Marilou Diaz-Abaya: Woman, filmmaker, National Artist

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Marilou Diaz-Abaya was to privilege born. It is the greatest irony of art and artist that, when she made her first film, it was about the class we assume she was not most familiar with. It was in the world of ordinary men and women chained to fate and unbridled passion. But there was power in that early assertion, for in that first film Abaya entered cinema, with actors who were popular and iconic no less than Susan Roces and Eddie Garcia were there.

In many accounts, Marilou Diaz-Abaya talked of how, as children, they were raised by her parents, Conrado and Felicitas Diaz, surrounded by arts. The siblings all went through the ways of the upper class: piano lessons and exclusive schools. In the case of Marilou, it was Assumption Convent for her BA, and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles for her post-graduate studies. She would earn a masters in Film and Television. She then travelled to London for further studies in film under the program of the London International Film School. These training and background set her apart from other directors. In a country where filmmakers learned by doing and working, Abaya studied cinema—in the classroom and with books, abroad where conditions were most ideal. 

When she finally made her first films, her works never assumed the gloss and stilted tone of the academic. She had no “angas” and she had no angst.

Her first film was Tanikala and it was not experimental, contrary to the keenly academic and specialized background of the filmmaker.

It was 1980. Marilou was already married to Manolo who would, for several years, be her cinematographer, her technical man. 

For her first film, Marilou Diaz-Abaya would look to the Filipino komiks. Pablo Gomez had written this dark romance, called Tanikala. Press releases were attracted and amused by the punctilious attention to details shown by the director.

This filmmaker knew her medium: the camera was boundless. Susan Roces, Romeo Vasquez, Eddie Garcia and Rita Gomez  graced the film, which was produced under the aegis of Cine Filipinas, a production outfit getting significant support from the parents of Abaya. She was making a grand entrance through a common medium, which made her introduction an attempt to be mass-based.

Words about Diaz-Abaya soon reached Jesse Ejercito, producer of Crown Seven, the outfit behind many films about women. These films celebrated and exploited the female allure. Under this production, Diaz-Abaya did a film called Brutal. It was 1980. Martial law still ruled over the country. The grip was slowly loosening over artists but state control was still apparent. Films that were in the mainstream were doing excellent performances at the box office.

Diaz-Abaya was not called yet a feminist filmmaker. The media and the fans were aware though of this woman filmmaker who knew the technology as well as the arts of motion picture.

If we are to demarcate the feminism—the ideology and aesthetics—of Diaz-Abaya by way of Brutal, then she reversed the process of empowering women: she showed the weakness of men first and the evil that spawned the power men thought to be their endowment.

Brutal is a story of a woman who kills her husband and two other friends. Arrested at the scene of the crime is Monica, the wife. A female journalist is approached by Monica’s lawyer because he wants someone to sensationalize the crime and get sympathy for her client. There is another female character in the film, who exposes the naïve Monica to the ways of the word. This would antedate the many characters in the world of Diaz-Abaya where men and women and places had flaws and faults. It is a grayness that encourages audiences to battle with the stories she told onscreen.

Brutal was ahead of its time. While general audiences saw a film with women abused because they had become so free and wanton, critics and cineastes felt there was a running implication in many of the scenes in the film. The ending propounded a bond among women, the sisterhood that was to fight the brotherhood among male chauvinists.

Tadao Sato, the preeminent Japanese critic, visited Manila in 1981 and saw Brutal. It was invited to the Tokyo International Film Festival. Thus began the friendship of Diaz-Abaya with Sato.

Brutal would be nominated in many categories under different major award-giving bodies that year. It won Best Director for Diaz-Abaya in the Metro Manila Film Festival.

Diaz-Abaya directed Moral in 1982. Where in Brutal, the director manifested her politics, Moral enabled us to see an artist not judging her characters. All women again, the film depicted different characters of female identities. The moral guardians at the time showed their ire as they evaluated the film as propping up a model for our new women, forgetting that these women were articulating not what they had become but what they were in relation to the men in societies. Hidden by the free spirits and liberation of women were the societies and systems that remained oppressive. The audience then opted for the gossip instead of the realization.

Moral would garner nominations and awards for its actors and filmmakers.

Karnal came in 1983. A dark, gothic tale, the film would display Diaz-Abaya’s skill in narrative and technique in a visually appealing retelling of a past haunting a family. The story is about a young man bringing his young bride to his hometown. The bride stirs an uncanny remembrance to the dead wife of the patriarch of the family. Violence creeps in the return of this son as the father begins to desire his daughter in-law. The woman at the center of this crime and life of passion finds consolation in a man who is deaf-mute, a testimony once more to Diaz-Abaya condemning man when he is gifted with speech and elevating his companionship when he is condemned to silence.

With the screenplay from Ricky Lee (Brutal and Moral were also by Ricky Lee, who was declared National Artist at the same time as Marilou Diaz-Abaya), she sculpted and carved from the wounded gaze of a landowning household in a flamboyant play of metaphors about bodies and owning them. Kinship and authority as we know them are subverted by the filmmaker in a film that stretches the violence of her earlier films to gore and grandeur.

Vic Silayan is terrifying as the father. Charito Solis as the storyteller and narrator delivers a tour-de-force performance in a tragedy of the sublime order. Karnal would go on to secure numerous nominations and wins from festivals and award-giving bodies that year. Karnal was sent as an entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in the 57th Academy Awards.

It was in 1983 when Marilou Diaz-Abaya joined the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, finding kinship in the group founded by Lino Brocka. She joined rallies against the dictatorship and the strong censorship dominant during the period.

Next week, this profile on National Artist Marilou Diaz-Abaya continues.