Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Wounds of war

"Impressions," TV Times, 26 February-4 March 1978


Over merienda of grilled Spanish bread and kesong puti, he--a mentor and friend--talked about those years that had robbed him and his friends of their boyhood and those missions that made them men even before they had ceased to be children. There was no sadness in his voice, only a grating regret. And a certain hardness when he spoke of the enemy, still as enemy. He told us of how his mother had suffered through Fort Santiago. And of how, at the age of 11, he had thought life was to end dismally, cruelly, at the point of a Japanese saber. He had learned, he said, how it was to feel the hand of fate pointing at him, ready to snuff out his quivering, frightened breath.

I listened, sad smiles on our faces. And in my mind's eye, I saw what could only have been similar scenes: dungeons and isolation, blood flowing down a man's pained face. My father, too, got caught in the war. Fortunately, he lived through incarceration at FEU and Muntinlupa, out of the war and into "peacetime" and fatherhood. But never a word did we hear about those years, about the cruelty and the agony that we, who never went through them, could only imagine.

That night, watching Fort Santiago by coincidence, the questions came, a flurry in a blizzard of emotions. Shall we balm the wounds of war? Or shall we intensify them? Frankly, I don't know. I can take Baa Baa Black Sheep and enjoy it for what it is--a funny, enjoyable rip-off from the annals of war, tales told with tongue in cheek and one eye in perpetual wink, in precise and deliberate untruthfulness to history.

But Fort Santiago is different. Here is war, bloody war, complete with that dark strain that tracks back to those painful true-story reminiscences of violence, deceit, death. Theoretically, the problem strikes hard at the core of the human person. In resurrecting the stories of bravery and heroism, do we not also resurrect the wounds of war--the inevitable and inescapable sorrow, the loss and the anguish, the hatred? And what about the bitterness of those who lost loved ones when faced with the sheer luck of those who did not? There is so much to life, must we squeeze every ounce of blood and pain, every week, from death? And what do we answer to the solemn pieties of nuns and priests who, every day, preach godly forgiveness, even as we watch, humanly unforgiving.

Once you've got this initial dislocation straightened out--if you can--then, it is easy to see the merits of a series like Fort Santiago. For one, there is certainly a wealth of material to draw from, as long as the writer fights the temptation to do stereotypes and perseveres enough to hunt out real stories of men and women who died in or lived through Fort Santiago. For another, there is already a built-in dramatic element in the very subject of the series, a realism that should impose its own rhythm on dramatizations of the different stories. A perceptive writer can build on this rhythm and produce realistic and absorbing teleplay. Then again, the dramatization of a true-to-life story affords a show with a third eye--a knowledgeable and concerned eye that could easily spot flaws in vision, characterization, and action. Besides, isn't it high time we thanked our stars for a series that saves us from the dripping syrup of love unrequited, love gone blind, love gone away, and love always and forever?

Of course, there is also the other side of the coin. With a concept like Fort Santiago, it is easy enough to fall into the temptation of treating the show only as a war series. In last week's episode, "Apat na Dalangin ng Isang Heneral," it was obvious that the temptation did come--and in some instances, overcame--the people behind the production. Thus those overused stock shots of war scenes, including those of the Death March. Compared to the lyricism of the scene showing men's booted feet marching singly on dry and parched earth, compared to the grip of the torture scene at Fort Santiago, the stock shots had the feel of a dismembered documentary suddenly cutting into the intensity of drama. Besides, how often can such scenes be used without tiring the viewer: "Here we go again..."?

A few questions. Did Filipino soldiers fighting a war really walk through Japanese-infested territory as if they were out marching at a political rally? Were their uniforms never soiled, though admittedly crumpled? Did they sleep out in the open, unprotected, in the glaring brightness of day, as if they were just waiting to be captured? Did they all look bright-eyed and oh-so-well-fed?

And a few comments. Perhaps at the end of the show, instead of asking the subject of the story how he liked the dramatization of his experience (which is really putting him in a spot; I'd like to hear one subject reply, with all the outrage he could muster, "I did not like it one bit," though that of course will never happen), he could be asked questions pertinent to the storyline and to his Fort Santiago experience. Perhaps whoever portrays the subject of the story--in this particular episode, Bert Leroy, Jr. portrayed the role of Gen. Efigenio Navarro--should be discouraged from affecting, with unusually distracting frequency, certain mannerisms of the real-life protagonist. Those who produced the show, as well as those who watched it, would know of what I speak.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

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