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PHILIPPINE CONTRADICTIONS : Innocence Versus Independence in a Land of Film Censorship

January 05, 1986|JOHN M. WILSON

I wanted to use this space to write a nice little essay about how much I like the Philippines and its people. Kind of a contrast to the tale of film censorship, hypocrisy and economic disparity that appears on the next page in today's Calendar.

Since things have gotten so nasty over there, business is way off and tourism has suffered terribly. That always means that the people who are already suffering the most will only suffer more. So I wanted to let folks know that, with all its drawbacks, I think the Philippines is a great place and I'd go back at the drop of an assignment.

But feelings and images kept interfering with my planned puff piece: The Philippines is one of the most contradictory cultures that I have ever encountered. And one of the most inviting and nurturing. And one of the most confounding and intimidating.

Instead of a paean to Philippine hospitality--not to mention the physical beauty of the people, the scrumptious food, the lovely scenery--I found myself writing of my apprehension during my first day and night of interviews in Manila. After all, roughly a dozen Filipino journalists were murdered in the last year, one reportedly while he was on the air (American journalists are relatively safe, I was quickly assured).

I was especially intrigued by a source--a Filipino reporter--who asked that his name not be used but bravely answered every question out of what seemed like childlike duty.

"You have to realize," a film director said, "that we still think of ourselves as slaves. Above all, we try to be helpful."

Especially to light-skinned foreigners. Over and over, I heard: "The Spanish brought us swords and pain, the Chinese superstition, but the Americans, they brought teachers and books."

Americans are literally worshiped (also, on occasion, bombed). There exists a jungle village where the film crew from "Apocalypse Now" was ensconced for something like two years, bringing in money, strange equipment and Lord knows what else. To this day, it is said, boys watch the sky for helicopters, waiting for the return of Francis Coppola, because they think he is a god.

If that is surreal, consider the more mundane: The best film-editing equipment in the Philippines is in the hands of the censors, not the film makers. The former chief government censor, American educated, is an unabashed film fan. The sweetest girls laugh and chat while they stamp "approved" on film posters and stills, oblivious to the meaning of their act. Do you laugh or cry?

"Both," a Filipino director said. "You've got to do both."

So hard to capture on paper, the Philippines. Not long before my visit, a bomb--probably tossed by Communists--exploded in a popular hotel, killing 26. Yet I never felt more welcome anywhere in the world. Protesters here cry out against the U.S. government's alliance with President Ferdinand E. Marcos--while wearing Dodger sweat shirts and humming Cyndi Lauper tunes. There was a dinner; sitting across from me was a member of the Aquino family because friendship and family are the heart of the country. and his best friend, whose family was about to pay a cordial visit to the Marcos compound. Each offered to help me with contacts any way he could. Politics here have a hard time intruding on friendship and family. Above all, life goes on, with a kind of blissful ignorance. Though that becomes less and less true.

A middle-class family man, nearly in tears, told of a lifetime of political apathy, until the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983. I believe that the man mourned the loss of his own innocence as much as the loss of the popular opposition leader.

The innocence, that's what struck me so about the Philippines. The innocence, the tenderness of spirit, the warmth, the unreserved acceptance of an American and never mind the politics for a while. Let's get a beer. Let's give him the best seat in the jeepney. Let's take him out to the beach and roast a pig.

That is the beauty of the country, that a piece on film censorship misses: the generosity and gentleness of the Filipino personality. Nearly a month I was there, and I never once heard a child cry or throw a tantrum. And never saw a parent raise a hand or a voice to a child.

So crazy: two policemen in a patrol car on Independence Day, behind a stack of riot shields, one asleep with his head on the other's shoulder.

How does any of this tie in with film censorship?

"The censors treat us like children," the anonymous journalist told me. "We cannot grow up that way--but maybe they don't want us to grow up."

Either they will grow up, he thinks, or they will continue "to think of ourselves as slaves," to be used, cheated, deceived.

One hopes it's not a choice between independence and an innocence, a tenderness, of the spirit.

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