We are citizens first of a particular country and with a specific time before we are artists. As such, we are an integral part of the community that we live in. We do not live on a pedestal. There is as much truth in the saying, ‘no man is an island.’ Such that an artist’s work must be a reflection of the truth of his own time and place.”
It took us three sets of production meetings to wait before we could finally get hold of the award-winning director, Joel Lamangan, to sit with us for this interview.
Personally, I requested for a burger (really close to demanding) to munch, with a diabetic-inducing softdrinks to keep my adrenalin going while marooned in the director’s cubicle.
This preview will give you an idea how Joel is much-sought after, even to the present time, by movie producers at his mid-60s (born Sept. 21, 1952 ), never mind the occasional reports of brief confinements owing perhaps to the trade’s health hazards where no one is invulnerable.
Joel is now into the thick of rehearsing the remake of the controversial life of Galileo, a play he originally did for Phil. Educational Theater Assoc. (PETA). He did the lead character Galileo several years ago under the direction of a visiting German directo,r Fritz Bennewitz.
The remake version is directed by Rody Vera of PETA and will be staged at Dulaang Rajah Sulayman, Fort Santiago, Manila, the original theater in-the-ruins, of said theater company before it moved to a different venue along E. Rodriguez, Q.C.
While others of his age who have virtually struck the proverbial iron while it was hot, and have taken to counting their blessings through much of their twilight years, Joel, on the contrary, is not about to bask yet on his past glories; one can only surmise in poetic terms there are some miles yet ahead of him to go before the swan song.
Hurriedly concluding his last business for the day, Joel caught up fast on his breath, sidled up in our direction, slumped into the big chair across his huge wooden office table to finally face up to our concern which was to gather fresh and first hand material for a feature article.
In hindsight, and even to his own knowledge, he has the most number of awards from the Phil. Movie Press Club (PMPC) accummulated thus far compared to the awards bestowed to some of his peers in the past years by said award-giving body.
Instanly, we felt he was out to speak his guts on anything, and this triggered us to provoke him into taking the less shopworn and predictable way of getting a subject to talk back for the record, taken in random fashion and straight from the horse’s mouth.
At this writing, the no-nonsense, brisque and brusque theater, TV and film director has disclosed in particular about having churned out more than 80 important movies to his credit. I asked him to name at least three films he can consider his best. Or maybe at least three of his films that he might consider not his best?
“I cannot single them out just like that; I consider all my films amply significant because I put all my one-hundred percent energy, creativity and commitment to making them truthful and reflective of the social conditions and issues of a given time. Maybe you can name them instead for me three of my films you like most if any,” he suggested instead.
We pointed pointed out “The Flor Contemplacion Story” because it won the Golden Pyramid trophy, for the first time in recent history for a feature film from an A-list of international filmfests which was Cairo, before Brillante Mendoza had his at Cannes and Lav Diaz at Venice, and the rest of the wannabes snatching all sorts of awards at the drop of a hat from lesser known international filmfests.
During that time, he beat Netherlands entry “Antonia’s Line” that went on to win the Oscars for foreign language also that year. We also mentioned “Burgos: A Mother’s Love” biopic because it was a highly-provocative film about the disappearance of activist Jonas Burgos snuffed out in the hands of the PNP police during Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s dispensation, which resonated even to the rest of the past cases of faceless statistics of “desaparecidos” (way back to the Dictatorial rule of Marcos), who lost their lives and never to be seen again.
“The Sarah Balabagan Story” was also in our list because it’s a truthful rendition of the harrowing experiences prevailing up to the present time among OFWs who risk their lives and families back home working in the hostile Middle East countries including other Asian countries to which our past and present administrations have miserably failed to address.
He thanked us effusively for our choices. Does he follow any particular school of acting in dealing with his actors, like the Stanislavsky System or the “Method” acting? He countered, “ I know these things but I believe in allowing actors a free-hand in attacking and interpreting their roles alongside a particular vision that the given project ought to achieve and impart from my own viewpoint.”
Does he subrscibe to dime-dozen workshops for his cast? He paused for a while then answered, “One or two workshops cannot do wonders for an actor. Acting is a sum total of what you have learned as a feeling human being from your past and present load of experience arguably imbibed from one’s interaction and deep understanding of how to relate humanely with other people and society.”
Notably, Joel’s first film was “Darna” which he did for Viva Films, but in truth it’s “Kalapating Musmos” scripted by Tom Adrales of PETA with sexy starlet Mina Mirasol in the female lead. “I hate to own it because the producer had deliberately inserted lewed sex scenes in the way of “karga” (insertions) without my knowledge. How can I own it?” Joel sounded in exasperation.
