By Tito Genova Valiente
IN the previous administration, the president committed a sin by inclusion; in the present dispensation, the evil act is in the exclusion.
What is really a committal of artists and thinkers—an arduous arena where those who believe in the potency of culture and its power to gift us with identities and political persuasions, tangle in theories and compete in their abilities to assess achievements and social impact of geniuses—is reduced finally into a management transaction. Gone is the rigor of thinking about how arts and artists form nations. Gone is the rage that borders on the divine when great minds, or at least those who support the work of artists from all over the land, struggle to discover what is great about the dance, the music, the theater, the literature, and the new technologies that fuse aesthetics with science along with the histories, the fashion and the crafts of an island-republic. Gone in fact is any kind of struggle. Gone is the majesty of the many minds that fought not out of violence but out of love for a country in search of its own artists. In their places is a multitude of tasks and assignments, cunningly cold, to slice off a slab of agreed-upon names. Without rancor. In their places are men who believe it is facile to remove or add a name or names. Without thinking.
Think of this scenario: the list of the artists arrives in the palace. Somebody must have held it in his hand. That man, or the King’s Men, would have contemplated the list. Perhaps for a week. Or weeks. But the list is placed on a table and stays there for months and months. Was someone committing them to memory? Did a name bother them?
If this country were in the temperate zone, the list would have seen trees lose their leaves, and trees regain those leaves and live again. If this country were an infant, the list would have witnessed the country crawl and attempt to stand. Time, the faithful witness to histories, becomes an absurd mute observer. Absurdity becomes the order of the day.
Then, the day finally comes that the celebratory list is announced. Almost near midnight. The announcement is done by the Communications Secretary. The tradition is for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Cultural Center of the Philippines to jointly announce the list. This was not to be so.
The name of Nora Villamayor, known around these parts and beyond as Nora Aunor, was struck out of the list. Again, logic played tricks with our understanding: the palace spokesperson would not know who was removed from the list because they just received the list. Indeed, who can debate with that? Another spokesperson also had no explanation because she was not present in the deliberation. So, there was a deliberation? Were NCCA and CCP part of this new deliberation.
A letter from the Chairman of the NCCA, Prof. Felipe de Leon, asks for an explanation from the Palace. Outside of Nora Aunor’s body of work, the NCCA, according to De Leon, is not interested in anything about Nora Aunor. De Leon, commenting on the exclusion of Aunor, laments the loss of another artistic role model. De Leon calls for reforms that will shield the selection of National Artist from politics.
Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera, National Artist for Literature, states: “The Office of the President owes the CCP and the NCCA an explanation for the insulting disregard of the choice for Nora Aunor as National Artist.”
At the center of the loss and lament is Nora Aunor.
She cannot be denied the title of National Artist because she has always been there at the edge, in the gaps, in the interstices of this culture.
When no mainstream producer dared to question the war we fought back in the 1940s, she presented to us her Rosario, caught in the calumnious triangle of love and deceit and life. Her Rosario is not a Filipino woman to love but one to question or even to malign. At a young age, Aunor knew how to summon the political cinema. At a young age, she produced a piece of cinema that interrogated the nation and its past.
Then when the American bases were the boon of this nation, she conjured Corazon, a nurse who dreamt of the American dream. But American soldiers guarding the spaces around one base mistook Corazon’s brother for a wild pig, or so the American military brass claimed. Shrouded in veil but bristling with wrath, Corazon delivered the lines that made us rethink about Americans. It would take the natural agitation from a sleeping volcano, and the strong political will from the political men of the mother of this president, to push the American bases out of Philippine soil. It cannot be denied, however, that Aunor’s Corazon strong sentry over the coffin of her brother, and the grin that appeared on that face when at last she was the only one who could save a young American in an accident, made us think where we were in terms of the US bases and imperialism. Nora’s films always made its audiences think and rethink about change.
