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Martial Law Melodrama: A Conversation with José B. Capino

Bruno Guaraná

From Film Quarterly, Spring 2020, Volume 73, Number 3

In Lino Brocka’s Bona (1980), Filipina star Nora Aunor plays the titular character, who grows infatuated with Gardo (Phillip Salvador), a B-movie actor and stuntman. Bona gives up the comfort of her middle-class home, leaving behind her family and boyfriend, to live with Gardo in a Manila slum. She dedicates her life to serving Gardo full-time, in spite of the many abuses to which he subjects her. Illustrating the imbalance of their relationship, Bona bathes her lover every night, ensuring the water is always warm enough for his liking, even after he brings other women home for his sexual adventures. At the end of the film, after being told by Gardo that she should leave his home, Bona gives him one more bath—this time with boiling water. Bona watches her lover scream in agony as she carries out her vengeance with the same serenity with which she had formerly carried out his bidding. Balancing highly emotional scenes with a quasi-documentary depiction of decaying Manila streets, Brocka reconfigures film melodrama into a defiant political act.

José B. Capino begins his fascinating Martial Law Melodrama: Lino Brocka’s Cinema Politics by describing how images from Bona have remained imprinted in his memory since childhood. The film’s crude realism and troubling scenes of domestic violence offer a starting point for Capino’s investigation of “inscriptions of politics and history” in Brocka’s melodramas made during the martial-law era of Ferdinand Marcos’s regime (1972–86). Is the film’s final scene an antiauthoritarian statement made in reference to Marcos’s dictatorship? Or does Bona’s subversive action signify a feminist awakening? More unexpectedly, is it possible to extract a gay subtext from the film’s narrative—a reading suggested by French screenwriter Jacques Fieschi—that casts Bona as an alter ego for Brocka himself? For Capino, such divergent decodings are the result of a wealth of signifiers in Brocka’s work that attest to a Filipino film culture “engaged with the politics of its day” (xiii).

Martial Law Melodrama reveals the political meanings in Brocka’s films that are hidden beneath the innocuous appearance of popular mainstream cinema. Capino combines historiographic and interpretive methods, claiming these films as inescapably products of their own time while highlighting how their sociopolitical representation speaks to that history. Most of the films that concern Capino here were made during Marcos’s regime, under a constant threat of state censorship. Reined in by this pressure, Brocka imparted to his films a latent political meaning that could not be made explicit. For Capino, the wide net of the melodrama mode—from weepies to thrillers—provided Brocka with the ideal vehicle for such deceptions.

Rather than the expected auteur-focused account of Brocka’s career, Martial Law Melodrama traces a resistant cinema that rejects cooperation with an authoritarian regime and refuses to serve a nationalistic interest. Aided by an abundance of archival materials—press kits, screenplays, censorship documents, promotional materials, and more—Capino restores Brocka’s films to their historical context. Through decoding the political and historical inscriptions in Brocka’s films, Capino introduces the reader to the political history of martial law in the Philippines. His vivid accounts are not only staggering, but offer further evidence of the political significance of Brocka, a figure whose oeuvre directly and indirectly confronts Marcos’s regime.

To manage Brocka’s large body of work, Capino organizes the films according to loose subgenres. The first three chapters focus on Brocka’s social, maternal, and crime melodramas, respectively, exploring their links to realism and film noir. The next chapters assess the domestic social costs of the country’s post-1980 financial meltdown as depicted in Brocka’s family and male melodramas, in which brave young men fight authoritarian figures. Marcos’s removal from office prompts a more overt political investment on Brocka’s part, reflected in the “political melodramas of redemocratization” assessed in Capino’s sixth chapter.

