The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Jose Flores Lacaba: Poet and Screenwriter in Conflict

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By Benilda S. Santos

Jose Flores Lacaba, poet, freelance journalist, screenwriter, editor, translator, and professional lecturer on journalism and literature is a quintessential Filipino nationalist whose engagement in the humanities and the arts, as well as in film and in media, makes him one of our most important living writers and intellectuals.

Lacaba was born in Cagayan de Oro City in 1945 where his father’s work brought the family, but spent most of his youth in Pateros, his mother’s hometown where they finally settled. The eldest of six children, he attended school at Pasig Catholic College. A scholarship grant enabled him to enroll at the Ateneo de Manila University and work towards an A.B. in English Literature. However, three years were all he could allow himself to experience in an academic environment quite unlike the early postwar years, the ‘50s, and the ‘60s in Pateros, and even elsewhere in Manila and the suburbs. In junior year, he left the university. Perhaps, it was his way of coming into his own, his way of working as an artist who remains influential in his time.

Years later, it would be his unabashed cultivation of the historical and the political in his works that would keep him some distance away from certain representations of the “establishment,” as though the same distance were his creative space. And so, when down from the hill, and down to the world Lacaba did go in 1964, he embraced a life of prolific textual production in the fields of literature, creative writing, education, journalism, film, translation, and popular culture.

During martial law, from 1974 to 1976, Lacaba was a political prisoner at Camp Crame.

An accomplished poet and fellow at the Iowa International Writing Program (1979) and at the University of the Philippines Writers Workshop (1983), Lacaba has developed a unique style and literary persona that fuse traditional verse forms with contemporary images of life in the city. His poetry derives strength and inspiration from the street, a major stage for hope, enthusiasm, and protest in the political transformation from the repressive regime of the Marcos dictatorship to a truly democratic society.

Thus, many beginning poets consider Lacaba’s poetry a veritable workshop. His images of a changing reality continue to inspire them to abandon literary clichés, outdated rhetoric and pathos of the past, and return to the basic measures and forms of things around us as rich sources in the never-ending quest for true values. His poetry anthologies, Sa Daigdig ng Kontradiksiyon (1991), Sa Panahon ng Ligalig (1991), Mga Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran (1996), Edad Medya (2000), and Kung Baga sa Bigas: Mga Piling Tula (2005), include unforgettable renditions of lyric excellence for which he received the Gawad Balagtas for Poetry (1999) from the Writers’ Union of the Philippines, the Palanca Award (1983), and the National Book Award (2000). It is likewise a testament to the power of Lacaba’s word and craft, and the continuing relevance of his poems to be included in numerous textbooks and anthologies, read and analyzed year after year, and praised as fine examples of how poetry can be conscripted in writing the nation while at the same time preserving the freshness of the quotidian.

Following the spirit of coming down from the hill, Lacaba takes up the task of engaging even a wider audience—no less than the masa, this time—through the art of writing screenplays. Once again, his genius shines at home and abroad. He has worked with the country’s best directors including Lino Brocka, Mike de Leon, Elwood Perez, and Amable Aguiluz III. For writing filmic narratives that depict our resistance to the social, economic, political, and moral wreckage brought on by a colonial past, a debilitating dictatorship, and an alienated cultural elite, Lacaba received best screenplay Urian citations for “Segurista” (1997), “Sister Stella L.” (1984), and “Jaguar” (1980) from the Urian Award; for “Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (1985) from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, Star Awards, and the Film Academy of the Philippines; and for “Rizal sa Dapitan” (1997) from the Manila Film Festival, Star, and Famas.

Through the years, Lacaba earned the recognition of international film groups. The films for which he had written screenplays were shown in exhibitions at the Toronto Film Festival (1995, 1996, 1997), Hong Kong Film Festival (1996), Cannes Film Festival (1980, 1984, 1989), Venice International Film Festival (1984), and Nantes Film Festival (1983). In 1989, he was the official Philippine delegate to the Moscow Film Festival, a mentor at the Plume et Pelicule screenwriting workshop in Sierre, Switzerland in 2005, and a member of the jury at the Fribourg International Film Festival in 2006. In appreciation of his excellence in screenplay writing, Lacaba was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 at the 10th Cinemanila International Film Festival, barely three months after he was given the Aruna Vasudev Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing on and for Cinema at the 10th Osian’s-Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema in New Delhi, India, alongside Indian director Mrinal Sen.

In between his poems and screenplays, Lacaba continued to work on scripts for short films, documentaries, and teleplays.

Lacaba won four Urian Awards from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino for Best Screenplay (Segurista, 1997; Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim, 1985; Sister Stella L., 1984; Jaguar, 1980).

Lacaba is married to writer Marra PL. Lanot; they have a son, Kris, born Nov. 15, 1971.