Philippine Cinema: A Childhood in Black and White

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My love of old movies started in the Philippines. When I was in elementary school in the 1970s, I’d be home in time to watch “Piling Piling Pelikula” (“Movie Picks”). The program followed a noontime variety show called “Student Canteen.” A composite of “The Gong Show” and “Donny and Marie,” “Student Canteen” featured an IQ contest and a singing competition, dances, and guest appearances by the stars of the day. The atmosphere of frolicsome high school and college kids filling the rafters that preceded two hours of Filipino black and white films from the 1930s to the 1960s was smart network programming. I was riveted. Although “Piling Piling Pelikula” was a voyage to the past, there was something about those films that was of my present. None of them had a sad ending. Every feature finished with lovers reconciled, a lost child finding a home, or the transformation of a villain into a kind soul.

I am thinking at this moment of “Aklat ng Buhay” (“Book of Life”)(1952). Actress Rosa Rosal is as odious as a Disney stepmother in her pathological urge to reduce a six-year-old boy to tears with bouts of voice-raising and denunciations of worthlessness. In the end, she is repentant. I cannot for the life of me recall the plot, but I surmise that it would not be far from that of “Cinderella” (1950). What causes Rosal’s character to change is insignificant. The point is she does, and she is a happy woman as a result. She hugs the boy and then taunts him by reverting to her awful old self, after which she laughs and says how difficult it is for her to even simulate meanness. That was reality for me before puberty – rainbow and sugar. In tandem with each other, “Student Canteen” and “Piling Piling Pelikula” mirrored the insouciance of my childhood.

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My viewing mate was our housekeeper, Maring. She had started out with my family as my nanny, or as we say in Tagalog, my yaya. On the occasions that my mother was out, Maring would sit with me in the family room, even though she was supposed to be dusting tabletops, a rag in her hand in the event the car honk should announce my mother’s return. Whether it was beef steak Tagalog marinating in soy sauce or fried chicken that was served me for lunch, old Filipino movies made for perfect dessert. The names of actors back then evoked sweetness: Mario Montenegro, Carmen Rosales, Rogelio de la Rosa, Gloria Romero… the alliteration and the rolling of the R’s caressed the tongue like candy. They were all lookers, too, fashioned after a Hollywood counterpart. Amalia Fuentes was the Elizabeth Taylor of the Philippines; Lou Salvador, Jr. was our James Dean; and Barbara Perez was Audrey Hepburn. Rosa Rosal was herself a stunner. Part French, svelte with hair the black of black crystal against fair skin, she was as alluring as a white tiger. Joan Crawford might have inspired her image. I have a vision of Rosal in a scene to another film where she drowns herself by walking into the ocean as Crawford does in “Humoresque” (1946).

It might have been Maring who tuned me into “Piling Piling Pelikula.” Her favorite star was Nora Aunor, the Barbra Streisand of the Philippines and the personification of the rags to riches fairy tale. Petite with skin brown as toast, she was the antithesis of the Western mestiza held as the ideal beauty. Aunor had gotten her break in the entertainment industry when first place in a national singing competition catapulted her from water vendor at train depots to superstar. A snapshot of Aunor on a parade float, standing beside her romantic partner both onscreen and off, Tirso Cruz III, was among Maring’s souvenirs. Maring kept it in a Samsonite valise along with a jade bracelet wrapped in tissue and a wallet made of rice paper, both of which were gifts my mother had bought during trips to Hong Kong and Japan. Maring also had a photograph of a young Caucasian couple. “My amo and ama before,” she said. Prior to working for my family, she had taken care of their boy. I see a red shirt on the man, hair trimmed like Larry Hagman’s in “I Love Jeannie,” and a smile Sesame Street friendly. But I remember neither the mother nor if the boy was in the picture. Either her former employers had moved back to the States or the boy had grown up so that Maring was no longer of use. Whatever her reason for leaving, I felt a tinge of sadness as I gazed at these strangers. One moment Maring was indispensable, relied upon to bathe the boy and put on his socks. Then one day, just like that, she wasn’t.

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Now here she was as my yaya and our housekeeper. The things in life that would upset me was when my mother prohibited me to swim in our pool because I had the sniffles and being called to dinner before the conclusion to an episode of “The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Mystery Series.” Otherwise, I spent my days in the maids’ quarters, listening to Maring’s music and radio dramas. Because of her, Nora Aunor had been my favorite singer, as well, Aunor’s rendition of the “Our Father” prayer being my song of choice, only at the period when Maring and I were both hooked on “Piling Piling Pelikula,” I no longer needed a step stool to reach the sink, and I certainly no longer needed her to assist in washing my face. Still, it was too soon for Maring to go. I was learning things from her. She was nuts over pop culture. “I said so,” she beamed with a clap of the hands when Miss Baguio won the Miss Philippines title. She herself hailed from the mountain city. With her thick legs and rotund features, Maring was the embodiment of the Igorot, the native of the region, and of this she was very proud, although the newly crowned beauty queen looked more Chinese than indigenous. When Elvis died, Maring might as well had worn black instead of her white maid’s uniform. That was how much in mourning she was. Her face was a mask of gloom as she dispiritedly maneuvered the rag in her hand over tabletops as if it were a tear-soaked hanky. Rogue that I was, I said that Miss Baguio shouldn’t have won and that Elvis was old anyway.

