In almost every field of interest between arts and science there seems to be a pressing need to represent women. It’s a kind of consciousness established in societies where campaigns for sexual equality are strong and pervasive. Certainly, the world would be a better place when everyone’s rights are respected, but sometimes there is that danger of doing it as a token effort, considering men in general don’t find it necessary to be part of every thing. Representation happens to them naturally and with much less bother. This business of glorifying women and their achievements—the media making a fuss about the first female president, the first woman to climb a tallest mountain, the first female Nobel Prize winner, and so on and so forth, and focusing on the subject voraciously—is rarely an innocent gesture. It’s a display of obscene generosity in situations that only call for an honest but dispassionate recognition, one that refuses to pander to women but still maintains its sincere admiration.
Hence, it only feels appropriate to honor Marilou Diaz-Abaya, whose career in film, television, and the academe spanned three decades, without too much emphasis on her gender. Obviously, being a woman did not limit her to tackle themes of her choice. Yes, her first few films (Tanikala, Brutal, Moral, Karnal, and Alyas Baby Tsina) feature women, but they aren’t ideal: they are dazed and confused, damaged by their personal decisions and impaired by their vulnerabilities. During that time, Abaya made films in the company of talented men, women, and gay men—Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Mario O’Hara, Laurice Guillen, Lupita Kashiwahara, Peque Gallaga, and Celso Ad. Castillo—and she belonged. She was not the finest filmmaker of her generation, nor she deliberately aspired to be one, but she slowly made a name for herself, her modesty and seemliness eclipsing the dark nature of her early movies.
Looking back, it makes sense that a number of people consider Brutal, Moral, and Karnal a trilogy of some sort, as their titles clearly indicate their parallel stories. These three films do not intersect but they share a world where misfortunes happen and fracture the lives of their characters. They present tragedies of varying intensities, placing women not only at the center but also in the periphery. Brutal tells the story of a young woman who murders her husband and his friends. A female journalist writes about her case and meets another woman who takes pride in selling her body. Moral features four university students who find themselves at a crossroads, yearning for love and chasing their dreams. Karnal enters a much sinister territory, depicting a couple living in a remote town shrouded by secrets, narrated by an old lady whose frightening voice is a character in itself. All three movies were written by acclaimed writer Ricky Lee, his scripts heavy on research and rich in characterization, and Abaya did not only handle them maturely: she grasped them with force and confidence. Clearly, she felt challenged by her contemporaries.
While there is a palpable sense of femininity in these movies, Abaya abstains from sanctimonious pageantry and puts things in perspective. She raises concerns of women and the violence committed to them, but she also recognizes their shortcomings and susceptibility to moral hypnosis, their fates determined by their resolve or lack thereof. The world is unfair to women, but so is to men. Karnal, for instance, has a strong and suffocating depiction of patriarchy, the overbearing father played by Vic Silayan controlling not just the women of the house but also the men. It’s a horrifying picture of a family maddened by circumstances, and the woman whose importance in the story is emphasized leaves a disturbing impression of subsistence, coming out alive in the end but bereft of spirit. By contrast, Moral is a lighter but sharper piece, one whose observations on the struggles of present-day women, lost in the mazes they create for themselves, are relevant up to now. Whereas Brutal and Alyas Baby Tsina dwell on the criminal and psychological, overplaying hopelessness and suffering, Moral rims its characters by emphasizing their faulty nature, placing them in more realistic situations but with less defined solutions to their problems.
