Wednesday, September 19, 2018
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Jorge Arago: Writer, filmmaker, journalist, scholar, thinker

Jorge would have turned 69 today (January 12). He was in the middle of three projects: a ghost-writing gig for a politico friend; the Ishmael Bernal biography, long in the making, that was taking shape slowly but surely; and a historical novel set in his hometown of Binangonan as seen through the eyes of his family, so said Loreto Purisima at the wake. (Jorge O. Arago, the writer, filmmaker, journalist and scholar, passed away during the holidays, apparently of a heart attack.)

It was the first I had heard of the novel, but Jorge himself had told Loreto about it not too long ago, with the bilin (instructions) that, if anything happened to him, Loreto was to tell his family to turn over the material to me to finish. A novel! What do I know about novel-writing, or about Binangonan, or his family history.

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The Bernal bio is problematic enough. I’ve seen chapters, and there’s no pretending I can write like that, and I don’t know enough about him and Ishmael in their earlier fun years of Black Angel discotheque, When it is a Grey November in Your Soul Coffee Shop, “Pagdating sa Dulo,” etc. I met them only in 1980, and only as an astrologer, with very little sense of how long and deep and intellectual and creative their friendship was, which started at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman when they met in a freshman Geology class and Jorge was “thin as a pistil,” said Bernal, although he himself “could not have been more substantial than a tendril,” wrote Jorge (Pro-Bernal Anti-Bio, June 2010, www.stuartsantiago.com).

It was just in time to watch them from the sidelines as I tagged along with Mitch Valdez to shoots of “Manila By Night,” and a couple of years later, to celebrate the success of “Himala” in the days of Imee Marcos’ Experimental Cinema. Those were the good old days for the film industry and for creatives like Ishmael and Jorge.

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All writing, all media

Jorge is best known for writing the prize-winning scripts of Bernal’s “Nunal sa Tubig” (1976) which focused on tradition and change as basic themes of fishing life in the Laguna lake region, and Briccio Santos’ “A la Verde, A la Pobre” (2005), about poverty and the corruption it breeds in a community along the riles (railroad tracks). He was also part of every film Bernal ever made, the one with whom Bernal brainstormed for days and nights on end, who shared Bernal’s disdain for established canons, instead using film to mirror, not escape, reality, lighting up,  starkly and cynically, the dark side of Filipino society.

Yet Jorge was not only into feature films. Fortified by an AB in Journalism & Comparative Literature and a BS in Geology, he was into all kinds of writing for all media—news for print, radio, and TV; copy for print and TV ads; writing for art and cultural publications, magazines and books on land reform and development communications, on the environment and sustainable development; documentary films and video productions on a wide range of subjects and nationalist advocacies, some of which he himself directed and edited.

According to the curriculum vitae he wrote in aid of getting funding for his indie projects, Jorge took civil service exams for information writer and for cultural attaché and passed both, which must have qualified him for those gigs abroad, writing and directing a film documentary on the People’s Republic of China as it opened up to the world in the last years of Mao Zedong; and covering presidential state visits that occasioned, among others, stints with Moscow and Havana TV.

He was also scriptwriter for several UP Film Center projects in Virgie Moreno’s term, among them a theater-production for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris surrounding German efforts to preserve the physical integrity of early Filipino film classics. Twice he represented the country at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival), the first time as subtitlist of an early Celso Ad Castillo film, and the last time as one of the writers for “Manila By Night,” which was finally shown in Berlin 10 years after it was invited.

A phenomenally well-informed and interdisciplinary thinker, Jorge kept abreast of the latest in philosophical, scientific, religious, political, literary, and critical thought, even gossip and pop culture (he loved the worldwide web). But he was also funny and playful, with a gaily wry sense of humor, a rogue scholar engaged, immersed, in Philippine studies not in some ivory tower but on the ground, in the field, wherever mind and heart and libido took him, in and out of Binangonan, until, it would seem, home became field, and he was just happy to be back in the old neighborhood, with his Nanay, and his books.

Ambitious project

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His Bernal project was quite ambitious: besides the book, he hoped to produce two compact discs—one, a 60-minute video portrait of Bernal; the other, an anthology of film reviews, the full text of six screenplays, photo albums, samples of annotated working scripts, excerpts from feature films and documentaries, and edited interviews with Bernal’s coworkers and associates in the film industry, theater, and political advocacy.

Short on support

Unfortunately, Jorge never got around to figuring out how much it would all cost; perhaps he had given up on it, the book was hard enough to write, given Ishmael’s instructions to tell all. Too bad he didn’t get the kind of support he needed.

It was Jorge who got me into serious writing in the 1980s, when he hired me as writer and researcher for environmentalist Junie Kalaw’s quarterly journal Alternative Futures. It was like going back to school; he made me read, he gave me books, and I learned never to write from the top of my head, or anyone else’s head, but always to go deeper, “pag-isipan, mag-research”.

My kids grew up with Jorge dropping in at odd times, always with a book or two for me, and later, for (my daughter) Katrina, who majored in Comparative Literature at UP upon his advice. When I was turning out my own books, he was always there for me, gracing each one with a personal note about the author.

I only wish I could have been there for him, too, in the end, even just to hold his hand, but I guess it wasn’t meant. This then is my goodbye.

Stuart-Santiago is the author of  “Duet for Edsa: Chronology of a Revolution 1986” (1995) and “Revolutionary Routes” (2011).

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