Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Alexis Tioseco and 'the difficult art of being human'

(Eulogy delivered by Paul Dumol at the funeral of Alexis Tioseco and his girlfriend Nika Bohinc at the Santuario de San Antonio, Forbes Park, Makati, September 5, 2009. Mr. Dumol, the VP for Academic Affairs of the University of Asia and the Pacific, where Alexis taught, is the playwright behind the seminal modernist Filipino play “Ang Paglilitis ni Mang Serapio”.)

Alexis was never my student, and although I have been often called his mentor, I was never “officially” his mentor. In our university, students are assigned a faculty member called their “mentor”; I was never that. Leon Peckson introduced Alexis to me—seven years ago, he says, to discuss how we might put together a film appreciation group. From then on Alexis and I met frequently, mostly to talk about movies, because Alexis loved to talk about movies and he could talk on the subject for hours, though not about movie stars or Gloria Swanson moments; he liked to talk about directors and what they wanted to say and how they said it.

In some respects, he was like a son to me. I balk at saying this, but I think it is the truth. At a certain point, I realized his questions about movies we had both seen were intended to just let me speak, while he listened. He was learning. And so I “poured it on,” pulled out all the stops, and told him everything I knew about film and scriptwriting and why this film was good, this other pretentious, this one failed, this other subtle, etc. He started introducing me to directors he knew: there was Quark, then Khavn, Ato, Raya, Sherad. He would pose a question to me before the lunch guest, then sit back, listening: he was learning. I, on the other hand, squirmed. He would lend me DVDs of local films, then discuss them with me. I rarely gave anyone an A. In those lunches, he would put me on the spot and ask me to repeat what I had told him and never would tell the director face to face, like a good Filipino. At a certain point, I told him to stop, because he was turning all his friends into my enemies. (Hyperbole here!) The annoyance of some of these directors was palpable, but I felt obliged to speak, afraid he would accuse me of backbiting or even duplicity, if I did not let directors know what I really thought about their movies. He was learning.

In the early years of our conversations, we talked a lot about his career in film. At first, he entertained plans of writing for the movies, but perhaps I squelched that with my reactions to the first storyline he wrote. It was awful. Eventually, he focused on film criticism and film scholarship. Circumstances directed him to Southeast Asia cinema as his niche. We discussed possible graduate studies.

I do not know what sort of influence I was in his life or even more specifically in his film criticism. Perhaps nothing. But I know I was part of his process of growth, of finding his own voice, of shaping his convictions. Once the film teachers had a workshop which I led, and we analyzed a particular scene in “In the Mood for Love”. I was sorely disappointed by the overly-symbolistic interpretation he made of a swinging lightbulb. I knew that was an influence that came from elsewhere, not from me. That’s what I mean when I say my influence may have been nil. He never submitted drafts of his articles or reviews to me, and I did not ask to see them. I am a strong believer in each one developing his own personality.

The seven years I knew him were the years in which he became what he is now. I saw the transformation of his passion for cinema into a cause, a cause that came with a love for the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Crucial to his career as film critic was a favor Lav Diaz asked of him: to fill in for him in an international conference in Singapore on independent films; he would speak on the Philippines. By that time, he was quite familiar with the situation of independent cinema here through the lengthy interviews he had made of film directors. After that conference, invitations to others came steadily. Alexis’s specialization in Southeast Asian independent cinema filled a need. But I do not think he had developed his own philosophy of the cinema at the time of his death; he was in the process of doing this. Alexis never had formal training in film, and for some time we discussed whether he should pursue film studies or Southeast Asian studies. He tended to the latter, but circumstances conspired to prevent him from taking any step in that direction.

A crucial event in shaping his career was his father’s death. We talked quite a bit about his father and his relations with him. This was topic no. 2 after movies, and after his dad died, for a short time the way he ran the family business became topic no. 2. In both cases I gave Alexis advice I felt a father would. After he started teaching part time at UA&P, we saw each other less, and over the last year quite infrequently.

