[Screenwriter, actor, director Mario O’Hara passed away last June 26, 2012 from complications of acute leukemia. As I was posting this today June 28 another great screenwriter Nora Ephron also passed from leukemia. Ephron was a renowned journalist turned screenwriter known for classic romantic comedies, “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless In Seattle”, and the drama “Silkwood”. She was a 3 time Oscar nominated screenwriter.]
Written and photographed
By Jude Bautista
The first time I had ever heard of Mario O’Hara was in Introduction to Film class under Dr. Mike Rapatan in DLSU. It was one of the first major subjects for a degree in Communication Arts. Just like any Filipino in his late teens my mind’s concept of film had been filled with Hollywood. Then Rapatan screened “Insiang” to us by Lino Brocka. We learned that you don’t have to be the husband of a woman to be abusive to her and her daughter, one of the tragic truths “Insiang” revealed. We saw and understood what a great a Filipino film is and how deeply moving it can be both on an intellectual and emotional level. Decades later the importance of that class reverberates even more. Rapatan is now a Manunuri Ng Pelikulang Pilipino member the same organization that gives out the Urian Awards.
Of course everyone idolized Lino Brocka, the film’s director. But even at that time I saw myself as a writer. A senior praised my rants about Noli Me Tangere at high school saying it was college level writing. It planted something in my mind as to who I was, so I idolized Mario O’Hara. The story is the heart of the film and the screenwriter to me was almost as important as the director. There was little that was known or heard of Mario in the 90’s except for his theater work. For me he was more of a name, a mythic figure rather than a real person.
By 2010, I had covered Cinemalaya for several years. Filmmaker and actor Dennis Marasigan had “Vox Populi” for that year. He just happened to invite me to the rehearsal of Tanghalang Plipino’s “Tatlong Maria” and there he was Mario O’Hara in the flesh. It was also the first year Cinemalaya had the director’s showcase category where established directors could compete. O’Hara was in that category with “Ang Paglilitis Ni Andres Bonifacio” with Alfred Vargas for the lead role. That same group had Mark Meily, Joel Lamangan, Joel Lamangan, Gil Portes and Jay Altarejos.
What shocked me about O’Hara was that I didn’t even know he was an actor. First thing I did was to shoot as many pictures as I can. I wanted to ‘know’ him through my camera. Director and production designer Loy Areceñas was quietly directing his cast. There was a quiet intimacy. I felt like I was watching something secret and personal that happens when performers and director are in the process of trying to create magic on stage.
Mario was great because he didn’t allow himself to be anything but an actor. Even though he is probably the greatest screenwriter our country has produced and is also a director himself, at that moment he was an actor. He was a paternal figure to the sisters played by Angeli Bayani, Mailes Kanapi and Dolly Gutierrez. There were moments when Mario was sitting on bed and his son Paolo, a very skillful actor in his own right were waiting for their scene or studying their lines.
I begged Dennis for an interview with my idol and will be forever grateful for that chance of a lifetime. In the interview I couldn’t help but ask him to start from the very beginning. He started out as a radio and voice talent. Writing came as a consequence of trying something out. He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes or seek the help of writers he wanted to learn from.
What a writer needs according to him is the power to observe and find worlds that are hidden in plain sight. One of his favorite examples in his writing seminar is a family who lives behind a billboard in Pasay city. He’d pass that everyday and so do thousands of commuters. But if they only paid close attention they’d find a story there. How did they come to live there? How have they stayed so hidden in the most obvious of places? There’s drama and tragedy in the most ordinary things.
There was never an air of self-importance about him. Even though many of us considered him the greatest screenwriter, actor and filmmaker, he never thought that of himself. When I interviewed him later about his films and other projects he seemed less comfortable talking about them or himself than he was about making them. He acted as if he was always less important than the story or the cast.
The past two years has seen a bourgeoning of O’Hara’s work as director. After his Cinemalaya project he helmed Nora Aunor’s ambitious project in TV5, “Sa Ngalan Ng Ina.” It had a strong parallelism with Cory Aquino’s life. Nora’s character was married to a political figure played by Bembol Roco who is assassinated and she was forced into that role as leader. Jon Red also co directed the large project with O’Hara. Manny Pangilinan had so much faith in O’Hara and Aunor that he Executive produced it himself. Mario O’Hara will forever stand as a giant in the realm of film, theater and as a human being. You will be missed.