acting), why Chiu’s character was rude and cruel and what accounted for her sudden change of heart towards the end, etc.

Concepcion’s character is supposed to be madly, unconditionally in love with Panganiban character but we don’t really get a sense of that in the movie—in fact, it looks the other way around. Concepcion’s character comes across as bland and cold and sterile and it’s Panganiban’s character that smolders with passion and affection although it can be said that this is also a reflection of how gifted Panganiban is as an actress. She was probably robbed of the Best Actress trophy this year. Ramsey shows some promise but he is no match to Panganiban’s intensity. Chiu is lucky to have such a pretty face.

I Love You Goodbye proved that a movie needed to have a good story; that there’s only so much a director can do with bad material. On Wednesday: Ang Panday and Mano Po 6.