Abaya gave into expectations, which could be extremely hard when you’re twenty-something, principled, and pressured by the task of working with some of the local industry’s renowned actors. She confronted the need to have a so-called female voice in a business dominated by male egos, but she didn’t make a huge deal out of it. Filmmaking, after all, requires the flair for sucking up to the system and turning the tide in the shortest time possible. As her reputation grew, Abaya started to swerve and change direction. Overshadowing the remarkable scripts of Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo (written by Amado Lacuesta), Milagros (written by Rolando Tinio), and May Nagmamahal Sa ‘Yo (written by Ricky Lee) are epic productions she took charge of near the end of the ‘90s. After working with GMA Films for Sa Pusod ng Dagat, she embarked on an ambitious project of directing the life of Jose Rizal, which turned out to be one of the movies that people would fondly remember her for. Running for almost three hours, Jose Rizal is by all means impressive in scale, from its cast and locations to its wardrobe and production design. Having been given the financial liberty to interpret history, Abaya took on the challenge and pleased her producers, the box-office success of the movie owing to its relevance (1998 is the 100th year of Philippine independence) and inclusion in the annual Metro Manila Film Festival. Abaya managed to repeat this feat, although in a much smaller scale, with the release of Muro-ami the following year. Cesar Montano credited her for advancing his acting career, as the movie also made the rounds in foreign film festivals.
The palette on which Abaya decided to situate herself and her characters broadened and leaned on the populist side, but this was neither for the benefit nor detriment of her career, since her films in the ‘90s and ‘00s, well-made most of them might be, weren’t faultless, and only upon recognizing the nature of these lapses that her entire body of work could be fully appreciated. In this period she no longer seemed as self-conscious as she was when she began, yet in this settled state she also lost that spark of youth, preferring to address larger social issues by way of narratives poached in television drama, resorting to truisms instead of the whys and wherefores. She presented social ills with beaming optimism, an attitude she had until her final years. In Bagong Buwan, for instance, she avoided stereotyping Muslims and Christians, but did so with an off-putting blatancy that stood out as the movie progressed. By placing the carefully executed drama at the center, Abaya wasn’t in control of her characters; on the contrary, they were in control of her. It’s a movie that shows an angry face but not an angry heart, lacking any kind of subversiveness that may have made it leap out of the ordinary.
Not to put too fine a point on it: she softened, and her voice lost its ire. One could attribute it to the type of projects she took on, but clearly it’s natural for artists to change, and she did so (intentionally or not) as personal life caught up on her, settling down and having two kids to tend to. Another reason could be time. Several years before digital cinema boomed, her contemporaries in the ‘80s were either dead or inactive. Slow years, so to speak, went by. She became more involved in socio-civic work and teaching, helping out various organizations and honing hungry young minds at Ateneo. Her passion was channeled to people who needed her, and she obliged. Cancer didn’t stop her. In 2007, shortly after the diagnosis, she founded the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute and Arts Center and established programs for aspiring filmmakers. It was a very emotional time, but she managed to shoot and finish Ikaw ang Pag-ibig, which would turn out to be her last hurrah. A tribute to Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the film is a farewell and love letter to a generation she is about to leave behind, a piece of work that understandably shows her frailness. Like most of us, she was living and dying at the same time, and in those two hours came her final breaths in her homeland, submitting to the industry she served for 30 years, cinema being the only homeland of filmmakers who fought their wars until the very end.
But what is death if not cruel and kind, if not an amalgam of strange contradictions, discoveries, and dead-ends? Where does one find consolation but in grief? Where does one turn to when silence starts to idle? Philippine cinema lost three of its beloved children this year—Dolphy, Mario O’Hara, and Marilou Diaz-Abaya—and their quietus is not only a reminder of mortalities that happen between parentheses but also of the crumbs they took with them, their departures an indication of life in an industry that’s always been rumored to be dead. She spent her last five years in pain and resignation, the latter casting a shadow on the former, blanketed in optimism and bent on sharing every bit of herself with old and new friends, family and acquaintances. She was mourned and missed by people who knew her, and even those who didn’t felt a kind of affection towards her, a familiar but distant feeling of knowing her, of being moved by her passion. More than her body of work, which had its highs and lows, she created a path to follow, an existence devoted to art and spiritual work, left to the tender mercies of time, which could also be as cruel and kind as death. In this industry, what remain are the impressions made by the brave and generous, and books, should they be fortunate enough to be printed, would certainly have her name.
Image used for the header taken from the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute and Arts Center website.