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Volume 3,  Number 18              June 8 - 14, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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In Memoriam: Ishmael Bernal
Ishmael Bernal was a fine example of an activist artist dedicated to the creation of art for the people—an art that depicts the sufferings and the dreams of the people and moves them to act toward the building of a society where freedom and justice truly reign.

By Alexander Martin Remollino

Movie director Ishmael Bernal, whose death seven years ago was marked June 2, belonged to that remarkable breed of filmmakers who brought socially-committed films to the fore during the dark years of martial law. He went to direct similar films until he died.

Bernal’s life was characterized by a richness of experience that infused his work with a profound awareness of social realities.

He was born and raised in a very poor neighborhood in Sta. Mesa, Manila. It was definitely not an inert neighborhood as he often saw street brawls and had his own share of involvement in these.

As a child he loved both reading and the movies. He read widely and was a regular habitué of the neighborhood theaters.

He took his pre-university education at the neighborhood public schools, and thus was in constant touch with other young people from poor families like himself. This would be an essential ingredient later in his incisive depiction of the plight of the poor in his films.

While taking up English literature at the University of the Philippines (UP), he was involved in both theater and activism. Aside from having been friends with such names as Jose Maria Sison, who would later become a prominent revolutionary leader, he was active in the Student Cultural Association of the University of the Philippines, a study circle that dealt with socio-political issues. A few years after graduation from college, he would return to UP and become involved in Kabataang Makabayan (Patriotic Youth). In later years he became a stalwart of Free the Artist movement and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines.

As a young man, he saw much of the night life in Manila - spending the nights on the streets. He managed a number of coffee shops and owned one himself. These experiences heightened his insight into the decadence of life in Manila and society in general.

His love for literature translated into a constant care for the aesthetic quality of scriptwriting and the substance of the entire work of filmmaking. His life among the poor and his involvement in activism infused his work with a fierce commitment to the making of art that serves to awaken the public and move them to act toward their liberation. 

Bernal the filmmaker

Bernal’s film career was characterized by a highly successful combination of form and content. He was as passionate about the techniques of scriptwriting and camera movement as he was about the use of his art to impart scathing social commentary.

As is usual in the film industry, Bernal started out with commercially-oriented films before he could venture into cause-oriented cinema. In fact, even when he was already identified with socially-committed film, he did a commercially-oriented film every now and then.

But he took care not to make films that ran counter to his basic principles. Thus, even as he occasionally made commercially-oriented films, he made sure they were not films that reinforced the societal values he abhorred.

Socially committed films—the likes of his classics “Nunal sa Tubig,” “Manila After Dark,” “Himala,” and “Wating” — made the bulk of his work. The ruling classes’ employment of deceit to make the people accept social injustice, the hypocritical values that prevail in society, unequal gender relations—these were the themes he frequently dealt with. He is best known for the 1980 film “Manila by Night,” a film that depicts the decadence of the night life in Manila.

In the 1990s, he got disillusioned with the trend of degeneration in the film industry which started in the late 1980s—a reversal of what he and his contemporaries Lino Brocka, Behn Cervantes, and Mike de Leon had achieved in the 1970s. After making his last film, “Wating,” an action movie which is at the same time an attack on the religious establishment, he decided to quit filmmaking. He turned to theater and directed plays for the militant mass movement while occasionally making television commercials.


Death was the farthest thing from his mind when Bernal passed away. In fact he was rethinking his decision to retire from the film industry, and in his last interview seemed excited about his new plans. He was even joking about making “The Great Filipino Film”—something he was undoubtedly capable of doing.

But death came for him four days after that interview.

Bernal, however, lives on. He continues to be an inspiration to his fellow gays, to his fellow artists, and to his fellow activists.

And rightly so, for he was a fine example of an activist artist dedicated to the creation of art for the people—an art that depicts the sufferings and the dreams of the people and moves them to act toward the building of a society where freedom and justice truly reign. Bulatlat.com

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