TONDO GIRLS AND BALLERINAS

MANILA, September 1, 2003  (STAR) PENMAN By Butch Dalisay  - Tonight, at the Manila Peninsula’s Rigodon Ballroom, the 53rd Palanca Awards for literature will be given out. The winners actually know who they are a couple of weeks before the awards night, held almost invariably on September 1st, so some names inevitably leak out beforehand. And going by what I’ve heard on the grapevine, it looks like another year of the newbies – new young writers, new names, new passions and enthusiasms. Which is as it should be.

Philippine literature has been dominated for too long by its grand old men (a condition to which some of us may aspire but for which, alas, we are neither grand nor old enough as yet, manly though we profess to be). The Palanca awards are best reserved for those to whom it remains a gut-wrenching ordeal and an Olympian challenge, and who therefore write their hearts out, hoping for the real reward of the whole affair, which is the recognition and albeit grudging acclaim of their seniors and their peers. They’re wasted, I think, on the jaded and the money-hungry, and on the seguristas who join the most obscure categories simply to improve their chances of winning.

I neither joined nor judged this year – the first time in a few years that that’s happened – and I’d have to admit that it’s been a relief. I’ll still be joining, one of these years, when I feel that I’ve written something I truly like, maybe just to give the young ones a run for their money. Heck, I could even lose (and I’ve lost, many times – three years in a row, once), and that should be a helpful and sobering wake-upper. But to tell you the truth, much of the old thrill is gone, replaced by the gnawing realization of the need for time and space to write, rather than another writing prize, the loudest and sanest message of which can only be "Write some more!" These days what I enjoy most about the Palancas are the awards nights themselves, an annual opportunity to commingle with fellow writers old and young, and to get absolutely soused through the kindness of the Palanca family.

Speaking of the Palancas, it was with some sadness that I received the news that the La Tondeña distillery’s corporate name had been changed by its new owners (you know who) to Ginebra San Miguel-something. I realize that "La Tondeña" doesn’t exactly cause people to jump up from their seats and scream themselves hoarse – but on the other hand, there’s something anciently winsome about it. Few people today even know what it means – which is, literally, "Tondo girl," harking back to the days when the Pasig was so clean you could swim in it or maybe even drink from it, and Tondo, the birthplace of kings and poets, had yet to acquire its exaggerated postwar reputation as goontown.

NVM Gonzalez once told us a story – when we were looking at an old photo of his, if I remember right, taken at the very first Palanca awards in 1950 – about how he had suggested to the Palancas that they name their new prize the "Tondeña Award." It just might’ve stuck, although I’m not too sure that it would have had quite the same resonance as a "Palanca," which sounds like a pealing bell (and which winning one makes you feel like).

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A new and exciting feature has been added to the UP cultural calendar – what we’re calling "The President’s Hour," actually a 90-minute period devoted to a presentation by a renowned Filipino artist before the Diliman community.

This project – conceived by Art Studies Professor Edru Abraham and to be implemented by the President’s Committee on Culture and the Arts – should be another way of bringing art closer to the ordinary UP faculty member, student, and employee. More of a conversation than a lecture or a performance, the artist’s presentation lets us into the artist’s life, his or her ideas about art and making art, and the artist’s view and expectations of the Filipino audience, among other concerns.

The first guest of the series was prima ballerina Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, and her presentation last Aug. 26 was a resounding success. UP officials and faculty members joined about a hundred other people on the Quezon Hall steps to listen to Lisa explain the basics of ballet and relate the kind of training she had to undergo in Russia to reach the pinnacle of her profession. Afterwards, the ballerina mingled with the students and with UP employees for merienda, signing autographs and inspiring young dancers who came to meet her.

The second offering of the series will feature the award-winning film director, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, who will talk about her craft and her profession in terms that pedestrians can appreciate. This will be held tomorrow, Sept. 2, from 4:30 to 6 p.m., again at the Quezon Hall steps (the event will be moved to the rooftop if it rains). The presentation will be preceded by a free showing of a Diaz-Abaya film, in the same venue, starting at 1 p.m.

I had the wonderful opportunity of working with Marilou on a couple of film projects – more than a couple, actually, but as luck would have it, only one would come to fruition, in 1993: Ang Ikalabing-Isang Utos (Mahalin Mo ang Iyong Asawa) – okay, okay, I swear to God it was neither me nor Marilou who came up with that final title, my original for which was Sylvia, Susan, Soledad. Having worked with the late Lino Brocka on most of my scriptwriting assignments previous to Utos, I was excited and yet also apprehensive about writing for another accomplished director. In fact, Marilou and I had already collaborated much earlier on another project which sadly never got finished – Four Days in February, a dramatized account of the Edsa 1986 revolt from the rebel soldiers’ point of view. But that had been eight years earlier, and while many terrific scenes were shot – watching the rushes, many years later, still sent a chill down my spine – a budgetary shortfall forced us to can the project.

Working with Marilou (again) was a refreshing education in the different ways different directors work. With Lino, nearly every one of the 15 or 16 scripts I wrote for him was a rush job – needing to be finished in anywhere from a month to three days, given the nature of the business. (Yes, I did write a couple of three-day wonders, with predictably forgettable results. I acquired something of a reputation for being the fastest horse in Lino’s stable of writers, which included Pete Lacaba, Ricky Lee, Joey Reyes, and Doy del Mundo – and this was both a good thing and a bad thing, because while it gave me more jobs, it also gave me the worst ones.) I’m not complaining, mind you; as rushed as many of Lino Brocka’s movies were, they always emerged with a certain stamp, the hallmark of Lino’s take on a deeply flawed society; even ridiculous boy-girl movies like Burgis or Hello, Young Lovers (yes, both mine) managed to say something serious along the way. But writing these scripts always left me dog-tired, and I kept hoping that Lino and I would work on something at a more leisurely pace.

With Marilou, scripts took months to complete, but that was because she takes a highly intellectual approach to her work, pondering the political and philosophical nuances of every scene. You thought things through with Marilou: Why this line of dialogue? Why that backdrop? Why this turn of plot?

On the other hand, Laurice Guillen, for whom I wrote two light romantic dramas (Tayong Dalawa and Bakit Ngayon Ka Lang?), was also a pleasure to work with, in another way. While Lino took the script from you and then did with it what he could, and while Marilou developed every the script with you, Laurice saw the movie as a literal work in progress, so that it was always possible that a new scene would be suddenly required if Laurice saw an opportunity to enhance the story, and I was often on the set, armed with a typewriter, ready to crank out dialogue at the snap of a finger.

As interesting and as pleasant as most of my experiences with film directors have been, and as talented as those directors were, I’ve always had to accept and respect the fact that screenwriters will never see their scripts realized onscreen the way they dreamed the movie aloud in their imaginations, unless they take the route that some of us have chosen, i.e., to direct films themselves. Fair enough. But since I have neither the temperament, the training, nor the connections to direct movies, I’ve availed myself of another option – to write stories, for which I can be the director, actor, cinematographer, production designer, and editor all at once. It’s just too bad that you have to give up a potential viewership of millions in exchange for the enlightened patronage of hundreds.

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Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at penmanila@yahoo.com.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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