The book’s final chapter provides a worthy reorientation of Brocka’s oeuvre through a queer criticism that Capino executes flawlessly. A superficial reading might suggest that it was the fall of Marcos’s regime that enabled Brocka to reinvent himself as a queer filmmaker with the release of Macho Dancer (1988). Yet, Capino goes deeper, inviting readers to reconsider the entirety of Brocka’s career through a queer lens. Using the term “queer melodrama,” Capino highlights the gender and sex politics of Brocka’s earlier films. Recalling scenes of homoerotic display in earlier films such as Maynila sa mga kuko ng liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Light, 1975), Capino looks for the missing pieces—scripted scenes that were never shot, unused footage, or different versions of the same film released around the globe—to put Brocka’s oeuvre together as a queer jigsaw puzzle.

If there is a narrative arc to Brocka’s work, it is one of increasing political investment, from subtext to overt activism, as the Marcos regime came to an end in 1986—nearly a year after the director’s imprisonment for his participation in a strike demonstration (148). In surprising ways, Capino dramatizes that trajectory, pitting a heroic Brocka against the malignant villainy of Ferdinand Marcos. Other characters include Brocka’s faithful and sometimes ambivalent collaborators (cinematographers, production designers, writers, and composers, as well as fellow filmmaker Mike De Leon) and the odious members of the Marcos family. Of particular note is the amicable relationship between the filmmaker and Imee, Marcos’s oldest daughter, whom Capino reports to have been Brocka’s chosen actress for Insiang (1976), a film set in the slums of Manila.

Such are its revelations that the book at times reads like a dangerous one, as if the author were exposing or unveiling secret codes meant to remain unspoken or buried within the confines of these films’ subtext. As he maps out a cinema of resistance—of defiance, even—Capino asserts the necessity of this work and hopes that such an activist approach to cinema will continue even in the face of the political adversities looming in the Philippines now. Written in clear and urgent prose, Martial Law Melodrama invites a wide readership, giving access to an intricate sociopolitical history and awakening the desire to revisit Brocka’s impressive oeuvre, cut short by the filmmaker’s premature death in a 1991 car accident.

It becomes clear that, in the midst of this golden age of Philippine cinema, Brocka was not only operating within an existing visual culture, but also helping to establish it. Capino sees Brocka’s films as responsible for teaching Filipino moviegoers to appreciate political discourse as a basic feature of popular entertainment and argues that “this mundane politicization of mass entertainment is the legacy of a struggle to save and cultivate democracy through cinema” (245). This book, in turn, offers a similar call to save and cultivate cinema through research and writing.

Bruno Guaraná: What motivated you to engage in a research project centered on Lino Brocka’s films?

José B. Capino: I had originally planned on writing a book called “Marcos and Melodrama,” a symptomatic reading of politics in studio-made melodramas from the Marcos era. Many of those alternately glossy and gritty films were family romances whose convoluted plots include bitter class warfare, characters suddenly coming into wealth and taking vengeance on their former oppressors, and dissimulated explorations of various perversions. I was interested in how such scenarios encoded the era’s politics. But when I began collecting films for the study I realized that I had to source and view hundreds of works, many of which were unavailable on home video. Because I could not derive a representative sample, I had little choice but to shelve the project at that point.

In the late 2000s, the Berkeley-based programmer Roger Garcia asked me to write an essay for a retrospective of Brocka’s work at the film festival in Torino. That was followed by an invitation from Film Comment to write a piece on Insiang for a screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and then I wrote a chapter on Macho Dancer for my first book. The last piece inspired me to circle back to the [abandoned] Marcos-era melodrama project, but this time focusing on Brocka’s films, in what would turn out to be a decade-long journey.

Guaraná: Some of Brocka’s most acclaimed films, Manila in the Claws of Light and Insiang, have had a relatively wide distribution in the United States, but are his works available in Asia, and in the Philippines in particular?

Capino: Due to Brocka’s stellar reputation in the Philippines, many of his films were released on home video, first on videocassette, later in various optical-disc formats, and recently in digital files for streaming and download. The quality of the transfers has always been spotty, ranging from expurgated TV versions to numerous remastered DVD or VCD editions, and from awful YouTube uploads to new 4K restorations currently sold on the Internet. Folks interested in watching Brocka’s films—including works discussed in Martial Law Melodrama—will find a lot on video-sharing sites like YouTube, via cable channels and streaming services for the Filipino diaspora, or through libraries all over the world. Brocka’s canonical films are still taught in schools, while his more commercial work is revisited by fans of the actors who starred in them.

