A Colorful Town and Its Artists

By Ian Rosales Casocot

It’s National Arts Month, and I am thinking about Dumaguete and its artists. Back in 2010, Dumaguete filmmaker Carmen Singson del Prado debuted her documentary Dumaguete: An Artist’s Haven, and I remember loving it for managing to do several things at once — all of which I can more or less summarize to two basic points.

The artists of Dumaguete. Photography by Greg Morales.

First, the film made for a surprisingly comprehensive survey, given its two-week shoot, of the state of art and culture in Dumaguete (which includes people in painting, photography and design, literature, and even a little bit of film, theater, and music).

Second, it made Dumaguete look like the coolest, most colorful, most-happening art haven in the whole country. The city bounces with such joy in this film, which is already a delight in itself to behold. If Dumaguete should make one form of achievement in at least one possible avenue, it succeeds as an unintentional, wholly accidental tourism come-on. It does in one quick half-an-hour what a thousand generic but official tourism videos about Dumaguete accomplish in the entire span of their shelf-lives.

I remember thanking God then that the whole project also succeeded as documentary cinema.

But first, to contextualize Carmen’s effort. Because one must make a case for the enterprise known as documentary filmmaking — an often infuriating undertaking that takes into consideration the mostly accidental of things. The documentarian captures what she can, and constructs a narrative from what she has — a situation that is a far cry from fictional filmmaking where everything is fabricated, woven out of thin air. True, while the documentary filmmaker may have a general story to pursue at the outset — let’s say, for example, Michael Moore waking one day to tell himself, “I am going to start a film about the American health care system today” — for the most part, it is a voyage into the “formless.” The ultimate goal is eventually wringing out an interesting story — with a dramatic arch — out of the endless hours of footage one has taken. The documentary filmmaker’s best friend is really luck — about being there at the right time to capture the right scene just as it unfolds — and his best tool is an unsurpassed skill in editing that puts together into coherence all those footage taken from the chaos.

It is not an easy thing to do, this kind of filmmaking.

So I could imagine Carmen seizing one day this idea to make a film about artists in Dumaguete — and then to contrast it with the matter of actually doing it. “The primary reason,” she would admit later on, “was that this was my hometown.” What she wanted to do was to put Dumaguete on the map of art and culture of the Philippines, at least in terms of cinematic documentation.

“This place,” she told me once, “is crawling with artists.”

Which is true then, and still very true now. All cities and towns, of course, have their fair share of artists — but Dumaguete, like Baguio its spiritual cousin, seems to have more than its fair share; its atmosphere, in act, drips with bohemian romance. And she would know that very well, coming as she does from a family of artists: her father — a farmer — is also a photographer, her mother is a painter, one brother is a chef, another is an animator, and still another is into hilot. The youngest of them is a theatre actress, and sings well, too. That Carmen had gone into a very specific kind of filmmaking seemed both pre-ordained and brave. For who does documentaries these days in the Philippines beyond the newsy stuff we get on television? Perhaps only Nick Deocampo and Ramona S. Diaz and Babyruth Villarama?

I remember Carmen emailing me not too long ago asking for suggestions about whom to interview in Dumaguete. What she had initially in mind a project focusing on five local artists — but I emailed back a long list that included not just visual artists, but also theater people, writers, filmmakers, graphic designers, photographers, dancers, and musicians. When she finally came around to shooting, with five subjects quickly turning to twenty, it soon became a project that needed a center of gravity: there were many talking heads speaking at length about art in the city — but what would the film be ultimately about?

The finished film has that story, that center — although it is not easy palpable. It is not a story about the process of art-making. You don’t see here select people being followed into the hidden corners of their personal lives as they grapple and agonize about making art. The film is not about that at all. It is a mapping of sorts, a geographically-specific project that tries to define a place through the prism of one peculiarity. That peculiarity is Dumaguete’s attraction for the artistic type — how they come here, how the place nurtures them, how it is a haven. Hence, the title.

Watching the film, one becomes amazed by the color and vibrancy captured by Carmen’s camera as it roams the city streets, capturing minutiae and what-not, traveling the city’s lengths to chronicle, in comfortable snippets, the passions of Dumaguete’s many art-makers.

