On Lualhati Bautista’s ‘Dekada ’70’

Not merely a ‘Martial Law novel’.

I’ve been seeing the novel Dekada ’70, by Lualhati Bautista, on National Bookstore’s Filipino shelves for as long as I can remember. That is the certain mark of a work’s membership in the literary canon, as far as the economics of required readings are concerned. But somehow, in all my years of schooling, I had evaded all the panitikan teachers who would include this novel in their syllabi. Either that, or I’m suffering a combination of faulty memory and a past fear of classic literature.

It happens that I’m currently atoning for my past disinterest in classics, and a friend lent me a copy of the progressive pocket-sized novel. (I imagined—framed—my friend as a concerned citizen discreetly sharing subversive readings to a fellow citizen, for enlightenment in these dark times.) I have no idea when, or if at all, I would ever have read this novel if not for this friend. Dekada ’70’s cover has intimidated me all these years, after all. Every time I would see its stark red, overtly political cover illustration, my mind’s interest-switch flips off. I am all for appreciating realist, social-political narratives on a medium like film, but I’m a slow reader, and I only have so much reading capacity to spare when it comes to grim literature.

I’m glad that I proved my own expectations wrong. Everyone mutters, don’t judge a book by its cover, but the reality is that for the majority of books we lay our eyes upon at the bookstore, we pre-screen them by sight. By their covers, that is. Certainly, we could read the synopsis, cross-check with reviews or recommendations, but before any of this can be accomplished, we would already have instinctively formed prejudices on a book by its face. The book design for Dekada ’70 belies the novel’s domestic tone: there are grim moments in this story, true, and the anxious climate of the titular era is the omnipresent spirit of the narrative, but the entire tale is depicted in such a welcoming, informal manner that the political becomes personal—what would otherwise have caused distant despair becomes a matter of intimate concern.

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When the movies were still projected from film reels

I’m old enough to recall the time when couriers still zipped between moviehouses, reels of film on their shoulders.

Since 2008’s The Dark Knight, I’ve been anticipating every Christopher Nolan film with the excitement of a teenage girl waiting for the next One Direction album. Such is my confidence in the quality of Nolan’s films that I splurged on an IMAX ticket to see his latest film, Dunkirk, without reading a review or hearing anyone’s recommendation beforehand. (Dunkirk is a film that a teenage girl would have also looked forward to, because it has One Direction’s Harry Styles in its cast.)

I had forgotten how impressive, how immense, these IMAX screens were. I plopped down on my seat and, wild-eyed, gaped at just how immersive the projected image was. The screen was alarming in its vastness, in how it covered so much of my field of vision. Dunkirk began with a scene of soldiers running from gunfire; when the camera started shaking, I worried that my eyeballs also started jerking around so much just to follow the action on-screen. Thankfully, the rest of movie had its shots taken with steady hands. By the end of it, I was satisfied, thinking my cash was well-spent.

Wooden sculptures of a sitting figure (a Cordilleran bulol) and a movie camera, from an exhibit by Kidlat Tahimik.
A depiction of the Cordilleran bulol as a filmmaker: detail from a Kidlat Tahimik exhibit at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, during Cinemalaya 2014. (Photo by the author.)

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‘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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‘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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