Lamangan is more than an accomplished TV and theater director and a highly esteemed stage actor. His lifestory being a social activist, an organizer, KM leader to the core, a Demolay, a “polsci” major expelled from Lyceum for leading a rally against Marcos, a UP activist and thrown into Bicutan jail for years, a top name from PETA who stood on the shoulders of his mentors like Brocka and Bernal, has virtually made him into an urban legend of deep-lasting resonance.
In a manner of speaking, he has paid his dues accordingly as a political animal so to speak. To which he had received numerous prestigious awards and accolades. Is he guided by a certain philosophy when directing a film?
“As I have repeatedly espoused in the past and to the present time, an artist for me is always a thinking, social, and political animal. He or she must have a firm stand as an artist, a certain position and commitment to adhere to and defend at all cost. He must take sides, no in-between and fence-sitting,” he explained.
“You sound like Trotsky?” we countered. “You can put it that way,” he admitted. “I always believe that all forms of art whether music, theater, film, literature, poetry, dance, sculpture, performance art or something express, or comment about a particular group of people in a society at certain time and place. For anything that is expressive of something is social. We have taken for granted the arts and our very own culture as potent force or instrument that we can make use of as medium for social change, to expose the ills and wanton corruption in the government and other sectors of society, and to help emancipate the underprivileged and oppressed, etc.”
Are these reflected in his works as film director? He nodded, saying “Certainly because it’s the essence of my craft as story telller and commitment to my audience to tell a story truthfully as I was saying devoid of sugar coating and compromises of all sorts.”
We asked if he was a communist? “No, but I fight for truth, a socialist perhaps,” he qualified.
Does he like Pres. Rodrigo Duterte? He cut us off, saying “No and I don’t subscribe to extra- judicial killings.”
“Isn’t that a sweeping statement considering that the administration has belied the same allegations?”
He cut us off again, “You sound like a big Duterte fan?” “Yes, in more ways than one,” was our reply. “What have you got against Duterte?” we countered.
He curtly answered, “Everybody should have a day in court, that’s it.” But it’s to everybody’s knowledge that Pres. Duterte strictly adheres to the rule of law, we stressed. “By the way are you “yellow?” we asked.
“No,” he replied.
“You are not red either, so what are you?” we pressed.
“I’m for political correctness, for truth,” he clarified.
Then we jumped to the perennial problem of the local movie and TV industry which is its inability or incapacity to organize a guild or a union for that matter, like the way they do it in Hollywood. Although we learned later that together with some like-minded directors and friends have attempted to follow in the footsteps of Lino Brocka to form a kind of guild in the same direction. What happened to that?” we reminded him.
“It did not see the light of day?” he pointed out.
“ Why?” we asked.
“It did not get the support of the country’s lawmakers,” he shared. “All those we thought were open-minded about our proposal on hand.”
“Including those candidates who made use of show business as their platform and jumping board to winning the election?” we pressed.
“Yes, all of them,” he insisted. “They simply argue it cannot be done because the status quo of the movie industry is that there is no fix labor relations between employer and employee. Imagine, we are no less different in our status from the ambulatory balut vendor and street hawkers? It’s the same with the notion of Intellectual Property Rights which is supposed to protect the works of our local movie directors down the line. I saw some of my films being shown on cable abroad subtitled/translated into a different language and what do I get? Nothing. It’s such a pathetic situation really for our local movie industry workers who go through their twilight years almost without some social benefits and the like to fall back on from an industry that they have served for life,” he lamented.
“But there must be some creative way to do it?” I pushed the issue.
He went on to elaborate, “ At this time there is an attitude almost impossible to change, an impasse of sort among the minds of the lawmakers in Congress. They find it unwieldy to define the kind of laborers who serve as the lifeblood of the movie industry and the society as a whole. They categorically say it is not just workable. It is the same attitude prevailing among those pro-capitalists at the Dept. of Labor. This makes us think we can never unionize unless Congress and the Dept. of Labor are emphathetic enough with us and our lost cause at hand for them to be able to define and promulgate worker friendly laws as in ‘pro-labor’ to the kind of ambulant workers that comprise the status quo of the movie industry who ought to deserve equal protection before the law like anyone else. At this time, we are facing a blank wall of despair.”
We pointed out to Lamangan that in the recent two-day Film Summit at UP organized by Liza Dino of the Film Dev’t. Council of the Phil.( FDCP) and Director General Leo Martinez of the Film Academy of the Phil. (FAP), Chris De Venecia, a House Representative, who sat with Liza Dino onstage during the open forum emphatically said that the House can create laws where there is none.
“Maybe you in the media can do the additional trailblazing initiatives in the direction as well,” he cautioned.
We also reminded him that 1-Pacman Partylist Representative Mikee Romero who we think is more than partial to the cause of the workers of the movie industry can help push in realizing the almost impossible dream of the movie industry workers to unionize themselves for whose life and future depends upon it.
“We will see to that as well, thank you. In union there is always strength,” his parting words.