First of all story

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Friday, February 28, 2014

THE critic Clive James had a question about the politics of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges's artistic stature. He was reacting to what the writer said in his essay “Homage to Victoria Ocampo.”

“The great American writer Herman Melville says somewhere in The White Whale that a man ought to be ‘a patriot to heaven,’ and I believe it is a good thing, this ambition to be cosmopolitan, this idea to be citizens not of a small parcel of the world that changes according to the currents of politics, according to the wars, to what occurs, but to feel that the whole world is a country,” thus wrote Borges.

Incidentally, this reminds me of the other Latin American writer Roberto Bolaño who said that his only country was his wife and children.


James pointed out the contrast between Borges and a contemporary by the name of Ernesto Sabato. At the time of political upheavals in Argentina, Borges also gained on one hand international prominence as a writer and intellectual. Curiously, James said, there is no visible reflection of the national troubles in the works of Borges. The writer's residence, in fact, was only a few blocks from the torture chambers of the regime.

In an interview, Borges said he did not read newspapers and had not heard of the killings. The irony, said James, was that the writer walked in the neighborhood as a daily routine and it would have been impossible to miss the violence taking place
around him.

To cut the story short, James said Borges and Sabato became blind later in their lives, but “when the time came he (Sabato) was able to take on the cruel job of writing about the Disappeared—the innocent people whose vanishing took so long to attract Borges's attention.”

I am reminded of James's critique on Borges's politics as I read the news about independent filmmakers in Cebu asking the City Council to create the Cebu Cinema Development Council. I read the gesture as artists knocking on the door of the state for support, be it in terms of funding, tax incentives, infrastructure, policy, etc. I haven't read the proposal, but I read it was being passed to the tourism, culture and arts committee under Councilor James Cuenco.

It's a laudable move, but there's something the filmmakers might consider if they are to ask for government support.

I have been watching some of the independently-produced films by Cebuano filmmakers and while I am amazed at the quality of production, there is much to desire in terms of narrative. By narrative, I don't mean their storytelling skills, (although, yes, maybe that, too) but in terms of the kind of stories they tell.

I remember one comment by film historian Nick de Ocampo after a showing of local films: “Ano ba kayo, para lang kayong naglalaro.” (You're just like playing a game).

This was during the “Sine ug Katilingban” festival in 2004. The statement seems valid to this day.

I take up Cebuano literature at length in my classes, and always I try to convey to students the impression on the richness of our local narratives.

If these young filmmakers promise to revive Cebuano cinema and culture, they might as well pledge an allegiance to their own literature. At the heart of great cinema is still the soul of great literature.

So if we should have a cinema that seeks the help of the state, which is to say the taxpayers, it should be the kind that elevates public consciousness of their own culture and soul. Not some fleeting rib-tickler or hair-raiser that leave you afloat after an hour or two. You can do that, by all means, but not through the state's resources.

Iran's religious leader Ayatollah Khomenei called for the revival of cinema after overthrowing the Shah or Iran. He understood the power of the artform, and his council knew it could be used to advance its ideologies. History tells you though that that isn't a unique use of the medium. But I like what Iran's leader said, “Cinema is one of the manifestations of culture and it must be put to the service of man and his education.”

“To be a patriot to heaven,” our filmmakers must first be patrons of their own culture and story.

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on February 28, 2014.


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