Published November 3, 2019, 9:00 PM

by MB Lifestyle


Sometime in the late 2000s, when he was starting to be more active in writing, film critic Richard Bolisay recalls being approached by someone who told him: “You know, you have a way of stringing words that you seem to break it to people gently, but you’re really not.” This, he thought then, was the most honest thing said to him. The encounter would become an inspiration for the title of his book Break it to Me Gently. Plus, he says, “I’ve always been a pop culture buff and the Angela Bofill song, ‘Break It to Me Gently,’ is a staple of childhood radio and local singing competitions. I love the song. I love the title. I love the fragility of Bofill’s voice. It was only later on that I discovered there were two other songs with the same title: one by Brenda Lee and another by Aretha Franklin, both great as well.”

Richard is a graduate of Film and Audiovisual Communication from the University of the Philippines – Diliman, where he first developed the critic within him. His early writings came in the form of reaction papers submitted in his classes. “I’m sure those papers were crap, but everyone had to start somewhere,” he says.

Back then Richard was frustrated with his degree program, which was, according to him, centered and geared too much on producing filmmakers and other practitioners in film production, and less on criticism, history, and writing. He says he could not see himself going in that direction. “But I did what I had to do,” he adds. “I found a job to fund my thesis film and got my diploma for my parents.”

It was also during college when he established his film blog “Lilok Pelikula” (Sculpting Cinema). “Blogging was very popular in my college years—LiveJournal, Blogspot, Blogdrive, Xanga, WordPress, etc,” he says. “Every person who fancied himself a writer had one. I had two: one for personal stuff and another for film.”

His first blogpost was about Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro. And his first post on a Filipino film was about Ang Daan Patungong Kalimugtong by Mes de Guzman, which fueled him to write more because it elicited comments from people he didn’t know. “

The blog really started as a sort of diary, a record of seen films, but some people took it seriously, which made me think, okay, why not? After college, I found a job as a librarian at a French school, so I had loads of time to blog in this quiet place,” he says. “Those were happy years. We seemed to be in a bubble where everyone was discussing every new film coming out.”

Film critic Richard Bolisay and his "Break it to Me Gently"

Film critic Richard Bolisay and his Break it to Me Gently

Richard likens “Lilok Pelikula” to a place like home, which sheltered his writings and thoughts for a decade (2007 to 2017). “Like most places we’ve lived in, I felt it was time to leave,” he says. “Nothing dramatic. I just had to close it formally. Which was bittersweet because a lot of conversations happened there. Friendships. Fights. Feelings. But no regrets.”

In 2017, Richard received a scholarship to study in the UK, where he did an MA in Film Studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton. This was where the seeds of his book, Break it to Me Gently, were planted. “I sound like I’m romanticizing it, but being away from the familiar hubbub of the local film community allowed me to think about the book on existential terms,” he says. “It also made clear to me what I wanted to do in the long term (release more books on cinema, pursue a doctorate degree, have more time for more important things, among others) and how I’ll see them through.”

He recalls the exact time when he realized he was ready to publish his first book: “ I just finished my postgraduate studies in the UK and had several months left before my graduation. I was struggling to find a job, and thus I had the luxury of time to think. I was at home and I randomly opened a folder containing the list of the titles from the blog which I considered worthy for the book,” he says. “I’d been ruminating on the book since I announced the closure of my blog in 2017. I ran through the list and next thing I knew I was copying and pasting the entries into a Word document and proofreading them. I did that bit by bit every day. I cringed a lot while doing this, of course—revisiting my previous writings never fails to make me shudder—but it became pleasurable and routine at some point. It became work. I didn’t think about it that much whether or not it was ready: I just had to do it.”

Break it to Me Gently is a 332-page collection of Richard’s film reviews and critical essays on Philippine cinema, both in long and short forms. It also contains some of his longer writings as well as dispatches from local film festivals. And while he seeks to reach the widest audience possible, he primarily presents the book to those who are willing to read and listen. “Those who can be persuaded that there is a lot of aspects of our own cinema that deserves discourse,” Richard says. “Those who have faith in the value of good criticism.”

And when asked what film criticism means to him, Bolisay says: “Criticism isn’t just about writing a critique of a film, dissecting it, analyzing its merits and flaws, articulating one’s feelings, launching an intellectual inquiry, and eventually giving a verdict. Or all the things in between. Criticism is a well-thought-out response in a form that respects the art being appraised and questions its being, its what-ness and why-ness and how-ness. Making a film is criticism. Chronicling film history is criticism. Questioning the status quo is criticism.”

Criticism, he adds, is a wild field. “And it is important because how else do we make sense of our world, our home that gets destroyed by the minute, if we don’t stop for a moment to think? Criticism is the belief in the value of time devoted to constructive, human thinking.”

Break it to Me Gently was launched on Oct. 19 at the Gateway Gallery as part of the QCinema Film Festival 2019.