There’s Jutze Pamate talking about local art history, there’s Kitty Taniguchi talking about the literary foregrounding of her famous paintings, there’s Yvette Malahay-Kim talking about setting up a fine arts program in the academe. There’s National Artist for Literature Edith Tiempo talking about the inspiration Dumaguete has brought to many writers, there’s Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez talking about local music, there’s Dessa Quesada-Palm talking about the advocacy ingrained in community theater. Then there’s Hersley Ven Casero, there’s Greg Morales, there’s Karl Aguila. There’s Ramon del Prado, there’s Phil Calumpang, there’s JM Aguilar. All of them coming to terms with the place and what it means in their pursuit of their individual craft. And, weaving through the film as its inspired soundtrack, there’s the music of Enchi, perhaps the most well-known of Dumaguete’s alternative music bands. It’s really a merry motley crew of the city’s denizens of creative expression, all gathered to make one story — that of the city and its relationship with its artists: how it opens itself as a comfortable haven for the budding painter, the searching filmmaker, the promising writer.

A full disclosure is in order: I’m part of the whole thing, my talking head punctuating space in the film here and there. My voice, in fact, opens the film, making some pronouncement about “the place of Art in our lives” over the title sequence. (That was one strange sensation, settling down to enjoy a film, and then begin it by hearing your own voice.)

But my enthusiasm goes beyond my small participation.

Carmen, in the end, impresses by simply managing to make a film with such steady control of her cinematic aesthetics. Her sense of storytelling is laudable, gathering what could have been merely a filmed catalogue of artistic profiles into a narrative point that ends with the Big Event, in this case, the holding of Dumaguete’s Arts Month celebration. Her eye for cinematography also does something magical: it virtually opens up the small city, and makes it wide, colorful, accessible, fun. Her editing is impeccable — the pacing is just right, and it weaves its various threads together into what could easily pass for solid entertainment. She also takes on an unwieldy subject — all these artists and their colorful eccentricities — and tempers it to make a grand narrative about a town and its unique relationship with art-making.

But the question remains: why do we do art in Dumaguete?

Many years ago, because I was too late to ever become her student, I used to visit Edith Tiempo over at her office at the CAP Building along the Rizal Boulevard and there, with me basking in her presence, she’d regale me with stories about the heydays of creative writing over at Silliman University and in Dumaguete as a whole. It was literary gossip of a different sort, and here and there, she’d give me nuggets of writing wisdom — what to look for in poetry, what makes effective fiction, how a writer must live.

One day I asked her why she never saw fit to leave Dumaguete for the so-called greener pastures of elsewhere. I told her, “Mom Edith, you have a great reputation as a poet, and you are more or less a giant in Philippine literature. Hasn’t leaving for Manila or for abroad to pursue greater opportunities for your writing ever occurred to you?”

Mom Edith turned to me with a wise smile and a wise look in her eyes, and said, “Every time I ask myself that question, I pass by the Rizal Boulevard, and I see the infinite horizon spreading before me, and then I see the gentle city behind me — and I understand why I am here.”

Dumaguete’s National Artists — Edith Tiempo for literature and Eddie Romero for film.

I think it is rootedness in a place and one’s pursue of one’s art that Mom Edith was talking about. And this realization was underlined for me with another National Artist, this one for film — our very own Eddie Sinco Romero, director of such classics as Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon and The Passionate Strangers. In 2013, I was editing a coffee-table book titled Handulantaw where we chronicled the history of art and culture in Silliman, and early that year, my editorial staff and I visited Mr. Romero at his house in Manila where we interviewed him and procured photos from his long and interesting film career for our book project.

Mr. Romero was an affable fellow, even given his age, and it was fantastic to be in the presence of a cinematic legend. Three months later, however, he would pass on — and his son Joey Romero later told me during our memorial service for the great man that before his father died, he kept saying the same word over and over again: “Dumaguete… Dumaguete… Dumaguete…”

Dumaguete was special to him. He began becoming a filmmaker here. He made two films here.

I guess every artist has a place of nurture, and a place of growing, and finally a place for longing to be back in as we stew in the crowning life of our artistry. And I think Dumaguete is a place that embodies all of that. The fact that we have two National Artists is a testament to our centrality in the arts in the Philippines. And this is a city that has always been a haven to countless writers, dancers, singers, musicians, painters, photographers, filmmakers, designers, and so on and so forth.

As we end this month with what remains of Kisaw — Dumaguete’s Arts Month Festival — we are still continuing a never-ending celebration of our city and its arts — and if we are again asked: “Why do we do this art of ours in this city and not elsewhere?” Know in your heart that this city is like no other.

This is where our heart beats.

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