The F-word: Lualhati Bautista and Feminist Cinema

August 2, 2010 at 3:40 pm 3 comments

Lualhati Bautista never bats an eyelash at conversations concerning feminism and its shadowed existence in a so-called modern day society still eclipsed, ironically so, by observable patriarchy.

In third grade, while her equivalents cared for nothing but church on Sundays and after-school household obligations, the then nine-year-old had something else brewing in her head: Why her participation in brusque games in a school skirt was frowned upon and why verbalizing romantic feelings for a boy in class was dismissed as an anomaly simply because society dictates that a girl of culture must never do so. “Maliit pa lang ako, marami na akong tanong sa isip ko,” Bautista said between nips on a glass of cola, “Na-realize ko na bakit hindi ko kayang gawin ang mga ginagawa ng mga kaklase kong lalaki dahil babae ako.”

Reared in a world which history is defined by men’s actions and where women are discerned as objects of carnal desire and as mere domestic accessory, Bautista grew up harboring questions which answers never sprung up in school books. Unanswered questions fueled curiosity. Curiosity bred creativity.

With her hands folded next to an untouched plate of cassava cake, Bautista proceeded to explain her motivation for writing feminism-fueled fiction. “Katulad na lang nito,” she said, extending a hand as if to grasp the proper thought. “Behind every successful man is a woman…pero bakit ako ‘behind?’ Dati, kailangan mag-asawa ka, mag-kaanak pa para maging complete ka as a woman.  Bakit choice ng babae ang [pumili] between family and career, pero hindi yan choice ng lalake? Ang mga questions na ito ang mga tanong, ang mga seeds, mga binhi na nag-lead sakin na magsulat.”

Bautista, lauded not only for her work’s upfront realism but also for her prolific contribution in feminist literature and screenplay writing, gave birth to hard-nosed female protagonists–a far-cry from Philippine melodrama stereotypes of as far as fifty years back which depicted women as the eternal doormat.  Bulaklak Sa City Jail (1984) for instance, a story of a pub singer imprisoned for the frustrated murder of her lover’s wife and her stint in an infernal city jail amongst female reprobates, illustrated women as condemned characters—victims of a judgmental society and pawns of a corrupt system ran largely by men—but who, in the image of its main character, the iron-willed Angela, triumphed with the spirit of willpower fired chiefly by maternal drive.  “[Ang melodarama ay] nagsusulong pa din ng kaisipan na ang babae is either a virgin or a vampire. Napaka-stereotype. Naka-graduate na ba tayo don?” Bautista quipped whilst raising an eyebrow to perhaps emphasize the idea. “Hindi melodarama ang question kundi ang stereotyping. Pwede mo gawing strong ang babae without making her weak in the start.”

[ Source ]

Bulaklak Sa City Jail was arduous and challenging to produce.  Bulaklak was an off shoot of a series of articles on the correctional institution that Bautista had written along with fellow writer and friend Josefina Corpus in late 1960s. The research process involved spending a few evenings in the penitentiary, with a bogus letter from the editor serving as their passport. “Siyempre adventurista ka, lahat gusto mo mapasok. Una naming pinasok ang National Penitentiary, nag-fake kami ng letter na kunwari galing sa editor ng Liwayway,” Bautista recalled, throwing laughters in between. “Nabuko kami pero [tinulungan kami ng] dating Director Alejo Santos ng National Penitentiary at siya na mismo ang gumawa ng sulat para makapasok kami sa Correctional.” Later, they progressed to doing studies and researches at the women’s section of the notoriously perilous Manila City Jail. “Nagpunta kami ng Manila City Jail at miserable ang sitwasyon. May isa don, nakulong lang sa pagnanakaw ng halagang 30 pesos. Mula don may mga nabuong istorya.” Bulaklak was first serialized in Liwayway in the early 80s and later, adapted into reel by Mario O’ Hara (who is painfully underrated, according to Bautista) in 1984.

