Joel Lamangan was in no mood to celebrate his birthday on Friday, September 21. He was also neither keen to reveal his age nor dwell on the irony of turning a year older on the same day as the 40th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law.
“It’s a working day for me,” the director said matter-of-factly between takes on the set of the TV5 fantasy drama “Enchanted Garden”.
The set, a warehouse in Cainta, was a flurry of activity as staff and crew fussed over the next scene to be shot while he gave a brief interview to InterAksyon.
What passed for Lamangan’s birthday celebration was a mere 30-minute break, after which everyone hunkered back to work. After the interview, InterAksyon would learn from a colleague of the director that he had set his birthday party for Saturday, September 22.
Nevertheless, Lamangan recognized the importance of September 21, especially this September 21, to many people who, like him, consider the Martial Law period as Philippine history’s own Holocaust.
“It’s an ordinary day for me except that it is a commemoration of Martial Law. It is a commemoration of the dark days in our lives. It is a commemoration of the death of so many young people during that time who fought for democracy, who fought for our freedom now, but they are now forgotten,” he intoned.
Before martial rule, Lamangan was already an active Kabataang Makabayan member in his native Cavite. He was incarcerated twice, in 1973 and 1977, and suffered torture during the two years he spent in jail in Bicutan.
He joined the Philippine Educational Theater Association in the late ’70s and there honed his talents as actor, writer and director while working with the likes of Lino Brocka and Mario O’Hara.
After writing scripts for television and working as an assistant director for Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, Lamangan got his break as a movie director in 1991 when he directed Nanette Medved in “Darna”. He quickly established himself as a proficient and prolific helmer of box-office hits.
Soon, he started to infuse his work with social realism, becoming the only mainstream filmmaker able to consistently tackle political themes in movies like “The Flor Contemplacion Story”, “Bakit May Kahapon Pa?” “The Sarah Balabagan Story”, and “Deathrow”.
“I keep on practicing what I believe in,” he declared. “I keep practicing what I’ve been trained to do ever since I was young. My art form, which is theater and film, has something to be of service to the people.”
These days, while he continues to churn out commercial work in movies and TV, Lamangan the activist occasionally finds expression in independent cinema.
In 2010, he joined Cinemalaya with “Sigwa”, an earnest look at Martial Law activism and its consequences. Last year, he took on a more contemporary subject, that of enforced disappearances, in “Dukot”, dramatizing the obvious lesson that political repression has continued a generation after the downfall of the Marcos regime.
Which is why Lamangan continues to be vigilant 40 years after Marcos signed Presidential Decree 1081 – both as an artist and as a citizen.
“Nandoon pa rin ang threat. Hindi ka hihiwalay sa bayan kahit na ikaw ay isang artist. Bago ka maging artist, ikaw naman ay isa munang mamamayan. Sapagkat mamamayan ka , hindi lamang ang iyong kaligayahan bilang artist ang iyong tinitingnan kundi ang tititingnan mo ay ang kagandahan ng buhay ng buong bayan. Hindi lamang tungkol sa iyong sarili,” he concluded.