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A long-running joke

1 Nov

A tweet from the Inquirer today brought to mind a documentary I watched close to two months ago. Entitled Give Up Tomorrow, the film centered on Paco Larrañaga, son of a landed Spanish father and Filipina mother, who was convicted of double murder charges along with seven others for the disappearance of Cebuano sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong in 1997. Below is a review of the documentary as written for my J 103 (Interpretative Writing) class.


It has been a long-running joke that the Philippine justice system is best described in two words: just tiis (“push on” in Filipino). For all the description’s merits as an exercise in wordplay, it belies the disturbing reality of cases that await resolution for decades, if at all.

“Just tiis” also paints a picture of restless complainants twiddling their thumbs in trepidation, as time and resources (i.e. legal fees) needed to sustain the case runs out.

One would be remiss to assume, however, that only plaintiffs suffer the brunt of lapses and delays in judicial proceedings.

Accused parties, after all, are movants as well. What separates them from petitioners is the converse burden of proving innocence, by emphasizing the impossibility – logistical or otherwise – of their involvement in the crime.

What happens, however, when a person accused and subsequently convicted of a crime cries out foul and clamors for justice?

This is the central predicament presented in the 2011 documentary “Give Up Tomorrow”, helmed by Michael Collins and produced by Marty Syjuco. The film chronicles the case of Paco Larrañaga, son of a landed Spanish father and Filipina mother, who was convicted of double murder charges along with seven others for the disappearance of sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong in 1997.

The Chiong sisters were abducted from a commercial complex in Cebu on July 16, 1997. A corpse believed to be Marijoy’s was found in a ravine, showing conclusive evidence of rape prior to the murder.

At the time, Paco – the 19-year-old great-grandson of former president Sergio Osmeña – and his group of friends from similarly influential families were deemed the neighborhood bad boys of Cebu. He also had a juvenile criminal record due to a scuffle at his high school’s parking lot.

Thelma Chiong, mother to the murdered sisters, also proffered that Paco was Marijoy’s suitor.  Ten months after, a Davidson Rusia confessed to being an accomplice to the crime, and pleaded for blanket immunity in exchange for becoming a state witness. Paco would firmly deny knowing either the Chiong sisters or Rusia.

As the trial of the “Chiong Seven” went underway, inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case began to surface. 35 witnesses testified that Paco was in Quezon City, Manila the night the Chiongs were abducted. This ran counter to Rusia’s claim that he accompanied Paco and his group as they raped and murdered the two girls.

Rusia’s credibility as state witness was questioned not only because of inconsistencies in his sworn statements, but also due to reports by his fellow inmates insinuating that he was tortured as the trial wore on.

Then president Joseph Estrada called to expedite the case. The film credits this political maneuver to the Chiongs’ connections in Malacañang – Thelma Chiong’s sister Cheryl Jimenea was at that time Estrada’s personal secretary.

Judge Martin Ocampo of the Cebu Regional Trial Court meted reclusion perpetua on the Chiong Seven. Lawyers for the prosecution were promoted to regional and national government posts. Members of the police force who were involved in the investigation likewise rose in rank.

The Larrañagas filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, citing violations to Paco’s human rights and his being subject to an unfair trial. The Supreme Court responded by elevating the sentence from life imprisonment to death.

The highest court of the land adjudicates based on the merit of cases presented and not on the conduct of courtroom trials as a lower court would. Thus, the resolution to aggravate the penalty was passed even as no new evidence was presented before the Supreme Court en banc.

Local media did not fall short of passing its own judgment on Paco and his fellow accused. Men and women of the press were all too pre-occupied with sustaining a stereotype of Paco and his friends: rich kids gone wild, now left with no choice but to swallow the bitter pill of the penal system.

The media harped on the prominence angle, always emphasizing how the accused were “delinquent” scions of historically and economically powerful clans.

Journalist Teddy Boy Locsin produced a news segment with a voice-over emphasizing how drug use altered the state of minds of Paco and his friends. This, despite reports that all the accused tested negative for drugs at the time of their arrest.

