The International Film Festival of India, an eleven-day film festival, drew huge crowds to Panaji Goa in December of each year. In 1979, when we were surviving in Bombay, Susan and I took a steamer to Goa and ran into Vincente de la Cruz, my filmmaker friend from Manila. After checking out the Film Bazaar with him, he insisted that we go with him to a screening of his latest film, Enfant Terrible. Naturally, we talked about Elpidio and Nick. He became so interested in the two and their heroism that he made a film about them. An investigation of their deaths had already been exploited by the Manila press and caused quite a stir.
After the screening Vincente took us to a party and after it to his room. The way Elpidio and Nick died was very much on my mind. Vincente said they were national heroes. But I didn’t have enough perspective to see then in that light. To me they were friends, and it was hard for me to see them as heroes. Their deaths made me angry. And I didn’t think enough time had elapsed for Vincente to judge. He still insisted that they were heroes, heroes on the scale of Rizal and Bonifacio. On a scale of Rizal and Bonifacio? This seemed absurd. Then I realized Vincente needed to make them into national heroes for his film. I was cynical. I’m still cynical. And I began to wonder if I could trust Vincente. It was my cynicism showing.
“Has Nick been honored by UP?” I asked.
“Yes, along with all students and faculty who died during The First Quarter Storm,” he said. “Nick wasn’t singled out like he should’ve been. It was why I made the film.”
“And are you happy with the film?”
“It was my best effort. By then Basilan was unsafe, and the navy’s blockade was enforced. Though I ran the blockade once, and spent time in Zamboanga to get a taste of the war, we shot most of the film in Sabah. With the problems I’ve had with Marcos, to attempt it in the Philippines would’ve been sheer folly. But I was deeply committed to making this film, wanted to make it as soon as the story broke.”
“I liked the idea because of it’s potential … sure we have Ninoy Aquino, but I thought there was room for another national hero,” Vincente contined. “Nick went to Mindanao, died on Basilan, and was murdered like Aquino, and you have to hold Marcos responsible. And you have to admit that there was an amazing twist to Nick’s story, to tell a friend ‘go ahead and finish me off,’ and then have the friend shoot him in the mouth.”
“I heard you knew Elpidio. I never met him,” Vincente said. “In the Philippines, we’re always on the lookout for heroes. Having heroes makes us proud. You Americans know it, and it’s why Rizal was populized. We feel inferior, and it’s why we need heroes. Nick’s story provides a needed antidote. But he shouldn’t only be remembered for how he died … remember he was a real patriot.”
“And a friend of mine,” I said.
“When I first knew him, Nick stayed in the backgroud. He seemed shy. It must’ve been difficult for him. He didn’t emerge as a leader in Manila, and it meant that people like Nur Misuari got a jump on him. He never wanted to be a hero.”
“Then why did you make him one?” I asked.
Vincente didn’t answer.
“I don’t think he ever got jungle camps out of his system. He talked a lot about growing up in them and what it meant to be a son of a HUK. I met his mother. We traveled together to Central Luzon and down south. He had a restless side that not many people saw,” I said, “but I never thought he would join the Moro Movement.”
“Yes he joined, and it’s what makes his story so compelling…especially since he was a Christian. He joined when he didn’t have to. We all have choices. He knew that he’d been placed on Marcos’ enemies’ list. Perhaps he thought he didn’t have choices.”
“Like you said, we all have choices.”
“Yes, we do. And choices Nick made make him a hero.”
“A dramatic hero?”
“Yes, a dramatic hero.
“But a national one?”
Again Vincente didn’t respond to a question of mine, but instead said, “He wrote long essays for the Moro movement and wanted to put out a revolutionary newspaper. He pitched the idea but wasn’t successful. He seemed more suited for academa than …”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
“… where publishing is expected.”
“ … where publishing was expected.” Here we were thinking the same.
“If he hadn’t joined the Moros, I feel he would’ve let himself down. I think he knew his destiny. When he first went to Basilan, the war hadn’t started yet there, so we can say he was one of the architects of it.”
“Around then Susan and I ran into him in Zamboanga, and he showed us the jungle camp he shared with Elpidio.”
“No! I didn’t know that. You two simply disappeared. It was a busy time for me, with all the raw footage I had, and fighting with Marcos over censorship. Nick pretty much dropped out sight too. One day I saw him and next day he was gone. It was just before the bombing at Plaza Miranda and then Martial Law, and you have to know it unnerved me. My world ended then. I was shunted. Many of my friends disappeared or turned against me. I was isolated, shunted, and many of my friends disappeared. In that regard, I’m thankful for Nick. As I made the movie, I tried to keep emotionally distant.”
“It was very difficult for me. It was a difficult time. Nick lost his life when there was martial law, and it was clearly a civil rights violation. He went to the Sulus with a purpose. It was incredibly sad. The way he died was incredibly sad. But then I never knew Elpidio. The more I learned of their relationship, the more heroic they both seemed. I ran the blockade of Basilan to get where it happened, where they were murdered, a ruined coconut plantation and a library where Nick’s work was found. I couldn’t stop kicking dirt off. I couldn’t walk without stepping over coconuts … bombing had been so extensive … before they were captured.”
“So your movie is accurate?”
“As accurate as I could make it. I decided to make Nick the hero, but I now think Elpidio deserved the honor. I was eager to find out what it was like for him, but my feelings kept distracting me. ‘Could this have been me?’ I kept asking. Could I have said ‘go ahead, finish me off’? Or could I have stuck a .45 in a friend’s mouth and pulled the trigger? Nick preferred it to execution. I think he staged his own death once he saw that they weren’t going to be brought back alive. It was like when Rizal faced a firing squad and at the last moment turned so that he ended up lying on his back, with his face facing the sun.”