Alexis lived alone with his dad when I knew him, and his father—how shall I put it?—was like a character from a short story by Nick Joaquin. Alexis had a complex relationship with him, but he loved him, and it was then I saw his sense of duty tested. He stayed by his dad. He wanted to write a screenplay about him and secretly audio-taped the sermons his dad would make to him. I told him the movie should be a comedy. His father wasn’t friendly to his dreams of a career in film criticism—an entirely understandable attitude on the part of a parent, I must say. Besides, he wanted Alexis to take over the family business. In the end he stopped insisting Alexis run the business and allowed him to teach film at the University. When his father fell ill, Alexis took care of his father.

His father’s death three years ago led to his having to manage the family business selling LPGs, which meant teaching part time, instead of full time, in UA&P. By then Alexis was attending international conferences regularly. And then came Nika, who swept him off his feet with her beauty. I recall him describing her, fresh from his trip to Slovenia. He was in love. Absolutely in love. Say something about Nika, someone told me last night. I don’t know her, though I did have the pleasure of dining with her and Alexis thrice. She struck me as a fiercely intelligent woman, a mulier fortis, who loved the mountain-climbing excursion Philip Peckson took her and Alexis on on the hottest day possible of the year, while Alexis kept complaining about how his legs were turning into jelly. Like Alexis she had her own advocacy work on film in Slovenia; like him she edited a film magazine, although hers was in print.

Alexis was never mean. He never indulged in gossip, backbiting, or vain remarks. Even when he was, it seemed, a regular in the international conference circuit, he never put on airs. He was always himself, as he had always been, simple, cheerful, usually with a smile on his face.

He never used people and their films as stepping-stones for his own ambitions. Sometimes you have that impression that someone is using research in a particular field, not because of any real interest in the area, but only to establish himself as resident expert. Well, Alexis was not like that. He had a genuine passion for the cinema, and in time this narrowed down to Philippine independent films, before broadening to include the independent cinema of the rest of Southeast Asia. He disliked what he would refer to dismissively as Hollywood, which meant that he never watched any of the parts of “The Lord of the Rings”.

Every now and then in our conversations he would mention this or that person about whom he was concerned: Lav and his health, Chris, Erwin. He wouldn’t expand on them. He would mention them briefly, but over time I learned that meant he was trying to do something for them.

He was an apostle of the cinema. He loved the films of Lav and is probably the only film teacher in the whole world who persuaded almost an entire class to sit through the 11 hours of “Ebolusyon”. He loved Raya’s films, and I recall his enthusiasm for Ato’s first film and Sherad’s first, his excitement over Khavn’s advocacy for digital films, Quark’s “Keka”.

Alexis’ attempts at learning Tagalog were painful to hear, and I admired his stubbornness in getting his pronunciation right. He loved the Philippines, which many deride. I recall early in our acquaintance how he wrestled over the option of going back to Canada where there was more funding for film research. In the end, he opted for the Philippines, because he agreed that it was here where he could make a real contribution, and he threw himself into his new advocacy with, I am tempted to say, the hard work and thoroughness he did not care to show in his work on communications or management in UA&P.

On our way to Makati yesterday, Chris Yambing mentioned how Alexis in these few days had seemed to become a phenomenon. Chris put it very well: he expected a lot of people to be strongly affected by Alexis’s death; what he did not expect was the magnitude. How account for it? There is his work on film, of course, and there is also his use of the electronic media. But I think what we see demonstrated here is simply the power of friendliness—a completely disarming friendliness, wherever he was, and in the last five years of his life, he traveled much and met many people. It wasn’t charm; he wasn’t oily; he wouldn’t turn anything on or off. He was simply friendly—this, combined with a genuine interest in film.

Alexis was polite, respectful. He never made fun of others, never derided them, never sneered at them. He was never vicious in his criticism. He strove for correctness whether in praising or criticizing. He had an Anglo-Saxon concern for fairness and a fine sense of justice. And woe to you if you happened to make a remark which seemed to him unfair or unjust. He would not contradict you head-on. That was not Alexis’s style: he would ask questions, one after the other, until he made you see the unfairness or injustice tucked away in the remark. Alexis was forthright in his speech but always very polite and respectful. He was not impulsive, but not too deliberate either. “Mas bueno que el pan,” the Spaniards would say.

