MARILOU DIAZ-ABAYA, OBSESSIONS AND TRANSITIONS: A Biographical Survey (1/6)
(This survey, the first to be published on Diaz-Abaya’s full filmography, was commissioned by Asian CineVision and CineVue as part of the tribute to Diaz-Abaya and women directors at the 36th Asian American International Film Festival. It was co-commissioned by the De La Salle University Press, with support from the Film Development Council of the Philippines, for an upcoming book on leading Philippine film directors.)
When the Fukuoka Asian Cultures Prize presented its 2001 award to Marilou Diaz-Abaya, it acknowledged what her countrymen had long recognized, that hers was one of the more distinguished voices in contemporary Asian cinema. Part of the citation reads: “She conveys the Asian spirit to the world through works that depict the joy and sadness of common people with great vitality. Her superb films are indictments that harshly examine the reality of the Philippines today, and are filled with warmth and affection for the common people, surviving on their strength.”
She had been producing meticulously crafted films for over twenty years and would continue to do so for a decade more, even as she battled with illness in her last five years. Her death in late 2012 at the age of 57 was widely mourned in her country and those parts of the world where her works had captured the imagination of filmgoers and signposted the burgeoning vitality of Asian cinema with a Philippine complexion.
Though she came to be known for her depictions on film of the struggles of the disadvantaged, Abaya by her own account never thought of a career in film while growing up in convent schools for the elite. 1
She was born in Quezon City on March 30, 1955, one of seven children of lawyers, Conrado Diaz and Felicitas Correa Diaz. A child of comfort and privilege, she could nevertheless trace major dissenters against the status quo in her family tree. Her father’s family hailed from Paoay, Ilocos Norte, and the young Marilou would have found in the family’s lineage an uncle from Spanish colonial times, Valentin Diaz, who was one of the founding signatories in 1892 of the nationalist association La Liga Filipina with Jose Rizal (the national hero whose life she would famously depict on film a century later). Valentin eventually co-founded the Katipunan, the revolutionary secret society that started the uprising against Spain and led the country to independence in 1898, curtailed only too soon by the American invasion. Another ancestral uncle, Eulalio Diaz, served as a military leader in the ill-fated rebellion in the early 1900’s against the American occupation. 2 3
Though she burst into the Philippine cinema world in the 1980’s as a feminist director with seminal works like Brutal, Moral and Karnal, Abaya recalled growing up in a gender-free atmosphere: “My mother had seven children, breastfed and tutored us all and never stopped working in the bank, and became (the) first woman vice-president of Philippine National Bank, in nearly 60 years of its history. So I saw my father cook, saw my mother work. I thought interchangeable lahat yon. (I thought those were all interchangeable.) Manolo (her boyfriend and later husband) was the craziest in his family. He had pigtails up to his waist, more earrings than I did. We exchanged nail polishes and all that.” 4
Her parents also provided for the young Marilou and her siblings an environment rich in the arts. In their home hung priceless paintings of scenes of rural life by national artist Fernando Amorsolo. 5 As she recalled: “All my life, I grew up in a home filled with classical art and Philippine antiquities. My parents are both lawyers, but they are both art collectors too. As children – there were seven of us – we were forced to take up classical piano, classical ballet, the works (but) all the creative disciplines that as a child I was privileged to learn, frustrated me. I felt inadequate as a musician, as a dancer, as a theater person, as a painter.” It was only later, when she became a film director and she could call on these other disciplines to bear on her work, that Abaya fully realized the value of her youthful immersion in the classic arts. 6
She had never been a film buff growing up, being more interested in literature and history. 7 Yet unbeknownst to her, two events were conspiring to turn her path to a life of cinema with all its attendant perils, hopeless struggles, and sudden illuminations.
