Casting Doubt to a Barber’s Tale

Nora Aunor at the burial of Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (from News 5)

I tweeted some days ago: “Weird how the perception towards Philip Salvador and his collaborations with Brocka shifted with his support for the Duterte Admin but never Nora Aunor whose support for the Marcoses has been unwavering since the 1970s.”

This was just some off-the-butt thing, nothing to follow through. A sigh of frustration, perhaps. 

But then, last Saturday (April 27, 2014), at the screening of Sinepasada, someone told me an anecdote of what transpired during one of the screenings of the 2015 movie, Anino sa Likod ng Buwan during the recently concluded EnlighTEN: The IdeaFirst Film Festival. The film was infamous locally for two reasons: for it being a rare film to be screened, not even available on streaming; and that it’s an erotica that touched upon the people’s war set between the EDSA revolt and the Second Great Rectification Movement of the Communist Party of the Philippines.  

(Context for the readers from the future: the festival was held by the film production outfit, IdeaFirst Company, founded by filmmakers Jun Lana and Percival Intalan. The festival was held in celebration of their 10th anniversary and featured their produced works.)

I am here recalling what was told to me. I don’t remember if the person who told me the story that this happened either in a Q&A portion after the screening or just after the screening. But there was supposed to be someone who told off the director, Jun Lana, that the film was too vague and did not clarify its position on the ongoing people’s war or what it wanted to say.

Lana allegedly answered that they are artists and it is not their role to do propaganda.

This anecdote made me rethink my insight on an earlier film that the IdeaFirst Company also produced named Mga Kuwentong Barbero (Barber’s Tales 2013), a film that also touched on the people’s war. I initially loved the film, mostly for being bold enough to suggest joining the people’s war while being widely distributed at the time of the most reactionary liberal regime of Benigno Aquino, III. 

Surely, a lot of people back then clamored for the performance of its lead, Eugene Domingo – a comedienne dipping into a serious role, Philbert Dy applauded: “the presence of Eugene Domingo ultimately brings it all together, the actress’ stellar performance overcoming some of the film’s clumsier tendencies.” But nothing of note in the reviews of the film at the time of its domestic release (2014) that took the people’s war theme seriously. What the reviews focused on more – and as though it was a concerted hivemind effort – are the feminist tones in the film and always a conscious avoidance of conversing about the people’s war. It’s not that there isn’t any feminist tone of note in the film, however, most reviewers at the time only noted the acceptable liberal brand of feminism of the girlboss type, the feminist of the “reversal of social roles.” Oggs Cruz even placed the film’s feminism against the people’s war in an analogy: “Marilou struggles for an identity despite the male dominance the same way some revolutionaries struggle for freedom despite Marcos’ tight grip.”

In retrospect, and in light of the anecdote above, it isn’t quite surprising that Barber’s Tales may have not been quite serious about its treatment of the people’s war. Fred Hawson’s review of the film’s treatment as a period piece is helpful in recognizing this: 

"It's Martial Law time. The NPA[s] are very active in the provinces, and the military are constantly on their tail. These rebels play a major role as the story of Marilou unfolds. This setting gives the film a platform to showcase the events and highlight popular opinions about Marital Law during that time, on both sides. To accurately recreate the period, this film had a meticulous production designer and costume designer. A sepia-toned color palette further put the audience into the atmosphere of that time in recent history."

If one is suspicious enough, it can be thought that Hawson was just downplaying the people’s war narrative innately present in Barber’s Tales, but what if Milagros’s story conclusion – of joining the New People’s Army – was really just a narrative exercise of the film? And if we’re following through Hawson’s mindset here, if one is to accurately depict Martial Law time in the countryside, then, this conclusion is logical. Of course, the historical undertone of Hawson’s review would have been that this period piece closed off perfectly, but it remains as that: a perfect period piece. None of these people’s war bullshit can be sold in the perfect era of Benigno Aquino, III.

All of these reminded me of the tweet of mine that I have mentioned above: Nora Aunor being a fervent and unwavering supporter of the Marcoses, since the 1970s. Aunor was one of the signers of the hilariously named COWARD Manifesto – a manifesto of artists who have expressed their support for the candidacy of Marcos and Tolentino during the 1986 elections. Aunor even stood by the family’s side during the burial of the dead dictator in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. While there are attempts at period-accurate depictions, Barber’s Tales seem to be lacking in contextualizing the personalities involved in the project. This recollection underlines how unserious the film is, if not outwardly offensive against the people’s war, to have Nora Aunor act in a cameo as the old Milagros, now a red fighter.

Newspaper ad with the COWARD Manifesto (image taken by Reuel Aguilla, been going around social media for some time now)

There’s a lot of perhaps in this brief note of mine. Perhaps we overestimated Barber’s Tales as this cause for celebration of a people’s war narrative penetrating the mainstream when what it did was merely the reverse: to aestheticize and undermine the people’s war. And young leftist idealists that we were, hungry for anything that could depict the people’s war positively, took in the narrative without the context of its pieces – a carrot on a stick for us hungry horses – especially more than a decade ago, during the hegemony of Aquino liberalism. And what this film really is if not an expression of the same Aquino-era elitism? Casting Nora Aunor as an NPA fighter not because of a principled line, but because they can cast Nora Aunor as an NPA Fighter. And of course, in light of the anecdote above – all things considered with the aestheticization of the period and the people’s war, Barber’s Tales, in the final analysis, is nothing more than an artistic exercise of a filmmaker who abhors using film as propaganda. While the younger generation seems to be receptive to the film’s people’s war content – Le Beltar’s recent review comes to mind – it would be helpful to have a healthy cynicism towards this. And you know what they say about stories told by barbers, right?

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