When two cinemas converse

Nora Aunor as Sita the grieving mother with the ashes of her son

LAST August 19, 2022, a most unusual event took place in the historic Metropolitan Theater. Some people called it a convergence; some used the very social media-term “collab” to describe the happening. We call it a conversation between two cinematic traditions.

This was the screening of two films—Carlo Enciso Catu’s Ari: My Life with a King and Kristian Sendon Cordero’s Hinulid. Catu’s film is from Pampanga and Cordero’s is from Bicol. Now, why these two places? But then  again, why not?

I know for a fact that Cordero, deputy director of the Ateneo de Naga University Press, has been in touch with Robby Tantingco, the director of the Center for Kapampangan Studies of the Holy Angel University as they explore possible academic and cultural partnerships. This year, Holy Angel University began a screening of Aria, a film also helmed by Catu, at the Met Theater. It was after this occasion that Tantingco extended formally to Cordero this idea of screening two films from each group.

Things began to coalesce when August came and the impetus to have a singular event to celebrate the Buwan ng Wika that the idea of putting under one roof two films, seemingly disparate on the surface, was finalized. The National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, through the Holy Angel University with the academic vice president and head of the Center of Kapampangan Studies together with the Ateneo de Naga University Press, agreed to have the cultural encounter.

What makes the curation doubly exciting was the fact that there was no festival under which the two films would be shown. There was only this kinship between two places and the cultural workers from two separate regions, and the nearly subversive idea that the boundaries between regions are unnecessarily political and purely administrative. The field is always open for regions to speak to each other and ask to what degree their identities reflect and refract each other’s identities. That the unitary is overrated.

As the afternoon unfolded, however, more charming linkages and similarities were revealed by the speakers requested to open the ceremonies. First, there were the two respective university presidents on board, with a similar agenda about how the culture of the place not only informs the art of those places but also marks the citizenship of the people. During the showing of the videotaped speeches of the two university heads, the audience may have noticed in the background facades that were identical with four pillars gracing the structures. These were the iconic four pillars of Holy Angel University, which was brought over to the Ateneo de Naga when it was built right before the war. The explanation for this was the fact that the bishop who was assigned to Naga during the period, and considered to be the man responsible for convincing the Jesuits to have a presence in the region, was a Kapampangan, then Bishop Pedro P. Santos. He also was the founder of Holy Angel University.

Santos would eventually become the first Archbishop of Nueva Caceres, and in his term, the Kapampangan term, “Among,” used for bishops and high-ranking clergies, spread to Bikol.

To Cordero, the director of Hinulid who happens to be half-Kapampangan on his father’s side, there are other elements that bind Bikol and Pampanga. He cites the two peoples’ attachment and high regard for mountains and rivers, and the rich literary traditions of Pampanga by way of the works of Juan Crisostomo Soto and the achievements of Rosalio Imperial, the publications of novenas and comedias of the Cecilio Press in Naga, and many others.

But what about the two films shown? How do we connect them to each other?

It was my privilege to make the commentaries about the two films that were to be screened that afternoon.

To me, cinemas are myths. In the absence of storytellers—blind bards, healers, shamans—the filmmakers are the new mythmakers. Hinulid is one such myth in the form of a film. As a Bikolano film, Hinulid, starring Nora Aunor, partakes of the power of cinema to blur boundaries, to leap over landscapes, to journey beyond time, with only language as a unifying factor. But even the unification of narrative is not simple: actors in the film were allowed by the director to use their own Bikol language. Nora in the film speaks her own Rinconada-Iriga language; Raffi Banzuela, the poet-historian who plays the priest, uses his own Albay-Camalignon language. Two academics from Ateneo de Naga who play Nora’s friends, Rico Raquitico and (Dr.) Noel Volante, each speaks the Bikol language from their respective towns. Rico uses Buhinon, a language in a lakeshore town a mere 14 kms from Iriga, the birthplace of Nora, and Noel the language of Bula.

Nowhere is this passion for language more apparent than in the film Ari. Directed by Catu from the award-winning screenplay of Robby Tantingco, the film brings us to a land of poets, as experienced by a boy. Played by Ronwaldo Martin, Jaypee is the youth discovering the power and beauty of his own language.

For a region that is noted for its celebration of its language and cultures, Ari does not romanticize the problem of languages in cultures. What the film does tell us is that it will be the youth that will truly help languages survive and with them, the continuous flowering of arts and cultures.

In Hinulid, death is both a nurturing mother and a language. Death is there but not there. On that bridge, in a magnificent scene that only Nora Aunor can depict, her Sita faces Death. It is a fitting ending to a tale that tells us the myths are still with us. They are there onscreen, told by directors, writers and actors, subverting politics, bringing hope where there is only the empty horizon.

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