In 1972, her convent school, St. Theresa’s, closed down its college division when the nuns decided that they could play a more meaningful role in society by diverting resources to missionary work among the indigent. Abaya wanted to enroll at the secular state University of the Philippines like many of her classmates but her father insisted she continue her schooling at a Catholic institution. She ended up enrolling late at the even more exclusive Assumption Convent. She wanted to major in Asian Civilization but by then, the History Department, like all others but one, was already closed. That sole department was Communication Arts and she ended up registering there with the thought of just doing one semester and shifting afterwards. The Com Arts chairperson somehow managed to keep her in the department where her love for theater acting grew. 8 While still in college, she started producing Assumption plays at the Cultural Center of the Philippines with the encouragement of society lady and cultural maven Conchita Sunico. 9
The other event that turned her path to film was meeting a photography bug, Manolo Abaya, when she was 15: “Almost every girl in my class had a ring given by her boyfriend. I was one of those who didn’t… I wanted (Manolo’s) ring. The La Salle ring was big, very prestigious looking, very green. It was out of frivolity that I said, ‘Okay, let’s go steady.’ I didn’t know it was going to last.” 10 With wry amusement, Abaya recalled her early encounters with the movie camera: “Every time we’d go on a date, a still camera or super 8 would always be sitting in the car. While walking in the park, he’d be shooting me. He’d be shooting everything. I found it very annoying.” 11 In college, she directed her first film, a dramatization of the singkil dance, and this was when she got an inkling that film was a medium where she could combine all her interests and transmute the artistic frustrations she had experienced growing up. 12
Like most of her Assumption classmates, all Marilou really wanted was to settle down with a husband and raise a family. But he had other plans. Determined to pursue his interest in film, he enrolled at the London International Film School, with the object of getting a professional degree that would allow him to register with the London union. Marilou wanted to join him in London but both their conservative parents, reminding the couple that they were not yet married, would not allow them to live in the same city. Her father insisted further that if Marilou were to continue her education, it should be in a private Catholic school. So she ended up at the Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where she took a Master of Arts in Film and Television. As soon as she finished her course, Marilou and Manolo got married in Manila and she was therefore allowed to live with her husband in London, whose course required a longer time to finish. Marilou got bored with the grey London winter and to fill her time, she also enrolled at the London International Film School. 13
When they got back home, the Abayas, along with a couple of old theater friends, set up an indie film company, Cine Filipinas, with the capital coming from Marilou’s and Manolo’s fathers. They started looking around for material and in 1979, they met Pablo S. Gomez, the serial komiks (comics) and screenplay writer whose overwrought concoctions were as ignored and maligned by the elite as they were voraciously consumed by the so-called bakya (wooden clogs) crowd (referring to the local shoe wear that the poorer classes could afford more easily than regular shoes). Gomez was so prolific that by the time of his death, he had published over a thousand serial komiks novels and stories, with over a hundred of them turned into films by the major movie studios. Gomez got the Abayas interested in one of his komiks novels, Tanikala (Chains), a gothic tale about a woman with a pathological fear of the dark. 14 For the screenplay, the Abayas hired Edgardo M. Reyes, whose masterly Tagalog novel, Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon), was the basis of Lino Brocka’s towering 1975 film of the same title.
When pre-production came around, Manolo expressed eagerness for producing, photographing, and editing the film. Former London schoolmate Amang Sanchez wanted to do sound; theatre friend Gregg de Guzman, administration and management. The only slot left unfilled was for director. They all looked at her, and she asked “who me”? She was three months pregnant then. She resisted but soon gave in, telling herself that it would just be an “adventure.” Little did she know that the “adventure” would last her lifetime. 15
It betrays a certain youthful intrepidity and innocence that for their maiden effort, Abaya and her group chose to produce a period film (set in the 1930’s) that, plainly due to production- design costs and problems, only the long-established major studios would dare venture in. For the lead roles, Abaya drafted screen royalty of yesteryears, Susan Roces and Romeo Vasquez. They were long past their prime in box office dominance, but they had remained household names and, in their late 30s, could still pass, however barely, for youthful lovers.
In keeping with the gothic ambience, Abaya set most of the story in a couple of old Spanish-colonial houses and an ancient stone church, the first of many occasions that Abaya would employ these patinated links to the past as major elements in her films, almost as characters in their own right (see Karnal/Of the Flesh, Sensual/Of the Senses, Ipaglaban Mo/Redeem Her Honor, Milagros, Jose Rizal, Maging Akin Muli/Be Mine Again, up to her last film Ikaw ang Pag-Ibig/You are Love).
With Tanikala (1980), Abaya sought to avoid the melodramatics and illogical plot twists that film adaptations of long-running serial komiks novels were notoriously prone to, concentrating instead on the steady unraveling of the underlying cause of Ofelia’s (played by Roces) fear of the dark. Abaya’s steady hand is apparent in Roces’ understated performance as she navigates through her anxieties and her seemingly irrational hatred for one of her suitors. Diaz’s mature handling extends to the supporting cast led by Eddie Garcia as Ofelia’s sinister suitor, Antonio, with a hollow reputation of wealth and class; and the usually flamboyant screen diva Rita Gomez, here in unaccustomed role of Antonio’s diffident abandoned wife. If the casting could be faulted, it would be with Romeo Vasquez, playing the man from a lower social rung who captures the trust of the film’s privileged but troubled heroine; Vasquez appears and moves with such consistent refinement to be credible as a man who had grown up in poverty. Among the film’s most notable features is Manolo’s lighting and camerawork that enhance the film’s meticulous production design and amplifies the story’s mysteriousness.
