Being There

Marie Jamora Grows Into Her Craft

photo from

I finally got to sit down with director Marie Jamora on a late night in the middle of July. Her friends, Mikey Amistoso, Justin Sunico, and Mitch Singson of Ciudad, had just released a new album, and the launch at Route 196 was taken as an opportunity for to screen a music video and trailer, both promoting her entry to this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.

Jamora is as personable as she is sharp, making it easy to see her commanding the dozens on her production crew, alongside a cast of both artistas and extras. Although she is visibly tired, she enthusiastically zips through her commentary on the dozen or so topics I had written on a stack of index cards – some about music, some about making movies, and some about being young and middle class in Metro Manila. All were related to her first full-length feature, Ang Nawawala, which roughly translates to What Isn’t There. As a literary trope, it can be described as a lacuna, or a presence that is felt only in its absence. In this case the film’s lacuna is a central character, one which bears the double burden of being both savior and adversary –a lot to expect of something that doesn’t even exist.

What isn’t there is reflected by the character of Gibson Bonifacio. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t sign either. Instead he drinks, smokes weed, and shoots videos on his camera. The obvious problem with never hearing Gibson say his own name is the recourse of character introductions to the bricolage forming his everyday life. Through his obsessive compulsion with capturing every moment on his camera, we are given a frame-by-frame recap of the things that matter to our otherwise silent protagonist: images and sequences through which he connects with the world and allows it to influence the way he thinks, feels, and eventually falls in love.

This integral element of Gibson’s character gives enough room to negotiate the differences between communicating and just talking; a distinction which is regularly tackled in Jamora’s profession as a filmmaker. A graduate of both the Ateneo de Manila University (where she now teaches part-time) and Columbia University’s film program, Jamora has entertained numerous commissions for commercial work and music videos. “What came in handy for this project that I learned in film school was directing the actors and creating proper motivations to make their actions believable,” says Jamora. “I mean I can tell an actor to cry because the scene requires it, but not only would that make me an a–hole, it would make the scene generic.”

Before Gibson, rougher renditions of the lovestruck shutterbug suffering from various degrees of impairment have appeared in Jamora’s earlier work. After more than a decade of allowing the characters of Ang Nawawala to incubate, Jamora finally had enough to build on a full-length script. “I would never have been able to do this film when I first came up with the idea,” she shares. “I was a very different person then. It would have been a very different story.”

“Much of the Gibson character was actually based on Marie,” shares Trinka Lat of Brainchild Productions, who is both Ang Nawawala’s Production Designer and a good friend with whom Jamora has worked with numerous times. The script was co-written with another good friend and Geek Fight teammate, Ramon de Veyra, who is a little less polite about the parallels between Gibson’s story and Marie’s life. “Yung shot sa ending? A basta, si Marie yon!” (“That shot in the ending? Whatever, that’s Marie!”) de Veyra half-jokingly yells into my recorder.

Thus, it’s no coincidence that many of the objects which speak for our silent protagonist are the same objects that Jamora herself identifies with. Books, records, movie posters, even names of characters all lovingly reference Jamora’s own surroundings. We see Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer on Gibson’s shelf, Apol Sta. Maria’s Alamat ng Panget tossed casually atop a coffee table, and in an obvious reference to “what isn’t there,” a magazine on Gibson’s desk with Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on its cover.

To complement this, every shot appears to have been colored and designed in the same manner with which we revisit our memories: wherein evocative objects come to the fore and images shift between hypersaturated and diluted color schemes. This is seen in the Bonifacio family’s carefully curated home environment, one which characterizes a desperate longing to return to a past that no longer exists, and reflects on their inability to fully inhabit the present.

Closely adapted from actual experiences of coming of age in Metro Manila, both the public and private settings written into Jamora and de Veyra’s narrative bring to mind places we can feel familiar with, whether or not we’ve actually been there.  These appear to be locations mapped into the collective memory of upper middle class Filipinos, however it is difficult to place them within any specific historical moment. This poses the danger of a depoliticized, ahistorical narrative – a fairly rare occurrence in Philippine cinema, especially on the festival circuit. A single reference to GMA (the former president, not the network) is dropped, but we see many other things that reference an altogether apolitical climate.

This is not to confuse the apolitical with the politically apathetic, for Jamora instead turns her lens on the subtler hierarchies and conflicts within the Filipino family – those which are especially prevalent in the roles we assume when we choose to be there as sisters, daughters, or guides to those we are bound to by blood.  “I’ve had this story on the brain since I was in school,” shares Jamora of a previous chance to get this film made while she was still at Columbia, “but there was a lot about it that wouldn’t fly. The script was in Filipino, the characters were Filipino.”

Issues not only of culture, but of class could undoubtedly arise when Metro Manila’s streets form a barely legible backdrop, as the film’s characters are shuttled from one location to the next, often by the drivers and maids who play pivotal, yet invisible, roles in the lives of both Ang Nawawala’s characters as well as its audience. “It’s possible to talk about growing up Filipino without bringing up social class, but other people will bring it up for you,” says Jamora. Through Gibson’s eyes, the streets of Metro Manila remain hidden, either in darkness or beyond the windows of parked cars, as we are transported through galleries, Korean spas, and bars – such as Route 196, the very same bar where our interview with Marie Jamora took place. “Most of the movie takes place at night because…those are my hours, baby,” she jokes. “But really, music happens at night. And love happens at night.” She smiles, “That’s the third beer talking.”

Cameos by familiar faces from the local music scene, a key element both in the film as well as in Jamora’s life, have raised comparisons between Ang Nawawala and Quark Henares’s Rakenrol (2011). While there are few parallels to be drawn between the plots of the two films, similar references are unavoidable given the appearances of the same musicians and the same venues; thus recreating a comfortable and familiar atmosphere, drawn from Jamora’s own experiences both in the audience and onstage, playing drums for Boldstar and Blast Ople (reunion gigs for both bands seem to happen randomly and rarely, but they do happen).

Like most independent filmmakers working on a budget of Nothing (even Cinemalaya and NCCA grants are no match for the actual cost of making a full-length feature), Jamora’s shots are filled with the faces of her nearest and dearest. “Everyone involved in this film grew into their craft and into better artists. There was no better time to do this project,” she says. This makes Ang Nawawala something of a family affair, in which the locations create an atmosphere that feels intimate and familiar to those who know Jamora. The youngest of five siblings Jamora grew up on the cusp of Gen X and Y, raised by a generation that notoriously equated success with serious professions like law and medicine.

The daughter of two doctors, Jamora shares that while her mother was always supportive of her choice to make films, her love for books had both parents hoping she would pursue a life in the law instead. “My dad saw that I would speed read four books a day, and, because of that, wanted me to be a lawyer,” she shares. “But both my parents LOVE MOVIES. My mom even used to sneak into the cinema in Cavite after school as a child.”

Inheriting this love of film gave Jamora a medium through which she could channel her love for the literary as well as the visual, with more than enough room for her music. Her work onscreen clearly represents her strong grasp of the all-inclusive and unbounded nature of art, translating this generation’s inundation with media and commoditized culture into something coherent and sincere. “The bottom line is the use of the imagination, and with this film, music became a voice. It became central to telling a story.”

Fully Booked magazine, September 2012

Looking for Something

Marina Cruz and the Stuff of Former Lives

“Un Requerdo…from Lino” (2008-2011) Forgotten Portrait Series

Bricolage (or bric-a-brac, or simply, “stuff”) can be defined as both something as well as nothing – a double-bind that becomes the primary source of grappling with a thing’s meaning. That Marina Cruz wants you to look at things could pose a problem in an age where all people do is look at things. Our attempts to create typically result in a toss-up between trash and treasure. We browse through shops with the objective of consuming, demand upgrades on our existing possessions, and are entitled to the luxury of choice even when it comes to the simplest, most innocuous acts; all as a means of somehow extending an otherwise short existence.

There is a balance to be struck between accepting that things are what they are, and in realizing how objects can contribute to a sense of place, as well as a sense of self. “No ideas, but in things,” wrote William Carlos Williams in “Paterson” (1927), a line permeating Cruz’s work, through which it becomes possible to believe that there is a genuine value in the sentimental that would have easily been snuffed out by decades of living in an age of mechanical reproduction. With Cruz, these objects become inscribed with meaning, testifying to their passage from utility to obsolescence while capturing the growth of her clan from innocence to experience.