However, I never teased Maring when it came to bygone black and white Filipino movies. The two primary film production companies in the days of yore were Sampaguita Pictures, which was named after the national flower, and LVN Pictures, famous as the MGM Studios of the Philippines. That we Filipinos could build our own version of Hollywood that celebrated our culture of provincial family values and moonlight serenades was a feast for the eyes. For the decade of the ‘70s, every one of us glued to the TV to watch “Piling Piling Pelikula” was merry and carefree, as beautiful as Audrey Hepburn and as handsome as James Dean. That Nora Aunor could glitter among the most glamorous of the mestizas made us believe that no dream was impossible.

Upon the dawning of the 1980s, those days were over. I grew up.

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“Happy Times”: The Saving Grace of Friendship

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During my schooldays in France, I went island hopping in Greece and then spent a week in Turkey. At the Istanbul Atatürk Airport, for a flight back to Athens where I was to spend a few days before returning to Paris, I realized at check-in that since I had used my one-entry visa to Greece on the first half of my vacation, my visa was now invalid. I was stuck in Istanbul. Though I could have bought a plane ticket to Paris, I really wanted to see Athens. I was also trying my hardest to be economical. Young and confused (I was 21), I took a bus to the Blue Mosque to think of what to do. Minarets and domes layered like colossal steppingstones to the sky lent a meditative mien, and due to the bustle of people in the square and its surrounding restaurants, I didn’t feel alone. I decided to enter Greece by way of train, assuming that the borderline customs would be less stringent. At the railway station that night, I phoned a guy who had befriended me at the mosque days earlier and had acted as my tour guide – a courtesy call to tell him that I was still in town. As Aydin wasn’t home to pick up, I left a message with the person who did. Lo and behold, in less than an hour, Aydin showed up, unexpectedly, giving me plenty of information to my questions about borderline protocol and the duration of the journey. It would have been a 32-hour ride, plus without any certainty that I would have been allowed admittance. Now I was really stuck in Istanbul. But Aydin’s hospitality, as well as his account of having survived losing his passport and briefcase in Germany and Belgium, assured me that everything would be okay, a testimony to the saving grace of friendship.

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Friendship is a theme celebrated in many movies, a couple of favorites being “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) and “Beaches” (1988). The one that ranks high on my list, however, is not famous: “Happy Times” (2000). The film resonates with my experience in Turkey because it is about a blind girl, Wu Ying (Dong Jie), whom her stepmother (Dong Lifan) casts aside and who, as a result, gains the sympathy of the woman’s suitor, a factory worker named Zhao (Zhao Benshan). Zhao elaborates tales of wealth to impress the stepmother and her stepdaughter, claiming to be the owner of a hotel that he calls Happy Times. In reality, the hotel is a ramshackle bus that he charges young couples to avail of as a love nest. Zhao has also spruced up a warehouse space, where he sets up Wu Ying as a masseuse to the fictitious Happy Times Hotel so that she could have a source of income, while he coerces his co-workers to be her clients. Everything he does for the blind girl is at first an act of pity. Then it turns into acts of kindness and finally of friendship. I am not blind, but stranded in a place foreign to me such as Istanbul without a soul to rely on, Aydin’s fortuitous friendship opened my eyes to the benevolence inherent in all of us.

For the six days I was there, Aydin had introduced me to his girlfriend, whom he called “my darling.” (He referred to a male friend as a “boyfriend.”) She was a young woman with a toothy smile, swarthy complexion, and hair dark and luxuriant as a bouquet of violas. Aydin was fair with a crew cut and an aquiline profile – features belonging to the European lineage of the Turks. The two of them together exemplified the culture’s racial amalgamation. Being the only Asian tourist in sight, I had expected coldness from the Turks. Quite the opposite. On a bus or at the Grand Bazaar, people would smile and pose for my camera. Some locals even provided their addresses for me to send their pictures to. Aydin himself said, “This not liking each other between Greeks and the Turks, it’s ridiculous. We are all people.” Hostility still persists over a history of wars between the two nationals that dates back to the Ottoman Empire. Not everyone is pleased with it, though. In the spirit of goodwill, Aydin’s darling cut me slices of melon as Aydin served as translator for the conversation between she and me. They lived in an apartment furnished with a rolled up carpet and a view of soot darkened buildings. Sunlight through windows brightened the walls and the floor.

