Interview With A Revolutionary Filipino Filmmaker (Part One)

Mauro making a point to his star during filming of Isla Sto. Nino in 1982

My blog is definitely centred in the UK, and I make no apology for that. I have lived here my whole life, and so it’s what I know best. But in 2012 all humans live in a truly globalised society – linked by billions of economic interactions. Austerity in Britain and Europe affects manufacturing jobs and conditions in Asia, for example.

Largely because my writing is focused on life in my home country, many of my page views come from this island too. But a significant amount don’t. Recently, I’ve been corresponding with a man from the Philippines who’d come across my blog, and I quickly discovered he has an amazing story to tell. His answers to my questions will take up a few postings over the next weeks, but the reading is well worth it.

So without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to introduce Mauro Gia Samonte, veteran revolutionary activist and filmmaker.

How and why did you get involved with political activism in the Philippines?

Having been born poor, early on I felt this kind of obsession to rise above my obscure beginnings. The advent of the seventies witnessed in the Philippine scene a phenomenal flowering of youth and students protests, all aimed, avowedly, at crushing the establishment. Those protests offered to me just that vehicle I had been seeking out to sate my unworded yearning to be relevant – to matter. This would rather sound a self-centred motive, but that’s how it had been. And then again, I’d ask myself if that desire to rise on the social rung were not in fact a valid counterthesis to whatever those forces were causing widespread Philippine poverty; until then I had not known Marx from Adam. In other words, a resolve to truly overcome poverty is in fact a resolve to efface all causes of poverty.

One year into my employment by the Makabayan Publishing Corporation as Editor of the Movie Confidential – the top Philippine entertainment magazine at the time – and of the Entertainment Section of the Weekly Nation – then among the top three political magazines of the country – I was promoted to the Management Committee of the company. However, it was precisely in that period when the energy and fire of street parliamentarism had breached the walls of factories, and in the union-allergic empire of Amado Araneta, both the rank-and-file employees and supervisory staff of the Makabayan Publishing Corporation threw into my laps the challenge: for whom are you?

I took the challenge, organising pronto the Katipunan ng mga Makabayang Obrero (KAMAO – Association of Patriotic Workers), the first ever union to be organised in the Araneta empire, and to the termination of employment notice on me with which the company countered our union demands, the workers cast a strike vote. From April to August of 1971, we conducted the strike with grit and fury that led sympathising youth activists to declare it the Araneta Commune, totally paralysing the operations of the company and closing to vehicular traffic the entire hectares-wide Araneta Center. But a court injunction eventually prevented us from further militant pursuit of the strike.

Taking shelter in the loopholes of Philippine labour laws, the Makabayan Publishing Corporation dissolved itself so that when the National Labor Relations Commission of the Department of Labor eventually ruled the strike in our favour, declaring the company guilty of unfair labour practices, there was nothing, nobody anymore to receive the ruling. But the big gain was that learning a lesson from the failed strike, I threw myself completely after that into the mainstream of the proletarian wing of the National Democratic Movement, organising unions and conducting education work among workers; prior to the declaration of martial law in 1972, I was secretary general of the Katipunan ng mga Samahan ng mga Manggagawa (KASAMA – Collective of the Workers’ Associations); and on the eve of martial law, Secretary General of the May Day Revolutionary Committee.

How and why did you get involved in writing and directing?

First, on writing. I was in third year civil engineering when I dropped out of college and gave vent to my writing urge. After countless rejections, I got my first fiction published by the Weekly Graphic in the mid-sixties, Forests of the Heart. Realising not much income in English fiction, I turned to selling, first insurance, then encyclopedia, in both of which I failed miserably. In one of my failed sales adventures, the prospect was an entertainment magazine publisher and famous musician who, seeing my writing talent, hired me as editorial assistant; three months after he promoted me to editor of his magazines, the Show Business Magazine and Fashion and Models. For want of more editorial prerogatives, I moved to another magazine, Top Magazine, before finally joining the Makabayan Publishing Corporation.

Now, the publisher of Show Business Magazine was a movie musical director my association with whom actually initiated me into the various facets of film making, from screenwriting, to editing, musical score, etc., though it would not be only after some half-decade would I get hands-on feel of all these facets. With the restrictions on the press during martial law, I thought it wise to shift to screenwriting in which I did not expect much of those restrictions. True enough, after a period of self-study of the craft, I wrote the screenplay of Daluyong At Habagat (Surge And Monsoon), a largely proletarian movie which had thousands of workers marching down the streets of Manila, singing The Internationale. Since then I wrote no less than fifty screenplays, two of them, Burlesk Queen (Burlesque Queen) and Lumuhod Ka Sa Lupa (Kneel On The Ground) winning best screenplay awards.

On directing, it came about as a conscious ploy to maximise my earnings from making movies. Philippine screenwriters are poorly paid. By directing my screenplays, I get to raise their price. My first direction was Isla Sto. Niño (Island of Sto. Niño)  a take-off from the infamous Balanggiga Massacre in the province of Samar where in punishment for the natives’ defiance of American occupying forces, the American commander issued an order for the slaughter of all that lived: people, plants and animals; men, women, children…and infants. The movie revived the then dwindling career of action hero Lito Lapid who, since then, went on to shine in politics and now continues to sit as senator of the land.

Mauro blogs at KAMAO Punch, and tweets @mauro_gia.

The interview continues here.

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