'Burgos' debuts in London film festival

By Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at May 15 2014 11:28 AM | Updated as of May 16 2014 02:30 AM

A scene from Burgos based on real events

Film raising int'l awareness of human rights in PH

LONDON - Seven years after the suspicious disappearance of Jonas Burgos in Quezon City, a film about his mother's relentless search for justice has renewed calls for government action at its European debut in the 2014 London Labour Film Festival.

"Burgos", a human rights campaign drama based on real people, marked the anniversary of the eponymous case with its first ever screening in London on April 30 at Odeon Cinema in Convent Garden.

The 90-minute Filipino film starring Lorna Tolentino and Rocco Nacino as a mother-and-son tandem was part of the London Labour Film Festival, a week-long event showcasing provocative cinema focusing on diverse stories of workers worldwide.

"We hope that it will help raise the profile of the campaign and hopefully bring justice for the people of the Philippines," Anna Burton, director of the festival, told ABS-CBN Europe.

"Burgos is particularly important," she continued, "because it's about agricultural and labor activists in the Philippines that have been unfairly treated and are being [allegedly] abducted, we think, by the Filipino military because of their activities as activists. That’s a shocking situation and an indictment of democracy, and we have a lot to do to raise awareness of that.”

Directed by Joel Lamangan and written by Ricardo Lee - both of whom allegedly experienced harsh treatment during Martial Law - the emotional film is based on true events from the controversial case of Jonas Burgos who disappeared in 2007, seen from the perspective of his mother, Edita, who continues to campaign for answers to this day.

Burgos disappeared on April 28 at Ever Gotesco Mall along the bustling Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City. Eye witnesses claim he was forcefully taken by an armed group while he was eating out alone at a restaurant in broad daylight. The abductors announced to the crowd that he was a drug addict, a claim denied by his family and friends, before whisking him away in a van. No one has seen him since.

A son of press freedom advocate Joe Burgos, who fought against oppression during the Marcos era, the young Jonas is a known activist in his own right, choosing to fight for the rights and protection of farmers in Luzon, which many believe to be a probable cause for his disappearance.

His unexplained vanishing forced his otherwise private mother to speak publicly on the painful quest for her son’s whereabouts and welfare, fuelling the ongoing Free Jonas Movement which has consequently inspired the film.

"Human rights is an issue we need to uphold. And unfortunately, in our country, it’s really atrocious at this time," said Rafael Maramag, a UK-based activist whose group, Campaign for Human Rights in the Philippines (CHRP), instigated the UK screening of Burgos.

"No one has been held accountable for any of the cases of enforced disappearances," he added. "The Filipino community outside the Philippines should stand in solidarity with their host countries to put pressure on the Philippine government to put an end to this. It’s only political will that could actually put an end to this, because a lot of the suspects are attributed to the military, the Philippine army.”

Since its world premiere at Cinemalaya in 2013, the independent film has been raising awareness of enforced disappearances through small screenings in schools and universities in the Philippines, as well as showings at international festivals and overseas Filipino communities.

"We wanted to make this film because it will be an eye opener for all the victims of human rights violations," said Dennis Evangelista, one of the producers of the film who attended the London screening all the way from Manila.

"We wanted people to think about what might have happened to Jonas Burgos," he continued, "so people can’t just dismiss the story. We believe film is a powerful medium to show it."

The film, however, is yet to receive general release in the Philippines. With its politically-charged storyline and serious subject matter, it is a kind of film that could be easily overlooked by the local mainstream cinema more interested in love stories, comedies, action, and Hollywood blockbusters.

"It’s really a gamble to do this kind of film because it’s not commercial," Evangelista revealed. "It’s so hard because we shell out money and it’s not necessarily a potential box office value. But we opted for alternative marketing for this film: we are showing it in the Filipino community abroad like this one. And in the Philippines, we are showing this in different schools and universities of progressive people."

The cast of Burgos led by Lorna Tolentino and Rocco Nacino as mother and son

A message to President Benigno Aquino III

Human rights group Amnesty International defines enforced disappearances as cases “when a person is arrested, detained or abducted by the state or agents acting for the state, who then deny that the person is being held, or conceal their whereabouts, placing them outside the protection of the law.”

According to a report by the United Nations, there are more than 53,000 known ongoing cases of enforced disappearances worldwide as of 2011.

In 2006, the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, which aims to give legal rights to families and victims of involuntary disappearances.

