The camera and news reporter who just arrived blocked the narrow alley of the theater with their tripod. When the lights were turned on, he beamed and shook the hands of the interviewer who had already prepared more questions about the overseas Filipino workers than the film. Your fellows are doing great. In fact, they are earning double than, say, cleaners in Hong Kong. Their living conditions are safe, despite the news claiming that people from the borders have taken over one of our towns. That’s not true. As our country’s representative, I can assure you that they are secure and will remit their money. Now on to the film that we are about to show. Yes, it’s a light take on kidnapping alright, and there is a minister involved. The reporter kept asking about Keith Droggan who starred in the film, the others films he starred in, and if there were plans of bringing him in to star with Anne Curtis. He asked me who Anne Curtis was. A local movie star who likes to sing, I answered. And he said, why not? Yes, we will bring Keith Droggan in town.
A woman approached him and shook his hand. The assistant said she was the vice mayor, but from a different town where they sold vegetables in bulk. Her skin highlighted his need for morning sunlight and her dress, ruffled, green like newly-harvested lettuce, and morning bright, waspartnered with black flats. I introduced her to him: Vice Mayor Nena Tobingan. And beside her washer brother from the town’s local TV news who also contributes for the national daily. The big one? He asked. No, but the second big one, Philippine News. He asked me to bring them cakes but the waiter said that there was only one left and there were too much white icing on it. Still, bring it in. And two drinks. Get them two glasses of red wine and charge it to your per diem for now. List them down and get your money when we return. I dug into my pocket and found a few hundred pesos. Two glasses of red wineare 450, so I only have 50 pesos left.
The vice mayor insisted that she will bring him to the country club after the screening. She wanted to discuss the possibility ofbringing the youngsters to his represented country for a one-year scholarship. But she wanted someone from his country to come to her town instead to teach kids how to farm. We are losing harvesters; no one’s planting vegetables anymore, she said. She pleaded for support after each gulp of red wine and asked if she can get another glass. I only have 50 pesos, I whispered to him. He fork out a thousand as he took out his wallet and why of course, here’s my calling card too, and your suggestion to bring someone from my country sounds great. I can discuss that with the ministry of agriculture who will be more than happy to oblige. Thank you! Another glass of wine please.
He asked for the names of the guests that he needed to mention and told me to transcribe his welcome speech that he saved on his phone. Ten important guests: five from the government, three from the media, two from the film council. Film is an important form of art, he began, and our countries share the same love for humor. We both laugh at problems, but still comedy brings out the truth. I remember I said this before in front of the ambassador during the meeting while he was seated behind me almost falling asleep or pretending to be.
The program also had an awarding of a barangay volunteer whom the ambassador and his wife were grateful for after he toured them around months ago. 2,000 pesos in a white envelope was to be given and I was told to take pictures because we needed to show it to the ambassador, who in turn would be reporting it to the ministry and posting it on his Facebook fan page. The volunteer took the ambassador around the city including the park that had a man-made lagoon with fish and ducks. The volunteer went on saying that three days in a row of accompanying important guests entailed costs. Will it be okay, say, just in case, if he can reimburse? Assurance is what he needs for now. I told him that I will get back to him of course but can only provide an update.
The volunteer was awarded and thanked for his time and generosity. Thank you, thank you. One of the waiters who served us said that those who thanked and thanked will never fork out money. Then the program started with the speech that I knew for sure I said but only wrote in air. He introduced the vice mayor, four other government officials, two media heads, and one from the film council. Where is the executive director? He asked. I said that he’s on his way but wasn’t sure if he can still make it even after the film. Call him, ask him where he is, he said.
The minister in the woods was about to start and students from the university just arrived and opted to take the seats upstairs. There were elementary students too. Eleven and twelve-year-olds seated just above him. He waved at them and radiated one of his smiles and this was how he does it: he looks at you like you are important right at that moment, he laughs, just right, almost like a faint giggle to make you feel that you are one with him, then he waves or grabs your hand, shakes it or in this case, waves it for exactly five seconds; he drops his hand then smiles – an infecting one coupled with questions you’re not supposed to answer like “how are you?” and “it’s a wonderful evening, isn’t it?”