Bulaklak Sa City Jail, which garnered 5 wins in the 1985 FAMAS Awards including Best Picture and Best Screenplay, shows sheer and naked realism reminiscent of Lino Brocka’s Bona or Insiang or Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night wherein urban poverty was outright illustrated minus the lies of a fabricated film set faithful to Hollywood dictates. In the case of Bulaklak, the audience was transported to witness the honest conditions of city jails: the dregs of society breathing amidst putrid and claustrophobic conditions worsened by corruption within the system and the stigma of being incarcerated.

The principal character of the film, Angela Aguilar (Nora Aunor), imprisoned for nearly murdering the wife of her lover (Ricky Davao), was subjected to a tormenting initiation ritual carried out by fellow inmates: a harrowing prelude to a string of other miseries. The only clothes she had are violently stripped off her back leaving her bare naked, a fitting metaphor for the humiliation caused by the disgrace of being a woman in prison.

Bautista proceeded to pick up other prison characters, all case-hardened criminals who shared a common denominator: they were all devoted mothers. Perla Bautista played Viring, detained for murdering her abusive husband; a mother who later succumbed to insanity for the death of the daughter—fathered by a former jail officer—she delivered and nurtured behind bars. Plain-spoken Juliet (Gina Alajar), jailed for estafa, avenged the maltreatment of her child in the hands of her husband’s mistress by murdering the latter. Then there was the veteran resident whore played by Celia Rodriguez who prostituted herself for a few pesos in exchange for her son’s comfort in the four walls of the same prison she was confined in.

Bautista, a dedicated mother herself, favored stories of women as committed mothers and wives, and portrayed them contradictory to a typecasted image of a mother/wife as mere domestic accessories in Philippine melodramas. This was very much reflected in her novels Bata, Bata, Paano ka Ginawa and Dekada ’70, which were both adapted to reel. “From the beginning, when I write, I just write,” Bautista explained. “I am basically a story teller. Nang lumabas ang Bata, Bata, Paano ka Ginawa [the movie], nagugustuhan ko kapag nakakarinig ako ng mga babae na sinasabi na, “Ay, istorya ko yata yan”. Definitely ‘pag nagsusulat ako, I like stories of women, doon ako mas nakaka-relate.”

Bulaklak Sa City Jail, apart from being a social statement on the ill-conditions of Manila prisons, was a metaphor of sorts in itself, aimed at critical arguments pertaining to Filipino women. Even in mixed-gender prisons where equal provisions were supposedly accorded for both men and women, the men still assumed the upper hand as reflected in prison world’s manufactured hierarchy: the male jail warden and the prisoners in the men’s section picked female detainees like cheap commodities for sex. The women, having little to no choice, were forced to fulfil the men’s wishes for practically the price of nothing.

Angela, in the beginning of her stint in prison, discovered that she was with a child and, initially arranged to undergo an abortion. Having later accepted her situation as a would-be-mother, she was plagued by threats of having her child taken away by the prison authorities for adoption, and resolved to fight against it. Later, she gave birth in a filthy animal pen in Manila Zoo, an allegory to the pathetic vulnerability of women to abuse and degradation.

Bautista, moreover, compared the prison cell enfolding her characters in Bulaklak to the backward notions about women’s position in the society, even among women themselves. “Sa iba’t ibang paraan nakakulong ang babae,” Bautista said, her eyes sparkling. “Nakakulong tayo sa mga mali at lumang paniniwala natin sa sarili natin.”



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Sedmikrasky (Daisies), Vera Chytilova (1966)


Entry filed under: film.

Watching someone watch someone sleep Escolta Film Journal

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Fearless Female  |  August 10, 2010 at 9:39 am

    First night in Dream House: Feels like prison…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  • 2. Danielle Alaisa P. Vitriolo  |  September 25, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    Hi. I found some parts of this article in a journal. it is written by Louella Suque. Can I just ask where journal did you get this from? I just need to get the title of the Journal because I’ll be using ti in my research paper. Thanks.

    • 3. Lou Lou  |  February 21, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      Hi Danielle. This is Louella, the author of The F-word: Lualhati Bautista article. The said article was published at the first (and, sadly, only) edition of Escolta Film Journal.


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