Though Abaya and her collaborators demonstrated that they could put a film together, they knew nothing of market strategy. The film flopped at the box office and the Abayas lost a lot of their families’ money. Abaya was devastated. She felt like a reject, a stranger in her own country. She began to question her privileged upbringing, separated from the masses she had sought to reach. 16
It was at this point that the Abayas met Jesse Ejercito, an independent producer who had already steered into existence the instant classics Nunal sa Tubig/Speck in the Water and Aliw/Pleasure, both directed by the great Ishmael Bernal. It was in a sleazy beerhouse favored by independent filmmakers that a friend introduced the Abayas to Ejercito who told them that he liked the way Tanikala looked, but peppered his praise with complaints about the casting and why they chose to produce a period film instead of a contemporary story at a time when action films and contemporary drama were what people wanted to see. 17
Ejercito soon called to say that he was looking for someone to direct a film featuring Amy Austria, a young actress who had already distinguished herself in such films as Lino Brocka’s Jaguar and Bernal’s Aliw. He asked Abaya if she would like to take a shot and told her that she could do any story she wanted. Ejercito, who was very particular about scriptwriters, asked her to propose a writer for the project. She named someone whom she had heard about but whom she didn’t know and whose works she hadn’t seen, Ricky Lee. 18 Thus began her first film with Lee who would write or co-write ten of the twenty-one theatrical feature films that would comprise Abaya’s filmography, including some of her early masterworks and the high-budget productions of her later period.
As she searched for a story to develop, Abaya focused on the experience of a college friend at Assumption Convent, the daughter of a prominent family, who got married shotgun style to her boyfriend after getting pregnant. This friend was in love with her husband but she soon found him to be a sadist who got a rush beating her up during their drug-induced binges. These things were not supposed to happen to Assumption girls and it became a scandal at the school. Abaya said: “They (the parents) wanted to keep it as quiet as possible. It was during (the) pregnancy that she came to the house and talked to my sister and me. It was then that I witnessed how a woman could actually be dead even when she was walking.” 19
As Lee and Abaya worked on the screenplay, the story deepened and broadened almost journalistically into an examination of current social attitudes about the role of women in Philippine society. In the film, the pivotal character of the abused wife Monica (Amy Austria) is no longer from a prominent upper class family but is a naïve middle class woman who had married young. At the beginning of the film, Monica has killed her husband Tato (Jay Ilagan) and his two male friends. Displaying symptoms of post-traumatic shock, she has retreated into a shell, refusing to communicate with anyone. This latest media sensation draws the attention of Clara (Charo Santos), a journalist who considers herself “liberated” and is always ready to proclaim and assert her feminism, particularly to her lover Jake (Johnny Delgado).
As Clara digs into the story, she meets Monica’s mother Aling Charing (Perla Bautista), whose servile devotion to her husband and the sanctity of marriage is unshakeable; and Monica’s former schoolmate Cynthia (Gina Alajar) a prostitute constantly obsessed with her desirability to men. Clara eventually discovers that Monica had been subjected to brutalization and gang-rape by her husband and his friends and it was in one of these drug binges that she killed them.
At the same time that Clara develops an understanding of Monica’s predicament and the social expectations that enable it, she realizes the shallowness of her own brand of outspoken feminism, mostly intellectual in origin and disconnected from the reality of the society around her. Clara could well have been an aspect of Abaya herself, who wanted to connect and understand the attitudes and struggles of those outside her class.
Once again, Manolo had taken charge of the cinematography and editing and instead of the burnished gothic look of Tanikala, he employed this time a drier and more documentary style. The film’s original title was Cariño Brutal, but Jesse Ejercito persuaded Abaya to drop the first word for more impact. 20 Thus began the famously one-titled trilogy of seminal feminist films by Abaya and Lee: Brutal, Moral, and Karnal.
1 Ongkeko, Ellen. Interview with Marilou Abaya. Pelikula: Journal of Philippine Cinema, vol. 1, issue 1 (Makati City, 1999, Sept), pp. 45-46.
2 Hizon, George. Inilagda sa Dugo I: Mga Diaz ng Paoay. Global Balita (2011, August 22). http://globalbalita.com/2011/08/22/inilagda-sa-dugo-i-mga-diaz-ng-paoay/. Note: It is said that all the Diazes of Paoay are descended from Don Hermenegildo Diaz de la Concepcion, the town’s gobenadorcillo from 1715-20. There are two other luminaries of Philippine cinema whose forebears are from Paoay: Gloria Diaz and Lavrente Diaz, and it is intriguing to speculate that such diverse talents might be able to trace their bloodlines to the same ancestor.
3 Guerrero, Leon Ma. The First Filipino: A Biography of Jose Rizal. (Printon Press, Quezon City, 1963), p. 380, 396.
4 Ibid. 1, pp. 45-46.
5 Zabat, Fiel. Interview by author. (New York City, 2013, Jun 12).
6 Ibid. 1, p. 45.
8 Sotto, Agustin. Interview with Marilou Diaz-Abaya, conducted in 1997. The Urian Anthology: 1990-99 (The University of the Philippines Press, Quezon City, 2010), p. 253.
9 Ibid. 1, p. 45.
10 Ibid. 1, p. 45.
11 Ibid. 7, p. 253.
12 Ibid. 1, p. 45.
13 Ibid. 7, p. 254
15 Ibid. 7, p 255
18 Ibid. 1, p. 45.
19 Ibid. 7, p. 256.
20 Ibid., p. 256.