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Stranded, I was able to contact via pay phone my father in Manila. His instructions were for me to get the next available flight to Paris at whatever cost, courtesy of the credit card he had given me. So long to Athens. It wasn’t meant to be. By then, I was tired anyway, hungry for my daily fix of almond croissant. Aydin helped me find a hotel for the night even though I told him that I’d be comfortable sleeping on his and his darling’s apartment floor. He said their place wouldn’t be appropriate for me, not because I wouldn’t be welcomed but because he had neither a sofa nor a bed to spare. I didn’t care. The sun, the geniality of my hosts, their companionship… when you’re alone, friendship is a priceless gem. Still, Aydin wouldn’t hear of it. The hotel I stayed in was something out of the “Twilight Zone” – a hallway floor that undulated and rubble in the shower from a collapsed wall. An explosive seemed to have detonated in the bathroom. And there was no other guest.

Aydin accompanied me to the airport in the morning to procure a ticket, after which we returned to his apartment since I wasn’t to leave until the next day. He introduced me to the building manager and the man’s family, and this led to more food. (Just as in the Philippines, when you are invited into somebody’s home in Turkey, you are offered a meal.) The building manager was Oliver Hardy hefty and mirthful. He had a four-year-old son as nimble as a squirrel. When I took out my camera, the boy shrieked and climbed up his father’s leg as if it were a tree. He must have thought the camera was a bomb. Oh, his tears… how they wouldn’t stop. The boy in his arms, the building manager would playfully say “boo” while covering his son’s eyes with one hand and then releasing it in order to show that the world was still in one piece.

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In “Happy Times,” Wu Ying tells Zhao that because she is blind, she would like to see him by running her finger tips on his face. “I’m not easy on the eyes,” Zhao says. “Can I touch you?” Wu Ying asks nonetheless. And together they delight in his short hair, thick eyebrows, and eye bags, which she calls “suitcases.” Kindness is beauty. I myself have photographs that stand as proof. And we’ve all got the movies. The bond that develops between Zhao and Wu Ying is one of those blessings we each pray or wish for. He gives her enough love, too much of it, and happiness besides, and on account of that love and happiness, she gains the faith in humanity to guide her through life’s darkest hours.

This is what gives us resilience, the comfort of a fellow human. Friendship is never far despite the oceans that separate us. “The world is too small,” Aydin said on my last day in Istanbul. He, his darling, and I were walking across the Atatürk Bridge. It was a heavenly promenade. Clouds ballooned above us. The railing reflected the silver sheen of the sky. “We shall meet again,” he said. We haven’t, and it is doubtful we ever will. A friend of mine who himself had gone backpacking while in college said it perfectly: “You meet people you will never see again, but you never forget them.” I believe the sentiment also holds true for Aydin and his darling with regards to this lost tourist, for all of us who have been lucky to experience the solicitude of a passing friendship born in a moment of need.

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Through earthquakes and hurricanes, through war and peace, we wish these strangers who have bestowed upon us their trust all the best. We wouldn’t have made it without them.

“Jesus Christ Superstar”: The Spirit of Dreams

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“Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973) does something unprecedented. It makes religion groovy and transforms the Son of God into a pop culture icon. Until the film’s release, hymns about the Lord had been associated with bible thumpers in shirts buttoned up to their necks, and the scriptures had been abstruse material for catechism classes. Suddenly, in the first collaborative hit between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, youngsters in bell-bottoms, fringes, and shirtless vests let down their hair, expose their belly buttons, and gyrate their hips to Godly lyrics accompanied by drums and electric guitars. Nothing biblical here. These acolytes are of the me generation. They dance with such abandon and sing to such a feverish pitch that rock-n-roll, in the Age of Aquarius, is elevated to the spiritual.

I was seven years old when “Jesus Christ Superstar” was screened in Manila on Holy Week of 1974. Going to the theater to watch it was a family event. At dinner that night, I could hardly digest my meal. The scene where Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) lynches Jesus (Ted Neeley) filled me with visions of blood. We might have gone to mass after the film because instead of food, I could smell the choking odor of church incense like sweat and tears coagulating down my throat. Whip lashes… vestment hem rustling against a red carpet… gashes on Jesus’s back… a chain-dangling bowl of smoke… these could have been scenes out of “The Omen” (1976) rather than from a rock opera and a prayer sermon. Religion is disturbing with its stories of betrayal and Satanism. The number 666 will forever connote evil. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is something else. The music got me through dinner without vomiting. Even though the film has lepers and death, all the bad on earth juxtaposed with the good, none of that outdoes Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) when she croons, mellifluous as a nightingale, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” or Jesus as he belts out “Gethsemane” while genuflecting before the fire of the setting sun.

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For my brother, Raymund, who was then only 14, the film was more than a pleasurable viewing experience. It changed his life. The soundtrack to “Jesus Christ Superstar” was the first long-playing album he purchased. It was a two-record set. The cover opened up as a scrapbook to present pictures of scenes from the movie. Of all the records my brother would collect over the years, he must have held on to this the longest because my memory of the cover consists of musk and a faded crucifix against an azure sky whitened around the edges from wear and tear. Some dreams are hard to let go off, and “Jesus Christ Superstar” is one of them. The rock opera marked the birth of my brother’s aspiration to be a singer.

