Manila then and now, seen through Brocka and Bernal

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MANILA in 2019 is a bustling concrete jungle where the middle class and urban poor strive to have decent life, but in reality its streets are riddled with victims of extrajudicial killings, nine-year-old street urchins used by drug peddlers, inefficient public transport, and other inequalities and injustices.

Meanwhile, Manila in the 1970s was not yet home to high-rise condos and a plethora of shopping malls, but it too suffered from poverty and corruption under the Marcos dictatorship.

Between then and now, has Manila really changed?

At the ongoing exhibition at the College of St. Benilde’s Center for Campus Art (CCA) called Brocka, Bernal, and the City, viewers are asked to look back at the critical works of film directors Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal — two National Artists for Cinema — and realize how timely and timeless their bodies of work are.

CCA head Gerry Torres said during the exhibit’s opening on Jan. 25 that the goal of the exhibition was to introduce the two filmmakers to a new audience.




At a time when the city, and the entire country, was under Martial Law, the two progressive filmmakers chose to resist the dictatorship through their movies. They were activists and artists who used film as their weapon of choice that subverted the safe and stereotypical movies that were common under Martial Rule.

“Brocka and Bernal called themselves artists who are activists, who used their art to present the truth and unveil the lies. They also showed that art, through film, can be a force that can rebuke the abuses of power and the people who propagate them. In life, as in their movies, they continued to be resolute in their belief that a true artist always sees, accepts, and fights for the truth,” wrote Mr. Torres in his curatorial note.

The exhibition highlights a number of quotes by Ishmael Bernal that resonate to this day: “I always investigate, question, and unravel the hypocrisy of society, of established mores. I consciously depart from stereotypes to show that people, whether prostitutes, drug addicts, philosophers, or professors can behave unpredictably. I don’t dwell on the pagmumulat (awakening) thing — poverty is caused by class contradictions, etc. — we know all that. What I do is I try to deconstruct the genres, to make them seem formless and amorphous. My themes are decadence of urban life, human perversion, the demon in all of us, cynicism about life.”

The exhibition focuses on the words “Manila” and “Maynila” — Mr. Brocka created the film Maynila, sa Kuko ng mga Liwanag (1975) while Mr. Bernal had Manila by Night (1980) — and how the two directors viewed the city and the people and how, in return, the people viewed themselves according to the city.

Different in style and storytelling, the two films are the same in depicting Manila’s life: of oppressed people like workers and prostitutes and their plight in the face of inequality, injustice, and poverty.

The two films are on view in a mini cinema installed inside the gallery. Other classic hits by the two directors are also on view for free: Mr. Brocka’s Insiang (1976), Jaguar (1979), and Bona (1980) and Mr. Bernal’s Ikaw ay Akin (1978), Relasyon (1982), Broken Marriage (1983), and Working Girls (1984).

Video installations featuring interviews with artists who worked with the two directors, including Nora Aunor, Bembol Roco, Gina Alajar, Cherie Gil, and Vilma Santos, are accompanying aids to the exhibition.

The exhibit, set up like a street with signs featuring the names of old Manila theaters, has sections dedicated to the two filmmakers’ works, and a third space is dedicated to recent movies like Manila (2009) and Anino (2000) that were inspired from the National Artists’ works.

Brocka, Bernal, and the City — which is part of the celebration of CSB’s 30th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of Philippine Cinema — is on view until April 27 at CSB-SDA building. — Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman