Sunday, July 01, 2012

Mario O'Hara (1946-2012)

The Great O'Hara
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

He was seated in front of us, inside one of the many rooms in the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Mario O’Hara, respected writer of most of Lino Brocka’s greatest works, inimitable director of such classics like Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years without God, 1976) and Fatima Buen Story (1994), outstanding thespian, and arguably one of the most important figures in Philippine cinema, was there in front of us, convincing us to greenlight his next film entitled Henerala. I was then part of the committee that gave grants to filmmakers wanting to make films, and I was ashamed to be in the unjust position of listening to the great O’Hara explain why his proposal would make a good film. I was already convinced then. Henerala could have been a masterpiece, the one film that painted heroic Gabriela Silang, always seen angry while mounted on her even angrier steed, as a sensual human being who was horny for and madly in love with Diego. Still, there I was, listening to him as he animatedly serenaded us of what the film that would now never be made could have been.

The great O’Hara was taken from us too soon. At age 68, while the entire country was steadfastly praying for Dolphy, he quietly said farewell. It is quite amazing how he died the same way he magnanimously lived his life, just there, quiet in the background. While Lino Brocka was being praised everywhere, while Nora Aunor was amassing legions of fans, O’Hara, an Adamson drop-out in a country that was dazzled by the liberal geniuses of the State University and the conservative wisdom of Ateneo, was just humbly working, churning out masterpieces after masterpieces without hardly a sense of the acclaim those masterpieces could have garnered for him. Sure, he was championed and earned the respect that he deserved. However, he never became a celebrity, or even a figurehead. He did not need it. He only needed to work.

His films are never personal visions. They never felt trapped in a world that he and the people who knew him inhabited. His films were either artful crowd-pleasers or relatable art pieces. They evolved whenever the audience or the market evolved. In the 70’s and 80’s, when the Philippines was busy struggling under the dictatorship, he wrote Insiang (1976) and directed Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986) that showed a world of characters that struggled even harder. In the 90’s, when the only films that could compete with Hollywood were children’s fantasies and soft pornography, he gave us Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty (1994), Manananggal in Manila (Monster in Manila, 1997), and Sisa (1999), which featured a Sisa who had breasts the size of melons.

He made Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003), which brought the Philippines again to Cannes after decades of absence. Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, 2010) had him experimenting with digital cinematography and the result was more than exhilarating. When the country decided to leave the cinemas for the comforts of their homes, he directed Sa Ngalan ng Ina (In the Name of the Mother, 2011), a television series that not only heralded Aunor’s return to Philippine showbusiness but also showcased the artistic capabilities of Philippine television most local networks could ever imagine because they are too busy being pandering to the stupidity they have cultivated.

The characters that O’Hara wrote and gave life to are never heroes or villains, they were imperfect human beings victimized by circumstance. The Japanese soldier who raped a village girl of Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is capable of real love. The baby-faced killer of Bagong Hari graduates from his violent encounters as a hero. The leper he played in Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You were Weighed but Found Wanting, 1974) is the film’s most tragically human figure. The unfortunate dwellers of the Breakwater in Babae sa Breakwater had joie de vivre the most fortunate of us can't never even imagine. The courageous founder of the Katipunan in Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio had the humanity to cry and beg for his life.

O’Hara’s astute understanding of our collective imperfections is laudable. He had no qualms in breaking perceptions, in defying conventions, in shocking conservative sensibilities, to point out that the weaknesses that are only part and parcel of our being only made in the likeness of God are not something to be masked or hidden but exposed and expressed in film and fiction.

After his pitch, O’Hara said his farewell and uneventfully exited the room. I could not help it. I had to excuse myself. Like a rabid fan, I rushed towards O’Hara and awkwardly attempted to start a conversation. “Hi Mario, I am a big fan. I thought Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio is absolutely great.” That was all I could say. In my mind, I wanted to probe his creative processes, I wanted to ask so many questions, I wanted to die out of sheer embarrassment of being put in a position a few minutes ago that I could never imagine I deserve, but sadly, those short and uncreatively constructed sentences were all that my brain could process to deliver to my mouth. He embarrassedly laughed and politely said thank you. He then asked me where the nearest restroom was. I pointed him towards the one beside the gift shop. He again smiled at me and whisked towards the restroom. I excitedly returned to the one of the many rooms in the Cultural Center of the Philippines, ready to hear out a dozen more pitches. Henerala would eventually get the greenlight, but because of lack of investors, he could not make it. I guess we just live in such an unjust, unfair world.

Mario O’Hara had to pee. He also had to die. He was human after all. In fact, there was so much humanity in him, his works radiate with it.

(First published in Supreme, Philippine Star, 30 June 2012..)


Melai said...

It's so sad, I remember how eager Direk Mario was in making Henerala. After Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio, he became open again to the idea of making new films. Unfortunately, no one would want to take a risk and invest in his films so he had to put all his scripts aside and continue on with theater work. He was about to make another film based on a folk tale as well, and had a lot of the costumes and props prepared until the producer backed out. I'm just so sad. I hope someone would take the risk to produce and direct the scripts that he had left.

His sensibilities aren't for everyone. A really sad truth. :(

Melai of Style and Soul

Noel Vera said...

Had to make it official. Beautiful tribute Oggs, and I especially love your final few sentences.

Anonymous said...

mario o'hara for national artist