Guaraná: In the acknowledgments, you mention how your mother and grandparents contributed to this project by introducing you to Brocka’s work as a young child. That memory illustrates to me the ubiquity of Brocka’s oeuvre in Filipino culture. What is your personal history and investment in Philippine cinema?

Capino: When I was growing up, our household had a lone black-and-white TV set, and one of my earliest memories is of my mom asking us to turn the dial to the channel that was showing a weekly TV series directed by Lino Brocka, whom she described as a “good director.” My mother is something of a martyr, so the fact that this was one of the very few things she asked of us made it seem special. Also, that was the first time I ever heard anyone mention the term “director.” I was six years old then, and I don’t think I actually stayed up to watch any of those shows with her.

The first time Brocka made an impression on me was when my paternal grandparents tuned in to the TV broadcast of Bona during a Christmas party at their place. It was the early 1980s and I was about ten years old. A family member randomly tuned the large color TV set, which was used almost exclusively for Charlie’s Angels, Little House on the Prairie, and Batman, to a channel that ran local movies. I remember all of us being gripped by the opening sequence of Brocka’s film, which showed a tiny woman [Nora Aunor] wending her way through the slums with heavy water containers for her lover’s bath, and the burly man splayed on a bench, waiting for her to bathe him. I don’t know what hit us, but no one dared change the channel. Whether it was the exotic depiction of poverty, the fascinating Tennessee Williams–style drama, or even the fact that my father and uncles were like the guy in the film who could never be bothered to fetch themselves a glass of water, I would never know. It was the only time our clan watched a Filipino movie together. Not surprisingly, my book opens with that indelible scene from Bona.

I owe my interest in movies to my mom. She took the family to the movies all the time, and always gave me money to rent videocassettes when I was growing up. Her taste was more refined than mine—lots of the same Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson films that Brocka also liked, and some of the better melodramas by Filipina directors—but she patiently accompanied me to the theater whenever I wanted to see commercial melodramas featuring Sharon Cuneta and the slapstick/toilet humor comedies of Joey De Leon. Truth be told, I developed a personal liking for and scholarly interest in formally innovative and socially relevant Filipino movies other than Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light only after encountering New Wave and independent films from the West while attending film school in the Chicago area in the late 1990s.

Guaraná: You cite an impressive range of archival sources—press kits, contemporaneous film reviews, production notes, screenplays, and even censorship documents—that constitute key aides in your political reading of the films. What challenges did you face in uncovering and accessing materials from an autocratic period?

Capino: Because I was not looking for sensitive government records, the problem of accessing Marcos-era materials for this book had less to do with willful suppression by the state than with poor archiving of those materials. Apart from lost films, the most crucial missing pieces for the book and other projects on the history of Philippine cinema are censorship records, box-office reports, film reviews, and publicity articles that appeared in fan magazines.

Guaraná: Some of the material you accessed came from the archive preserved by Lino Brocka’s brother Danilo. I imagine this was a crucial site of research. You also secured interviews with many of Brocka’s collaborators. How did you establish these connections, and what treasures did you find in the archive?

Capino: Lucky for me, Brocka was a consummate pack rat! He kept story outlines, scripts, some reviews and publicity articles, political manifestos, headshots sent by aspiring actors, fan mail from France—you name it. Additionally, his friend Boy C. De Guia—an entertainment reporter, publicist, line producer, and TV personality—clipped reams of articles about the director and his films. Bound in more than a dozen hefty scrapbooks, those clippings were indispensable to my study, because they contained material that was never indexed or preserved by libraries. I systematically perused Brocka’s papers and De Guia’s clippings for months on end, arriving at the library that housed them well before sunup and working until an hour before closing so I could beat the rush-hour traffic. The library staff was extremely patient, inviting me to their parties and such things, but I think they were also worried I would never leave!

