I received an invitation a month ago to be a speaker/panelist at the Ignatian Festival held yesterday at ADMU. I was asked to reflect on the question: how has your Ateneo education helped you contribute to nation building?
I’ve thought about little else for the past couple of weeks. And I am eager to unburden my thoughts. I’m posting the [mostly] unedited version here. *I swear it sounds better spoken aloud. 😀
Before I can satisfy with an answer, first I had to make a case for the underlying premise that what I do is integral to nation building.
There are few things more important in this world than the craft of telling a story. The discovery, creation and sharing of any story is vital to our survival, our evolution as a species, for it is, at the core, the way humanity becomes a witness to and a record of itself.
I believe each moment in the fabric of time is a story waiting to happen; to be discovered, to be witnessed and shared, and I would submit that filmmaking and creating TV shows, is one of the most powerful, immediately impactful means of doing all that, today. I think cinema and television could be this century’s tool of choice (as other mediums were for other centuries, before the invention of moving pictures) to harness these stories and make them all the more significant and precious and valuable. It is our recorded narrative. And for this, I create content. I write it, I direct it and, at least in the case of television, I feed it to millions of Filipinos.
I heard a colleague of mine once say, television is the new pulpit, and those who control it have the same immense power. I have been given an opportunity to witness and almost concretely wield this unusual power when I was 22, 2 years out of Ateneo and every bit as young and foolish as that age implies. I was offered to headwrite a primetime soap opera. And I was soon to discover there is no small amount of truth to what my colleague had expressed.
I can say that one of the rudest awakenings of my professional life is the first time I was told one seemingly irrefutable truth: our audiences do not wish to be mentally engaged.
You can imagine how I struggled with this, and still am actually. I challenged this notion and fought against it, to the consternation of some of my bosses. But what can you do? When all the data seem intent on proving that you are wrong to challenge this assumption.
But over the years I’ve realised that it’s not that our audiences are lazy thinkers. It’s an economy-driven sensibility, and at the end of a long and tiring day, what they want is something easy: on the eye, on the heart and on the mind. It doesn’t leave much room for writers and creators to fully explore facets of humanity and human behaviour for fear of being switched off or worse, switched to another channel. For fear of being habit breaking as opposed to habit forming, which is gold for a soap opera.
In a society where sensibility is dictated by the economy, how then do you push for mental engagement? You see the numbers. You know when people are actually switching the channel; did you know that nowadays networks can see specifically which part of the story audiences are not appreciating? Or where the “weaknesses” of the plot are and which characters are they following or care nothing about? And from these data extrapolate what is accepted and not accepted in your storytelling?
I have grappled and continue to grapple with the question of creative integrity in my line of work. Sometimes …or a lot of times … it has felt very much like a battle, for you to convince the powers that be to stay faithful to the original story and vision of your film or your television show. And it does feel sometimes that as you fight for your story, you no longer fight for yourself and your ego as a storyteller and creator but for a faceless audience who you must always believe to want something new, different, bolder and more insightful. It sometimes feels like you are fighting against what is conventionally known about the audience you wish to serve, because what is conventionally known about them is an inability to appreciate challenge and an unyielding resistance to change.
I’ve fought this battle and I have lost a lot of times. Because most of the time you lose.
But sometimes … you win.
It is really easy to fall into despair in my industry. Easy to be consumed with frustration at the seeming limitations of what you can do and create and explore. “Limit”. This word is death to anyone involved in anything creative. The desire and the freedom to grow, change and explore is like breath to any artist, to anyone who touches on anything creative. And it is easy to feel that the industry, the way it is built, is rigged against the creator. Because you almost always have to work within a set of givens, a set of rules, a framework, a paradigm that doesn’t ever seem to change.
Some will say that this is a challenge unto itself. I myself said that so many times. Mas mahirap lumikha nang hindi malaya. Yes, you are challenged. But how long can a challenge stay a challenge if it is constantly anchored on the same goal? Draw in your audience. Hit this number. Explore but not too much. Challenge what’s possible but stay within the box. After a few years or a few shows or a few stories that circle around the same narrative, the same core needs, reflect the same realities and do not brave to challenge what is known, comfortable and familiar, that box you are given to move around in becomes a coffin.
But you have to stay. You have to keep at it. You have to fight the despair that hits you at 3 in the morning while you finish yet another scene about a mother finally being reunited with her long lost daughter who was at one time engaged to the boy who was actually her brother who was also searching for a missing father who was once a mermaid. Or that scene where insert character here breaks down in tears because insert any emotional upheaval here despite having broken down in tears a few scenes ago. (Yes, we do love our breakdowns.) 🙂
You have to stay. Because there are golden moments.
