By Menchu Aquino Sarmiento

LINO BROCKA would have been 80 this April, if he hadn’t been killed in a car crash on May 21, 1991. He was only 52, and had directed around that many films too in the last two decades of his life, though his oeuvre also spanned TV and the legitimate stage, both as an actor and a director, and occasionally, even as a writer. His creative output is probably unequalled by any other Filipino artist in those fields. He was bluntly matter-of-fact about having to grind out five cinematic potboilers to subsidize each worthwhile passion project, such as Insiang (1976), the first Filipino film to be shown at the Cannes Directors Fortnight.

The recent mini-retrospective of his works, “Brocka and Philippine Electoral Politics,” focused on his smaller melodramas. The plots revolve around the struggles of ordinary folks at the hands of local warlord politicians. Most Filipinos experience politics at the LGU level, not at the state policy level. It is the town mayor, e.g., Eddie Garcia in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990) and in Miguelito: Batang Rebelde (1985), or the congressman, Eric Quizon in Hahamakin Lahat (1990) who loom largest in their lives, like corrupt, grotesquely imperfect godlings.

Having a kept woman is still one of the accepted accoutrements for powerful men. Brocka sympathetically portrays her as a feckless and naïve soul, compelled by poverty rather than ruthless ambition, to sacrifice herself for her family’s sake. In his groundbreaking Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974), the town looney Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez) is driven to madness through a botched abortion, forced upon her by the mayor, her former lover, who subsequently abandons her.

The recurring theme of the simple lass turned pampam (prostitute) or kabit (mistress), was like an ever-fresh wound for Brocka, whose own young, widowed mother had to work as a bailarina (dancer for hire), then later became a local politician’s mistress in order to support her two sons. Brocka’s father, a modestly prosperous banca-builder (boat-builder), was nearly thrice his mother’s age. She was only 15, practically a child, when he took her from her Nueva Ecija barrio to become his second wife on a remote island in Bicol, where he was dabbled in local politics himself. Brocka often exposes such grotesque imbalances of power between men and women. Another great filmmaker, Ishmael Bernal was also the scion of a “second family.” Brocka’s and Bernal’s life circumstances as outsiders in so-called respectable society give their films a special affinity with social outcasts.

As above, so it is below. The political warlord’s legal wife and partner in these lesser conjugal dictatorships which are microcosms of the larger ruling order, wields her own power. Charo Santos-Concio gives an especially spot-on performance as the Imeldific Rowena, the mayor’s wife in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak. When she senses her husband is too attached to Rachel (Dina Bonnevie), Rowena threatens her with gang rape. In Babangon Ako at Dudurugin Kita, the ruthless Via (Hilda Koronel), unica hija (only daughter) of a political clan, has her married lover Alfred’s (Christopher De Leon) virtuous wife Salve (Sharon Cuneta) raped, so he can accuse her of adultery, then cast her aside. Thus, Via can have Alfred all to herself and make him her stand-in for her clan’s political ambitions. With the help of a big-time smuggler (Bembol Roco) who becomes her protector and lover, Salve is transformed. She grows as hardened as Via, and orders her bodyguards to rape Via in front of her husband. For a woman to use rape as a weapon against another woman is the ultimate act of monstrosity in Brocka’s melodramas.

In Brocka’s major works, the locus of evil is not merely in political warlords or their consorts, but hydra-headed, systemic, and metastatic. Orapronobis (1991), one of his last films, was a passionate but near-despairing excoriation of the continuation of the Marcos Martial Law horrors and abuses into the post-EDSA 1 aftermath, i.e., the government’s tacit support for the paramilitary groups which terrorized peasants; the warrantless raids and arrests; the abduction, torture and murder of suspected dissidents, even of peaceful NGO workers, catechists, and human rights advocates. Orapronobis was not commercially released in the Philippines during Brocka’s lifetime. The Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, then chaired by Manuel L. Morato, falsely claimed its opening sequence showing the killing of a priest and his assassin’s partaking of his spilled brains caused numerous overseas Filipino domestic helpers to lose their jobs because their employers thought Filipinos were cannibals, based on this single scene. The film also shows a rally led by the psychotic Kumander Contra (Bembol Roco), the administration’s running dog. One placard declares “Litsunin ang mga pari at madre” (Let us roast the priests and nuns on a spit). These resonate with the ongoing persecution and the recent murders of priests during this administration.

Brocka’s sense of justice and theater underlay the 1983 drama of Ninoy Aquino’s wake in Sto. Domingo Church, and his mile-long funeral cortege which captured the world’s imagination. Nonetheless, barely two years into the Corazon C. Aquino Administration, he was so disaffected that he resigned his membership in her Constitutional Commission. Brocka never sold out to the Marcoses throughout the Martial Law dictatorship, despite repeated attempts to entice him with lucrative projects and the grandiose prospects of the accursed Film Center. He saw through their bread-and-circuses ploys. He led his fellow artists in the battle against E.O. 868 which greatly expanded the powers of the Philippine Board of Censors, eventually co-founding the Concerned Artists of the Philippines. He also rejected his Urian award to show his low opinion of critics in general. His principles always came first.

Realizing that the little people suffer the most in any war, Brocka was not an advocate for change through violent means. But for the Marcoses, he made an exception. In the Christian Blackwood documentary Signed Lino Brocka, he frankly declared that he would have volunteered to be on the firing squad to execute the Marcoses, if history could only be altered. “The Filipinos were, even America, was too kind to them. They should have been killed.”