Like Williams, Cruz follows the same tenets of Imagism, maintaining her gaze on the forms and textures of the material world, particularly on the products of the domestic sphere. This is best presented in In the House of Memory (2012, credited as Marina Cruz-Garcia) which combines photorealistic prints and diptychs of the dresses juxtaposed with sepia-tinted oil portraits of Cruz’s mother and aunt, and flat renderings of the aftermath of a flood which had devastated their family home in Hagonoy, Bulacan.

Resolutely feminine, Cruz’s work engages the enduring legacy of representations that resulted from growing up in a system that both limits and complicates the space inhabited by women, as well as the roles they play. Through photorealistic paintings, prints, and installations, Cruz evokes a world of crafting, provincial life, hand-me-downs, and matrilineal clans, inscribing objects with a worth that surpasses the functional. Women are presented both as nurturers and disciplinarians, mothers and daughters; inhabitants of a world in which they are simultaneously the subjects and objects of their own lives. Although it must be noted that Cruz kept her maiden name.

Cruz’s skill as a storyteller is evident in her capacity to speak of the seemingly mundane in a language and voice that are simultaneously familiar and new. Explorations in the inner workings of the stuff of former lives offers a glimpse, however brief, into the inner life of Cruz’s personal and family ties – specifically between her mother and aunt, as shown in House of Memory, Un/fold (2009) and Inside Out (2012). It should be no surprise that the subject of fashion almost never comes up when talking to Cruz about clothing: looking at Cruz’s work feels more like going through the personal belongings of a stranger than browsing the racks, thus putting the viewer in an awkward position between reverence and disrespect. The only built-in obsolescence she is concerned with is that of memory, making the experience of viewing these old things refreshing as well as unsettling.

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in their associated molecules.” Echoing Francis Crick through personal histories, told in the lives of these everyday objects, Cruz’s work allows viewers to craft their own associations of and with these objects from what were once very intimate combinations of narrative and artefact. These allow us to observe the constant cycles of reanimation and demise that are ever-present in the lives of the things that make up our daily lives, thus highlighting the subtle shifts in the details of the relationships between people and their possessions. In exhibitions like Un/fold, Inside Out, and The Connective Thread (2011), Cruz layers fabric with various bits of evidence testifying to the life of the wearer, offering comfort that while the palpable absence of the body leaves matter inert, the aura may be eternal.

There is a weft of spirituality that runs through Cruz’s work. This manifests in her continuing fascination with spaces that somehow remain filled by former inhabitants, and in the invisible layers and stitches that still lay close to one’s skin even as time flies and distances grow. Space has the capacity to summon and contain, as well as to distance and separate. Clothing is a layer that identifies as well as protects the body, but clothing also becomes a medium for narratives about family and intimacy and the fictions we construct around collective life. This coexistence of materiality and spirituality is the contradiction inherent in Cruz’s fascination with inhabited objects: empty rooms, outgrown clothes, and unused furniture from which she sees another realm moving within.

Another theme that repeats itself in Cruz’s work is the nature of reflection, which literally entails looking at your self looking back. This is further explored in a self-portrait Cruz did of herself with a fictional doppelganger while on residency in Vermont, as well as in her paintings of her mother, Elisa, and her mother’s twin, Laura. As it is with her paintings of identical dresses, the work on twins extends the conversations on space and on the specific markers of an identity which is at once shared and divided. Twins mark the existence of identical bodies with remarkably different contents and means for understanding the ways of the world. “When you’re a twin, you share not only a face. You shared the womb, you shared a beginning” says Cruz of her fascination with her mother and aunt’s story.

Now 30, Cruz is now a mother, as well as a teacher. By homeschooling her two little boys, she has effectively turned herself into the subject of a story which has for so long remained central to her body of work. “We were the first to adopt in our family,” she shares, of what would become a long and winding ordeal into parenthood, wherein while waiting for the approval of their adoption papers, Cruz found herself pregnant with what in effect be their second child. “Since the gene skips a generation, I actually thought I could be having twins,” she shares with a smile.