There are times when you are allowed to create wonderful mythologies about bird-people, wolves and vampires and indigenous warrior princesses. There are moments when you will be allowed to create shows where scenes are so quiet, intimate and so real even you as jaded as you have become get affected by it, then you read fan forums and get feedback that you shared that experience of being affected with people you have never even met. You will have golden moments when you create a soap character who can actually quote Aristotle to another character, and have that episode be one of the highest rating in your entire season. Moments when you may finally have a character tell his love story in as real a way as he can–even if it is another man that he is in love with. Moments when you are allowed to break and create against stereotype. When you are able to introduce a new way of looking at an old issue. Moments when you may show authentically the problems of the youth, the plight of the middle class, the rich nuances of life in this society. Then you see that tiny seed you plant in one show become more accepted in the next and that progressive outlook becomes par for the course. You have golden moments, few and far in between, but golden nonetheless.
I have stayed for these moments. When I felt that I was part of something that affected attitudes and sensibilities and culture. I stayed and held on to something that was ingrained in me in my time in the halls of this school. Hope.
It’s not an abstract thing for people in my industry. Hope. Optimism. That has made all the difference for me and I have my philosophy and theology courses to thank for that. So thank you for my hope.
Because what do I do? I tell stories. I watch the world, observe human behaviour, imagine and re-imagine situations between interesting people and more interesting events, figure out which ones move me, figure out what if anything do I want to say about these things that move me.
It has been so important for me to have the ability to see the value of the stories we create to entertain, beyond entertainment. That these stories, these thoughts can affect sensibility, can inspire to aspire, can educate and enlighten, can push even just by an inch, an agenda. But this isn’t new. I know most of you here already realise this, the power of entertainment media, that is in obvious play in almost every aspect of our society. You see this power most effectively every time we elect new leaders.
This is where social responsibility comes in. And at the time I was learning about the nuances of social responsibility in my classes in theology and philosophy, I would never have predicted that those lessons would apply itself in the ways it has applied itself over the years in my career as a writer and as a director.
But it has. It’s a voice, that has anchored me as a creator; a creative conscience if you will, that affects my creative choices–whenever I would sit down to write a story or brainstorm a concept with a group of people or pitch an idea to an actor or a producer or a network executive–what a character says, what a character does, what a story wants to say–what my stories want to say and what harm or good can it do to the greater consciousness it wants to affect?
You don’t believe me? Have you heard of a movie called Zombadings 1 Patayin sa Shokot si Remington? No I didn’t write nor direct that film. But I am proudly one of the producers and it was clear that while we wanted to entertain people and make a profit as an independent film company, we also wanted to create something new, something meaningful to us. That film has been called by many, one of the most subversive Filipino films in years. Social responsibility and Zombadings. There’s something there.
Magis and the Theatre
I cannot talk about my education in Ateneo and how it has formed me, without talking about another specific force that is responsible for whatever work ethic and creative sensibility I possess. I cannot talk about my years in the Ateneo without talking about theatre. While it was in the classrooms that I got the education I needed and the freedom to explore and identify more clearly what field I wanted to be in, it was in the theatre that I experienced concretely what magis is. The notion of doing more, with whatever it was that I would eventually decide to be.
Ateneo helped me decide to be a storyteller. Tanghalanag Ateneo helped me decide the kind of storyteller I will be. The plays I did in TA taught me the value of creative and critical thinking, of looking beyond the text which is a skill of immeasurable importance in my work. Deconstructing Shakespeare, figuring out what Moliere was actually trying to say, learning at 17 that the message of Brecht in The Good Woman of Setzuan was as relevant in society as it was onstage, was an equally priceless education.
I first learned what it means to be truly generous in spirit, discovered what it means to be convicted and passionate about stories and the power of a well-told tale to transform and inspire — backstage at the Rizal Mini Theater, onstage in the tiny performance venue of Gonzaga 306, at Henry Lee Irwin where I helped mount what was then the biggest production of TA in Kahapon Ngayon at Bukas and in countless venues outside the university where we brought our productions to the provinces, to public schools, to other universities all over the philippines and met other students and other artists who shared the same passion and conviction … for storytelling.
Integrity, hope, social responsibility and magis. These are the most important lessons I have taken with me from my alma mater and shape the storyteller I am today.
A nation is built on the foundation of dreams and aspirations. And our dreams and our aspirations are reflected in our stories, who we were what we are and what we hope to become. I hope I have contributed to that, in some small way, by telling some of these stories authentically and courageously. By championing these whispers of ideas which, given enough chance could change the world, our country and ourselves.