Marilou Diaz-Abaya: a tribute

When film and TV director Marilou Diaz-Abaya succumbed to breast cancer at 57 on Oct. 8, I remembered the strange conversation we had a couple of years back. She had just learned that her cancer had returned after a wonderful absence of more than a year. From out of the blue, she asked if I would speak at her funeral. “Of course,” I blithely said, thinking it was a joke. Sensing her seriousness, I quickly added: “You need not ask, Marilou, it is what the dearest of friends do for one another.” Last Friday, at the Ateneo College chapel where the wake was held, I finally delivered the eulogy that had been forming in my mind since her cancer advanced to stage 4. This is a shortened version of that tribute.

Marilou and I started working together in the TV talk show “Public Forum” in November 1986. The euphoria of Edsa I was then still in the air, and I had been conscripted to be the host and writer of a new public affairs program in one of the sequestered TV networks. Already an accomplished film director with a number of path-breaking movies under her name, Marilou was recruited not only to direct the show but also to hold my hand and teach me everything I needed to know about television.

We instantly became friends. She was 31, a movie director brimming with energy and confidence. I was 40, an angry long-haired academic who had spent a lot of time in the protest movement. Show biz was farthest from my mind. Our mission was to conceptualize a new program that would help realize the promise of democratization in the mass media. I took up the challenge on the understanding that the contract was for only one season. I knew that one season consisted only of 13 weekly episodes. Marilou scoffed at my lack of faith. As it turned out, that single season stretched into a fateful 14-year TV stint for me, a full decade of which was spent under Marilou’s tutelage.

Learning from our very first episode, in which we had as our main guest the then newly released NPA rebel leader Kumander Dante, we resolved to make a complete shift to Filipino, adopting it as the preferred medium of public discourse. That step proved decisive not only for our show but for public affairs television in general. From then on, every talk show had to be conducted only in Filipino if it was to gain any following.

Marilou was a perfectionist. She brought the complete grammar of filmmaking to bear upon public affairs television. And, by the sheer force of her example, she raised the quality of public affairs programs to new levels. She never lost sight of her main goal—to exploit the power of television in order to educate the popular mind.

Unknown to many, Marilou had a funny side that was as bizarre as it was sardonic. Together with the late writer Amado Lacuesta and the actor Jaime Fabregas, she created the only intelligent political satire ever to endure on local TV.  Week after week, for more than five years, “Sic o’clock News” caricatured the hilarious antics and inflated rhetoric of the nation’s political leaders, in a manner so funny and high-minded at the same time that one would have to be so pikon to sue for libel or defamation.

Marilou devoted so much of her time to TV that I felt she was deliberately avoiding the movies. I thought it was not fair that her vast talent was not being fully tapped, even as she appeared to enjoy the extra time this gave her to be with her own family. Finally, around 1992, it was time for her to return to filmmaking. One after the other, exquisitely crafted movies poured out of her inexhaustible well of talent, a torrent of classics big and small—such as the existential “Milagros” written by Rolando Tinio, the sublime “Sa Pusod ng Dagat” of Jun Lana, the visually powerful “Muro Ami” and the charming “Noon at Ngayon,” both by Ricky Lee.  The biggest of them all was the film “Jose Rizal,” featuring Cesar Montano in the title role, a masterpiece that was exhibited in time for the centennial of the nation’s independence.

But Marilou’s filmic sensibility was constantly evolving. In 2001, while preparing to shoot “Bagong Buwan,” a movie about the conflict in Mindanao, she immersed herself in the culture and history of the region, and the religion of Islam. Not surprisingly, this prodded her to deepen her understanding of her own faith. All her final films showed the imprint of this life-defining journey. The turn to Christian hermeneutics came in the course of her work with “Men of Light,” a religious program for television that tackled the gospel’s relevance to daily life. Here she worked with my younger brother, Bishop Ambo David, who became her mentor in theology.

Some people turn to philosophy in order to learn how to die. Marilou turned to Ignatian spirituality for guidance on how to face death with courage and dignity. One of these Ignatian lessons, Spiritual Exercise #23, which she posted on her website, says: “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a more loving response to our life forever with God. Our only desire and choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.” This holy indifference sums up Marilou’s approach to dying.

How do you deal with the pain? I asked her at our last meal together, hoping to be instructed for the last time by this amazing woman. Like the compassionate prayer warrior she had become, she replied: “By praying for the sick and the needy.” Apart from being gifted with immense talent and intelligence, Marilou was also the kindest and most generous human being I have known. That is how I remember her.

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