An Everyday Gospel According to GK:
A Reading of “Paradise: Three Stories of Hope”
By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili, Ph.D.
University of Hawai`i at Manoa
On Saturday, April 21, 2007, I watched Gawad Kalinga’s “Paradise: Three Stories of Hope.” It was one of those film showings we go to once in while, and this time around, it was at the Filipino Community Center in Waipahu. Several days before, the retired Rep. Jun Abinsay called me up to say that I would be his guest, and that if I could find time to join the community and watch the film. I said, yes, and then I was hooked. I saw friends, I saw the business and community leaders, I saw the smiles of people, and I saw sorrow in the flesh. In the silence, that sorrow was palpable: I allowed the tears to flow freely on my cheeks, feeling the flow, feeling it with the humanity I could muster, the scenes of wretchedness overwhelming me, the hope in those stories giving me hope for the people and the homeland as well. My initial reaction was personal, subjective, perhaps within the ambit of crude intelligence that can only come from recognizing your feelings, your emotions, and your realization that life, indeed, is a difficult text. In all these mixed reactions as the reel showed the real in the country I know best, I had the darkness of the Filcom Center ballroom for cover. No one knew I shed tears. I had the white hanky for help.
All art is propaganda, I know. All films are, for certain. Being a teacher of film—and art, for that matter, this I have known. And so I just simply sat back and relaxed and enjoyed the GK propaganda in the three stories in the film, knowing and knowing full well that what I would see is the GK gospel that talks about how we can find heaven in this rotting and rotten hell that the country we left behind has become. The cynical in me had to go away as well, and I allowed the three stories to sink in my head, with Ryan Cayabyab’s music of the same title giving the soothing for the bruised soul even as I came to terms with what the stories were trying to suggest. “Even if Heaven Cries” talks of the despair that comes with grief and destruction and havoc such as the case of the wiping out of an entire village in Liloan. There the living were buried alive and they died poor, covered by the mud of the mountains desecrated by the loggers. “My Brother Elvis,” reveals what love can do to a bubbly but homeless boy, Elvis. “Marie” reminds us of the epic story of 9/11, that literal and symbolic destruction of lives and hopes only to allow life and hope to come back again from the ruins. If we look for realism in these short films, you have enough of them, although Elvis’ journey from being homeless to having a loving home might present some oddities that are more like tropes than realities such as that almost comical pushing-and-shoving of the doghouse from one place to another, only to disappear in an instant. But the acting, the emotionally-charged scenes, and the narrative structure that is fluid in each story, are more than enough to compensate for the technical flow that we sense when we compare the film with the standards of high budget film conceived in millions of dollars complete with millions of ad exposures in glossy covers of magazine and talk show spots.
We are told of the miracle in the production of the film: how the topnotch actors on Philippine silver screen waived their ‘normal’ millions of fees, the actors including Maricel Soriano, Cesar Montano, Robert Arevalo, Ricky Davao, Carmi Martin, Michael V, and Lilia Dizon; how the producers Buth Jimenez, Tony Gloria, Bobby Barreiro found the absurd pieces come together in a jigsaw solved with clarity of purposes; and how Ryan Cayabyab the music artist willingly allowed his music to be used as the score to salve the suffering soul in the story and in the spectator.
Early on, there are no pretensions, no high handed techniques known only to the usual “Hollywoodization” of even the inane Philippine film trying to imitate the blockbuster and dollar-raking film from the commercialized mindsets of the world’s viewers.
Even before I saw the film, I have committed to the GK committee in Honolulu headed by Jun Abinsay that we are going to incorporate into our syllabi at the Ilokano and Philippine Drama Program of the University of Hawai`i the film which we will show on August 21. I knew that this film would make a difference to our students majority of whom are of Filipino heritage.
My rating for this film: five stars for telling exactly what we need to know and to hear: that we cannot allow to continue to happen what Juvenal has said a long time ago—Nil habet infelix paupertas durius in se, quam quod ridiculos hominess facit—what is hardest to bear in dire poverty is that it makes a man a laughingstock.
The stories are simple, a bit soapy, those melodramatic types whose plot structures we could have read in the comics form, heard from the radio soap operas, or watched on the boob tube. Yet the honesty of hoping, the sheer honesty of igniting hope where hope is none to be found, where hope has wished to be absent forever—this, I think, is the gem in the trilogy. It is this sense of the gospel—the sense of the good news—in the everyday. We see in this the kernel of redemption that we all need as a people, whether we are in the Philippines or abroad.
This sense of the redemptive leads me to my meditations on the gospel according to GK.
My relationship with GK, the movement and non-profit organization whose unquestionable good deeds are sweeping across the Philippine archipelago and now in some Third World countries, is more conceptual than practical. I have had friends in Los Angeles who were into GK’s causes of eradicating homelessness and of bringing back decency and self-respect to the poor and the wretched of the homeland. These friends talked of how, with just a thousand dollars, a home could be built and a living hope could spring back into the hearts of the homeless. There is a pro-active dynamic in this idea and I was sold to it.
Back in the Philippines many years ago, GK, to my mind, was just like many other organizations who put a premium more on the results than on the rah-rah-rah. From afar, as a researcher, I had read up on the homes they built, the lives they rebuilt, and the families they gifted with grace.
As a teacher in a state-owned university, I could only look in amazement at this miracle happening before my very eyes. I took note of what GK wanted to do and in my mind, I remember most the organization’s desire to eradicate the spectacle of poverty and misery that many presidents and political leaders of the country have vowed to do, but nonetheless lost the heart to keep their vow once the power to rule was in their hands.
Such is the lot of the home country that the many who have left its earth and soil and daily barrage of atrocities to find and found a home some place else have grown cynical of this show of systematic violence against those who have no access to the country’s resources.
Up close, I remember what I wrote in a monograph, “The Poverty of the Philippine Poor,” published several years after People Power I.
To write that monograph, I went on a fieldwork among the mushrooming slums and squatter colonies of Metro Manila.
In those times, the yellow revolution was on its full swing, and we had high hopes for the better. But later on, Cory Aquino’s leadership began to show the challenges of reforming and reshaping a country whose oligarchs have had their heyday and who had no intention of giving up the perks and pelf of power. Dispersal of rallies became common; farmers who massed up in Mendiola demanding ‘land for the landless’ were massacred and a writer and teacher like me could only gather his thoughts in prayer and on paper. The sense of betrayal was palpable.
I joined a group doing fact finding missions in areas where the poor with their shanties were displaced, their pots and pans and faith in disarray, on the streets for the full view of the gawking public, with children unkempt and hungry, with mothers and old women clutching at their Santo Ninos and their Mothers of Perpetual Help to invoke the mercies of the muffled heavens. I invested on wrenching emotions writing that monograph. Anger became a logical reaction—anger because of this wastage of hope and blessings and people’s trust in their leaders. The betrayal is systemic, I knew then, and that knowledge has not changed. The new leaders who were supposed to be giving the people a new lease on life after more than two decades of suffering and political repression were not simply present for and in the name of the people.
I left the country with a heavy heart after years and years of university teaching, with this spectacle of poverty growing heavier each day. You simply are reminded of the inutility of it all, this wastage of dreams, aspirations, opportunities for changes, and leadership that could have spelled the difference between making social justice work and sliding back into the way things had been. The either/or situation was too much to bear.
A couple of months ago, the retired Rep. Jun Abinsay called me up to ask if I could join the core group to discuss about ways in which we can bring in people to get educated into what our various communities in the United States could do to help GK in its work of providing homes for the wretched of the Philippines. The State of Hawai`i, certainly, has its worries related to homelessness, with families living in parks and beaches because the cause of rent has skyrocketed and that home ownership has become some kind of a ‘good luck’, a buenas for those who can afford to pay the monthly mortgage by doing double jobs and running away from all the social gatherings that seem to be endless.
In that gathering were Abinsay, Sonny Perez, Tony Boquer, JP Orias, and myself. We talked of premier showings, of how to make it known to the community of the good deeds of GK, of building men and women and communities by rebuilding in them the sense of decency and self-respect. It was a gathering of minds, and the work began, and indeed, Abinsay, Perez, and Boquer pushed the idea to its fruition. They are giving back to the homeland of the Filipino people who have come to Hawai`i, even if Perez is from Guam and Boquer has nothing to do with the Philippines. Despite these differing circumstances of who they are, we have warriors in the three, and in these warriors is their basic humanity.
Paradise, indeed, can be revisited, rethought, reinvented, redefined.
And hope? It springs eternal in the hearts of man and women who know what it takes to be truly and fully human by permitting and coaxing others to become full and truly human.
(Published at the Fil-Am Observer, May 2007)