By: Jee Y. Geronimo


Film critic Nicanor Tiongson says Ninoy Aquino’s assassination united the arts, which in turn ‘slowly forged’ unity among various sectors of society against a common enemy

Film, theater and literature: Voices that cannot be silenced 1PROTEST IN ART. Nicanor Tiongson talks about the voices of protests in film and literature during the Martial Law era. Photo by Rappler/Jee Geronimo

MANILA, Philippines – Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law in September 1972 was, among many things, an attempt to silence the clamor against an oppressive government.

But Filipinos still found ways to protest, and creatively at that.

Author, playwright and film critic Nicanor Tiongson, in his lecture entitled, “Hindi Ka Nag-iisa: Voices of Protest in Literature, Theater and Film (1983-1986)” on Thursday, August 29, noted the changes in protest in the arts, after the declaration of Martial Law.

Borrowing a theater term from Bienvenido Lumbera, he said the “literature of circumvention” prevalent from 1972 to 1983 was the artists’ way of “talking about and speaking the truth.”

“You cannot imagine the atmosphere of that time,” Tiongson told students. “Everybody was scared, lalo na sa media, ‘di ka basta puwedeng magsulat (especially in media, you couldn’t just write anything). How do you speak the truth at a time like that?”

Symbolic art

Tiongson said both literature and theater at that time were circumventing, creating all kinds of symbols to let out the truth.

For instance, Dominador Mirasol’s novel Ginto ang Kayumangging Lupa fused creatively in its structure the main slogan of activists: Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta.

In theater, plays were either historical or traditional, but with stories that reflected the struggles of the present time.

But filmmakers—notably Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal—dared to go beyond circumvention and created outstanding films that, for Tiongson, “have the spirit of protest of [the] time.”

“[The New Cinema was] created by auteur directors who have artistic vision and artistic integrity. They brought about films that dared to expose social and even political realities,” he said.

These films include Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Brocka), Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo (Lupita Aquino-Concio), City after Dark (Bernal), Kisapmata and Batch ’81 (Mike de Leon).

For 11 years, Tiongson said two ideologies influenced the arts, in literature mainly. These ideologies included national democracy and the pre-Martial Law democracy.

READ: ‘Ninoy linked up with the Left to aid presidential ambition’

But the artistic protests took an interesting turn when Benigno Aquino Jr was assassinated on Aug 21, 1983.

Open protests after Aquino’s death

Overwhelmed by the assassination, Tiongson said the two movements united in a “temporary, fleeting alliance” seen particularly with their similarities in literary themes.

Artists of both literature and film were no longer repressed by the atmosphere of censorship.

Theater plays tackled national and sectoral issues in broad daylight and in all kinds of venues: open air, closed theaters, and streets. Poems about the assassination and the snap election were published in magazines.

An attempt at stricter censorship in films only pushed filmmakers to protest beyond the big screen.

In February 1983, Lino Brocka and other artists protested against “arbitrary, senseless censorship” and organized the “Free the Artist” demonstration at Plaza Lawton. This protest led to the creation of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines.

READ: Ninoy and People Power: Stories of generations

Art: A voice of protest

All these protests in the arts, Tiongson said, brought into the general public a consciousness of the regime’s corruption, cronyism, and fascist tendencies.

At the same time, they “slowly forged” a unity among various sectors of society against a common enemy. This unity was aptly expressed in the song “Hindi Ka Nag-iisa.”

Addressed to the dead leader, this meant that the speaker sympathized with Ninoy’s fate, if only because his fate and the speakers’ are one and the same under Martial Law. Addressed to one’s neighbor, the slogan was an admission and assurance that the speaker and his neighbor share the same feelings about the assassination, and more broadly, about the political conditions under the Marcos regime.”

Film, theater and literature: Voices that cannot be silenced 2A PLEA. Vilma Santos as Sister Stella. Screen grabbed from Youtube

Tiongson ended his lecture with a clip from the ending of Sister Stella L, one of the open protest films directed by Mike de Leon and written by Jose Lacaba.

Sister Stella (played by Vilma Santos), placed at dead-center of the screen with a white background, looked the audience in the eye and said: “Kung hindi tayo ang kikilos, sino ang kikilos? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa?” (If we don’t act, who will? If not now, when?) –