My brother had what it takes to pass the audition for Kundirana, a music group of La Salle High School boys that is prestigious in the Philippines for engineering the careers of obscure musical talents to national renown, the most famous being Gary Valenciano. My brother made TV appearances and went on a cross country tour. Photo albums show him and other members aboard a bus, laughing and dozing off, girls with them even though this was an all-male minstrel. Groupies, I suppose. Why not? Wherever you’ve got a band of 16 to 17-year-old boys, girls are bound to latch on, especially when the boys have melody flowing out of their mouths.

RayThe rest of the family and I got to see my brother perform live. In white Elvis attire of flared pants and plunging neckline, he did a solo rendition of “Old Man River.” It was just him onstage and his baritone timbre. That was the first time I saw him as somebody other than the guy who would order me to change the TV channel or to fetch a canister of Pringles. There must have been instrumental accompaniments, as well, but I didn’t hear any of that. With the theater as his domain and he the sole person in the spotlight, I understood at last the seduction of performance. It’s in every scene of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Our biblical heroes, as center dots to the massive circle of Jerusalem, possess heaven and earth through the might of music. For that moment, my brother owned the world.

Decisions being what they are, this stamp of indomitability was not meant to continue past high school. It was natural for my brother to want to pursue a singing career… Kundirana only selects a handful out of the dozens of auditionees… but life as a grown up is not a performance, and on this opinion my parents were steadfast. My brother went off to college to study business, a practical choice and one not entirely his. Such is Asian culture – the three primary avenues for a career as laid down by our elders are law, finance, and medicine. Given its nature of economic uncertainty, a profession in the arts is a rarity for a man, talent notwithstanding, which is why when I was earning my B.A. in English at Tufts, I was the only Asian guy in many of my classes. Although my brother did what he was told, the yearning to sing couldn’t be squelched. A great love never dies, only my brother had to contain his great love to parties, karaoke bars, and church.

My brother might have wondered at the path he had been made to take, while I was given free-rein to choose my own. Perhaps my parents didn’t see the life of a scribe as that enormous of a monetary risk. Look around us – papers and magazines everywhere. Words are our primary form of communication, and therefore a means of survival. Words are practical. Music is purely an expression of the soul.

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That was a long time ago. We have aged and have since moved on. The scandal we caused our parents over bell-bottoms, platform shoes, and hair grown to such length as to cover our ears is passé. One thing remains: over 40 years later, “Jesus Christ Superstar” continues to sing and dance in the hearts of those who witnessed its phenomenon. My brother now has four sons, one of who is himself a guitar-strumming balladeer, and so it is in the next generation that the spirit of my brother’s dream lives on.

“Ordinary People”: Extraordinary Lives

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35 years have passed and the scenes continue to haunt me as fragments of a dream: a capsized boat in a stormy sea; a wreck of an adolescent boy wishing to his therapist that he, instead of his brother, had drowned; father and mother in a moment of truth as he asks why she would fixate on his shoes for their son’s funeral. “Ordinary People” (1980) was the first adult-themed movie I ever saw. I was 13 years old. My cousins and I, four guys in all, had not intended to watch it. The title advertised on the theater marquee was to some slasher flick, so we had expected gore and screaming girls. What we got instead was a family in a white-column house, polite dialogue, and soft music. My cousins wanted to walk out. I convinced them to stay; we had paid for the tickets. I didn’t know what type of film the rest of the audience thought it was in for because nobody was leaving. So what? As the story on screen unfolded, I became a different person.

The disintegration of the conversations between parents Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) Jarrett from emotionally guarded to angry exacerbated by son Conrad’s suicidal alienation in no way reflects my family, yet I thought of my family even so. Conrad (Timothy Hutton) believes his mother hates him for surviving the boating accident while his brother, Jordan (Scott Doebler), dies. Beth declares to Calvin upon his disclosure of their son’s accusation that no mother hates her son. That could have been the first time I ever wondered what thoughts preoccupied my parents over me and my siblings when we squabbled. Discordances erupted over my brother’s hours on the phone, my sister’s ever shortening skirt hem, and my rebellious silence at the dinner table. What I was rebelling against, I don’t even remember. Once, while my father and I were watching a gymnastics competition on TV, he remarked that gymnasts are short. I said with a tone of agitation, “Not always.” He shook his head. “You always need to disagree with me. You are so antagonistic.” And he walked out the room. True. Dissention was the order of the day for this 13-year-old know-it-all. Adulthood, the only bridge to the generation gap, was a long time away. Until then, my parents had to suffer. And I didn’t care.

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Yet whatever arguments and discussions within the walls of my home, no rift has ever occurred among us five. We had fun on summer trips to the U.S. The largeness of American malls and their overstock of products from music records to Crayola-colored socks excited me, and with all those Stateside aunts, uncles, cousins, and two grandmothers, I was never lonely. Back in Manila, our routine of school for us kids, work for father, and home tending for mother provided stability. No staged studio photographs exist of us. We didn’t need them. Candid shots of us smiling on birthdays, Christmases, and lazy Sundays are plenty, which is exactly what makes the heightened drama of “Ordinary People” spellbinding. The Jarretts are not ordinary. Far from it. I was ordinary… pampered, comfortable, and boring ordinary.

