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AVELLANA: A PORTRAIT OF THE FILIPINO DIRECTOR AS MASTER
Source: MOD Magazine
Vol. VII, No. 211
LAMBERTO Avellana is probably the only living and active Filipino director who has succeeded in hanging on to nearly four decades of filmmaking. Almost alone, he stands as witness to the ups and downs of Philippine cinema, one who has seen and experienced it all, from the fumbling 30s (when sound was in its infancy) to the Golden 50s, to the corrosive 60s and on to the contemporary times. He step-into the world of celluloid when he was only 23, fresh from college (Ateneo, A.B., magna cum laude, Class ’37) and full of hopes. His first film was Sakay.
According to pioneering film critic T.D. Agcaoili, the director’s first movie marked the introduction of a truly creative Philippine cinema, employing organically in film some of the elements of modern stagecraft and dramaturgy that had been lacking in Philippine movies.
Of Avellana’s first film, which depicted the life of the famous guerilla leader of the Philippine-American war, Agcaoili has written thus: “Sakay is an intelligent an disturbing film – disturbing in the sense that it presented history in a new light, the history of early Philippine guerilla warfare, of underground resistance at a time when the Americans, against whom the guerilla leader Sakay fought, were sovereign in the Philippines.”
Like the legendary character of his first venture, a rebel who refused to surrender to the new colonizers, Avellana has remained unvanquished by the oncoming forces of age and change. The interview becomes an opportunity for recollection. He points out: “I have practically been in and out of the scene, feeling a little conquered now and then, but always I have managed to penetrate every group of directors for every age.”
“I was the Benjamin of the first group,” he recalls, “which included Jose Nepomuceno, Icasiano, Davila, Carlos Vander Tolosa and Marvin Castro. Then came the batch of Ramon Estela, Icasiano, Manuel Silos, Gregorio Fernandez. I was also in the third group of directors, among them, Manuel Conde, Susana de Guzman, Gerry de Leon, Cesar Gallardo. And then the fourth group of Felicing Constantino, Armando Garces, Conrado Conde, Tony Santos and Fred Daluz. Later came the group of Armando de Guzman and Ding de Jesus, and then Emmanuel Borlaza, Jose de Villa, Tony Cayado and Mar Torres. And now, the Brocka-Bernal-Gosiengfiao group.”
Avellana came to the cinema from the stage. His prodigious beginnings consisted of stage plays, debates, oratory and public speaking. He was president of the Ateneo Players Guild and the Debating Society. He played, among others, Edmund in King Lear and Joan in Joan of Arc.
It is, however, in the cinema that Avellana is held in critical esteem. As director, he is best known for his two widely acclaimed films made for LVN (where he spent most of his creative years): Anak Dalita (1956) and Badjao (1957). It is still debatable whether these two are Avellana’s best, since many film authorities have repeatedly called them uneven. For the record, the first is the only Filipino film to have won a Grand Prix for Best Picture at the Asian Film Festival; the second won prized for best direction, screenplay (Rolf Bayer), cinematography (Mike Accion), and editing (Gregorio Carballo), in the same festival of the following year. From FAMAS, he received the awards for best director for his two films 10 years apart: Huk Sa Bagong Pamumuhay (1953) and Scout Rangers (1964).
When asked to choose his most satisfying works, Avellana would mention different films. His favorites, his meatier, as he puts it, are: In Despair, Kundiman Ng Lahi, Medalyong Perlas and Welga.
He justifies, “In Despair is the touching story of
When Portrait…. (and for that matter, other quality pictures) failed to break even at the box office, Avellana started to equate the prevailing state of local cinema with the pedestrian interests of the movie audience. He then concluded that to make a money-making film, a director or producer must cater to the tastes of the masses, the sentimental audience who go to the movies with their market baskets, in their slippers or bakyas.
“Bakya”, he explains, “was never intended as a pejorative term; in fact, it was used as the gauge of a successful picture, you know, the sounds of wooden clogs in the lobby worn by the lola and the rest of her family.”
