Ricky Lee: Tale of a motherless child
Many things about Ricky Lee’s life are worth rewinding. As he turns 76 this March 19, he has obviously come to terms with what life has given him.
His life’s chapters look like scenes from a teleserye or at best, from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
The National Artist for Film and Broadcast was a motherless child at age five.
He remembers his mother as a very frail woman. Stories from his childhood had it that a witch never stopped haunting her until she died at age 23.
He ended up with close relatives and never got to be with his father who died when he was in Grade 5.
Looking back, Ricky Lee admitted he felt lost when he became an orphan.
For comfort or relief, he turned to books and read voraciously.
It was also his last refuge. “I read everything—Russian masters, English authors and of course Filipino authors from Nick Joaquin to Kerima Polotan.”
It never occurred to him his works would become part of Philippine literature.
What to him was an unlikely fate was writing screenplays.
LITERATURE & CINEMA
He observed life from its periphery.
His writings covered literature and cinema.
Among his published books are Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon (an anthology of his fiction, reportage, behind-the-scene musings, and the full screenplay of Himala), Pitik-Bulag Sa Buwan Ng Pebrero, Brutal/Salome (the first book of screenplays in the Philippines), Moral, Para Kay B and Bukas May Pangarap. His screenplay for Salome has been translated into English and published by the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the U.S. as a part of its textbook in film studies.
He has also published a screenplay manual, Trip to Quiapo which is now a required text in many college communications courses.
In November 2008, he wrote his first novel entitled Para kay B (o kung paano dinevastate ng pag-ibig ang 4 out of 5 sa atin). Three years later, he wrote Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata.
He is actually grateful for reaching the ripe old age of 76. “I really feel as if I have lived life three times over with all the good things and the bad ones I went through. I can’t ask for more. Nothing has really changed. I am still working as hard as I could for more output and thus be of use to myself and also to be of help to others.”
True, there is no way you cannot connect with newly named National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts.
His films (Himala, Moral, Jose Rizal, Jaguar, Sa Kuko ng Agila, The Flor Contemplacion Story and many others) were watched by millions.
He has fathered hundreds of film workshops that gave birth to a new generation of filmmakers and screenwriters.
On top of that, he has written short stories and novels.
He is a keeper of countless awards and life achievement citations.
A closer look at his own life story is even more remarkable.
by Jason Tan Liwag (24 Jan 2022)
Ricky Lee: Life Beyond the Screenplay
There is no corner in Philippine cinema, television, and literature that remains untouched and unshaped by Ricky Lee. You may think this is an exaggeration, but it is true. With nearly five decades in the film industry, Lee has created over 180 scripts, several best-selling Filipino books, and the screenwriting manual called “Trip to Quiapo” that is used in introductory film courses all over the country. With more than 70 awards for his writing, Lee has worked with luminaries in Filipino cinema such as Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Gil Portes, Laurice Guillen, and Mike De Leon, among others, and their collaborations have been screened in some of the most prestigious film festivals around the world—Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, and Cairo, just to name a few.
But it wasn’t always this way. Born Ricardo Lee on March 19, 1947 at Daet, Camarines Norte, Lee had been placed in the care of his relatives following the death of his parents. In an interview with professor and television host Boy Abunda for ABS-CBN’s Inside the Cinema, Lee described himself as an extremely shy child who struggled to connect to his peers and instead submerged himself in literature and cinema. At the public library, he ripped pages from books he liked and compiled them into a superbook of his own at home and, unable to afford going to cinemas, Lee watched films from fire escapes or listened to the dialogue from outside the theater, imagining the scenarios himself. These interests enriched his imagination and eventually brought him to writing and in senior year of high school, he sold his first story, “Mayon”—which reimagined the birth of the iconic volcano as a love story—to the Philippine Free Press. Realizing he could earn from storytelling, Lee wrote as a means to escape and used the money to run away from Bicol to Manila, beginning his first trip to Quiapo.
Over the next few years, Lee took odd jobs as a waiter, an accounting clerk, a tutor for English and math to make ends meet and continued to write his short stories, eventually garnering him two consecutive Palanca Awards—one of the highest literary awards in the Philippines. Despite writing predominantly in Filipino, Lee took up AB English at the University of the Philippines Diliman while juggling jobs as a copywriter for Philippine Free Press and eventual staff member for Asia-Philippines Leader Magazine. But just before he finished his degree, he was forced to go underground when student-activists began being persecuted under the Marcos regime.