The projectionist asked me to go inside the room. Do you have the USB?
Then I heard my name mentioned by the host: lastly, we would like to thank Lucas Medel for helping us in making tonight’s event possible.
The host called out my name again. I looked out from the glass divider of the projection room and saw the audience looking at me but couldn’t hear their claps and applause. All I could see was him and that stare. Like an arrow straight to my pupil. Don’t you wear that blazer again.
It was eight and the projectionist inserted the Minister in the woods DVD. Is this an original copy? Yes, of course. That’s from the ministry. It’s not working. Try the second one, I said. An original copy? No, that’s just a copy. And I mean copy of a copy. It’s not working either. The people from the glass divider turned their heads almost at the same time. The third DVD? What is happening? I kept asking. You tested them this afternoon and you said over the phone that all the copies were working perfectly fine.
He came in. Just wanted to know, softly he asked, what is happening? Are you mad? I asked him up front. The projectionist is just beside me. No, I’m not. It’s not your fault. You have the USB, right? It’s there already, I pointed to the table with stacks of Minister in the woods.
The host came in. What is happening? He asked too. The copies are not working, I said. But I have the USB. How about we just do a ceremonial screening? I have Wi-Fi in my laptop then we can play the trailer. And then we end there. No, that will be embarrassing, I said. The USB should work.
I remember the pivotal scene where the minister’s trying to convince the gang how he’s going to get, not steal, the money from the vault of the church. How? The gang asks. You do not get it in the dead of the night but in the afternoon when the head treasurer takes an afternoon nap and leaves the keys in the security room. At around 2 pm, the guard turns off the light and the CCTV cannot capture people passing because the corridors are dimly lit. There is only one key and the vault’s combination is easy to guess: it’s the bishop’s birthday plus the name of his favorite altar boy. That’s 12281946TOBY.
The USB worked. He dragged me out of the projection room and said that I almost embarrassed him, that the host was dumb, and why would he suggest to do a ceremonial screening. A trailer? On YouTube? Streaming online? That he was going to tell the ambassador of this blunder and why on earth was I assigned on this project to begin with. The tone changed drastically. He was speaking fast. He was saying phrases like didn’t like, not in this town, what a shame, not you, not this event. The words were all jumbled. Or I didn’t understand it. He finally raised his voice and said get out. Get out, now. Leave me here. I don’t want to see you tomorrow in the office.
I asked if I can just watch one scene in the film. And if it was okay to watch it while standing at the back? I don’t care, he said. I want you to leave. The minister breaks into the security room and gets the key while the guard’s sleeping. He walks through the corridor and takes the stairs that led to the bishop’s room. Inside are several book cases. On the middle, in the third shelf, is the vault. The minister opens the shelf and sees the vault. Locked. He tries the combination 12281946TOBY and inserts the key. It doesn’t open. The lights are turned on and the security shoots him in the head.
Seated in front, I saw him touching his head. He ran his fingers and noticed a murky liquid on his hand. Then he touched his head again – another sliver of fluid ran down his scalp. He smelled the fluid. It wasn’t water. He shouted saliva. I think he shouted it about ten times.
He asked the lights to be turned on while the movie was still playing. Who did this to me?
The vice mayor stood up and looked at the balcony. I’m so sorry, deputy chief of mission. Guys, please, who did this? She pointed to all the kids seated on the balcony.
He asked for a handkerchief, or tissue paper, or anything to remove the spit on his head and on his hand. We are very sorry; we will check the toilets or the coffee shop if there are napkins, the host said. Get me your handkerchief, he told me. I looked at him. It was my first time to stare at him for a long time – his eyes, soft, not as penetrating as I thought. It wasn’t as deep. And I thought it would take me several years to finally throw in the towel.