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May 12, 2003

REINERIO A. ALBA

National Artist for Cinema Eddie Romero may be a diminutive man, around five feet, but he is a god in the cinema industry. Well, there is the forgettable BloodIsland trilogy, which features a mad scientist who creates a monster, later beheading it and keeping it alive in a serum. But his place in the pantheon of cinema history is secure with the memorable Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon, and Intramuros, among others, back when Filipino filmmakers still grappled with the medium that was cinema. And his name is eventually tied up with the other stalwart of Philippine cinema-Gerry de Leon, an association, which he treasures to this day.

Romero made history anew when the film industry honored him with a lifetime achievement award during the 22nd annual Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) awards held July 3, 2004 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

In his acceptance speech Romero even made an appeal to government to support the ailing film industry. He lamented the fact that the industry, which was once the leader in Southeast Asia, has been left behind by its regional counterparts because of onerous taxes and disunity in its ranks.

“Fifty years ago, we were sending our best scriptwriters, cinematographers and directors to help teach our neighbors make good films,” said Romero. “Now, these very same countries are producing world-class films.”

Also, as a guest of honor at the Makati Cinemanila 2003 International Film Festival, Romero admitted that there is a great need for films that reflect the current human condition. “Film is the most powerful medium of the century. It is the great gulf that divides countries, but is also that great thing that binds them together.”

It would be another thing to hear the man talking about his own history during a recent encounter with the filmmaker.

“You know I was lucky enough that in my teens, I was already getting paid for writing, mainly for Philippine Free Press. Then one day, I got a call from a friend from Silliman University. She said her husband, who turned out to be Gerry de Leon, wanted me to write a screenplay. I said it was impossible because I only spoke Visayan and no Tagalog. Back in the 1940s, nobody in Dumaguete talked in Tagalog. Secondly, I was only 15 years old at that time.”

But the two did meet and despite his age, Romero ended up writing in English the script for Ang Bagong Maestra, which told of a young schoolteacher (played by Rosa del Rosario) who was sent to a small provincial barrio and faced difficulties not so much with her students but with a community resistant to new ideas.

He said Gerry de Leon eventually introduced him to the idea of directing. “He took me aside and told me that I should be directing the following year but war broke out.”

After the war, Romero came back to Manila with his father who was then working for Congress. He found work in newspapers like the Manila Times and The Manila Chronicle.

“It was the time too that Sampaguita Pictures opened and they asked Gerry to direct Mameng Iniibig Kita starring Carmen Rosales and Oscar Moreno. Gerry asked me to become his associate director. I was 21 at that time and I said ‘what do I know about directing?’ He told me ‘who do you think knows anything about film?’ So, we filmed but he left me in the middle of the production. I do not know but I think that was his real plan. At that time, Dr. Jose Perez was promotions manager. I moved on to direct another film titled Sa Kamay ng Diyos starring Leopoldo Salcedo and Carmen Rosales.

Romero remembers de Leon telling him that nobody really was a trained professional except for the actors because there was zarzuela.

“We were just all playing “oido,” by ear. We went little by little. I went on to direct seven more films for Sampaguita then my father went to London. He wanted me to be in politics.”

Romero stayed away for ten months, initially staying in London (“The irony was that I learned Tagalog in London.”) then to Rome where he watched some of the works of Roberto Rossellini. In England there was the film magazine Sight and Sound where he read about the best critic-turned-directors like Gavin Lambert and Lindsay Anderson. I used to bring home 16 mm. films home and study them. Meeting David Lean (director of the films The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia) was an eye-opener. I came back to the country very eager and told them what I learned.”

He found himself working again for Sampaguita Pictures where he did seven pictures before realizing that they were no better off than his previous works.

“It seemed to me that I had been doing the same thing. I remember all the Bob Steele I have seen and said I can do that! So, I went to New York.”

It was while in New York that he got to work on A Cavalry Command aka The Day of the Trumpet starring Pancho Magalona as Capt. Magno Maxalla and Alicia Vergel as Laura along with American stars John Agar and Richard Arlen. In the film, Agar led a troop of cavalry in an attempt to convince an angry Filipino rebel out of his planned rebellion against US forces. The film was shot here in the Philippines and was only released two years after filming.

Romero then met Burgess Meredith, an American actor, who learned of a project he had been working on.

“He got interested but I told him I could not afford him. At that time he was already earning $25 thousand a week. He asked me how much my budget was. He asked again. I told him I could only give him $800 a week. He said he would take the project and told me to call his agent. I called his agent who could not believe it.” That film was The Kidnappers, set anew in the Philippines, this time centering on the desperate attempts of an American father at saving his son from ruthless kidnappers.

“After that, I would come back every two or three years. I was involved in the pre- and post productions of filmmaking. I could not and would not join the Directors Guild at that time. I realized I was getting tired in the middle of working (as associate producer) for Ford Copolla for Apocalypse Now.”

That was when he came back and did Ganito Kami Noon… He did win the Best Director for it along with the other awards for the film: Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design during the 1977 Urian Awards. It also earned a Best Actor trophy for young actor Christopher de Leon.

Romero was emphatic when asked what exactly ails the Philippine movie industry and what to do about it.

“The movie industry has many problems. The solution is to try to improve the professional aspect of filmmaking like editing and writing. Obviously, competition from foreign films is strong. We have to survive on our own. Filipino movies will always survive. It is important to have directors who are brilliant, imaginative. I tell you, this generation of filmmakers is the best batch. Try to encourage talented people and help them as thoroughly as possible.”