Then came Himala, a film about miracles. If Filipinos were still unaware of the manipulations of the institutional church, Nora’s Elsa—delivering an impassioned speech about the social origins of saints and miracles and apparitions—delivered us to our liberation from an imposed religion. Some of us came back to the fold and some stayed at the peripheries, but our notion of religion had been altogether changed. It has been said Aunor was not directed in this film; she directed herself while the other actors used her as pivot. Aunor in depicting the abuses and mysteries of religion could not be faulted by the big church because the film is itself a commentary on both the state and a religion that was becoming that of the state. Amid the architecture of guilt and gods, Nora stood as the condensation of all of those questions we needed to ask from God but which we always ended up asking from priests and pastors.
Nora would incarnate role after unforgettable role: the activist who falls in love; a mother who gives birth in the zoo, beast and motherhood in a trenchant tango; another mother who dies for a movement for there is no other way.
Nora was Flor Contemplacion. The film which severed the old ties between the Philippines and Singapore was one of the heralded comebacks of Nora Aunor. She was selected to play Flor because the tragic domestic helper was a Noranian. Again, absurdity became the order of the day. At the end of that day, Flor and Nora became interchangeable, as men and women coming from the Philippines became interchangeable with all the other workers of the world, as their workplaces and the people they worked for and the children they cared for became interchangeable with their families and their own children.
On stage and on screen, Nora has portrayed characters who struggle so they could triumph. Sometimes, the character does not win the battle; sometimes, the character steps outside the stage to address a crowd. These characters have always been portrayed with the realism Nora Aunor was and is noted for, an acting style that has influenced many generations of actors. Like Aunor’s complexion, her approach to performance has changed our ways of looking at cinematic life.
Acclaimed here and abroad, her films lauded in practically all the significant international festivals, Nora’s collection of characters have always remained in the periphery. Even when her role is that of a lawyer, the marginal would win over. For that is where the vitality of this actor is situated—at the edge, at the margins where most of us find ourselves every day.
Banish these characters and you have a vacuum in the collective memory of Filipinos of all genders.
To not honor these films is to not honor the histories of this nation where the dominant tale is important and those in the ruptures, in the crevasses matter for action and change.
One cannot deny the presence of Nora Aunor—not even the president of the land, or especially the president of the land whose tenure is tethered to the next election and not to the next generation. One cannot also proclaim the absence of Nora Aunor, for her works, her voice, her gestures are all over the land, in territories violated, as many of Aunor’s characters are.
One cannot deny the artistry of this actor, for art—Nora Aunor’s art—is not shackled by anyone who abrogates upon himself or herself the duty of naming that who should stand for us. Given that, one cannot confer upon Nora Aunor the name that is not originating in the ministerial body of a leader who is suggested to be burdened by arts and culture.
In Nora Aunor and her art is a piece of this nation. Remove Nora Aunor and her artistry and you will be staring at a gap. Remove Nora Aunor and all the other National Artists, for the so-called Presidential Prerogative allows that, according to a few unenlightened ones, and you are looking at a massive collective memory gap.
Remove the power of any president to remove one or all in the list submitted by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and you have a healthy democracy, a proud nation where arts and culture have as much value—and burden, if you wish—as the questions on sovereignty and human rights are. In fact the issue of arts and culture are equal to the issue of sovereignty and human rights. And the artists are equal to politicians who use their PDAF for their own vision of culture and arts, and the technocrats who man film festivals as if these festivals are traffic rules and regulations.
As for Nora Aunor and all the other National Artists, their names will be part of the more pleasant and gratifying chapters in our rewritten history. As for the politicians and presidents, their histories will be about repeated follies and the chapters about them will be repugnant. I do not think we will look for identities and a sense of nationhood ever in our leaders but I believe arts and cultures will be, however contentious, our wellspring of pride and person as Filipinos.
As for Nora Aunor still, the chapter on her—National Artist or no National Artist—will be gilded, a bountiful golden balanghay ferrying us to identities after identities. As for those presidential spokesperson and other chairpersons and people who have no comment on things when those things do not impact their comfort zones, they will not even merit footnotes in our heritage. And even if they do, I doubt if people will bother to check those notes at the margins.
Such is the power of cinema. Such is the power of Nora Aunor. But in the end, it takes one person—or a hallway of critics—to strike out the name of Nora Aunor, with no desire for explanation. And we are vastly, violently poorer for it.