With broadcast and print media subject to immense government censorship and control, cinema and fiction became the avenue through which Lee could make money as a writer. In 1973, he co-wrote his first screenplay: Armando Garces’ Dragnet, which follows an undercover police officer (Joseph Estrada) whose attempts to convince a murder witness (Tsing Tong Tsai) to testify is complicated by the witness’ Chinese citizenship. For fear of being tracked down, Lee requested that he remain uncredited. But despite all efforts at maintaining anonymity, Lee’s apartment in Manila was eventually raided and he was imprisoned in 1974, despite the lack of charges against him. After a year of torture, illness, and even a failed suicide attempt, Lee was released onto the streets nearing Christmas.
Though Lee co-wrote Mike De Leon’s first major feature film, Itim (The Rites of May, 1976), he chose to remain uncredited because he was still unsure about pursuing screenwriting as a profession and due to the desire to have his first credited film be political. In 1979, he was finally credited for two films: the first was Gil Portes’ Pabonggahan, a rock documentary centered on the lives of performers and artists who critiqued the Marcos regime, and the second was Lino Brocka’s Jaguar, a film noir which he co-wrote with Pete Lacaba based on Nick Joaquin’s essay on the 1960 Brown Derby Shooting. Jaguar competed for the Palme d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival and became Lee’s first win at the Gawad Urian Awards in the Philippines.
Lee’s experiences of isolation early on in his life and the struggles he faced during the Martial Law era had a profound impact on his subsequent career. His screenplays put a spotlight on those in the margins and challenged dominant social hierarchies, ideologies, and power dynamics; his complex relationship with structures and authority figures sublimated into his work. In an interview with Likha Collective PH, Lee explains how cinema opens doors towards a process of reclamation of humanity: “There is a story, there is a problem, because one’s right has been violated… A person is not considered complete, until stories are written to make them whole.”
This perspective on filmmaking was crystallized in the period between 1980–1983, when Lee partnered with some of Filipino cinema’s best and wrote five films that would be included in the pantheon of what is now considered the Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema: Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981), Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal (1980), Moral (1982), and Karnal (Of the Flesh, 1983), and Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Miracle, 1982), the latter of which became the country’s first competitive entry at the Berlin International Film Festival and whose restoration by the ABS-CBN Film Restoration Project subsequently premiered at the 69th Venice International Film Festival.
Lee attributes his openness and adaptability to his early exposure to a variety of excellent directors whose temperaments and creative processes he had to adjust to. These early experiences freed Lee from the pitfall of confining himself to only one narrative structure and gave way to experimentation. The horrors of Brutal and Salome unfold through a series of flashbacks, unconventional at the time, while Moral followed the decade-spanning friendship of four women without a plot or an inciting incident. At the core of each of Lee’s scripts are complex women, with Lee constantly striving to humanize them and their lives especially as their struggles concerned taboo topics in Philippine society such as murder, marital rape, same-sex relationships, and participation in the political underground, just to name a few
Lee’s most famous work is arguably his 1982 collaboration with Ishmael Bernal: Himala, an iconic film inspired by the stories of the alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Cabra Island, Occidental Mindoro during the 1966–72. The film had initially been rejected several times by different local producers and had only been produced after it won a script contest under the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, a government-owned production company established by the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, enabling Lee to choose Bernal as the director and Nora Aunor as the protagonist, Elsa. Centered on the lives of the villagers transformed by Elsa’s visions, Himala can be seen as a coming-of-age for an entire community and examines the corruptible power of structures such as religion, the stretches of martyrdom and fanaticism, and the limits of the humanity and faith, especially in the presence of conflicting desires and oppressive material conditions.
Whereas Lee’s writing was used as a means of escape in his early childhood, his experiences during Martial Law transformed it into a tool for confrontation with the harsh realities of life. Though Lee is aware that cinema can enable audiences to exercise a form of empathy, the clarity in the politics of Lee’s writing never does a disservice to the narrative. He received the Gawad Plaridel Award in 2015—an award given by the College of Mass Communication at the University of the Philippines Diliman to prime movers in mass media and arts. In the citation, Lee was honored “for bravely depicting in his films themes considered taboo or radical in Philippine cinema—such as the oppression of women in Brutal, Moral, and Karnal, the abuses of authoritarian leaders in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak, the exploitation of sex workers in Private Show, the evils of religious superstition in Himala, the plight of HIV victims in Dahil Mahal Kita (The Dolzura Cortez Story)—all of which he wrote from the point of view of the victims themselves.”
Lee places immense value on education and community and this prompted him to start his own free screenwriting workshops in 1982, with the first session held in his former apartment in Chico, Langka, beforehe wrote Himala and established himself as a cinematic voice. Lee began the workshop not as a means of asserting his own power or imposing his own excellence but as a way for people interested in cinema and writing to share knowledge and learn from one another; a space that served as a learning environment for everyone including himself.