In school, my English teacher, Mrs. Olmos, mentioned “Ordinary People” to explain irony, pointing out that beneath the calm of a picturesque house in an idyllic neighborhood simmers turbulence, the opposite state from what a veneer of normalcy suggests. I felt a kinship to Mrs. Olmos, she who enunciated every syllable and whose bangles tinkled as she wrote on the blackboard. She seemed to be giving a performance. I hadn’t spoken to anybody about “Ordinary People,” least of all my cousins; they were only too eager to leave the theater once the lights were turned back on. Now here was a teacher saying that she had seen the film and had gotten something out of it, too – material for a lecture, certainly, but that wasn’t all. By using “Ordinary People” to explain the literary device of irony, Mrs. Olmos was insinuating that it is the extraordinary rather than the ordinary that inspires stories.

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That was what I wanted for myself – irony in my life, to be paradoxical and raging with unpredictability, to be interesting. I had craved this for years. I used to fantasize that my parents were divorced. I had transferred from Catholic school to the International School in the fourth grade, and American students who spoke of stepparents and stepsiblings fascinated me. Two families must have been better than one. You could claim to have two homes and not be lying. As I got older and my interest in the arts flourished, I became enamored by the genius of creativity attributed to the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Vivien Leigh – the schizophrenic. Substantial as their output had been, none of it stands entirely on its own as separate from the artist. “Starry Night,” “The Bell Jar,” “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/a-streetcar-named-desire-forever-young/)… we inevitably link the greatness of those works with the mental state of their creators. Van Gogh severed his ear as a declaration of love. Plath gassed herself to death. Leigh so identified with the role of Blanche Dubois that in every film she did afterwards, she would continuously slip into the character. To create with such ferocity that your emotions spew out of your pores as plasma permeating the air is indeed the stuff of legends.

Alas, no. The romanticism of lunacy belongs to the realm of the stars. I had to make do with the banality that is me. My compulsion for the movies had grown so strong that I fancied myself an actor. If I wanted to be a tortured soul, then I’d probably have more of a jolly time being one in make believe than in real life. It happened for Timothy Hutton. He got the Oscar. One problem: I couldn’t act. To spin my own stories of bliss and torment with words is a gift I would discover years later. By then I would come to accept that I’m average. This is also the reason I’m a writer. Had I been spectacular, then what would I have to imagine?

Ordinary is good. Ordinary is a blessing. Bandaged wrists are no badge of honor. As it is, I experience my share of life’s ebb and flow, and they provide me enough tears and laughter to contend with for a day.

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“The Salt of the Earth”: Through the Lens of Love

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Photographer Sebastião Salgado has said that he is not an artist; an artist makes an object. He calls himself a storyteller. With the camera as his medium of narration, he has occupied news pages with images of global issues ranging from the famine in Ethiopia to the slave labor of Brazilian mine workers, from oil drills in Kuwait to the Yugoslavian Siege of Bihac. True to the creed of storytelling, Salgado focuses on people. We humans have created the world as it is today. Although we credit ourselves for the breakthroughs of space travel and the internet, the destruction that has been heaped upon earth is largely of our doing, as well. On this, Salgado sheds a light. His pictures aren’t pretty, and rarely is a person smiling. And yet, they are beautiful in their portrayal of will and dignity. Even when prostrate, his human subjects rise like pillars amid a map of rubble. No famous faces here, neither leaders of state nor Nobel laureates for peace. Salgado focuses his lens on the likes of you and me, law-abiding citizens who at any moment can become pawns in a political feud. The photographer may not be making an object, but he is making us feel by relaying to us his vision of the downtrodden, and therefore, changing the way we look at the world. That he doesn’t regard himself as an artist might be modesty. I say he is. One of the best.

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Some things Salgado has seen: corpses along dirt paths like fallen trees in the aftermath of a hurricane; children grimy as sewer rats; and millions of displaced in an exodus towards a promised land that doesn’t exist. We, too, have seen these, in textbooks and journals and in documentaries such as this, “The Salt of the Earth” (2014), and all as scenes from somebody else’s nightmare. Salgado’s, no doubt. The irony in Salgado is that he discovered his vocation of photographic storyteller by chance. He never took classes on the craft nor had he been greatly interested in the scourges afflicting nations across the Mediterranean. He was an economist in Paris in the 1970s when his wife, Lélia, gave him a camera. His first picture was of her, languid on a windowsill against a backdrop of the city line, and out of this tender portrait was born a hunger to record the many faces of love in all the cultures of the world. Love shines strongest when we have lost everything and have only each other. Thus, began a journey that would last to this day to lands where civilizations have collapsed.