The most precious finds include story outlines and scripts with Brocka’s marginalia, gossipy correspondences, tax liens from the 1980s (which showed the enduring financial toll of the money-losing art films he bankrolled a decade earlier), rare behind-the-scenes or continuity photographs of scenes that were unused or excised from the films. One of my favorites is the series of story lines for Brocka’s film noir Jaguar (1979). The writers, who were tortured and jailed by the Marcos regime, envisioned a scene in which a character patterned after Imelda Marcos was dragged into a kangaroo court where the urban poor would serve as judges, jury, and executioners!

Guaraná: You offer a critical reframing of some of Brocka’s films under the umbrella of “queer melodrama,” a term that seems useful for highlighting those films’ politics. The last chapter also signals a departure from an antiauthoritarian politics to a sexual politics. This change in focus seems significant as a strategy, adding a new and important layer to Brocka’s oeuvre. Was that final chapter’s queer critique always a part of your vision for the book, or did that come together in the process of researching and writing?

Capino: The discussion of Brocka’s subjectivity as a gay man and of his pioneering and constant attempts to represent queer figures is indispensable to any thoughtful discussion of his work. Gay men, especially those from the lower classes, are ubiquitous in his films, so it was never an option to skirt the topic, even if it risked interference with other issues raised by his films. The decision to gather the melodramas centered on queer figures in the final chapter was a practical one, allowing me to prioritize the explication of sexuality and social marginality. It is also a self-reflexive rhetorical move that raises the possibility of using queer critique to reflect back on the films discussed in previous chapters.

Guaraná: Early on in the book you refer to Fredric Jameson’s attention to how filmmakers make historical inscriptions in their films. I was struck by your articulation of those inscriptions in Brocka’s work and also by how your own research, scholarship, and prose reflect an urgency that speaks to the current historical moment. How did that shape your project?

Capino: Thanks for your generous reading of my take on Jameson and other thinkers of historical figuration. Filipinos of my generation are still referred to as “martial-law babies,” conceived in an environment of fear and oppression but raised during a time of fervent and, to a certain extent, triumphant resistance against oppression and injustice. Although I was part of a sheltered middle-class family, the pervasive media presence made the sociopolitical goings-on a frequent subject of discussion at home. In the years leading up to Marcos’s ouster, the media played an important role in detailing the abuses of the regime through investigative reporting in newspapers, provocative discussions on TV talk shows, images of unrest on broadcast news, [and] pushing out incendiary political filmmaking by seemingly fearless directors who often ranted on TV and radio about their work and censorship. As a teenager who wanted to become a broadcast journalist after college, I was impressed by the media’s power to shake things up and even inspire the uprising that ended the dictatorship. My fascination with the media’s cultural and political work has never really waned, and Martial Law Melodrama has given me an opportunity to grapple with that subject.

Guaraná: Your book makes two important interventions into this current political context. First, it recasts mainstream cinema and melodrama, using Brocka’s works as models, as political activism; second, it embraces an interpretive approach that extracts political inscriptions from these films’ texts, subtexts, and contexts (which you gathered from an extensive archival research). Would it be fair to read these as calls to action to filmmakers as well as to film critics and scholars?

Capino: I am delighted to offer my book as a primer on a neglected director’s work or an account of a popular cinema in the Third World during the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, I spent two years cutting and polishing the manuscript to make it more accessible to a wide audience as well as scholarly readers who are not particularly drawn to Philippine issues or Asian cinema. That said, I hope it inspires my fellow film scholars and critics to rethink their approach to melodrama, and to film culture more broadly.

Figures like Brocka have a lot to say about the sociopolitical life of cinema, cinematic form, and the history of the last half century. For instance, his work can speak to the present-day concerns of Americans feeling the grip of authoritarianism. The undemocratic politics that the United States has long supported elsewhere has come home to roost, and some of the most fascinating visions of collusion, indifference, and resistance can be found in the most and least expected places in film culture, such as in popular films from the Global South.