Upon graduating from the UP College of Fine Arts, Cruz went on to mount her first few exhibitions while taking units for a Masters degree in Art Education. She then spent a year handling art classes for high school students at Miriam College, continuing a legacy of teaching that began with her grandmother. While Cruz only lasted for a year in that profession, preferring to produce her own art than to teach it, she continued her support of arts education as a partner and co-founder of the City School for the Visual Arts. This is a labor of love which she runs alongside fellow art educators and practitioners, one of whom is her husband, Rodel Tapaya. “When this place was blessed,” says Cruz of the City School, “the pastor said we have to touch it, so that it would not deteriorate.”

A Birthday Card of Sorts

Photo yoinked from The Inquisitr,

Originally, I wanted to make an annotated list of 61 albums that stuck with me, meaning formed the foundations for everything I’m currently listening to. I wanted to dedicate it to my dad, who’s turning 61 today and from whom I inherited a shit ton of vinyl. The list is at the bottom of this post, sans the annotations, as an endnote, but along the way I realized the futility of that pursuit considering what it means to have an album–which is essentially an acquisition. Of course it accounts for so much in terms of having a material record of music we love, but it’s still a thing–it does not account for the difference between, say, playing, or hearing someone play live, or pestering a DJ every weekend to play something, or seeing a video, or streaming audio on realplayer.

I grew up in the 90’s, but I didn’t start buying albums with my own money ’til I was around 11 or 12. That kind of financial independence (albeit very shallow) has profound effects on how we actualize our identities through the things we acquire and eventually keep.
I remember going to Odyssey in Virra Mall once with my mom, and when she asked if I wanted anything, I showed her a 4-non Blondes tape, which she barely even glanced at before saying no. As (what may have been) an experiment, I went and got a tape with Winnie the Pooh on it (I can’t even remember what it was…if it was a soundtrack or someone like Stephen Fry reading Winne the Pooh, all I remember is Winnie the Pooh was on it) and this time she said yes. So I was like, “No, I don’t want it!” And she just shot me this bewildered look, and I think she just figured that I had no idea what I wanted. Out of life.

I may not have completely understood the difference, but I knew it wasn’t worth it to argue with her over why she’d get me some dumbfuck Winnie the Pooh soundtrack thing, but not the 4 Non-Blondes album. The 4 Non-Blondes after all were super cool. They had that one song. Remember that one song?

I did however understand that of course I didn’t have the luxury of choice! It wasn’t my money! But while it wasn’t my money, it was my ears we were talking about here; I would have to accept that for now my mom’s money would dictate what I would have to listen to. But that just didn’t seem right. I don’t think I ever set foot in a record store with my mom again, and after that, visiting record stores became a solitary (I SAID SOLITARY, NOT LONELY) activity. This was 19 years ago, so it has stayed that way pretty much FOREVER.
I was pretty lucky though, because before I got enough money to buy myself the freedom to choose (we’re talking about tapes and CDs here, but also about life), I was given a box of casettes, by my brother, basically setting the stage for what I would deem “cool” for the rest of my life. I remember starting with the Judgment Day soundtrack, because I’d wanted to get my hands on that bad boy for quite some time, and having my mind blown by the collaboration between Cypress Hill and Sonic Youth. I knew Sonic Youth were cool because we had way too many of their tapes for them not to be cool, and thus…

The first album I bought with my own money, from that very same branch of Odyssey in which I wasn’t granted the pleasure to play “What’s up?” on repeat, was Sonic Youth’s Evol.

Yay! Go me! Whoohoo! But! But, it’s not exactly that simple. The thing is, I didn’t even listen to it! I swear, I tried, but we’re talking about an album that was released when I wasn’t even a year old, for an audience that was more than twice my age at the time when I bought it. Sure, I tried to listen to it, tried being the operative term here. Maybe I actually knew what it meant for music like this to exist, or some notion of cultural relevance had permeated into what was actually a failed exercise in consumer autonomy. Maybe I managed well enough to pretend my way into understanding, but the bottom line was I didn’t!

What I did though was read Lisa Crystal Carver’s liner notes while pretending to listen, and that has left an impression on me to this day. What she wrote still lingers in the back of my head as I type this, and that brings me back to the futility of making this list (which I sort of made anyway, I mean I got up to no. 50something, before the inner monologue evolved into this blog entry [for my dad, which he’ll never even read. Happy birthday, Papa!]).