Lélia has been partner to Salgado’s passion from the get-go. She quit her job as an architect. He quit his job as an economist. They started a photo studio and worked together in order for him to be the best in the field that he could be. There’s a love story right there, the proverbial “behind every great man is a great woman.” I am a firm believer in the silent influence one has in the success of another, whether the former is a spouse, a friend, or a relation. We have words for this individual such as “muse” and “inspiration.” While for some it can be solitary being at the top, nobody gets there alone. What would Chinese director Zhang Yimou be without actress Gong Li? (http://www.rafsy.com/actors-models-directors/gong-li-the-garbo-of-the-far-east/) Gertrude Stein without Alice B. Toklas? Hubert de Givenchy without Audrey Hepburn? Of his mother, George Washington has said, “I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.” Spiritualist Deepak Chopra acknowledges several people: “If you want to do really important things in life and big things in life, you can’t do anything by yourself. And your best teams are your friends and your siblings.”

Parents1I see this in my parents. My mother has a scrapbook of magazine articles written on her when she was single. Since she was a lovely girl – petite with the Spanish traits of high cheekbones and an aquiline nose – Philippine media relished in using her image to fill empty columns. One magazine features a cover story of her engagement to my father. He was a clerk at the Bank of America, while she was a secretary at Caltex. She would not be working much longer because, as my father is quoted, he would be the protector and sole provider of the family. We today would consider this an old-fashioned view of marriage. Father and mother were wed in 1958. The accompanying photograph of them attests to the respect for tradition prevalent in that era. They are standing underneath a tree – she in a flouncy skirt and do styled after Jean Simmons’s crop; he in white pants and black hair glistening with pomade. My father is at an angle with his back to the camera; only part of his smile is visible. The smile that dominates the shot is that of my mother. As my father holds her hand, her smile is all giving, even worshipful. This isn’t a common photograph of a 22-year-old girl in love. This is a quiet moment in which the bride is entrusting the groom with her future. From that moment on, she would be the guardian of his dreams and ambitions. Old-fashioned marriage aside, it worked.

Even though my father was frequently on business trips during my childhood, he was an ever present figure. He was home on weekends, tanning in the garden or, for the year we lived in Walnut Creek, picking weeds and mowing the lawn. During the week, he always occupied his seat at the head of the dinner table so that we could have the last meal of the day as a family. If he had to work late, he would call my mother, who would tell us kids to eat ahead while she waited up for him so that she and he could dine together. Then we would watch TV. Our favorite shows: “Hawaii Five-O” and “Laugh-In” in the 1960s; “The Love Boat,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “Fantasy Island” in the 1970s; followed by “Three’s Company” and “Dynasty” in the 1980s. For her part, my mother was the classic homemaker. She never missed any school production I appeared in. In the fifth grade, I was cast as an evil stepbrother in “Cinderfellow,” the male version of “Cinderella.” I had my star moment with a monologue delivered amid excessive arm raises. I must have grown between the casting period and opening night because my trousers were so short that the hem was above my ankles. After I took my bow at the end of the play to the applause of the audience, my mother rushed to me, aghast. “Your socks don’t match,” she said. “One is blue and the other is black.” But she was smiling and so was I. It was her responsibility to notice those things.

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I always thought my father confided to my mother everything that went on at the office. Only a couple of years ago did my mother say this wasn’t so. For my mother to build the home as a safe haven for her husband and children, they agreed that it was mandatory worries pertaining to the bank stay locked in its vaults. That was the only way my father could stay true to the oath he had made that day under the tree. As a result, we’ve survived everything from kidnap threats to a bank run, and in the 57 years that my parents have been married, my father moved up from clerk to founder of his own bank. The business trips that took him away from us had been difficult for my mother, but she understood the necessity of them; they were part of the dream she had married into.

Sebastião Salgado in “The Salt of the Earth” expresses the downside of success on his own family. While growing up, son Juliano hardly ever saw dad. Nevertheless, this did not diminish the boy’s pride in his father. That Salgado ventured to lands and was privy to experiences people only read about made him a superhero in Juliano’s eyes. Today, Juliano has followed in Salgado’s profession and works as his father’s assistant. Lélia remains by Salgado’s side as editor to his books.

One doesn’t need to make an object to be an artist. Art can be something intangible that is beautiful on account of its power to move us, discernible to our hearts rather than to our eyes. How we love so that our dreams can flourish is itself a vision to behold.

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“Truly, Madly, Deeply”: The Ghost of Letting Go

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No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you, beloved, my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive…

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Although Pablo Neruda’s poem, “The Dead Woman,” is in part the inspiration to “Truly, Madly, Deeply” (1990), the heroine of our film, Nina (Juliet Stevenson), isn’t dead. She isn’t even dying. She’s healthy, young, and vivacious. A worldly Brit, she speaks Spanish, has the capacity to make others smile, and is attune with the social issues of the day from racism to class discrimination. What people do not see is that she is not completely alive. Her great love, Jamie (Alan Rickman) – a cellist of acerbic wit and who bears Donald Sutherland’s profile – has died. It isn’t clear to us how long ago he died or how, but we sense it was unexpected and that too much time has passed for Nina to still be grieving. Fortunately, she will be happy again. Jamie returns from the grave. He, too, cannot let go, not until Nina regains a life. To this end, he helps her the best way a ghost can – by giving her a taste of existence six feet under.