Those trained by Western academic institutions will find Ricky Lee’s workshops unusual. There are no minimum years of writing experience needed to enter the workshop and Lee accepted Filipino applicants from a variety of backgrounds, even outside of the film industry. There were no strict outputs throughout the process nor a requirement to become a screenwriter after the workshop’s conclusion. Held across a minimum of eight Sundays, Lee held film viewings and introduced workshop participants to a variety of stories and storytelling methods, afterwards moderating discussions about the material. Though he gave people resources to learn about the technical aspects of screenwriting, Lee does not focus on formats nor does he impose a singular narrative structure. Instead, he focuses on helping individuals identify stories they gravitate towards and suggests paths they can tread in the process.
Prior to the pandemic, Lee accompanied his workshoppers to different parts of Metro Manila on “immersions” where they inhabit the lives of characters from a place that they’ve selected. With precautions in place, workshoppers live for half a day as anything they choose: from flower vendors and go-go dancers to weeping brides and homeless men. The following day, they are tasked to write monologues based on their specific experiences. In an interview, Lee expressed why the experiential process was necessary: “You have to get to a point where you don’t know what’s behind the door when you open it and when you inhabit these characters, that edge where there is a sense of danger, a sense of the unknown, does so much for you as a writer.”
While this practice is no longer at play due to social distancing, the workshop itself has only expanded since the pandemic. Prior batches were limited by the logistics of Lee’s home, but the online space has allowed a wider reach: with hundreds of Filipinos participating from all around the world. Despite the scale, there is still a sense of intimacy reminiscent of in-person meetups. In her essay “Undoing the Workshop,” author and critic-at-large Katrina Stuart Santiago writes about what separates Ricky Lee’s writing workshops from other literary and artistic spaces founded on Western pedagogy. Santiago continues that Lee deliberately decentralizes the discussion from himself for the sake of inclusivity, erases his own privilege to allow other voices to be developed and heard, and refuses to romanticize writing so that it can be taken seriously as cultural work, as a learnable skill, as a lived practice. Lee’s workshops instilled that art and storytelling was in service of something greater than artistic excellence and despite the looseness of the structure, it has worked: birthing many important voices in contemporary Filipino culture such as Lav Diaz, Jeffrey Jeturian, Bing Lao, Leo Abaya, Cathy Garcia-Molina, John Torres, and Ely Buendia.
Unconcerned with homogenizing the industry, Lee and his workshoppers continue to develop films, share resources and techniques, and create initiatives to introduce newer voices into a more supportive environment. The culmination of Ricky Lee’s 40-year endeavor is a community of storytellers like the ones who helped him in his early stages: all individually exploring what is most personal and challenging to them; inadvertently mapping out the landscape of cinema in the Philippines, keeping it alive for the world and future generations to see.
by Katrina Stuart Santiago
Undoing the Workshop
Right smack in middle of the lockdown, when cultural events were grappling with going online, what that means, where it will lead us, Ricky Lee rode the wave and sat in front of a massive Zoom meeting of over 400 participants. It was a capsule one-day workshop on writing a story, one that was part of the online Cinemalaya 2020, one that I messaged him about as the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s website kept timing-out on its registration process.
But Sir Ricky, as he always does, asked if I really wanted to this, it’s too short a workshop, he said, you already know what’s in it, he insisted. Why don’t you wait for the face-to-face workshop, he suggested.
I registered anyway.
At the workshop, he starts by telling everyone, all 400 of us, to turn on our mics—it was bad enough he was seeing half-bodied participants in square boxes, he said, worse to feel like he’s the only one in the room. This of course meant he would be interrupted countless times throughout the session—imagine ambient noise from across 400 homes—but it was something he was willing to adjust to.
In the course of those four hours, what one realizes is the magnitude of that decision. It is the mentor adjusting to the demands of the present, given the needs of students who wanted to hear themselves speak, who were reacting in full volume, unmindful of disruption. It is the teacher who has the generosity to share space and frequency—who even insists on it—because it is what he deems necessary.
It is a writer who has the ability at humility, recognizing that his is but one voice, and it is not all that matters.
When Sir Ricky said I might know what was already in this workshop, that there might not be enough for me to learn here, he couldn’t be more wrong.
Eighteen years doing a free workshop doesn’t seem like a major feat when one considers that the local writing workshop has been with us since the 1970s, a by-product of American education and fashioned after the American writing workshops. In that traditional workshop, a panel of “experts”—generally those considered as “established writers”—choose from works prospective participants submit, using criteria that’s devoid of transparency, and is rarely talked about.
