EXCEPT for the local and international success of his Mga Munting Tinig, little is known about the much celebrated director, Gil Portes. But for both the renowned director and his audience, that is not important, because in each of his films are his visions, and in each vision is his story. And not just his story, but also the story of those who experience prejudice (Miguel/Michelle) and alienation (‘Merika), of people who hope and dream (Mga Munting Tinig), and those who search for truth (Saranggola).
When Gil Portes tells a story, he tells not only his story but also the story of every Filipino.
The storyteller’s tale began at the University of Santo Tomas, where he took up Journalism in the then Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. His passion for film, however, had already started to burn as early as high school, when he devoured films with “social commentaries, and the neo-realist films in Italy” and read works of his idol, Carlos Romulo.
“Sinusulatan ko siya (Carlos Romulo) and he encouraged me to pursue my dream,” he narrated.
At first, Portes wanted to become an actor. But after realizing that “in this country, to be an actor, kailangan kamukha mo si Richard Gomez or Christopher De Leon,” he shrugged off the dream and shifted to the next best thing: directing.
However, back in the 60s, there were still no film schools in the country. And since other aspiring filmmakers, like Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka, took up language-related courses, Portes decided to pursue his second love, writing.
Portes recalled that college was very informal during those times, especially in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, which he described as “a big little college.” There, everybody was having fun, and majority of the students were already working part time as early as their sophomore year.
“Nobody was serious is school. Well, hindi naman sa hindi serious, pero we breezed through college,” he said.
And breeze through he did, because Portes claims that he hardly studied, and he was not even a member of any writing organization, like the Varsitarian, or the Blue Quill, then the official newsletter of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters.
But that is not to say he gained nothing from the University.
“Nag-improve ‘yung craft ko sa pagsulat. Nagkaroon ako ng self-confidence sa media because of the influence of the people in Philets. I grew as a writer, and as a mediaman,” he said.
After graduating, “without any honors,” he worked at various advertising firms and stations, where he was producing commercials. And then, after years in advertising, he grew tired of the routine, so he moved to New York. There, he went to the City University of New York and finished a master’s degree in Television. He returned in 1972, after three years in New York, and worked for ABS-CBN as producer and director.
As fate would have it, the night he was supposed to start his directorial job, a television drama in ABS-CBN, Martial Law was declared. Then the government started pulling the reins on all the media, rendering ABS-CBN powerless.
He then joined the National Media Production Center (NMPC), again as producer and director. While with NMPC, he was sent abroad for further film education at London’s British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Upon his return, he continued doing documentaries and TV shows for NMPC, until a friend gave him his first movie directorial job.
In 1976, Portes’ first movie, Ticket, mama, Ticket, ale, sa Linggo ang Bola was released.
And so it began.
It is said that an artist is obligated to produce works about the society he belongs in, especially in our country where poverty, injustice, oppression, and other social issues are rampant. Portes’ films fulfill just that.
After his first film, he decided to make his films more relevant and realistic. In 1979, he did Miss X, the first local film to expose the life of an Overseas Filipino Worker. Here, Vilma Santos plays a lass from Batangas who was recruited to work as a hotel worker, but who later ends up in the red light district of Amsterdam. Another film with the same issue is ‘Merika, released in 1984, featuring Nora Aunor as a nurse who is unhappy in the States despite her material wealth.
Many of his films deal with the lives of Filipinos abroad. In Birds of Prey, Gina Alajar portrays a Filipino dancer performing for the US Filipino community, while in Bukas May Pangarap, Alajar plays a victim of an illegal recruiter.
Homosexuality and alienation are also common themes in Portes’ movies: 1998’s Miguel/Michelle tackles the prejudice and alienation a transexual has to deal with in a conservative country, while 2001’s Markova:Comfort Gay narrates the story of a homosexual in the Japanese era. And then, before Mga Munting Tinig was Mulanay: Sa Dibdib ng Paraiso, where a city doctor comes to an isolated rural town and finds herself immersed in the community’s battles against daily crises.