In the Philippines, enforced disappearances was at its peak under President Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies, a legacy of Martial Law that seems to persist to this day in small pockets of Filipino society.

President Benigno Aquino III, whose reformist government demonstrated vast potential for positive changes, have already began to address this issue with the introduction of the Desaparecidos Act, also known as the Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act of 2012.

The move was widely praised in local and international media as the start of a new era for the Philippines, a significant step away from corruption, violence and conflict.

A few years on, however, human rights advocates argue that the law is yet to make any real impact on the ground. According to Filipino campaign group Karapatan, there have been 19 new cases of enforced disappearances under Aquino’s administration between 2010 and 2013, alongside hundreds of other human rights offences including extrajudicial killings (169) and intimidations (63,000).

"Impunity remains in the Philippines, even in the term of President Aquino," claimed Angie Gonzales, coordinator of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP), an international consortium of human rights campaigners which supported the London screening of Burgos.

"[President Aquino] promised during his campaign that he will prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes," she recalled, but we don’t see anything happening in that direction. We also welcomed the signing of the anti-enforced disappearance law in the Philippines, but unfortunately it only remains on paper."

Echoing the sentiment from the screening, attended by EU-based Filipinos and British audiences including human rights advocates, Gonzales urged the Philippine leader to "do something" and uphold his promise.

"President Aquino," she addressed directly, "it’s time you do something about these human rights violations. The fact that you’re not doing anything to prosecute all the perpetrators is giving out a message that you don’t care if these violations continue. And you yourself should be accountable for all the violations which happened during your time."

"Every case is worth a million"

According to Gonzales, the number of cases of enforced disappearances and other human rights violations have started to decline over the years, but the remaining numbers are still far too high to ignore.

And according to recent reports on global human rights cases, it is also harming the international reputation of the nation. In 2013, for instance, the Philippines was ranked third “most dangerous” country for environment and land defenders (67 killings) - similar to advocacies supported by Burgos himself - following only Brazil and Honduras, according to environmental and anti-corruption group Global Witness.

In the same year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also ranked the Philippines as third “most deadly for journalists” (51 killings), following war-torn nations Iraq and Somalia.

"These are just numbers," Gonzales said. "Every case is worth a million."

She told ABS-CBN Europe that more than 200 disappearances have been attributed under the previous administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, including the Jonas Burgos case.

Activist Jonas Burgos disappeared in 2007

Boyen Baleva, who attended the screening, claims he was also a victim of maltreatment from the same period. He was allegedly arrested and tortured by the military in 2001, only a few years before Burgos disappeared, though he managed to escape and seek refuge in Europe.

"When I was working as a community development worker in a remote area in Ilocos Sur, I was abducted by the 17th Infantry Battalion. They accused me of being part of the New People’s Army (NPA)," he told ABS-CBN Europe.

He said he his abductors forced him to confess to being a member of the NPA, an allegation he vehemently denies, while he was tortured and intimidated. He was allegedly in the custody of the military for five days, and his family and friends had no idea of his whereabouts at the time.

"They tortured me physically and psychologically," he recalled, "but I really didn’t know anything about the NPA so I couldn’t tell them anything. So after five days they returned me to the provincial jail, but they didn’t let me go easily."

He was charged with illegal possession of fire arms, an allegation he also denies, and was released on bail pending due court process. Shortly after, however, he was summoned to report to authorities once again, but was tipped off by an unnamed source that the military is ready to "pick him up" again. He didn’t make it to court, choosing instead to flee the country. He is now a political refugee in The Netherlands.

"It’s hard to be abroad away from my country," he admitted. "I want to be in the Philippines and carry on with my work helping communities and people in need. But right now, it’s safer for me to be here in Europe."

Like many at the screening, Baleva is happy to support the Burgos film because it helps raise awareness of human rights violations in the Philippines, which campaigners believe is among the worst in the world.

"Showing the film Burgos is good because at least people can see what’s happening in the Philippines. It happened to me, and it’s happening to many more. It’s hard for me to imagine that Jonas is experiencing far worse things than I have. I can completely sympathize with his family, and I hope the situation changes,” he concluded.

Human rights campaigners and film producers are encouraging overseas Filipinos and concerned citizens to arrange a screening of Burgos around the world to raise awareness of human rights issues in the Philippines. The film is also expected to hit cinemas in the Philippines towards the end of 2014.