When Erwin informed me about his death, one of the messages he sent by text was how senseless his death was. I agreed, and added “like so many other things” in this country that Alexis and I and so many others love. This is like a Tarantino film, I thought, but in a Tarantino film even what seems senseless makes sense in the end once the film is completed. Many years ago I wrote a play which was produced in the CCP. The director told me how one of the cast members watched the play from the audience side instead of from the side lines. His comment was, “Maganda pala ang play natin.” It is necessary to see the whole script to appreciate it. It is necessary to see the story completed to judge its parts. If all we see is the scenes we appear in, the play can appear senseless, even if it is not.

Last night, talking to Philip, who described his friendship with Alexis as one of passionate arguments over film after which they would not talk for two days and after which they would be friends again—Alexis was that way: you could cross him, even absolutely, and know this was something he was not going to take against you forever more—talking to Philip, we considered once more something that whispered comments in the wake have suggested now and then, that there’s something more than meets the eye here, something more than a break-in and robbery. Perhaps. Perhaps we have witnessed a scene from someone else’s script, one we are not familiar with. We shudder to consider that someone might hate our Alexis. But Alexis was not only a film critic. That was only one hat. The suggestion that Alexis’s death might not be senseless after all, that it is part of a story most of us in this church are unaware of, is disturbing. We can only hope that the proper investigations will be held.

There is another sense of course in which we are all characters in a film going on right now. And in this film, even if the proper investigations unearth the truth, the episode we have just lived through can still strike us as senseless. But that is because we do not know the whole script and because we do not know the ending of this movie. We do not even know what was going through Alexis’s head as those bullets ended his life. John Woo’s slo-mo treatment of bullets is confirmed by police officers relating their experiences at shoot-outs: time slows down, and one finds oneself thinking a multitude of thoughts which would ordinarily seem impossible to compress into a few seconds.

Last night Philip told me that Erwin Romulo was hoping this eulogy would tell you something about Alexis’ spirituality. I replied he would be disappointed. Alexis maintained a reserve about the subject. He was no atheist, and he was no agnostic, and you can sense this in his writings, but he kept silent about the topic once it drifted towards his own personal life. I respected that silence, because Alexis is someone who always listened and thought. There was little he would do that was not deliberate. I can say that he prayed for his father regularly during what he did not know at the time to be the last years of his father’s life, and he prayed for his mother, too. I know because he told me.

So I do not think the suggestion about a Scriptwriter with a capital S of the film we are living through would make Alexis turn over in his coffin. You can check right now. I do not think he would disagree that that Scriptwriter is compassionate and wise beyond our imagination and our understanding. Or that the ending to this film we are living through will be correct and that in its light we will understand everything that now seems senseless and that the ending of this movie will and can be only absolutely beautiful.

What is clear right now is that his death has reinforced something we also experienced only recently, with the death of that other person who lived in his neighborhood: The power of ideas, the power of example. Alexis was not a political person, although he graciously agreed to organize a lunch in which I made a PowerPoint presentation to Lav and Khavn and Sherad about my analysis of what our society is going through. Nika was in that lunch, sick, but she was listening, more intently I thought than Alexis. With time she might have made him political. The idea that movies, good movies, reveal to us what it means to be human—and Alexis was, if anything, a humanist; he was no ideologue—this is something Alexis believed in, as you might see in four movies he introduced me to and are now among my favorites: “In the Mood for Love”, “Amores Perros”, “Yi Yi”, and Bresson’s “Au Hasard, Balthazar”. He loved these movies for the same thing he loved in Lav’s movies and the same thing he looked for in Southeast Asian independent films.

Thank you for that, Alexis, because art revitalizes, and every time I watch these films and experience the grace which art brings, I will be thankful for your persuasive enthusiasm. Thank you, above all, for demonstrating with your own life what you loved most in film: the difficult art of being human, how to be kind and generous and respectful and cheerful and honest and hardworking and friendly to all without, it seems to me, exception.

PLUS: More heartbroken tributes in Noel Vera's blog, but especially Oggs', Jason Sanders', the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's and Noel's, too. Also, this gem by Gabe Klinger, and here a corker by Lourd de Veyra.


Anonymous said...

this is the reason why i am in favor of death penalty in the philippines. totally senseless death.

rudeboy said...

Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...

I never knew them, but I am so, so sorry to hear of their loss. Lives of promise, gone too soon.

My condolences.

John Silva said...

This is a very loving and tender tribute.

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