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Manila, 30 September 1938
Quezon City, 2 June 1996
Movie, stage and television director; actor, scriptwriter
He is the son of Elena Bernal and Pacifico Ledesma. He studied at Burgos Elementary School, Mapa High School and at the University of the Philippines where he finished his Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1962. After graduation he worked with Lamberto Avellana's documentary outfit before proceeding to France where he earned his Licentiate in French Literature and Philosophy at the University of Aix-en-Prevence. He got his Diplomate in Film Directing in 1970 at the Film Insititue of India in Poona under the Colombo plan scholarhip. An active paritcipant in the struggle for artist's rights and welfare, Bernal was also a board member of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines and the Directors Guild of the Philippines, Inc. Until his demise, he remained part of DGPI, an organization that studies the role of film as an instrument of entertainment, education and development.
Ishmael Bernal is one person who truly loved the arts. He nurtured his passion for literature and theater by actively participating in the U.P. Dramatic Club while finishing a college degree. He is also an avid fan of classical music and the operas. During the 60s, Bernal put up When It's A Grey November In Your Soul, in Malate which became one of the favorite watering holes of Manila's artists and intellectuals. Unfazed by its short live-success, Bernal put up Kasalo in Quezon City three decades later, which became the hang-out of students, journalists, poets, bands, theater and film artists.
He directed and wrote his first film, Pagdating Sa Dulo (At The Top), in 1971. In this film we catch a glimpse into what Ishmael Bernal's ouvre would prefigure for the industry: it is a scene showing an aspiring actress (played by the late Rita Gomez) pondering on dreams blooming in deserts of desolation and dying out in a mirage that painfully conjures images of squatter colonies and sordid lives. The bold star stares out into the landscape and scans it, with the camera acting as her surrogate, but finally framing her against the embarrassingly majestic Cultural Center. The scene captures it all: the decadence of the Martial Law regime, along with its perverse aspirations to art, has doomed the destinies of Filipinos.
From that time on, Bernal has established himself as an innovative and intelligent filmmaker who would not be content with conventional formulas of local film making. Under his name is a broad range of film genres and themes: historical dramas like El Vibora (The Viper), and the Bonifacio episode in the unreleased Lahing Pilipino (The Filipino Race); sophisticated comedies like Tisoy (Mestizo), Pabling (Playboy), Working Girls I and Working Girls II; experimental films like Nunal Sa Tubig (Speck In The Water) and Himala (Miracle); and contemporary dramas exploring human psyches and social relationships, such as Ligaw Na Bulaklak (Wildflower), Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko (Your Husband, My Lover), Ikaw Ay Akin (You Are Mine), Relasyon (The Affair), Aliw (Pleasure) and the film classic City After Dark. His sturdy filmography is mainly clustered around the themes and problems that inevitably encrust the "social" as the core of personal malaise.
Bernal considers himself a feminist director and admits that it is part of his interest to tackle issues affecting women. A large chunk of his work are stories about women and for women: Relasyon, Hinugot Sa Langit, Working Girls, to name a few. Before Bernal died, he was suppose to meg the life story of Lola Rosa Henson, the comfort woman.
Aside from film, Bernal also directed television shows like the long-time drama series Ang Makulay Na Daigdig Ni Nora for which he was named Outstanding Director in a Drama Series by the Patas Awards in 1979; Metro Magazine, Isip Pinoy, Dear Teacher and episodes for PETABISYON and Lorna. As an actor, he played lead roles in stage plays like Kamatayan Sa Isang Anyo Ng Rosas (Death In The Form Of A Rose), 1991 and Bacchae, 1992.
Bernal is a tireless and commited educator. He taught film direction to film students of the University of the Philippines and Polytechnic University of the Philippines. He has conducted film and theater workshops and directed plays for school-based theater groups. He has also collaborated with artists from different regions through BUGKOS, the national coordinating center for people's art and literature. A real art crusader, he supported and co-facilitated workshops and critic sessions for aspiring writers until his last days.
He won the Urian for best director four times for Dalawang Pugad, Isang Ibon (Two Nests, One Bird), 1977; Broken Marriage, 1983; Hinugot Sa Langit (Wrenched From Heaven), 1985; and Pahiram Ng Isang Umaga (Lend Me One Morning), 1989; and the best screenplay for City After Dark, 1980. His film Pagdating Sa Dulo, won for him the FAMAS for best screenplay award while Himala (Miracle), 1981, garnered nine major awards in the Metro Manila Film Festival. In that same year, Bernal was chosen by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino as the Most Outstanding Filmmaker of the Decade 1971-1980. Among the 10 best films chosen by the critics, five were his. These include Pagdating Sa Dulo, Nunal Sa Tubig, Manila By Night, Himala and Hinugot Sa Langit. He was also hailed as Director of the Decade by the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA).
Bernal also won the CMMA Best Director Award (1983), the bronze Hugo Award in the Chicago International Film Festival (1983) for the movie Himala. The Cultural Center of the Philippines presented him the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining for film in 1990. In 1993, he received the ASEAN Cultural Award in Communication ARts in Brunei Darrussalam.
Bernal, the daring artist, bohemian, and activist, undermined the established canons of the Philippine popular movies from within, created a void, and then filled it with cinematic excess, a hysteria tha was illuminating and iridescent.
(Brocka-Bernal: Alaala ng mga Artista ng Bayan, December 1996)
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