After quitting temporarily from feature films, Avellana turned his efforts to documentary. At present, he is the president and executive producer of Documentary, Inc., assisted by his sons Jose Mari and Lamberto Jr., and daughter Marivi, who are all, in their own right, distinguished stage thespians. This firm offers services from script to screen, producing, besides documentaries, newsreels, TV shorts, commercials and industrial films.
For his total contribution to Philippine cinema, he was conferred the following recognitions: FAMAS International Prestige Awards for Anak Dalita, Badjao, El Legado and La Campana de Baler; the Santiago Memorial Award in 1961 for his achievements; and an Araw Ng Maynila award for film and stage direction, in 1964. In 1968, the Citizens’ Council for Mass Media (CCMM) chose Kumander Dimas as best picture.
How, then, would he describe his philosophy in filmmaking?
“I like reality in-depth. That’s probably why I never made a good Robinson Crusoe story or a good Seven Dwarfs movie. I like to see dirt in nobility – in its rawest form. I prefer my audience to sit back and identify after watching my movie: siyanga, oo nga, ano? I also like my characters to mirror human imperfections, gusot na buhok, down-to-earth dialogue, the way authentic people speak and look. And sex as the part of the film that makes its pulsate.”
On his style, he says: “I hate camera effects. I make my camera as steady as possible. Because whenever it moves, it should always be meaningful.”
On the problems of the industry: “We have moved backward because of our basically disadvantaged economic position. This deters creativity and activity. This part of the reason why I stayed away for some time. There are many constraints: absence of formal training for actors, the small market for distribution, the onerous taxes (taxes before you make a film, taxeswhile you’re making it, taxes after it’s finished, taxes after it’s shown; this is terrible).”
On the films he has directed:
“I have made all kinds of genre – dramas, musicals, action, adventures. Anak Dalita is still a commercial film although it was neo-realistic in approach for it captures the grime and the sweat and the splendor of poverty. I also like Faithful (with Lou Salvador, Jr.) and Pag-asa (with Ike Jarlego, Jr.). I consider Sa Paanan Ng Nazareno the most expressive of my style. I also recall Prinsipe Amante, the first LVN color film; Escolta was closed, and the star of the movie, Rogelio de la Rosa, was able to see it only after three successive premieres.”
Now a sexagenarian (he was born February 12, 1915), Avellana – the punctilious perfectionist, the creator of many memorable moments in film, the mentor of several of the country’s most distinguished and most successful actors and actresses (Rosa Rosal, Charito Solis, Eddie Rodriguez, Leroy Salvador, etc.) – has decided to return once more to his first real medium of personal expression – the celluloid. Having done in recent years a string of critical flops (Destination Vietnam (1969), The Evil Within (1970), Ang Bukas Ay Atin (1973), and the second episode of Fe, Esperanza, Caridad (1974) which all failed to re-establish his original stature as master of Philippine cinema, he is now considering a serious comeback this year.
“I have already lined up five films. I have finished shooting Pag-ibig Ko’y Huwag Mong Sukatin with Boots Anson-Roa and Dante Rivero for Lea. A love story, it’s so simple it’s almost religious. I am now at work on Kapitan Kulas with Ramon Revilla and Elizabeth Oropesa for the Metro Manila Filmfest in September. It’s also similar to Sakay since the material is about Nicolas Incallado, an unknown revolutionary. Maybe, after this, I will consider doing two pictures for Oropesa whom incidentally I discovered as a child in Bus To Bataan. They are tentatively called Kay Lakas Ng Ulan and Yapusin Mo Ako. The
Will his comeback pictures restore the glory that was Lamberto Avellana? Like all suspended judgments, the finished films have yet to be seen.
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THE FILMS OF LAMBERTO V. AVELLANA
*Click images to enlarge
*Thanks to Simon Santos of video48.blogspot.com for some movie ads.