‘El viaje de Carol’, wars and dictatorships

Timely, relevant film screenings, about the Spanish civil war, offer reflections on our country’s concerns.

The history of the Spanish motherland occupies no chapter in the standard Filipino education. Our history classes, of course, say much about the role of Spaniards in our archipelago’s colonization and eventual emergence as an independent nation. But the focus lies on the actions of insulares and peninsulares, the Spaniards who lived in our islands. Not much is told about the affairs of faraway España, and we all but forget our European connections after the American takeover in the time of Heneral Luna.

This July, the Instituto Cervantes de Manila (the Spanish government agency tasked with the promotion of Hispanic culture) is holding a series of film exhibitions entitled La España del Guernica (The Spain of the Guernica). The official aim of the project is “to offer a cinematic vision of the turbulent Spain of the decade.” The decade referred to is the 1930s, the latter years of which witnessed the tumultuous Spanish Civil War. This particular period of Spanish history remains little-known to Filipinos, but it certainly offers a few points for reflection on our own country’s current concerns, as I will claim later.

About the theme of the film series: Guernica is a town in the Basque region of Spain that suffered a horrific aerial bombing in April 1937, in the middle of the civil war. The raid was carried out by the air forces of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, who were then allied with the Nationalist faction in Spain. The terrors of the incident became the subject of Pablo Picasso’s seminal work, simply entitled Guernica, which has been called the “most famous [artwork] ever produced on the subject of war.” (“Eighty years on, Spain may at last be able to confront the ghosts of civil war”, The Guardian.) The painting was first unveiled to the public on July 12, 1937, only a few days away from the first anniversary of the conflict. La España del Guernica commemorates the 80th anniversary of this unveiling, and the 81st of the war; as the painting captured the various faces of war on canvas, so did this collection of films, only cinematically.

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On the meaning and value of work

Work, as a concept, is a rich and multi-dimensional idea. As a starting point, I will take the definition I once heard (from a priest, if I remember correctly), that work is simply the transformation of our environment.

Defined this way, work becomes an encompassing aspect of life. Work can be physical and tangible, as in the work of mining and refining minerals from the earth, or synthesizing substances in a chemical factory, or constructing structures from pieces of wood, metal and glass. Work can also be intangible, as in intellectual work, gathering and synthesizing knowledge in various fields of science, or sharing them with others in education.

Work has a similar definition in the physical sciences, where it means the transfer of energy when a force is applied to matter resulting in motion of a definite distance. The idea is similar, because it also involves a transformation; without movement or results, mere application of force does not become work. To perform work in physics is to transform the shape and location of objects in our surroundings.

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Ma’ Rosa (Brillante Mendoza, 2016): revealing Filipino family vices and virtues

Brillante Mendoza summons both frustration and pride for Filipinos through a spectacle-free look at a family in crisis.

Brillante Mendoza’s works have always been the stereotypical Filipino ‘indie’. They have always been showcases of the underbelly of society, complete with its persistent problems of poverty, corruption, and vulnerability, as well as its occasional glories—resilience in the face of tragedy, and capability for sacrifice out of love for family. The particular subjects may have been varied, but the approach has been constantly realist, and devoid of any visual spectacle other than what could be witnessed in actual life.

Ma’ Rosa is another entry in this tradition. In his works from the previous years, Mendoza wandered the archipelago: in Taklub (2015), he portrayed the brutal aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in the Visayas; in Thy Womb (2012), he orchestrated a unique drama out of the cultural norms of Muslim people in Mindanao. Now, he returns to the slums of Manila, the place out of which he built his world-renowned reputation as a social-realist filmmaker.

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The Taoid Museum in Laoag, an Ilocano tribute to a Cordilleran heritage

Here is a well-made museum in the lowland city, about the culture of the neighboring highlands.

When tourists, myself included, proclaim that we ‘like’ the culture of a city or country we have just visited, I wonder what we truly intend to say. While in Vigan, for instance, do eating an egg-filled empanada, taking photos of colonial-era houses, and learning to say Naimbag nga malem!, while having fun, already count as ‘liking’ the Ilocano ‘culture’?

Unfortunately, culture extends deep beyond these superficial experiences. Travellers have time to appreciate its displayed gems, but not enough to suffer its habits. In primary school we are taught that the Ilocanos are known for being a thrifty people: do we travellers like that particular trait of Ilocano culture? Ignoring the fact that tourism is rarely a thrifty activity for the traveller, the question is irrelevant. When we tourists say we like Ilocano culture, we are only talking about Vigan’s beautiful houses, Bangui’s magnificant windmills, and Pagudpud’s fine beaches.

Perhaps as an atonement for this tourist’s guilt, I ensure that museums are always part of my opportunities to travel around the country. Museums are essential to overcoming the limitations of tours when appreciating a place’s culture; they show us the practices, products, and persistence of a culture that we cannot see by simply strolling through the streets or by buying souvenirs. This endeavor is possible because museums are built by people who have dedicated a lot of their toiling hours learning a culture beyond its most visible trappings.

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Culture as History: Nick Joaquin’s provocative essay on Filipino identity

“Unconscious anthology”—I have not encountered a more beautiful phrase to concisely describe the richness of society, and the heritage of its individuals.

Culture as History, a 1988 essay by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, employs two massive words in its brief title, only linked by a provocative conjunction. Entire lifetimes and university departments are devoted to these topics, so Joaquin must have thought his essay’s particular subject important enough to warrant a short but dense title. And it is indeed significant, at least for his target audience, Filipinos. In this essay, the author deals with popular beliefs about the birth of Filipino culture, and does so with much wit and wisdom.

It was published only about a decade before the 21st century, a circumstance that led me to think about Joaquin’s insights from a present-day perspective. But before that, a review is in order.

The essay: crucial points and select quotes

Culture as History is one continuous piece of prose, but thematically I see it as having four parts.

In the first one, relatively independent from the rest of the essay, Joaquin introduces his inspirations—the intellectuals Marshall McLuhan and Oswald Spengler—and discusses the relationship between literacy and culture. The “modern notion” of illiteracy as ignorance is debunked: if the illiterate peoples of the past were indeed ignorant, how come they were able to build magnificent churches and other cultural wonders which we, today, cherish as national treasures? (It is, after all, the toiling of the masses that actually built these structures, not the plans of the colonial masters.)

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