Long Live Juan Tamad!
A DVD Review of Manuel Conde's Juan Tamad Goes to Congress (1960)
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz
It has been taught in school that the most important legacy the Americans left us is democracy. Given that after so many elections and after so many national and local politicians elected for the purpose of leading their constituents to prosperity, the country is still in a state of an inexplicable sorrow is enough proof that the great American legacy is actually a farce, a gargantuan lie that has kept our people in an embarrassing state of hopefulness in a reality of abject hopelessness. For that simple reason, I am now proposing that the greatest legacy of our American colonizers is in fact not democracy but is actually democracy and the escapism of Hollywood. Our predisposition for incessant daydreaming has mutated the basic tenets of the democratic system of government into an escapist mechanism, a source of entertainment, a wellspring for exciting scandals and intrigues.
A cursory look at the carnivalesque happenings currently, just a few months before the next presidential elections, would prove my arguably cynical but grounded observations on our inherited form of government. Celebrities (and I am not simply talking about entertainers but also descendants of famous personalities, who have practically no experience of governance or if they have, have not taken such experience with the seriousness or diligence the positions they were elected for deserve) have suddenly turned into lucrative commodities for the several political parties who have been ambitioning control of the government after several years of being deprived a stake at governance by the extremely jealous present administration. Politicians have become extremely creative and imaginative in formulating reasons for their obvious turncoatism. Perceived honor and promise are abandoned for an assured place in a political party’s supported slate of aspirants, which supposedly equates to abundant campaign funds, and thus, a better chance of winning. Let’s stop at that and leave the more absurd eventualities (like the dead being resurrected to exercise their right of suffrage, the indignant exchange of money between the voted and the voter, and a lot more) of this politically-charged season.
That being said, DVD release of the previously lost but eventually found Juan Tamad Goes to Congress (1960) could not have come at a better time. The circumstances behind the release have been mysterious. As it turns out, Nicanor Tiongson’s beautiful coffee table book The Cinema of Manuel Conde has led to a renewed interest on the filmmaker’s films, pushing intrepid cultural workers to search everywhere for remaining copies of the reportedly lost films of Conde. With the invaluable connections in Southeast Asia created through the efforts of the great film critic Alexis Tioseco, a perfectly preserved print was discovered in the collection of a Malaysian art enthusiast, who graciously lent the reel to the DVD producers as commemoration of Tioseco’s tireless efforts in promoting Philippine cinema.
Conde, who also plays the iconic Juan Tamad, graces the cover of the DVD. Garbed in a colorful and intricately designed outfit (designed by Botong Francisco) with various political placards in the background, Juan Tamad looks like a clueless man in the middle of the chaos of everything else. The cleverly conceptualized cover practically summarizes the story of Juan Tamad Goes to Congress, where Juan Tamad, egged on by his creditors who imagined that the only way Juan can pay off his debts is when he gets elected to Congress and is given the usual bribe money that goes along with the position, campaigns and eventually gets elected to Congress. The screenplay, written by his frequent collaborator Jess Banguis, cleverly reimagines Philippine politics that is completely populated by exaggerated stereotypes (with Juan Tamad representing the common man; Karima representing the patient Filipino wife; Lakan Hangin, Lakan Tabil, Congressman Ismagol representing are all representations of our many inutile politicos) yet maintains a steadfast grasp on reality. Introducing the film is a non-disclaimer; a foreword that courageously invites the viewers to not regard the film as a fictional laugh-fest but as an entertaining indication of the very real ills that are plaguing Philippine society.
What transpires throughout the film is a collection of valid observations on traditions and practices in politics, all committed to celluloid, utilizing the mechanics of absurdity to infuse humor into the indubitably dirty affairs that are being depicted. The unfortunate practice of padding votes by having the dead vote is exemplified in Juan Tamad’s fervent efforts in campaigning in a graveyard, with his wife and sister carrying placards as the unconventional politico delivers his speech with such seriousness that it is impossible not to chuckle at both the strangeness and the wisdom of his political maneuvering. Upon Juan Tamad’s election, the absurdity worsens as Conde portrays Congress with both the vibrancy and the utter inanity of a circus show, with congressmen napping, fooling around with their various mistresses, arguing over the use of the microphone, and being visually bored and useless at what they should be doing. However, despite the non-stop humorous attacks at our failed political system, Juan Tamad Goes to Congress conveys a maturity that goes beyond the kneejerk effects of Conde’s invaluable comedic timing. In fact, seeing it for the very first time five decades after it was released and observing that each and every hilarious joke still holds water up to this day is a frightening indication that we have not progressed politically.
Democracy and the escapist intentions of Hollywood cinema, the gifts of our generous American colonizers, are conveniently married in our insistence to drown our collective disappointment on our ineffective political system with laughter. While Juan Tamad Goes to Congress is the most impressive example of how we have perfected such joviality in the midst of a rotting political core, there have been various other examples, in different forms and media, as to how we treat these supposedly serious matters with the lightness of afternoon gossip. In our newspapers, radio programs, in Youtube and the various blogs that have mushroomed in Filipino cyberspace, in magazines and television, in the idle banter in the nightly drinking sprees in our respective neighborhoods, even in political rallies and the handful of people power revolutions, the Filipino is quick to add wit to the discourse, to add spice to the grievances, to add a chuckle to the challenges. Perhaps that is the reason why we cannot get rid of democracy despite the many recurring instances that our nation has proven that we do not deserve its privileges. We, as a nation, have become chronically addicted to the freedoms that democracy provides and even for that single reason, I will and must concede.
Manuel Conde’s Juan Tamad Goes to Congress is great cinema. Perhaps the most unfortunate thing that arose out of this DVD release is the lingering pain that our luck might have ran out, and that the rest of this magnificent series of satires, could have disappeared completely, left to be enjoyed through synopses, shooting scripts, posters, publicity shoots, and pictures.
(First published in Uno Magazine, April, 2010, Stranger than Fiction issue)