It’s not every day that one encounters a militant filmmaker like Joselito “Jay” Altarejos.
Local show business isn’t traditionally and usually attuned to or associated with activism, political or otherwise; it’s more known for glitz and glam, if not gossip. Anything of the hoi polloi, the great unwashed, and being combative, truthful and aggressive don’t sit well in the realm of escapism.
But advocacies involving the environment or animal welfare, such as those of Ronnie Lazaro (cleaning of Rizal Park relief map), Antoinette Taus (concern for climate change and preservation of ecological system) and Carla Abellana (pet care) are always a go. They’re considered “appropriate” or tolerable—safe, in short—and promoted in many media platforms.
Before dwelling on Altarejos’ cause, here are some historical notes: It was only in the early 1980s that militancy in show biz was felt, although not received warmly by its denizens. It seemed a novel, if not strange, idea for show biz people to join protest rallies, pickets or street demonstrations.
Brocka, Cervantes etc.
At that (already delayed) time, film directors Lino Brocka, Behn Cervantes and their ilk initiated the radical participation of filmdom in social, cultural, economic, political and even religious calls for change in society.
Still, show biz was somewhat indifferent to protests on the streets. Most people then actually viewed rallies as nuisances that disrupted their daily lives; they still do today.
For joining a strike of jeepney and bus drivers against oil price increases and oppressive transportation policies, Lino, Behn and then Peta (Philippine Educational Theater Association) members Phil Noble and Mae Paner (later to be known as Juana Change) were arrested, detained and charged with sedition.
I remember very vividly that the still missing popular TV host, entertainment writer and talent manager Boy C. de Guia was one of those who raised money to bail out Brocka and company. (Boy was then business manager of the future National Artist for Film.) All of us De Guia protégés who belonged to the so-called Special People group—Lhar Santiago, Danny Vibas, Pilar Mateo, Josie Mañago, Ronald Mendoza, Carol Matias and the late Rino Fernan Silverio—were then at Jack’s Restaurant (a hangout of celebs on Edsa and P. Tuazon in Cubao, Quezon City).
Brocka, together with industry personalities like Bibeth Orteza, Bienvenido Lumbera, Nicanor Tiongson, Mel Chionglo, Ricardo Lee and Jo-Ann Maglipon, founded the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, as well as the Katipunan ng mga Manggagawa ng Pelikulang Pilipino, with Vilma Santos among the director’s supporters.
Rallies against censorship were held during the Ferdinand Marcos regime and even under the Cory Aquino and Fidel V. Ramos administrations. State forces would be cynical about them.
The 1986 Edsa “people power” uprising brought show biz personalities to the streets to join groups and other persons in articulating the grievances of the masses.
Whiff of fresh air
It is thus like savoring a whiff of fresh air to see and listen to a voice of dissent from a certain Joselito Altarejos.
I became familiar with director Altarejos’ work through his gay films “Ang Lalake sa Parola,” “Ang Lihim ni Antonio” and other short gender-bender audiovisuals, and, later, Cinemalaya 2010’s “Pink Halu-Halo.”
I would soon discover other important aspects in the Jay Altarejos.
His queer films were peppered with steamy scenes between two homosexuals but there were also social commentaries on the patriarchal setup and psychological complications, like father issues, conveyed in the whole visual experience.
More than Brocka, it was Ishmael Bernal, another National Artist for Film, who had the most influential viewpoints as an artist. Altarejos was only 19 years old when he worked with Bernal on TV. He would learn much from his fully politicized and artistically creative mentor, as shown in his aesthetics and political beliefs.
It was only lately that Altarejos openly expressed his progressive ideas in films and in personal activities. He joined protest rallies during the tumultuous, authoritarian regime of President Rodrigo Duterte on the University of the Philippines campus when lawmakers ratified the antiterror bill.
Today, with the return of the Marcoses to political power, Altarejos has become an outspoken leader of the movie industry, fighting against censorship and labor contracting and fighting for the promotion and higher pay of entertainment workers.
In his self-initiated event, “ALT-R-Heroes,” a celebration of his 15 years in filmmaking held at Mowelfund Theater two weeks ago, Altarejos remarked that he was among the protesters during the first State of the Nation Address of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Altarejos’ films demonstrate his political stance.
He discussed Japanese neo-imperialism in “Jino to Mari,” in which he juxtaposed an exploitative Japanese porn filmmaker with two Filipino sex workers who were forcibly directed to perform graphic sexual acts in public over the disgust of male and female actors.
In “Walang Kasarian ang Digmang Bayan (The People’s Revolution Knows no Gender),” he was forceful in his views on the oppression and marginalization of multiple sectors, such as the LGBTQIA+, workers and peasants, and the militarization of urban and rural areas contextualized in the state’s war on drugs.
In the film, the lead character, a filmmaker played by Oliver Aquino (also the protagonist in Altarejos’ Vivamax project, “Memories of a Love Story”), joins the armed rebels in the mountains after his personal struggle with his gayhood intersected with broken family relations.
“Whatever is happening in the present must be translated into a film,” Altarejos said, speaking in Filipino.
Shades of Brocka, from whom I had heard such a statement.
Boy Villasanta writes a column in the weekly OpinYon (http://opinyon.net). —Ed.