But many would agree that Portes’ greatest masterpiece so far is Mga Munting Tinig, which was the country’s entry in the foreign language category of the Academy Awards in the US. It was also given three best picture awards locally, was granted national distribution in America (as Small Voices) by Warner Brothers, and was reported as one of Asia’s top 10 movies of all time.
The New York Times claimed: “This tiny film is heartfelt, well made, and worthy of attention.” In the same vein, The Los Angeles Times called it “an affecting film that is also quite critical of the resignation that seems to permeate Philippine society, underlined by corruption and violence.”
Mga Munting Tinig, a film about a city teacher who comes to a rural town and tries to remedy the predicaments of the town school, was among the films considered for showing in the past Manila Film Festival. Ironically, it was ranked eighth in a festival where only the top seven were shown.
What’s more, Portes and the other producers earlier had to seek movie outfits and investors to finance the film. But, as Portes said in an interview, “nobody would even dare touch it with a ten-foot pole.” The reason: it would not sell, not with the market still craving for the same old sex-and-violence formula. After finding someone to finance the making of the film, the production was continued.
Eventually, all was still not well, since, in its first release, Mga Munting Tinig was only shown in seven cinemas in Metro Manila. It was obviously not a blockbuster.
Nevertheless, Portes was unfazed. “My films may not be blockbusters, as long as the film I wanted to do was done, na sa palagay ko ito ito talaga ‘yung film na gusto kong gawin, at nagawa ko,” he said.
He explained that being a serious filmmaker, he should expose real issues. And while he cannot offer the solutions to these problems, he makes sure that the audience will get the message—that what he presents on film is a reality that must be dealt with.
And true enough, Portes’ films are eye-openers. They give the moviegoers a glimpse of what goes on in the other side of society. This, however, is a difficult task, considering that audiences usually prefer sugar-coated themes rather than relevant ones.
“One should remember that we are using an entertainment medium to dramatize these issues, and it’s a tough call, because we are trying to blend the elements of entertainment and the element of exposing these social issues,” he said.
In order to tackle more important stories, Portes had to give up films with commercial value and concentrate on films with social significance: real issues, real problems, and, unfortunately, less money. Hence, he is popularly known by foreign critics as “the Philippines’ most eminent independent filmmaker.” And he is probably the only director who deserves such a title, because while other filmmakers engage in films with surreal themes, which earn big money, Portes tackles realistic themes.
Portes has directed scores of films, and his awards, including those from the Philippine Movie Press Club Star Awards, the Famas, and the Urian, speak well of his directorial prowess.
“An award is a sign that you are respected, and your work is respected. They also prove that the message did reach the audience,” he said.
Still, Portes is not without his share of negative criticism. Despite his credentials, his Birds of Prey (which was an official selection in the Montreal World Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, among others) was reportedly criticized for “stiff performances, poor production value, and careless writing.”
At any rate, the seasoned director has learned to cope.
“Criticism is part of the contract when you become public property, so your work is judged by the audience. Syempre, tao ka lang naman. Kung maganda yung criticism, matutuwa ka. Kung masama, masasaktan ka,” he said, adding “I make films of what is going on around us. I want to tell a certain story. So kung sa palagay ko, nagawa ko nang tama, then I am successful.”
Gil Portes will not stop telling stories anytime soon. And if he would have his way, he will not stop at all.
“Hindi ako titigil, I die the next day. You do not stop. This is not a 5-8 job that you just retire and bum around. You do not stop, hanggang sa kaya mo pang gumawa ng pelikula,” he said.
After the success of Mga Munting Tinig, Columbia Films International released Homecoming, which was shown in last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. Although Homecoming failed to hit it big in the box office, it promises to be another big mark in Philippine cinema and could be the country’s hope to gain recognition in the film industry. As proof, it received the Gender Sensitive film award in the MMFF.
Next year, Portes is planning to film The Bells of Balanggiga, a complex story about Philippine-American relations during the American occupation. Here, the male population of a small town was butchered by the Americans because of their refusal to cooperate with the colonizers.
Indeed, the 53-year-old director, world-renowned Gil Portes has more stories to tell. And we are here to watch and listen, because those are also our stories, only well made and visualized by a master.
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