In that writing workshop, the panel’s power is established in many ways. Panelists sit on one side of the room, as participants are relegated to another. The submissions of participants are held up against the light each day, one at a time. The works, and its writers, face the panelists, one-by-one, like standing in front of a firing squad.
Here the power relations are clear, and the risks are high. Panelists are usually writers from the same institution that offers the workshop, or editors of magazines and other publications, or are publishers themselves. Participants are put in their place, in this common space that dictates behaviors and intellect, in much the same way that a classroom does, except this time what is on the line are dreams and egos. That panelists might be generally oblivious to the precarity that is here is of course part of keeping this structure going. As much as this space is created by the institutional power, it is also one that maintains it.
This is the power structure that Sir Ricky undoes, given the way he has practiced the writing workshop. Designed from his screenwriting manual, the workshop as he has established it is a consistent and deliberate effort at balance, if not at completely destroying that structure that dictates facilitator versus participants, teacher versus students. It of course seems like a simple enough strategy: enter the discussion with your knowledge and expertise, with your lectures all mapped out, but allow for all other voices in the room to take part in that discussion. Let people speak, and speak up, and louder and louder.
This simple, almost common-sensical strategy though, would only be a success with someone who doesn’t mind the erasure of his own privilege altogether. And this is the rare gift that Sir Ricky has: it’s that very clear sense of how his privilege draws a very clear line—even a gaping hole—between himself and those who want to learn from him. The balance he strikes, as such, is really an erasure of that privilege.
He wants to be heard, but he wants to listen. He is the central figure in this particular space, but he also deliberately decentralizes the discussion to include everyone else within it. He is Ricky Lee, but also, he is just like all of us: writer, cultural worker, artistic laborer. Figuring out which stories might work, and letting go of those that don’t. Finding as much solace in others who have stories to tell, even as he has already told the stories that have tided generations over.
This process allows for student and mentees to value their own voices, their own thinking, their own stories. They are not here to follow what Sir Ricky says, nor to tell stories in the way he does. Instead they are allowed their own ways of telling, their own views on how stories might unfold, their own selves relative to the writer they are learning from. He is not out to create minions, or echoes, as he is out to allow people to become writers with their own minds and creativities.
This exercise seems easy, but in practice, it is gargantuan. Because in this context, writing institutions are built on privilege, and the cultural establishment lives off its power over the majority of its workers. And it is in this context that Sir Ricky, and his undoing of the workshop, is extraordinary.
It was at another moment, years ago, at a writer’s event at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, that I first heard Sir Ricky talk about his life of writing. And what floored me was how honest he was about the task of writing, the work of the writer, and the kind of labor this requires.
In that interview Sir Ricky talked about the kinds of struggles he faces as a writer, as someone who has stuck to it all these years, who didn’t find the need to shift to directing or producing, who just sought to continue writing stories, doing film then TV, to writing novels. He talked about how writing was and is his bread and butter, and how this means compromising on some stories, sometimes delivering on what is needed, as opposed to what he wants. Throughout that one hour conversation the thread of need and want and struggle was clear. The writer is no special being, no magical creature who can churn out words that will become classics. Instead he is writer. Laborer. Someone who knows only to do this work, and so must do it well.
The conventional writers’ workshop is a space that invariably and incontrovertibly romanticizes writing. Here, “the writer” is “chosen,” by the panelists who hold positions of privilege and power. Here, the writer is honed and fashioned after forebears, based on the kind of writing that is deemed acceptable or worthy or worthwhile. Here, a community of writers is created, one that is clear about the privilege it holds, one that lives off its perpetuation, until the proverbial torches are handed over, the next generation the same as the one before it.
Sir Ricky eschews this romanticization of writing. He denies his students the ego-stroking one equates with the writing workshop, refuses them the pedestal reserved for “writer.” Instead he brings them—all of us writers—down to earth, bare feet if necessary, walking the streets of the spaces we grew up in, seeking less familiar routes to the same destinations.
He wouldn’t be the first one to eschew the romanticization of cultural work, but the value of having someone like Sir Ricky extricate himself from this enterprise cannot be underestimated. The task of deliberately dissolving his privilege, while also erasing the romance with writing and what it means, can only be empowering. Because more than demystifying writing, it also humanizes the writer.
And it’s this humanity that is crucial, as it informs the most important conversation that we rarely have, dominated as our discourses are with notions of specialization and stardom, refusing as we do to engage in the parts of creativity and cultural work that aren’t about the pomp and pageantry. Sir Ricky’s practice of the workshop—one that spans the yearly batches he teaches from his own home to the ones that are simply about conversations, to even the zoom workshops as the pandemic has forced him to do—extricates the task of writing from these discursive practices.
