The People’s National Artist: For Aunor and for art

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A screenshot from the film HINULID (The Sorrows of Sita) Nora Aunor’s first film in the Bikol-Rinconada language, her mother tongue. The film was produced in 2016 with a great support from Bikolanos and her avid fans from different parts of the country and abroad. Photo courtesy of Kristian Cordero


I have to admit, and quite sadly, that I was no fan of either television or film during my years as a child. Back then I was raised mainly on the reading of paperback novels.

This goes without saying that I am more familiar, as a young teenager,with the plot twists found in Edgardo M. Reyes’ “Sa Kuko ng Liwanag” and Amado V. Hernandez’ Luha ng Buwaya than any of the films, local or otherwise, shown during the late ‘70s till the late-‘80s.

I was somewhere in my mid-forties when I started watching and appreciating local films, mainly those belonging to the Filipino horror genre and historical drama like Baler, which starred Anne Curtis and Jerico Rosales. Heneral Luna, too, and José Rizal played by Cesar Montano.

All I can recall of movie actress Nora Aunor (Nora Cabaltera Villamayor in real life) consisted of vague memories of her singing sixties hit songs together with actor and fellow singer Tirso Cruz III.

I saw these noontime shows using a small black-and-white Hitachi TV which my family owned back in the day. If anything, the movies which had struck me as mainstay Filipino stories involved reruns of 1960s classics like Susan Roces’ Dance-O-Rama and Gloria Romero’s Dalagang Ilocana.

There was, however, one film by Nora Aunor that has left its imprint in me for the longest time: The Golden Voice.

The film starred Ms. Aunor and her leading man, Manny de Leon. While I can hardly recall what went on in the movie, the scene where Manny de Leon’s ghostly face appeared outside a window had left me fearing windows at night ever since.

Ms. Aunor’s rivalry with fellow actress Vilma Santos was another. The love teams Guy and Pip, and Vi and Bot, were pretty much household items in the early 1970s and 1980s.

Then, without so much as a whimper, Ms. Aunor disappeared from view. This left Vilma Santos hogging the limelight for years to come. Next thing I knew, Ms. Aunor’s name had been included in the roster of National Artists in 2014.

It was here when I began my research on La Aunor’s body of work. Prior to 2014, Ms. Aunor had already starred in more than 100 films, which includes classics such as Paru-Parong Itim (1973), Minsa’y Isang Gamo-Gamo (1976), Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (1976), Bulaklak sa City Jail (1984), Himala (1982), and her recent film in Bikol, Hinulid (2017).

Ms. Aunor’s name, however, was unceremoniously dropped from the list of nominees for National Artists during the administration of former Pres. Benigno Aquino III. They cited her arrest for possession of illegal drugs and paraphernalia at the Los Angeles International Airport in 2005.

Ms. Aunor’sname yet again suffered the disinterest of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte in the 2018 run for National Artists.

This, ergo, begs the question: Could the illegal drugs case have been the reason?

As of this writing, the reasons were unclear. National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) chair Virgilio S. Almario, who is also a National Artist, said that while the case may have been brought up, the final reason for the exclusion remains uncertain. In a newspaper interview, he said, “the Office of the President may have its own advisers in this matter.”

As was the first, the second exclusion triggered a mild uproar among netizens who may have looked forward to a pronouncement favoring La Aunor. Several had begun to question the policies set by the NCCA and the Office of the President: Are the artist’s ‘morals’ important when declaring a nominee a National Artist?

Many in the creative community believe that what must be preeminent in the consideration is the artist’s body of work, its quality, and power to yield results—the results being significant developments in the realm of Philippine art and culture.

The National Commission on Culture and the Arts is clear about its policies: “The criteria for candidates to the National Artist Award is composed of at least five points with two already delineating the weight attached to the title — they should be (1) artists who have distinguished themselves by pioneering in a mode of creative expression or style, thus making an impact on succeeding generations of artists; and (2) artists who have created a substantial and significant body of works and/or consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form thus enriching artistic expression or style.”

Nothing in the criteria and qualifications mentioned speak of the artist’s private life, however plagued by personal weaknesses this may be.

One must first, in fact, consider its definition: A National Artist, according to the NCCA, “is a Filipino who has made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts in the fields of Music, Dance, Theater, Visual Arts, Literature, Film, and Architecture. He is someone who should have been awarded the highest national recognition for the arts: the National Artist Award. In Filipino, its proper name is the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ng Sining.”

Nora Aunor’s private life may have been plagued by numerous problems sufficient enough to make it highly controversial. This, however, doesn’t mean that it affected her performance as an artist.

The Philippines Graphic interview with the producer of Bikol-language film, Hinulid, Kristian Sendon Cordero, says as much:

“It has been our dream to work with Nora Aunor in a movie that seeks to advance the Bikol language,” he said. “She is aware of our advocacy and had supported our cause as one who is the daughter of the Bikol region. On this note alone, we have scored a major achievement in the development of movies done in the language.

“Nora Aunor is the kind of actor who makes no pretense to knowing everything. She asks questions, gives her advice, she listens. She makes sure to not act as the Superstar: always kind, courteous, affectionate. She absorbs her lines and scenes in ways that prove and solidify her artistry. Above all, she’s an intelligent actor, one who could summon her rich life experiences and bring these experiences into the silver screen.”

There’s no question as to Nora Aunor’s contribution in the realm of Philippine cinema. Her rich string of movies has tackled everything from the lighthearted musicals to the more demanding roles she played in Bulaklak sa City Jail, Himala and Hinulid.

This much is certain: La Aunor has distinguished herself by pioneering in a mode of creative expression or style that is truly her own, paving a way for other actors in her field to draw from her roles and from her discipline.

Ergo, if we were to strictly follow the NCCA’s criteria, this alone is sufficient for Nora Aunor to be called a National Artist.

For now, it’s enough to give her the title, The People’s National Artist. G





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