Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Skyflakes and catfood

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

My friends in the theater were hopping mad last week over what was referred to derogatory, mean-spirited, insulting comments made by indie film director Rafael “Rafa” Santos. I meant to write about the issue but the Sara Duterte issue came up and, well, that issue pretty much wrote itself out. I am writing about the Rafa Santos incident now because as a former theater actor (ahem) and an avid follower of the arts scene in this country, I feel that it is everyone’s responsibility to propagate appreciation for what theater artists do for the sake of their art. I also feel there are valuable lessons that can be learned from this incident.

The Santos and Duterte incidents both deserve our attention as they are classic examples of why people should act more responsibly and be more particularly careful about what they say or do in public. It’s now a lot easier to record and spread in the Internet damning evidence of carelessness or lack of judgment and even easier for people to register their indignation or outrage. Actress Angelica Panganiban learned this the hard way when she made a hasty comment on her Twitter account about Phil Younghusband’s supposed entry into acting. The President had to suffer the brunt of angry Hong Kong citizens when he was seen smiling at a press conference after that tragic hostage-taking incident last year. Actor Bayani Agbayani and fashion designer Boyet Fajardo were excoriated when video footage of their angry outbursts flooded the Internet. There are more examples from recent history but you get the drift.

One can always claim being misunderstood, or assert that one’s statements or actions have simply been taken out of context. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to argue with groupthink, particularly one that has been given birth to by outrage. Also, it is difficult to argue with emotions as obviously people are entitled to their feelings—telling someone he shouldn’t feel hurt is tantamount to rubbing salt on an open wound.

Santos’ film Samarito is an entry in the 2011 Cinemalaya Film Festival. Ironically, his film (as can be gleaned from documents released by the filmfest) is presumably a treatise on the forces that compel a person to come to terms with the issue of personal salvation in the face of an unexpected ethical dilemma. What can I say, life is oftentimes stranger than fiction.

In a recent television interview the filmmaker was asked, in so many words, if he truly preferred working with theater actors rather than with big names in the industry. It was a wonderful opportunity for Santos to extol the virtues of theater people in this country. Alas, he angled for a witty reply: “Personally I find that theater actors are better to work with because they don’t complain. You can feed them Skyflakes three meals a day and pay them in cat food, basically. They’re never late and they cry when you want them to cry. Other actors, kasi, you have to hit them first. “

And in four sentences, he managed to earn the ire of the whole artistic community in the country. In just one television appearance, the poor guy plummeted in most people’s estimation from being a potentially promising film director to being one of the most hated personalities in the country; not that the two are irreconcilable of course.

But as can be expected, the outrage was immediate and, well, passionate. Filipino artists from Lea Salonga to Jose Javier Reyes to Eugene Domingo to Joel Trinidad to Ricci Chan issued statements in their Twitter or Facebook accounts or in various media platforms condemning Santos for the careless remarks that everyone believed, in their heart of hearts, was insulting to theater actors.

There were those who excoriated the 25-year old director for insensitivity, cruelty, snobbishness, etc. Some accused him of deliberately trying to be controversial to draw attention to his film. Joel Trinidad officially asked the Cinemalaya committee to withdraw Santos’ film from the festival. Others called for a boycott of the film. Some asked for a public apology, which Santos issued middle of last week but which certain theatre actors found unacceptable because it was issued to the wrong audience. Actor Paolo Contis even challenged people to mob Santos at the screening of the latter’s film; Contis was joking of course, but the joke was just as inappropriate as the one he was protesting about.

Was this a case of something that’s just been taken out of context and blown out of proportion by our legendary amor propio? I don’t think so.

I think it is a foregone conclusion that Santos meant what he said as a joke and I think we can honestly agree that we saw it as a joke. The issue is that the matter was really no joking matter because everyone knows that theater actors are paid ridiculous rates in this country, compared to, let’s say celebrities. We don’t make jokes about something that stings nor do we make disparaging remarks about something that people passionately care about. And certainly, we don’t use metaphors that clearly denigrate one’s status in life such as telling people they can be paid in cat food – it’s just culturally unacceptable to put together people and cat food in one sentence.

For the sake of people who continue to be baffled at why people took offense at the joke, let me draw a parallel. When I was in college, I had a friend whose family had fallen into bad times. As a result my friend was often unable to eat decent meals in school; we often had to chip in to buy him a full lunch when we ate together. Although my friend was aware that we knew about what he was going through and the difficulty he was experiencing, we never really talked about it openly. There was this one time though when we were having such a blast trying to recall funny experiences in high school and one of us became careless—he remarked to my friend that he probably needed to start re-learning how to start building a fire from scratch and eating from tin cans. The remark was clearly meant as a joke and it was made amongst friends who cared for each other. But we saw how our friend’s face fell and no amount of apologizing could erase the fact that one of us had hurt him by making fun of a situation that was all too real.

Santos made an inappropriate, inexcusable, bad joke. But he is young and needs to learn a lesson or two about humility and discretion. I draw the line at boycotting his work or burning the man at the stakes; I think we should be mature enough to make certain distinctions and to make allowances for human frailties. In the words of Lea Salonga, “clamor for a public apology to the community of actors that he’s inadvertently offended is a good idea, but please, no collateral damage—to boycott his movie is to also boycott the actors that put their hearts and souls into the film they worked on.”

While character is infinitely more valuable than talent, we should still be able to judge artistic work objectively. We may not like Roman Polanski as a person, but there is no doubt that his work is brilliant. Moreover, certain statements, no matter how hurtful, cannot and should not be construed as categorical judgment of a person’s total character or fate.

Santos can all take comfort in the fact that while we are a people with a legendary sense of outrage, we also happen to have a very short collective memory. We are a forgiving people. My best guess is that while we may hate him now, this is certainly not the end of his filmmaking career. Of course, he needs to show that he is worthy of redemption. In the end, he needs to learn that becoming a good film director necessitates becoming a good person as well.

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