GOMBURZA: The Inside Story

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(Published on pressone.ph, February 10, 2024)

Salamat po sa JesCom sa pagsusugal sa akin (Thank you to JesCom for taking a risk on me).” That was the opening line of Cedric Juan as he accepted the “Best Actor” award at the Metro Manila FilmFest’s Gabi ng Parangal. Cedric Juan played the lead role as Padre Jose Burgos in Jesuit Communications’ GOMBURZA, which ended up the most awarded film that night with seven prizes including Best Director and Best Actor. GOMBURZA would also spur animated discussion on Facebook and Instagram on various critical topics like nationalism, justice, or the value of history and historiography.  

Since hitting the theaters in December last year, many things have already been said about the film by movie critics, historians, academicians and blogging moviegoers. Let me add this piece. After all, it was Jesuit Communications, the media arm of the Jesuits in the Philippines, that produced the film. And let me lead off from our best actor’s word “sugal,” which means to gamble or to risk. And for Jesuit Communications, not only on account of the cast and crew, but on account of the whole film, it was all a risk, a gamble.

GOMBURZA was JesCom’s second foray into film-making. The first one was IGNACIO DE LOYOLA: Soldier, Sinner, Saint, which came out in 2016. Our objective then was simply to satisfy a very special need. Jesuit schools here and abroad had been complaining that for their orientation sessions for freshmen students, they were still showing an old biopic of Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits and patron of all our schools, which was in Spanish and in black-and-white.

The film was produced in the 50s and so an updated one was urgently needed. As G.K. Chesterton said, “anything worth doing is worth doing badly!” And so for this wothwhile cause, we embarked on our film project. The greatest challenge of course was funding. JesCom was really a small media organization. Before this P50-million enterprise, JesCom’s biggest project was a film-for-TV by the great Marilou Diaz-Abaya which only cost P5 million. IGNACIO was certainly a huge leap. But through the help of many Jesuit provinces and local benefactors, we pulled it off. Shot almost entirely in Spain, with English-speaking Spanish actors, the film looked and sounded like an international quality film. And it became a surprise hit.

It stayed in Philippine theaters for seven weeks (a feat in itself), was exhibited internationally (still going around Latin America today), and received awards and recognitions here and abroad. But most importantly it became a resource or reference material for our schools and universities. Surprisingly though it appealed not only to Jesuit circles but to a greater public, churched or unchurched. 

IGNACIO was definitely a winning bet. But it was for us a huge risk. The late Nick Cruz, SJ, warned me then about how financially dangerous film-making was. In fact, he shared that when he himself experimented on a film project, he had to borrow P2 million from a bank and secretly gave Ateneo de Manila campus as collateral for the loan. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go that way. But his story gave me sleepless night.

If IGNACIO was our gift to the Jesuits, GOMBURZA would be our offering to the Philippine Church. When we started the project in 2018 the Catholic Church at that time was preparing for the 2021 celebration of the Church’s 500 years of existence in the country. The film was to be our contribution to this milestone event. The political context then also gave further depth and meaning to our undertaking. President Rodrigo Duterte was very critical of the Catholic Church. He had cursed Pope Francis when the latter’s 2015 visit caused huge traffic in Manila. He also said that the Christian God was stupid for embracing suffering on the cross despite his power. Finally, he opined that there would be no reason to celebrate 2021 for the Catholic faith was merely accepted by the natives through the Spanish conquistador’s force and intimidation. The Church, he said, was an instrument of oppression and would soon become obsolete.

When we finally opted to make the film on GOMBURZA, it was to correct these ignorant and revisionist interpretations of this would-be intellectual. In fact, John Schumacher, who was the main source of our research for the film, asserts that in the martyrdom of GOMBURZA and in many other incidents, the Church proved its important role in the emergence of the Philippine nation. Or as a national artist would say, their execution became pivotal in the awakening or formation of a national consciousness. Jose Rizal would admit so in his dedication of his El Filibusterismo to the three martyred priests. The Katipuneros would make the acronym of their names the password of the KKK as a show of respect to the priests. GOMBURZA would then be the perfect story to defend and celebrate the important role of the Church in the life and history of the country. Its message of courage and nationalism would also be a shot in the arm for the populace who were now weary and tired of the political malaise that had befallen the country. 

But the road to the finished line was once again paved with risks and dangers, most primarily in the area of funding. There was also the Covid pandemic which delayed the completion of the film. But again, with only our faith in the cause we were fighting for, we soldiered on. And the gods as it were smiled at our brave efforts and brought us luck. The film was selected as an entry in the largest film festival in the country. It would end up the most awarded film in the festival. But more importantly, it would inspire reflections and conversations about nationalism, history, etc., on social media, inside classrooms and parishes, and even within the public or political sector. Buoyed by the accolades and praises, one media pundit wrote that there could be a renaissance in our film industry as evidenced by GOMBURZA.

But I remember a discussion with a media mogul before; he was so impressed with and inspired by the movie HENERAL LUNA, but admitted he could not produce such historical films because “walang pera diyan”. He would rather produce the formulaic ones (e.g., rom-com, horror) which have actually dumbed down the masses, like the so-called “bomba” films of the 70s which Marcos used to distract the populace from his abuses. Indeed, the phenomenal HENERAL LUNA was produced by a group of independent film makers and producers who faced the risk of losing money. No. No renaissance is in the offing for the Filipino film industry.

For at this point, it is still all about business and profit. And doing quality and relevant films such as historical movies or biopics of our heroes remains too risky for film producers. It is a heroic act in itself.


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