“I tried to work on something else … not make the movie, but as I said, I felt left out and now I had a way of reconnecting. I kept thinking, did having his American girlfriend leave him have something to do with him becoming a martyr? ‘But would anyone come to see it?’ I kept asking myself. “I never know how a film will turn out, whether it will be good or bad and began dreading finishing it. I became paranoid. And there were good reasons for it. I stood a chance of offending everyone. The only thing that kept me going was my ego. There was no way I’d give up.”
“One day, I put a loaded .45 in my mouth, and I let my imagination go on and on, and I came close to pulling the trigger. I wanted to see how it felt. I had just shot their capture, and I wanted to see how it felt. We were between takes. I was exhausted. I was frustrated from having to deal with authorities in Sabah. At the same time I was making a movie, and I wanted to see how it felt.”
“I shot the killing over and over again. I couldn’t get it right. Actors revolted. It upset them very much. Then I said ‘to hell with it!’ You can see the sloppy results in the film. They say they caught me napping. I knew it would be banned back home. Now critics say it’s my best work.”
“I often feel guilty, and I often think about Nick. I think I’ve recreated him fairly accurately. It’s really extraordinary that he’s more alive now than when he lived. And I feel gratified that I’ve turned him into a household name. Yes, I made him into a national hero. And when I think of him now, I think of Rizal and Bonifacio. But I’m glad success of the film doesn’t depend on ticket sales.”
“But doesn’t the memory of Nick mean more to you than the success of your movie?”
Vincente de la Cruz, a Manila friend, and the only one I’ve seen since leaving the Philippines, won that year the Golden Peacock Award for the best foreign film at the International Film Festival of India for Enfant Terrible. In contrast with Nick, Vincente was a practical person and adapted to almost anything. Because of his pragmatism, I knew he would survive. And I wasn’t dead yet. Even when censored by Marcos, Vincente filmed battles of the FirstQuarter Storm but somehow maintained his neutrality. I missed the First Quarter Storm, but maybe I didn’t because I’m not sure when it started. All I know is I’m not dead yet.
Vincente was a reporter rather than a participant. This allowed him to straddle a fence. They never knew if he were friend or foe. They never knew if he were friend or foe, and with this accusations and suspicion and eventually shunting. Vincente remained an outsider … he was more Eurasian than Filipino. People couldn’t quite put a finger on his lineage because he was Eurasian. Still he was very personable. He could sell himself, sell anything, and he usually succeeded at selling. But he tried too hard. I think he would’ve won had he ran for president.
The only reason I got to know Vincente was because we both got involved in student demonstrations that led up to the First Quarter Storm, and we’re both still alive. Those were days when a generation of Filipino students lived dangerously and fought courageously. It was when brave young people manned barricades and died, were wounded and died … when they resisted and were defiant. They formed commando strike forces, formed the AS Rooftop Junta, and Free Radio of the Democratic Commune of Diliman. All of this took place at UP. At other colleges in Manila, students were just as committed, but for some reason ingredients for such a massive revolt didn’t exist.
But the University of the Philippines, Marcos’ alma mater, had a tradition of dissent and debate. This allowed militant resistance to flourish. With revolutionary songs of Mao Zedong and Che Guevarra in the air, and student Power on the march from Berkley to Paris, a few students meeting in a small side room in the student union building came up with the idea of seizing the university. They were spoiled brats, but these spoiled brats lived through three lifetimes in a matter of months.
Freshmen crusaded against compulsory classes of Spanish, fought against American intervention in Vietnam, and capped their first quarter off by storming the gates of Malacanang, all of this before they decided to take over the campus. Most of them lived. They were young, having fun, and wanted it all. They were spoiled brats. And most of them lived.
Vincente maintained that he saw it all, while his film only told the story up until the battle in front of Malacanang. The film was called THE REPUBLIC OF DILIMAN. (It was made before the one he made about Nick.) I asked him about it: why THE REPUBLIC OF DILIMAN had huge gaps in it. He said it was because of censors and that he gave up by the time “The Republic of Diliman” was declared.
Vincente became internationally famous after Goa. His film took the top prize. He gave a little speech when he accepted the award. It shocked everyone when he said Enfant Terrible wasn’t his best effort. (They thought he was talking about THE REPUBLIC OF DILIMAN, when I knew it was his film about Nick and Elpidio that he thought was his best.) He told the crowd that next year he’d show them what he could really do. He didn’t mention the “better” work. Someone else did. Vincente accepted applause by smiling and nodding his head. Enfant Terrible then went on to win the FAMAS awards for best picture and best director. (I didn’t learn about this until many years later when I stumbled upon his name on the Web, but I didn’t find the film mentioned that interested me the most: the one he made about Elpidio and Nick.) From there, he went on to rake in awards from Cannes to Berlin. During the closing ceremonies in Goa, he was singled out and stood up when his name was called. Vincente basked in fame after Goa.
During opening ceremonies of the 2nd Metro Manila Film Festival (1976), Emelda paid tribute to Vincente. She paid tribute while he feigned modesty. He didn’t rush onto to the stage or take a bow. He simply waved from his seat. (I wasn’t there and only read about it later, again on the Web.) I can only imagine what he was thinking. ”Little Mrs. Sunshine exploiting my preeminence.” I would like to know what he was thinking.
And who is this? Elmelda, the Steel Butterfly, in her winged dress.
Well, well, well, if the beauty queen didn’t mention our friend Vincente.
In case you haven’t heard he’s our greatest filmmaker.
But does it mean that he’s been forgiven?