Friendships do thrive, so one is never alone for an eternity. Jamie has actually found himself a gang of buffoons, all of who happen to be as talented a musician as he. The problem is that these guy spirits are constantly with him. Nina’s flat transforms into a frat house of sorts. They turn over furniture, lounge in front of the telly, and walk in unannounced. Life with Jamie was never this messy. Regardless, Nina deals with it because love is about tolerance, and love is one emotion Nina has no shortage of, which is why men are attracted to her at every turn. One suitor rises above the others as the saving grace. He is Mark (Michael Maloney), a magician who has roses and doves up his sleeves and who possesses the virtues of patience and compassion.

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The beauty of “Truly, Madly, Deeply” is that it makes us believe in the plausibility of a second chance. People in our lives come and go. As difficult as it is to say goodbye, that we are able to do so warrants us closure. With those who depart suddenly and bereft of a parting word, we have a void in our hearts that we fill with desires of what endearing things we could have said and done. Not to have expressed a simple thank you is itself a loss. Nina is lucky that Jamie returns to show her that love should not be wasted on the dead. She is lucky that Mark enters the picture to share in her zing for life. Reality doesn’t provide such a perfectly packaged gift. We are often left alone to find peace within ourselves. A second chance comes from our ability to move past grief and regret, to forgive ourselves for letting slip by the moments available to us to do well. Accept it. We are guilty of stupid things all the time.

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I’m not sure I know how to grieve. I’ve lost people – a couple of friends in a car crash, a cousin to cancer, and both my grandmothers – but while I shed tears at their funerals, I carried on in a matter of days with my frivolous diversions of weekend clubbing and shopping at Armani Express. I do have regrets, however. I didn’t care when Nena left my family after nearly ten years of cooking our meals and doing our laundry. I wasn’t sad when our dog, a Dalmatian named Heidi, died. Given the separation between upstairs and downstairs in Philippine culture, I had been guarded with my affection for the domestic help, and with Heidi, a church sermon when I was a child preached that it is a sin to love animals.

On Thanksgiving weekend some years ago, I took care of a friend’s puppy and something happened. I started to miss Heidi. She used to keep my father company as he’d tan in the garden. She’d shut her eyes and raise her face to the sky as if about to take wing to the sun. One day the piano chair fell on her tail. For the wound to heal, the gardener cast her tail in wood so that whenever she would wag it, a bang against walls and hard-surfaced furniture announced her approach. Those were the years when Nena would treat me with my favorite dish of steamed pork or chicken macaroni as my after school lunch. I knew she had cooked something special just for me whenever she would tell me to look in the oven as I walked through the door. She had neither a husband nor kids of her own. It was solely for us whom she pressed our shirts and boiled rice with the duty she would have had her own kin. Her fingers were rough and brown as ginger root from years of loyalty.

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All these memories along with a hodgepodge of others from that period in my life surged forth because of my friend’s puppy. I was close to turning 40 and had been in America for nearly 20 years, here where people embrace animals, where the distinction between the haves and have nots is less pronounced. Attribute my regret to westernization or to age, either way, I wish… truly, madly, and deeply wish… that I had hugged Heidi more and had told Nena how kind she had been to ascertain that I was never hungry. I loved them both, and I love them still. They never knew it, and they never will. That’s regret.

What is grief?

Maybe grief is a drowning emptiness mixed with anger. In a wrenching scene with her therapist, Nina cries that she is angry, angry at people in love, at people wasting love. Most of all, she is angry at Jamie for dying on her to love alone. If this is grief, then nobody has to die for it to be experienced. How often have we been angry at ourselves for wasting love? For not grabbing it when it was clearly making itself available to us? For not daring to approach it because of the fear of rejection?

Nina learns to go on without Jamie. For one thing, she’s too smart to lock herself away in a cold flat in the company of the dead. Then again, breathing the air of the four seasons has nothing to do with intellect. It’s largely a matter of common sense. When something feels right, exorcise all ghosts of holding back and jump at the golden moment, or else spend every tomorrow mourning a life that could have been.

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“Philomena”: A Mother’s Love

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A mother has a way of finding her lost child. The nuns in “Philomena” (2013) live by the conviction of premarital sex as sinful so that girls who engage in it are damned and unfit for parenthood. Birth must occur without a doctor. The pain endured in the process is the girl’s penance, after which the child is given up for adoption, whether or not the mother consents. This is how a young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) is separated from her son. Her father sent her to a convent laundry in Ireland, a rehabilitation center in the 1950s for so-called wayward girls; she had gotten pregnant by a boy who had seduced her at a fair. In the four years that Philomena is there, working as payment for her bed and food, she has visitation rights to her boy. Then one day, he is gone. For the next 50 years, she would periodically return to the convent for information on his whereabouts, only to be told none exists. An older Philomena (Judi Dench) ultimately finds an ally in Martin Sixsmith (Steven Coogan), a reporter who is covering the story of her quest.

