House of Horrors

(by Talitha Espiritu)

It has been 12 years since the tragedy that took place at the Manila Film Center on Nov. 17, 1981 at 2:35 am, when the top floors of the building caved in, burying 200 workers under the rubble of quick drying cement, wooden scaffolding and iron bars. The event has been shrouded in mystery, as reports of the collapse were quickly arrested by a news blackout, followed by a trickle of press fillers that minimized the death toll to seven killed. In the rush to complete Imelda’s film Pantheon, ambulances were not permitted access to the scene of the disaster until nine hours later. What horrors ensued in the belly of that mammoth building between the excruciating hours of the accident and the time when, barely a week later, more than 5000 laborers were called back to the job site, has yet to be publicly addressed.

What happened at the Manila Film Center is something that time has allowed us to take for granted as yet another horror story from the Marcos era. It was only last year, after the return of the old “madam”, that the political sector drummed up belated interest in the event, specifically in former Sen. Rene Saguisag’s bid to bring the human rights violations to court. But as that has fizzled out, one remaining sector raises its voice to challenge the buried issues-the artistic sector. Does this surprise you?

Anyone comfortable in the gallery-based art establishment will probably cringe at the thought of artists exposing the tragedy of the Manila Film Center in the realm of the Mall, or the independent gallery for that matter. It is difficult to market a public tragedy, even as fine art. But in the conceptual mode of installation art where nothing is for sale, artists need not worry about trivializing an important issue. And the viewer doesn’t have to buy it. What matters is that a statement is being made.

Artist Alwin Reamillo and Juliet Lea have created a site-specific installation, on the main floor of the now condemned Manila Film Center. The installation project is aptly called “Black Hole”, a working metaphor for the physical violence of the collapse of the building, and the information black-out that deceptively masked its power. Like a black hole in time and space, the Manila Film Center is now stricken of life, a place where no positive energy can come from. But it is a place where the horrors of Nov. 17, 1981 remain trapped like unreleased energy, the energy of decay and collapse.

As Reamillo put it in his proposal: ‘We [are] investigating and deconstructing recent constructed history, showing the disaster for what it is… We [are] promoting an interest in art practice that is non-commercial and does not rely on the gallery market-place system. Installation is the most encompassing of art practices and so has the ability to communicate more deeply as it uses actual multi-sensoral space and time (finite and infinite)…”

Using objects found in the padlocked film center, Reamillo and Lea completed the project in May. But like history repeating itself, there were no press releases in the newspapers to signal the event. It seems that Imelda Marcos’ hold on the CCP establishment is still strong, or at least that it wishes to put the embarrassment of the past to rest. But as one insider commented, “ Buti nga at pinayagan sila na gamitin ang building.”

It has been months since the project was first opened to the public. In that time, a change of security guards at the site has seen to it that the installation is kept as close to its original state as possible. One would now need special permission from the CCP office to be able to see the installation piece.

As one drives up to the Manila Film Center in broad daylight, the sheer magnitude of its size registers as a shock to the unwary viewer. Indeed, it is exactly the way Imelda Marcos envisioned it: a stylized Parthenon six storeys high, sitting atop a man-made hill of concrete steps. The looming edifice is half-hidden by a ring of buildings like the Philippine Plaza Hotel, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Coconut Palace, the Philippine International Convention Center, the Folk Arts Theater, the GSIS building and the Star Complex-buildings that seem to jump with life and energy. The Manila Film Center is bizarrely isolated from all this energy, as though it were trapped in a bubble of twilight shadows.

Perhaps it is because the Manila Film Center is now nothing more than a warehouse. Since its theater operations ceased in 1986 due to lack of funds, the building served as passport office of the Department of Foreign Affairs. However, after the 1990 earthquake, the building has been evacuated, and has since been used a dumping ground for old carpets and obsolete office equipment.

When one enters the maze created by Alwin Reamillo and Juliet Lea, all six senses pick up the real-life sensations of a dead space. It is virtually impossible to view the installation with the kind of detachment one would have in the neutral spaces of galleries and museums. One senses danger.

The peculiar smell of unused buildings, a mixture of damp carpets and old newspapers, follow the viewer through the twists and turns of the building. The hallways are dimly lit, and the viewer needs an emergency lamp to see properly. The ceramic-tiled floor is cracked in places, and the sound of water dripping from the ceiling into puddles on the floor cautions the visitor to watch his step.