Can a list of albums really account for the myriad ways that music can leave a dent? I think about the ways in which I’ve enjoyed music—in the audience, as a consumer, as someone who played music (which is a weird secret to keep, considering I still have friends who know me, and only knew me, as someone who played music [in high school. Badly). Of course a physical element as represented by an album is crucial, I mean why else would we call it a recording? But songs begin and end, and beyond all the albums I’ve bought, loved, and let go of over the years, one moment that stands out was sitting on the floor in my mom’s bedroom and feeling something inside me just light up when Soundgarden’s “Pretty Noose” came on MTV, resulting in this odd mix of confusion and enthusiasm and excitement. I think my brother (who was sitting next to me at the time) saw that my face was doing weird things while watching this video, because that was the first (and maybe only) time I heard him say that “Alice has good taste in music.” This was a few years before he handed down the box full of cassettes.

But I don’t have that Soundgarden album. I was too young to buy it then and I don’t exactly see any need to make room in my life (or on my shelves) for it now that I can. The same thing goes for concerts: I can barely even remember who I was there to see, when I first started going to the bigger shows; when words like “lineup” and “setlist” (as in, “Try to steal the…”) entered my vocabulary. Wanting to go, to see someone play live, was just to confirm the existence of something that had previously been contained or confined. Like, “Hey, Sandwich! I heard those guys on the radio! Now I get to see them!” But it also meant congregation, and unpredictability, and being there for something that was happening to everyone not only simultaneously, but for the first time ever. No matter how long you’ve been coming to this bar, every time is the first time when it comes to performance—which is something we so easily take for granted in this age of insta-real-time-upload everything that happened just now.

These are things I can’t really talk to my dad about, but these are also things I understand better because of what he has contributed just by owning a record player, and liking what he liked, and making sure I heard these things he held so dear and would possibly love them just as much.

  1. The Original Broadway Recording of Hair
  2. The Beatles, Revolver and Abbey Road
  3. Queen, Greatest Hits, vol. 1
  4. Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinites Sadness
  5. Tool, Undertow
  6. Nine Inch Nails, Broken and The Downward Spiral
  7. Rancid, And Out Come the Wolves
  8. Weezer, The Blue Album
  9. The Rentals, The Return of The Rentals
  10. Portishead, s/t
  11. Jeff Buckley, Grace
  12. Sonic Youth, Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star and Washing Machine
  13. Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink
  14. Hole, Live Through This
  15. V/A, Singles OST
  16. Sugar Hiccup, Oracle and Womb
  17. Veruca Salt, American Thighs and Eight Arms to Hold You
  18. PJ Harvey, To Bring You My Love, Rid of Me, and Dance Hall at Louse Point
  19. Bis, This is Teen-C Power
  20. Belle and Sebastian, The Boy with the Arab Strap
  21. The Pixies, Bossa Nova
  22. Throwing Muses, In a Doghouse
  23. Belly, King
  24. V/A, SubUrbia OST
  25. The Slackers, Wasted Days
  26. Bad Religion, All Ages
  27. Imago, Probably Not But Most Definitely
  28. Cynthia Alexander, Insomnia and Other Lullabyes and Rippingyarns
  29. Sebadoh, The Sebadoh
  30. Twisted Halo, s/t aka “Dead Tree”
  31. Rancid, s/t (2000)
  32. Morphine, Yes and Cure for Pain
  33. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi vs The Pink Giant Robots
  34. Elbow, Asleep in the Back 
  35. Sugarfree, Sa Wakas
  36. V/A, Mulholland Drive OST
  37. Stereolab, Emperor Tomato Ketchup
  38. Up Dharma Down, Fragmented
  39. Broken Social Scene, You Forgot it in People
  40. Yo La Tengo, Painful
  41. The Mountain Goats, Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree
  42. Animal Collective, Feels
  43. The Magnetic Fields, The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees
  44. Andrew Bird, Armchair Apocrypha
  45. The Walkmen, You and Me
  46. TV on the Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain and Dear Science
  47. Ang Bandang Shirley, Themesongs
  48. The Books, The Lemon of Pink
  49. of Montreal, The Sunlandic Twins and Hissing Fauna…Are you the Destroyer?
  50. LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
  51. Dan Deacon, Bromst
  52. Hannah and Gabi, Haha Yes
  53. Shugo Tokumaru, Exit
  54. Twin Shadow, Forget