In Baranggay 128 in Tondo, there are 21 buildings of permanent housing for the former inhabitants of Smokey Mountain. Because the mountain of trash was a national embarrassment the Philippine government could no longer stomach, they "rehabilitated" Smokey Mountain and put all the people living on it into public housing. The buildings of the ironically named Paradise Heights are painted incongruous shades of melon, mint green, and pink. The units are cramped and airless, sometimes there are up to 17 people living in a single unit. And although that already sounds hellish it is strangely paradisiacal compared to Temporary Housing, where around 1,000 families–left over refugees from the big move–still live in structures that resemble warehouses full of trash and dirty children. And yet, those in Temporary Housing have a roof over their heads. At Aroma Dump Site, people live amongst the trash in shacks of wood, scrap metal, boxes, tarp, bed springs, Susan Roces posters, and whatever else they find.
And my favorite spot of all, the dock behind the endless shanties and coal burning, is the informal toilet for the entire community. It's an ordinary sight at dawn: men come out and relieve themselves on the dock. One morning, I walked on the long and narrow dock in my ugly rubber boots and my 3M dust mask, and I dared not to look down into the water.
I've been thinking about Lino Brocka, the first Filipino director who made it to Cannes in 1978 with Insiang, a squatter melodrama of epic and unmatched proportions. Hilda Koronel plays the title role and she's just amazing. Young and beautiful, Hilda's performance of a damaged, fragile girl who becomes vengeful woman holds up over thirty years later. Mona Lisa's award winning performance as Insiang's bitter and jealous mother Tonya gave me shivers. (Mona Lisa has always been one of my favorites, she's like a great Chinese heroine with Latin passion.) Ruel Vernal as Dado–butcher of pigs, seducer of mother, and the daughter's rapist–is pure macho brute in the 70s style with his handle bar mustache and sideburns.
Brocka captures that overwhelming sense of crowding, misery, and tragedy in the squatters. Here there's no sense of privacy, personal space, or dignity. Everyone's watching, everyone's listening, everyone's gossiping. Insiang's mother asks her to turn on the faucet so that the noise of a gripo dripping into an empty drum drowns out the sound of an old palenkera and her young stud fucking. When Tonya goes into a frenzy of jealousy and stabs Dado, Insiang calmly watches her mother murder her lover.
I can only imagine what it must have been like, Cannes in the late 70s. It must have been utterly glamorous. Brocka was young, gay, brilliant, and at the top of his game. And with his squatter chic masterpiece, his socially oriented melodrama about poverty, revenge, and struggle–maybe he was the festival darling, that hot Filipino director on his way to an unparalleled career in making great Filipino films. Those were good times.
Catch Lino Brocka's films at
The biggest retrospective on Lino Brocka ever! In celebration of Lino Brocka's 18th death anniversary (May 21, 1991). Mondays to Saturdays, 4:30-6:30pm at Magnet Katipunan.
Brilliante "Dante" Mendoza won the prize for Best Director for Kinatay (haven't seen it, very curious) at the recently concluded 62nd Cannes Film Festival. Congratulations, Direk Dante!
More good news: I heard from Raya Martin's best friend (the wonderful Matet Esguerra of House of Laurel) that he received a standing ovation also at Cannes during the screening of his film Independencia.
In this Brocka state of mind, I can't wait to see both.
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Image from the film Insiang taken from the fan page of Lino Brocka on Facebook.com.