I can’t exactly pinpoint when and where I first met Rodolfo “Jun” Sabayton Jr. He’s such a familiar face to many Filipinos that the very sight of him muddles all barriers of time and geography.
I vividly recall having a couple of beers with my man of the hour one cold drenched night at the Alamat Bar along Makati City’s Poblacion District last year. The gang was all there—award-winning writer and head of the UST Literature and Humanities Department Joselito “Jowie” Delos Reyes, Philippine Daily Inquirer assistant sports editor Francis “TJ” Ochoa, former Rogue magazine assistant editor Paolo Enrico “Eric” Melendez and me.
Prior to this meeting, I’ve watched Jun Sabayton, fondly called “Bayaw” by those closest to him, work side by side with another famous television figure and writer, Lourd de Veyra. De Veyra is best known as the vocalist of the Manila-based jazz-rock band Radioactive Sago Project, as award-winning poet, and as journalist for TV5.
It was in Kontrabando, a comedy news program featuring other actor-comedians like Ramon Bautista and RA Rivera, and Word of the Lourd, where I first saw Bayaw and Lourd de Veyra take potshots at controversial issues with the tongue in cheek irreverence of experienced satirists.
After seeing these programs, I was hooked. I knew Lourd from way back. I met him during a lecture stint at the University of Santo Tomas which I would rather personally forget (for very personal reasons, and not because of Lourd). Book launches, writers’ gatherings, and several whiskey-tasting hours saw us writers enjoying a drink or two.
My introduction to Jun Sabayton, I guess, began at a lecture stint in Lucban, Quezon, at a national high school there. During his talk, I was introduced to the funny, outrageous film clips which, during the Spanish era, would probably have earned Jun a long stay in a Fort Santiago dungeon.
Researching about Bayaw is easy; he’s all over the internet. Type his name in Google images and the algorithms would easily mistake him for Juan Luna and Marcelo H. del Pilar. Come to think of it, he does possess a stunning resemblance to these Philippine heroes.
Jun, in the main, is the film industry’s Jack of all trades, having broken his back doing work as filmmaker, director, cameraman, video documentarist, production designer, sound man, technical assistant, co-host and actor.
He’s a Mowelfund Film Institute alumnus whose 2005 stint as production designer for Lav Diaz’s Ebolusyon won him the Gawad Urian’s Best Production Designer prize (Spot.ph’s “One the Spot: Jun Sabayton”, July 2011).
Let’s not forget, of course, that among his thousand-and-one feats of daring is his crush on actress Maja Salvador, his wish of filming a tragic love story with the actress—complete with a teeny bopper twist—and his desire to follow the footsteps of his idol, Ronnie Lazaro.
In an interview with Esquire Philippines, Jun makes plain that his introduction to the world of punk ushered him into the more tumultuous world of the arts. “Malaking bagay yung punk culture kung bakit ako napunta sa arts. Kung pakinggan mo yung music sa punk, merong sinasabi. Yung iba galit, yung iba napaka-philosophical” (Kara Ortiga, “Jun Sabayton,” Esquire Phils., May 2017).
And so, at the start of this year, I found myself yet again in the presence of this man of many talents, back in Lucban, Quezon. It was the annual Regional Higher Education Press Conference (RHEPC) at the Batis Aramin Resort. Jun was to deliver the keynote speech on filmmaking to a roomful of campus journalists from a little over 25 universities and colleges.
Interviewing him meant that I should have a modest backdrop of the industry to which he belongs. This posed a problem, because as far as film is concerned, I knew little, if at all, about the industry.
Add to this an even greater problem: comedy and satire are terrains of writing I am only beginning to discover as an editor and writer for this magazine. This makes my approach rather difficult, to begin with, more so where humor in film and modern-day video blogging are involved.
While I’m a fan of the horror genre in film, comedy and satire are the least interesting film genres in the bag of things with which I occupy my time and space. Childhood memories of slapstick and knockabout humor pushed me away from watching films starring Dolphy, Panchito and Babalu.
But satire, well, that is another thing altogether in the world of literature. Like the daring burlesque, satire forms part of my reading regimen, particularly the works of Woody Allen and David Sedaris.
Very few locals can wield satire with punch, no more than those I’ve already mentioned in this article. Filipino culture, for some reason, keeps itself at arm’s length from the nuances intrinsic in satirical art. “Fray Botod” by Graciano López Jaena was quite the exception.