In so doing he disentangles writing from pedestals and ivory towers, and instead insists on it being a lived practice. And he doesn’t mean “lived,” as in cloistered and separate from the community, as it is lived with these communities, where stories begin and end, where narratives evolve, where our thinking and understanding expand. It is in those communities one didn’t know existed, the ones we encounter when we walk new streets, the ones we see when we decide to go beyond the proverbial box, away from our comfort zones, straight into what we do not know.
By humanizing the writer, Sir Ricky also forces on us the conversation about the precarity of the writer as cultural worker. Taken down from the pedestal, disengaged from the enterprise of mystification, we are forced to admit to, understand, and grapple with the difficulties and struggles we face in the task itself of writing. It is never just about how to write in terms of getting beyond the blank white page, as it is about how to write given hunger and need. It is about how to build a writing practice that is sustainable, one that allows an amount of security that the state of cultural institutions cannot provide.
The survival of the writer is a discussion we can only have when we finally decide that they are human. Sir Ricky allows us this conversation as he talks about his own humanity, constantly and incessantly, as part and parcel of the work that he does, but also of the work he sees the rest of us do.
In the context of cultural institutions that are bound to structures of power and privilege, and given a predisposition towards notions of utang-na-loob and patronage politics, Sir Ricky’s praxis is one that doesn’t just undo the workshop, and demystify the writer, as it is also—and probably most importantly—about a generosity of spirit.
Freed from the limits of an institutional writing workshop, and liberated from the notions of the writer-as-extraordinary, what is revealed about him is the ability at generosity.
While the conventional writing workshop can so easily claim to be bound to this same kind of magnanimity, between the power relations it lives off and its romance with writing, this is nothing more than an empty claim. One is hard-put to see generosity in the insistence on privilege, and certainly there is little fairness in the preservation of a system that’s akin to a firing squad. There is also a lot that might be said about the ways in which the writing workshop is out to create clones of old writers, where new writers fashion their works to fit the mold that is expected and accepted, where what we see is a preservation of the kind of intellect and aesthetics, content and form, that has been published since time immemorial.
The dissolution of these power relations, his own erasure of his privilege, and his insistence that writing is a laborious task that is about thinking and living, community and nation, might not completely erase the possibility of participants and mentees fashioning stories after Sir Ricky, but certainly it allows for the workshop to be a mechanism that seeks to liberate instead of stifle, that encourages not a repetition of works but a multiplication of the multifarious.
Certainly, the decision to share one’s knowledge is not devoid of politics, and the act of teaching is one that is ideological. But in a Ricky Lee workshop, you are encouraged to battle with the ideological. You aren’t being created into a clone, as you are encouraged to go crazy, build on those stories you’ve had in your head for years, create from the things that make you vulnerable and unknowable.
And this only works because Sir Ricky is generous enough to let you have the floor, take it whole, destroy it if you need to, in order to tell your story. It works because he is not one to be insecure about the stories that these new writers might tell, and he cares little about discovering the seed of a story that he himself did not imagine doing. It works, because the man in the center of the room can at any point deliberately and consciously and knowingly, move to the corner and watch other people’s stories unfold, with no envy or insecurity, not even a smidgen of resentment, that some new writer might take his place.
This works because at some point in this Ricky Lee workshop, as space, praxis, and institution, everyone is just a writer—facilitator and participants, mentor and mentees, all. They are all human, laboring through a creative process that is also always bound to the bigger struggles of the cultural, and also necessarily, the national. The challenge in Sir Ricky’s workshop is not just to tell our stories (or to take out the ones we’ve hidden from others for years); the challenge is to think about the stories worth telling, to talk about why these stories are important, and to engage with the urgencies of the present, no matter how tangentially, in the narratives we fashion. Because here and now (and maybe now more than ever), we are bound by this moment, seemingly on pause, or on very very slow motion, and we are trying our hardest to find our voices, speak up, louder and louder until it is deafening. In Sir Ricky’s workshop we are allowed to do this. We are allowed to think loudly and write freely, and vice versa.
“Everyone is a writer here” is a powerful and empowering stance in a time and space that would otherwise draw a line between writer and writing students, facilitator and participants. The erasure of that line, the insistence on seeing us all as writers, the demand that we see ourselves as writers, can only come from an incomparable generosity.
And the daring erasure of privilege. It is after all, also an insistence on sameness that allows for this kind of openness and humility and kindness. That all of those adjectives might inform the kind of writing we should all aspire to do, is precisely the point that needs to be made here.
About Ricky Lee, sure, but also just about Sir Ricky, his mentorship, his writing, and his humanity. ***