Through her journey, Philomena wrangles between hope and defeat, faith and disillusionment, anger and forgiveness. An atheist, Martin serves as her moral adversary, questioning her unwavering belief in God despite the nuns’ mistreatment of her. For all her devoutness, Philomena is not myopic. In a scene where she peruses a scrapbook that contains pictures of Michael and his partner, Martin is edgy; he doesn’t think she is able to grasp that Michael was gay. She does, instantly and without dismay. She says she had known when her son was a little boy, and having worked as a nurse, she reveals herself to be informed of the Republican government’s negligence of the AIDS crisis in America during the early days of the epidemic.

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Mothers are surprising in that way. They are aware of much more than we kids give them credit for. My own mother is no exception. Like Philomena, my mother can be stoic about what she keeps to herself. I discovered this of her when I was 15, on the morning that she lay awake in bed as I entered my parents’ room to kiss them both a good day before I left for school. My father was asleep and snoring, so she was alone in her thoughts. The movie “Making Love” (1982), which I had rented the day before, was in the betamax machine, and the title bothered her; it was too adult. “What’s the movie about?” she asked. “It’s about a married man who has an affair with another man,” I said. My mother jolted as if to jump out of bed. “It’s a good movie,” I said. I may as well have come out. It would not have been a shock. As a child, my favorite color was pink; I played with my sister’s Barbie; I would reenact the story of Snow White (http://www.rafsy.com/films-1920s-1950s/snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-someday-my-prince-will-come/); and I parodied mannequin poses. Instead, my mother lay pensive. I was at the age where if she were to pry into my thoughts and feelings, it would have been intrusive, even frightening. I had secrets from her now. So we parted in silence.

Months later, I joined a religious retreat that entailed a weekend of prayers, barbecue, and friends. Since it was my first spiritual experience as a burgeoning adult, my parents considered it a milestone. A letter from my mother awaited me upon my return home. It was the first love letter I ever got, and will forever be the only one of its kind. In it she writes on behalf of herself and my father about their dedication to my brother, sister, and me:

MommyItalyWhen time comes, you’ll find out that the most or one of the most difficult things to do is the profession of one’s love – in my case, much doubly so since most of the time, I can’t seem to express my true feelings in words. Most of the time, I presume on a lot of things, just as I presume that through our actions (Daddy and I), you’ve felt how we care and desire for you and Kuya and Ate the best in life… Sometimes, you tend to disagree and I do the same, but that is just normal, as long as you keep your respect for us just as we will not falter in our outpouring of love. Please keep in mind, too, that we would help you in all your problems, big or small. Never feel ashamed to confide in us, for as later in life, you’ll find out that the family is your only truest friend… Do pray that our family would continue to be this close and happy, full of love and respect for one another. Pray that God gives you all the luck and happiness and the success you crave, which are all the things I pray for every night. Seek, too, for God’s guidance so that with your prayers and mine, what we ask for would be easily granted.

I came out to my parents eight years later. I was living in San Francisco by then. As I said, they have always known. Coming out was both a relief and a burden. Whenever my mother would visit from Manila, she would worry each night I stepped out the door, asking what time I’d be home and to where I was going, understandably so. In those days, especially in the Philippines, the media coverage on homosexuals in America was largely focused on promiscuity and diseases. Mostly, though, my mother just didn’t want to be alone. I had been the child who would cry for Mommy to stay home, whose designated chair at the dining table was beside Mommy, who wanted Mommy by his side for now and always. A mother must often wonder at the man her baby son would someday grow to be. In the 50 years that Philomena never saw Michael, she thought of him every day, ached for him on his every birthday, always with an image in her head based on a single photograph taken when he was a toddler of how he must have evolved into the person he was meant to be.

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One thing’s for sure: whatever ideas of a life a mother must entertain for her son, no way does she envision a hardcore club partier. Once, I came home at seven in the morning after an entire night of fun. My mother was seated on the hallway floor, crying. I had told her I’d be back at midnight. Since I was a no show, she went through my phone book and contacted my friends to inquire of my whereabouts, phoned my father in Manila for consolation, and sought advice from her own friend on filing a missing person report. I had not thought it obligatory to call her about my intention to be home later than stated. I was 27 years old. I did take her out to lunch to amend for my misstep. It was Mother’s Day.

That is what gives my mother happiness – being a mom. Worrying comes with the territory. With every visit, she stacks up on my necessities. In all the years I’ve been in San Francisco, I’ve had to buy toilet paper no more than half a dozen times. I only eat brown rice. So on her latest visit last summer, she demanded a trip to Trader Joe’s, where she – 4’11” and 78 years old – stood in line to purchase me a packet of healthy grains. And for each meal, she always asks, “What kind of food do you want? What can I cook for you? Do you want to eat out?”

Despite the physical rift between Philomena and Michael, the bond between them remains intact, growing stronger as the passing years enhance the need of one to find the other. Philomena is not alone in her journey. All his adult life, Michael had been searching for her, traveling near and far, his own determination unwavering.

As for me, I have called many cities home: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Manila, Walnut Creek, Boston, Paris, Ithaca. Today it is San Francisco. Tomorrow, who knows? Whatever my path, it will, in the end, lead me to one destination – the final resting place of the woman who nurtured me to life.

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