The past few weeks, eminent film director, producer and writer Eddie Romero has been in the hospital. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but there were other health issues involved. A blood clot formed in the right side of the brain and he fell into coma. The National Artist for film and broadcast arts died at nine in the evening on May 28, Tuesday, at the age of 88.
Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail F. Valte immediately issued a statement: “His work spanned generations; Mr. Romero influenced numerous filmmakers, both here and abroad, to tread the same path and to aspire for the same sweeping ambitions that he held dear. His accomplishments form the legacy that Mr. Romero has undoubtedly left Philippine and global cinema.”
The Romero family intended his wake to be at the Mount Carmel Shrine in New Manila, Quezon City, or at the Arlington Memorial Chapels on Araneta Avenue, Quezon City. The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), which administers the National Artist Awards together with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), is preparing a necrological service tentatively set for June 2, Sunday.
I don’t personally know Eddie Romero, and I’ve never worked with him, but I join the nation in mourning his death and feel bereft. National Artist for theater Daisy Avellana passed away on May 12 at the age of 96. Now, the county lost another great artist.
I saw Ganito Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? as a child. The film features the simple and naïve Kulas (Christopher de Leon) during the turn of the 20th century, going through the pivotal and tumultuous events in Philippine history such as the revolutions against the Spaniards and the Americans. I would be later reminded of it when I saw Robert Zemeckis’s award-winning Forrest Gump in 1994. Then I saw Kamakalawa (1981), Romero’s exploration of Philippine folklore set in pre-Hispanic times, and remember being amused but puzzled. I remembered the babaylans portrayed by gays.
When I was able to attend cultural events, I saw him intermittently, a grandfatherly figure with wide eyes and a ready smile, almost impish. I only got to have a brief chat with him when he signed the deed of donation, transferring the rights of his most acclaimed film Ganito Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? to the NCCA, on December 1, 2011, at the NCCA building. I learned that writing was his first and foremost passion.
“I have been writing since at an early age of seven or eight years old,” he said.
Born Edgar Sinco Romero in Durmaguete City, Negros Oriental, on July 7, 1924, Romero wanted to become a writer and published his first short story at the age of twelve. Writing came to him naturally, he said, explaining that one doesn’t have to push one’s self to write.
“If you do that, you cannot write. You have to go through a lot of learning. It must come naturally. Hindi mo na iisipin. I don’t know why I write. I’ve always written, since seven or eight years old, stories. I was not aware it was a vocation,” he said. “If it’s natural to you, you don't even know you're learning.”
Director Gerardo de Leon, who would later become National Artist for film, took notice of his writings and invited him to write for the movies, paving the way for Romero to work in the movie industry.
“He was married to the sister of my first childhood crush,” Romero revealed. “I told him I’m Visayan; I don't speak Tagalog. He said, no problem, I’m Tagalog. I said I write in English. He said, no problem.”
So Romero wrote and De Leon translated it to Tagalog, coming up with Ang Maestra, which was shown in 1941 and starred Rogelio dela Rosa.
“I still write in English, even now. Colloquial Filipino is hard if you don't know how to write and speak it,” Romero said and added that he spoke Cebuano but couldn’t write in it.
Romero’s transition from writer to director came when De Leon asked him to pitch for him for the movie Mameng, Iniibig Kita. He finished the film started by De Leon, who was busy with Tayug, Ang Bayang Api. Sampaguita Pictures liked it and gave him Kamay ng Diyos (1948) to direct.
After directing several movies, Romero began producing films starting with Buhay Alamang (1952). Then he began making films for the international market starting with The Day of the Trumpet (1957).
But his greatest film proved to be Ganito Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? I asked about it. “I don't even remember how it came about,” he said.
Romero was declared a National Artist in 2003, the highest recognition the country gives to its artists.
I asked if he had a favorite among his films. He answered: “I don't really have a favorite film. When they’re finished, they’re finished. Tapos na…I don’t say this is my masterpiece. That's for other people [to say].”
But Ganito Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? “is among the few of my films that I want to see preserved,” Romero declared.
Up to that time, Romero continued to write: “I still write. I can't help writing. Even though I want to stop, I don't know how.”
Do you consider yourself more of a writer than a filmmaker? I asked. “I don't know. I just do what I do,” he answered.
When asked about what he thought of today’s films and filmmakers, he said: “I still watch movies or TV series every day. Some are good; some are bad. But I don’t have trouble with young filmmakers right now. There are more good films now than before because there is more awareness of the medium. Dati-rati, it was better writing for Liwayway magazine”
He left a message for the young filmmakers: “Be true to yourself. Be you.”
The following year, I was smoking a cigarette outside the restaurant where a press conference just happened. I was startled to find Romero at the opposite side of the pillar. He had snuck out to have a cigarette. He smiled shyly as if a child caught red-handed. For minute, he was Kulas, who had gone through momentous events in Philippine history. But he himself made Philippine history. That was the last time I saw him.