In a similar segment, Locsin would deliver a stand-upper explaining the crime scene. He cupped his hands together and says to the camera: “Ganito karaming semen ang natagpuan sa bangkay ni Marijoy Chiong (“This much semen was found in the corpse of Marijoy Chiong”).

It would later be known that only a single sperm cell was found in the corpse’s undergarment and admitted as evidence, a grossly far cry from the cupful Locsin reported.

Justice delayed is justice denied. But denying an accused person’s right to a fair trial – both in court and in the public’s eye –  makes a farce out of democracy.

Injustice is never doled in isolation. Injustice is societal in that if something of this magnitude happened to Paco, it can happen to any of us. The documentary serves to reinforce that the Larrañaga’s nightmare is our society’s reality.

To have the courts and the media remain unreceptive to criticism on their handling of Paco’s case would be the last nail in the coffin of justice. The long-running joke will no longer be “just tiis”, but the integrity of the Philippine justice system.

Love and Loss in Rendition — Dulaang UP’s Noli Me Tangere: The Opera in review

4 Jan

Photo from the Dulaang UP's Noli Facebook page.

Since its publication in 1887, the novel Noli Me Tangere by national hero Jose Rizal continues to reinforce itself as a tour de force in the local literary tradition. Its story revolves around the lives of townsfolk from San Diego, a fictional Philippine municipality at the turn of the 19th century. Rizal’s central characters, who have made their mark in the national consciousness, are Crisostomo Ibarra – a gentleman who leaves for Europe in his youth to study and returns toSan Diego an orphan – and his childhood sweetheart Maria Clara, the illegitimate daughter of the abusive clergyman Padre Damaso.

The novel and its sequel El Filibusterismo are credited for inspiring Filipino revolutionaries to take up arms against the Spanish colonization. Due to its artistic and historical significance, both texts lend themselves well to adaptation in other art forms, particularly the performing arts. In reworking Rizal’s novels for the stage or for the screen, directors and screenwriters have followed one of three traditions: faithful adaptation, vignette and contemporaneity.

Renditions like Gantimpala theater troupe’s Noli and Fili, which most high school students in Metro Manila are required to watch, are more literal in their adaptation. The same can also be said of the 1992 TV series Noli Me Tangere, a project of the CulturalCenter of the Philippines (CCP) which aired for a total of 13 episodes. The scripts of all three productions fed extensively on passages from the novels, and neither the chronology nor the characters were tailored or modified to suit the director’s vision.

A number of directors, artists and writers saw potential in the “untold stories” of Rizal’s dynamic, multi-layered characters and went on to employ their artistic license in the plots and presentations of their own productions. In his 1951 film Sisa, starring Anita Linda in the titular role, director Gerardo de Leon played around with the Noli’s plot and male characters to create a past for and explore the psyche of the iconic madwoman ofSan Diego, whose family misfortunes ultimately drove her to insanity.

This vignette tradition is especially strong for the novels’ female characters – particularly Maria Clara; Salome, the lover of Elias; and Sisa. All three women were the subjects of Kutsilyo, Pamaypay at Yantok, a play in three acts which alternately parodied, magnified and dramatized their relationships with the men in their lives.

Meanwhile, recent productions like Philippine Educational Theater Association’s Noli at Fili Dekada Dos Mil – written by Nicanor Tiongson and directed by Soxie Topacio – allow audiences to review and appreciate the national hero’s classic masterpieces in the light of current socio-political realities. This was achieved by adding contemporary tweaks to the plot and “relocating” the novels’ characters to present-day, poverty-strickenManila.

The latest Noli adaptation to have graced the thespic scene is Dulaang UP’s Noli Me Tangere: The Opera. Composed by National Artist for Music Felipe de Leon alongside librettist Guillermo Tolentino, the production debuted in 1957. The DUP restaging ran from November 16 to December 4, 2011 to coincide with the yearlong celebration of Rizal’s sesquicentennial birth anniversary and to prelude the centennial of de Leon’s birth. The premiere staging of de Leon’s masterpiece was well-received, garnering the distinction of being “the first truly Filipino opera.”