My chance to interview Jun arrived with my first question: “So, this penchant for making films came when you were still very young?”
Before I quote Bayaw’s answer, allow me to give a bit of a backdrop to his condition: He appeared to have slept very little for days. That night I switched on my digital recorder in front of him, he was tipsy from lack of sleep, nearly on the verge of fainting, like one sloshed with chilled lambanog.
He tried, as best he could under the circumstances, to stop his eyes from rolling into the backwaters of a needed siesta. I figured he needed more than 40 winks to keep this interview from falling into the crevices.
“I first got involved in the making of video and satire with friends, mostly people I know,” he said, nearly sliding off his seat. “I’m not really used to making something for a huge audience. First we did on-the-spot interviews, documentations, etc. I believe we ended up in this industry because many of our classmates began working for media outfits like GMA7. That’s how we did it at first. I was around 19 back then, nineteen-dihan niyo na po iyon.”
Jun made it clear, though, that in the beginning he tried avoiding film as a student taking up AB Psychology back in Cebu. After arriving in Manila, he went to the Don Bosco Youth Center and began producing and attending workshops on radio plays, theater, television and broadcast journalism.
His “first break,” however, didn’t arrive with his entry as a television personality on TV5. “Back then, as a student, we already enjoyed a cult following. Young folks started patronizing our art and productions early on. This was the late 1990s. If you’re the type who loves to read, write poetry, [watch] theater plays, or any form of art, back in the day when there was no internet, you have to go out of your way to discover who, or what, is on board. Of course, the bigger break arrived at TV5 and videos we did for Radioactive Sago. Of course, there was also my entry into the news and media. For film, when we lacked actors, I made sure to do it myself.”
He spoke about “searching for your kind” in the world of the arts as a means to find the place where you belong—both underground and in the mainstream. Curious, I asked if joining a group or searching out a group that shares the same interests and which would support the artist’s art, is important to achieving success.
“It never really entered my mind,” Jun said. “I simply loved what I was doing. I was hardly aware that I was already in the same ocean as those whom I have idolized through the years. It’s like arriving at that place without me actually journeying to get there. Hindi sinadsadya. It was unconscious. Sakin, just do what you love doing. My mother kept on telling me that life is short, and maybe, at the back of my mind, I took her words seriously. I was fortunate to have my mother, also my days at Don Bosco where I was supported by the community.”
His experience in Manila eventually shaped his art, as well as his idea of satire and humor.
“When I arrived in Tondo from Cebu, instead of feeling lonely, I felt there was more reason to laugh at life. You know, you step out the door and end up stepping on a pile of shit. ‘Bakit may tae dito?’ I blurted out. If you really think about it, the Philippines is funny in more ways than one can imagine. At the same time, it’s also sad. I was just fortunate, I guess, because my experiences taught me the funny side of life.”
I have always wondered, from the first time I saw Jun Sabayton on television, if the boob-tube version “Bayaw” was really just a part of his acting. Are there any distinguishing characteristics that separate Bayaw from Jun Sabayton? Or did he merge reality and the imagination to form what people know now as Bayaw?
“I have asked the same question,” he said, drowsily while laughing, nearly succumbing to the clarion call of sleep. “That’s a hard question to answer. Bayaw is not different from anyone in this room, I guess. We’re all Bayaw in some form or another. He is, for the most part, a reflection of every Filipino. I think of him more as the modern-day Juan de la Cruz.
“Bayaw can even be that guy bathing in the streets of Manila in boxer shorts. Bayaw could also be the alternative image of the Filipino, over and against the one portrayed as stupid by mainstream film and media.
“The Filipino is not stupid, na pwedeng batuk-batukan mo lang. Ang paniwala ko ay ang Filipino ay nagiisip, madalas nga lang hindi nabibigyan ng chance. Magaling mag-chess, magaling kumanta. We’re a talented people. That’s probably why many misinterpret what it is like to be Filipino, and maybe Bayaw is being given the chance today to change that warped idea of who and what we really are.”
There’s a serious side to Bayaw’s humor that, perhaps, most people fail to see, and it is this: an attempt to change a warped perception of who the Filipino actually is. That, for me, is defiance of the greatest daring, a slice of a revolution couched in satire and humor, the kind one doesn’t easily forget.
As for Rodolfo Sabayton Jr., the work is far from over. It has just begun. Ambling through the streets of Manila while bearing a striking resemblance to Juan Luna, the hero and artist, you know we have yet to see the final touches to the Spoliarium. G