Lino Brocka was a radical filmmaker whose socially conscious films explored the plight of the marginalized and ignored sectors of Filipino society. Maria Soriano explores his trailblazing life and career, and looks at his films, which are unfortunately unattainable outside of The Philippines.
Catalino Ortiz Brocka, more famously known as Lino Brocka, was one of the Philippines’ greatest auteurs. He was born in Pilar, Sorsogon in 1939. His father Regino, who was a huge influence on Brocka, teaching him Maths and English as well as the Arts, was killed in a political murder when Brocka was still young. Brocka, along with his mother and brother, had to flee to live with his mother’s sister. But a good life was far from reach as he and his family suffered physical and verbal abuse from his relatives and were forced to do hard labour, an experience he would carry with him throughout his career as a director.
Brocka developed a strong interest in films during his youth, particularly American films, and despite his poor upbringing he managed to flourish academically and won a college scholarship in the country’s leading academic institute, the University of The Philippines. Initially majoring in pre-law, he dropped the course to study literature instead. While studying at the University, he joined the Dramatic Club but was criticized for his provincial accent and demeanour, a treatment that disgusted him. Brocka took it upon himself to watch his beloved American movies to practice his English further and improve his accent, a move that eventually gained him acceptance in the club, but only as a stage hand. After dropping out of college, he converted to Mormonism and devoted himself to missionary work, travelling to a leper colony in Hawaii. He then travelled to America and worked menial jobs in San Francisco for a brief period of time before turning down a chance for American citizenship, opting instead to return to the Philippines to revive his interest in filmmaking.
He joined the Philippine Educational Theatre Association where he met its founder Cecille Guidote, which led to the making of his first film, 1970’s Wanted: Perfect Mother, a box-office hit based on The Sound of Music, the only film he has made that was not heavy on social injustice and drama. From then on, Brocka’s films became more personal, his filmography depicting the plights and suffering of the Filipino people. Some of his best works are Insiang (1978), a revenge tale of a girl’s rape by her mother’s lover, which became the first entry by a Filipino filmmaker at the Cannes Festival, earning him the prestigious Palm d’Or. Manila: In The Claws of Darkness (1976), Jaguar (1980), and Bayan Ko (My Country, 1984) were also nominated for the award, further cementing his reputation as one of the greatest directors to come out of South East Asia.
Brocka’s films are very character driven, magnifying the oppression and neglect of the common citizen, the poor everyman barely scrapping by while fighting off abuse from the system. He often cast unknown actors to focus more on the story and not on the celebrity. Actors such as Bembol Roco, Hilda Koronel and Laurice Guillen are amongst the unknown actors that worked with him repeatedly for years, eventually becoming stars in their own right. Alongside his socially conscious films Brocka also discussed themes of sexuality, which filmmakers during his time tended to avoid. Despite his Mormon faith, Brocka was openly gay and homosexual themes were often a big part of the narratives of his films, as was showing sexually confident and strong-spirited women. Brocka’s films highlight the marginalised and ignored sectors of society- the slum dwellers, prostitutes, street hustlers, as well as those who were discriminated against simply because of gender or sexuality – subjects that no other director dared to touch, especially while under the Marcos dictatorship.
Manila: In The Claws of Darkness explores the prostitution of provincial girls and their hand-to-mouth existence in the city, while Jaguar, which many see as a companion piece to Manila: In The Claws of Darkness, is about a kind hearted country boy named Poldo who works in the city as a security guard and is drawn into the seedy underbelly of city life. Brocka manifests himself and his upbringing in his films by using naïve country folk, just as he once was, trying their luck in the city and finding out the hard way that the promise of a good life is nothing but an illusion. The gritty violence and voracious lack of morals in his films can be overwhelming, but it elicits a certain moral response from the audience that makes them very aware of the depressing state of affairs in society.
Under the Marcos regime, strict censorship was enforced in the media and Brocka was forced to smuggle his films out of the country for screenings to avoid heavy cuts. In 1984, he flew to Cannes to support another nomination for Bayan Ko (My Country). In his fight for freedom of speech, he declared that the Marcos dictatorship had taken control of the Philippine media for its enforcement of censorship, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment along with other journalists and filmmakers upon his return to the Philippines.
He was released from jail after the fall of Marcos and was invited by Corazon Aquino, Marcos’ successor, to be part of a committee to draft the 1986 constitution but left soon after as he felt that many of the policies worked against the Filipino people. He protested against the new government by making radical films such as Ora Pro Nobis (1989) and Gumapang Ka Sa Lusak (1990), with Ora earning him yet another Palm d’Or nomination.
Lino Brocka died in a car accident on May 21, 1991. His untimely death did not stop his long and hard fight for social justice as he was posthumously awarded the National Artist Award and is considered, to this day, the greatest social realist, and the greatest director, the Philippines has produced.