Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Breathing lessons

“WE tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

The line came back to me as I squeezed in a room full of students waiting to view documentaries. The University of the Philippines (UP) Cebu declared alternative classes for the Aug. 20 afternoon screening of entries for the 4th Cebu International Documentary Film Festival (CIDFF) 2015.

The following day would be a holiday. Twenty-eight years ago, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. came home after three years of exile. Instead of uniting the divided forces opposing the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, he ended on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport (MIA), shot in the head by Rolando Galman. The hired gun’s ties to Marcos were widely speculated but never definitely proven.

One can speculate, too, if Ninoy, alive, could have united the restless but cowed middle class and the militant Left. There is no arguing, though, that Ninoy as a bloodied white-clad body crucified on the MIA tarmac galvanized the country.

In UP Cebu, students declared “alternative classes”. An intolerant and impatient bunch, we did not appreciate the black humor of sitting inside classrooms, pretending that theory did not make us fall asleep, while the country was coming apart.

Last Aug. 20, the UP Cebu dean declared alternative classes. Unlike the walkout staged 28 years ago by our generation, clustered under the trees and plotting how to rewrite history, the students were released by teachers from their regular classes for the CIDFF screening. Can viewing documentaries substitute for learning?

Standing at the back of a darkened room illuminated by a screen replaying stories from Canada to UK, including the Philippines, I learned how Joan Didion, writing then as a California hippy struck by the precariousness of narratives in the 1960s, was timelessly prescient when she wrote in “The White Album”: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

For a storyteller, there can be no audience scarier than a room full of teenagers with smartphones and tablets. While Jethro Patalinghug’s “My Revolutionary Mother” traced a son’s rediscovery of his mother’s journey as a former community organizer, I watched for but did not see tiny subversive screens lighting up among the audience. The story dwelling on the personal sacrifices of a political activist triumphed over the well-known Millenial itch for Facebook updates.

This should reassure freelance film maker Joni Sarina Mejico. When Joni studied news writing and interpretative writing with me more than four years ago, she was enterprising but diffident.

Joni has found her voice. She wrote and directed “Abakada ni Nanay,” the story of Librada Gemal, 80, school gardener, “hilot (folk healer),” and oldest grade 4 student of Tisa II Elementary School. When the camera lingers on Librada’s face in the closing shot, I find that I have lost the ability to speak. The documentary runs for about eight minutes.

How many eight-minute classroom lectures can silence listeners into sentient inarticulateness?

(mayette.tabada@gmail.com/ mayettetabada.blogspot.com/ 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s August 23, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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