This atmosphere of decay and precarious tensions is not the result of artificially controlled environment. When the building was completed in 1981, its architect Froilan Hong reported at least 338 construction defects and deficiencies. That is why 12 years later, in Reamillo and Lea’s installation project, the visitor sees corridors that lead nowhere, impossibly low ceilings, and “missing” staircases- a little like that famous haunted house, the Manchester house in America.

Indeed, experiencing the installation is like walking through a horror tunnel in a carnival, except that the horrors are real, not imaginary. The objects that confront the viewer are workaday artifacts: megaphones, bottles of coke, clocks, office calculators, fire extinguishers. It is precisely in the way the artists have organized these objects in charged images that one is scared to death by them.

Marquee letters are scattered in the dusty stage of the main theater, some standing, some lying down. Coke bottles dripped with candle wax create a ring around the stage. The metallic letters and the coke bottles are disconcerting, as if a senseless force has moved them to spell out a kind of visual code like a child’s knowing gibberish.

In the narrow side entrance of the theater, a cluster of black megaphones look like a huge mass of suction cups, like the organic forms in animal tentacles. Without sending any sounds, a person can ‘hear’ them as they were in full blast. Their physical presence and the manner in which they crowd the narrow entranceway form a visual language that seems to shout out warnings and angry protests.

Lining one wall, a set of clocks are evenly spaced from each other. However, they are hung close to the ground, barely touching the floor. The clocks have all stopped at 2:35, the exact time of the accident.

Scattered on the floor like rodents, fire extinguishers are painted over in gray, making them a little nondescript. Stencilled on the tubular contraptions are word like “Snake Sisters”, “Pepsi”, “Coke”, “Sarsi”, “IMF” and “Imelda” among others. Again, the words form a visual language, alluding to the manner in which Rene Magritte made words and images interchangeable.

Office equipment like accountant’s calculators and mechanical typewriters have been stripped of their plastic casings, exposing metallic sinews and wire nerves. Artificial antennae are attached to the machines so that they resemble cockroaches. They are attached at precarious angles to the walls.

The installation project seems to explode where a giant image of Imelda Marcos is plastered on a wall, as though it were imprinted by the light from a slide projector. Upon closer inspection, it is really cement that has been dabbed onto the walls that form her picture. In a wall close by, excerpts from interviews made by Philippine Daily Inquirer writer Jerry Esplanada with a few survivors are painted with in a bloody red scrawl. The witness accounts were interspersed with quotable quotes from Madam:

“Imelda: regrettable

Survivor: Di nagtagal at lumagatok nang malakas at biglang bumagsak ang kinatatayuan naming. Biglang nag-blackout. Maraming nahulog kasabay ng kahoy, bakal at semento.

Imelda: Initial investigation showed that the building was structurally sound.

Survivor: Bumagsak! Bumagsak! Mandidiri ka! Tambak ang mga patay, patong-patong. Pag tinutusok ng jack hammer ang semento pumipilandit, tumitilapon ang dugo. Tapos binuhusan na lang nila ng gasoline, binuldoser papuntang dagat na parang basura. Hinding-hindi ko malilimutan lahat yun.

Imelda: It came to me in a mystical vision

Survivor: Mahirap na lang magsalita. Pero hindi ko puedeng banggain ang contractor dahil malakas sa taas. Putang ina nilang lahat.

Imelda: Truly pornography is all in the mind and the heart… it would contribute to the artistic maturity of the Filipino audience.”

Remember Nov.17, 1981, the day the top floor collapsed in the Manila Film Center, the day medical assistance was denied access to the site as jackhammers supposedly broke down. Remember that the bodies of the dead were neither recovered nor accounted for, but from the witness report of one survivor, 200 people were said to have been killed. Remember that even a next shift of workers sleeping several floors below were crushed in their sleep. Remember that three days after the accident, orders were given to slice in half those caught unconscious in already dry cement. Remember that probe findings into the disaster were kept secret for 11 years.

At the cost of P200 million and 200 lives, the film center is now best remembered for the pornographic films that the establishment showed to appease a restless public. “Scorpio Nights”, ‘Snake Sisters”, and “Hubo” were among the movies shown, making Imelda’s Parthenon the world’s most expensive pornography theater in history. It is hoped that what Alwin Reamillo and Juliet Lea have done in the Manila Film Center will raise our consciousness of Imelda Marcos’ vanity.

Published in Sunday Chronicle, 14 November 1993