In order to effectively evaluate the success of DUP’s adaptation, it is important to note the components and traits of a good opera performance. The art of the opera harks back to 16th centuryItaly, where it was initially performed for the nobility. For centuries, opera has been regarded a “high” or even “elitist” art form.

An opera is essentially a story set to music, rendering both the vocal and accompaniment elements of music are of paramount importance. The score of Noli Me Tangere: The Opera is laudable for employing rich, local musical traditions such as the kundiman (Maria Clara’s “Kay Tamis ng Buhay”) alongside the standard aria of Western operas (Sisa’s “Awit ng Gabi”).

The score was bolstered by excellent showings from the ensemble – composed of both veteran and burgeoning opera singers – with the guidance of musical director Camille Lopez Molina. Standouts include soprano Myramae Meneses and contralto Jean Judith Javier, who played Maria Clara and Sisa, respectively. Even the child actors Gerald Kristof Diola and Jhiz Deocareza, who essayed the roles of Basilio and Crispin, delivered strong theatrical and musical performances.

The ingenious and indigenous set design heightened the impact of local color in DUP’s production. Production designer Gino Gonzales used bamboo for partitions, risers and walkways onstage; inabel cloth from Ilocos was also incorporated in the period costumes.

One thing that didn’t strike a chord with me, however, was the use of stark-white face make-up to identify and highlight the Spanish characters. The over-application of make-up was characteristic of Doña Victorina in the original text, as in the more literal adaptations. Having the friars, Don Tiburcio and even Maria Clara’s suitor Ynares don the same look was an unnecessary distraction from the pretentious donya, whose largely unsuccessful attempts at speaking and looking Spanish was meant to bring comic relief to the narrative.

It is interesting to note that Rizal himself received flak for writing his novels in Spanish, the language of the educated and the elite. This move, said his critics, rendered the texts far removed from the masses who he was supposedly writing for. However, this appears to have been a case of misguided audience attribution.

His choice of language had an intended cause and effect: writing in the language of the colonizers was his own way of disproving the ignorance and indolence that offensive Spaniards were only too willing to attribute to Filipinos. Rizal, then, wasn’t directly writing for the masses; his deliberate use of Spanish could well be construed as the epitome of the phrase “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

Operas are characterized by their high propensity for tragedy and melodrama; most plots revolve around central characters’ personal crises and how they manage (but more often, fail to) overcome them. The internal and external conflicts of characters in Noli and Fili reflected the hardships and struggles that Filipinos of yesteryears were subjected to. Their stories brought to fore the socio-political situation of Rizal’s time – not the other way around.

In the opera, important scenes and characters in the novel were reduced – if not completely scrapped – because the plot’s historical context played second fiddle to the romance of Maria Clara and Crisostomo. Scenes involving the star-crossed lovers – among them their reunion at Kapitan Tiyago’s dinner feast and their forlorn farewell in Maria Clara’s room – were expanded, and even fitted with corresponding musical numbers.

By contrast, only two minor scenes involving Elias, the demoralized revolutionary who sacrificed his life for Crisostomo, were included in the opera: the first when he kills the crocodile along the Pasig river, and the second when he helps Crisostomo escape from Spanish authorities.

The iconic confrontation between Elias and Crisostomo on the merits of staging a revolution versus investing in the youth’s education is markedly absent from the score. Also among the bypassed scenes was the maltreatment of the deranged Sisa by Doña Consolacion – the foul-mouthed, whip-wielding Filipina wife of the Spanish lieutenant.

While the DUP restaging of de Leon’s Noli remained faithful to its operatic medium, I felt that it did so at the expense of the source texts’ treatise. Elements and themes central to the narrative of Noli were lost in its transposition from the page to the stage.

The tone of desolation on both the individual and social levels was not lost, but the focus on the tragic love story betrayed the opera’s inclination to melodrama and clearly delineated from the more historical milieu of the novel. This is not to say, however, that the production is faulty for yielding to the performance medium. Rather, DUP’s Noli Me Tangere: The Opera is a testament to the breadth of the Filipino artists’ aesthetic wingspan, establishing itself as an adaptation both inspired and instructive.