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Ishmael Bernal’s life was his ‘performance’

/ 06:04 PM September 18, 2011

Some film students recently asked us to talk to them about the filmmaking career of National Artist Ishmael Bernal. We obliged, because we knew and/or worked with “Ishma” from his very first attempts at movie-making, to the abrupt conclusion of his career more than 25 years and 50 films later.

We first met him when he was the owner of the artists’ hangout in Malate which (true to his literary nature) he named When It’s A Grey November in Your Soul coffee shop.

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The “more popular” hangout then was Indios Bravos, so Ishmael had his work cut out for him to compete with the posher venue for customers. So determined was he to make a go of his first business venture that he didn’t feel it was beneath him to stand outside Grey, and as artists walked past to get to Indios, physically “abduct” them to go into his café instead!

But everybody “forgave” him (even Indio’s owners), because he did it with such humor, style and panache!

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In any case, Grey didn’t last all that long because Ishmael was offered, and accepted, a filmmaking scholarship in India. When he was away, the art scene in Manila didn’t feel like old times, so unique and “stellar” was his effect on it. For, truth to tell, although he wasn’t “officially” a full-time actor, Ishmael’s entire life was his performance—and an overwhelmingly epic and idiosyncratic performance it was, too!

After he got back from India, Manila’s art scene reverted to its “normal” state of inspired insanity, and he went about trying to get his movie produced.

No, I told the film students—and they were “shocked” to hear it—it wasn’t “Pagdating sa Dulo,” as they had been taught in their film history subjects, but a Virgo Productions movie titled (take a deep breath) “Ah, Ewan, Basta sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako!”

Virgo, by the way, was the production company of “drama king” Eddie Rodriguez. Ishmael’s brilliance, wit, loquaciousness and volatility had impressed Eddie, and he agreed to produce the first Bernal opus, which was meant to be a “loving” satire on the city of Manila.

During the production’s shooting phase, Ishmael invited us to watch some rushes with him, and we were delighted at how funny and spot-on his satirical scenes were.

We remember one series of sequences in particular in which Ishmael spoofed the many vendors who came up to cars and other vehicles caught in traffic, selling all sorts of wares, from apples to zebras (well, you get the picture).

In one especially droll scene, a vendor lugged an entire aparador past the camera! In another, the traffic jam took so long to unravel that, by the time it flowed again, the little seedling a vendor had sold a customer had grown into—a tree! Really outrageously funny stuff like that…

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But it turned out that, while we were laughing our heads off, the producer wasn’t having such a fun time. The way we see it now, he may have been worried that Ishmael’s acerbic kind of wit would not be all that easy for ordinary local moviegoers (used to more slapstick stuff, perhaps) to relate to.

So, it appears that he and his young writer–director had a talk, during which he asked for changes—and the result was, Ishmael bowed out of the project! That’s right, with the movie not completely finished, it lost its director, and Eddie had to finish shooting the movie himself.

We watched “Ah, Ewan…” when it opened in theaters, and quite expectedly, it was pretty much a mish-mash that didn’t amount to much. What was interesting and instructive to us was the fact that we could readily tell which scenes had been shot by Bernal, and which had been appended by Rodriguez.

Eventually Ishmael got over his unfortunate first experience in filmmaking and went on to do “Pagdating sa Dulo,” which was a singular success, along with the many other fine films that followed.

But, despite the grade of “incomplete” that it got, “Ah, Ewan…” still occupies pride of place in his filmography, having been the first in a long line of productions that have done the country proud.

Ah, ewan, basta kay Bernal pa rin ako!

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