Guaraná: You refer to these historical inscriptions in Brocka’s cinema as “Marcosian moments,” a stratagem that betrays Brocka’s politics through intentional mise-en-scène as well as unconscious processes in a vivid illustration of the political registers and import of cinema. It may be too early, but have you seen what one might call “Dutertean moments” in contemporary Philippine cinema? Which films have caught your attention in the past few years?

Capino: The historical emblems of the Marcos regime, including the collective or popular memory of that period, strike me as decidedly cinematic. They register historical experience in visually cluttered, emotionally overwrought, sensational, and frenzied sequences, much like the movies that played an outsize role in the national imaginary at that time. I’m thinking here of the Marcosian state violence that played out like action-movie scenes or as smuggled documentary footage. Also, the regime’s display of unchecked power and extravagant ill-gotten wealth resonated with the obscene hard-core pornography and lurid upper-class melodramas of the time.

In contrast, the corresponding signatures of the Duterte regime are more legible in the forms of explosive sound bites and shocking, densely composed, high-resolution still pictures. By sound bites, I mean the crass rhetoric of the president and other officials, including their logorrhea of foul and sexist language, egregious lies, and shameless admission of or invitation to criminality. You can access audio clips or transcripts of the president joking about getting first dibs on a nun who was raped and killed by thugs, cussing out the poor and saying he owed them nothing, or most recently telling cops in Bacolod that they were free to kill everybody there.

Also, his regime has been defined by the heroic efforts of photojournalists documenting the terrifying results of his promise to make the nation’s funeral parlors overflow with corpses.

Due to the combination of high-tech nighttime photography and the savage murderousness of the authorities, the social imaginary and popular memory of Filipinos are seared with hyperrealistic and surrealistic snapshots of unfathomable carnage, including an image of discolored, unrefrigerated bodies stacked on top of one another like Jenga blocks in the corner of some low-rent mortuary. The shock triggered by these pictures and sound bites immobilizes the conscientious citizen so that their experience or memory dwells on the interval of disbelief rather than the feeling of being trapped in a nightmarish movie scene, which is one way I characterize the Marcosian moment.

Guaraná: Your previous book, Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema, covers a longer period in Philippine cinema without focusing on any single filmmaker. How did it inform Martial Law Melodrama?

Capino: The scholarly errand of Dream Factories is twofold. First, the book uses postcolonial theory and critique to interpret post–World War II and especially post-1970s Philippine cinema, in the process revealing a pervasive trope within that corpus. Second, the book stages Philippine and Filipino American cinema as decolonial responses to U.S. imperialism and Hollywood filmmaking, as correctives to the dominance of foreign movies and clusters of scenarios that conjure ways of dealing with empire, straight from the imagination and experiences of a people who know imperialism only too well. Martial Law Melodrama similarly accounts for the insurgent energies in Philippine cinema and culture, not only to illuminate a historical period and a filmmaker’s work but also to inspire scholars to reconsider how they interpret and appraise melodrama.

Guaraná: Current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is an admirer of Ferdinand Marcos, who is a central figure in Martial Law Melodrama. As you mention in the preface, recent developments in the Philippines have made your project much more urgent and necessary than you had originally anticipated. Could you elaborate on the current state of Philippine politics vis-à-vis film production and visual culture in general?

Capino: Democracy is under heavy siege in the Philippines—as it was during the Marcos regime, and as it is elsewhere in the world right now. I am disheartened by the resurgence of authoritarianism but still carry the hope that it will be undone again by the glaring forms of injustice and violence it has unleashed. Philippine independent cinema has been increasingly responsive to these recent affronts to democracy, but its film artists are still trying to find their footing in political filmmaking and the film industry. I hope they continue to step up their game and make a greater impact on the nation’s political culture by helping debunk the black-propaganda campaigns and the ideological conditioning that sustain strongman rule.

Guaraná: What is your next project?

Capino: My third book will draw from a two-decade-long research project on documentaries about the Philippines made in the United States. I’m also working on several articles about melodrama and American empire.

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BOOK DATA: José B. Capino, Martial Law Melodrama: Lino Brocka’s Cinema Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020. $85.00 cloth; $29.95 paper. 328 pages.

Read Chapter 6 from the book.

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