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Ishmael Bernal
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Ishmael Bernal, Nat’l Artist, was born: Sept. 30, 1938

On this day in 1938, Filipino film, stage and television director, actor, and screenwriter Ishmael Bernal was born in Manila. He grew up in the city’s Santa Mesa district and had watched movies in the nearby Embassy Theater as young boy. His maternal grandfather was Tagalog linguist and former senator Lope K. Santos.

Ishmael Bernal graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a BA in English in 1959. His first foray into film was when he worked for a documentary production directed by National Artist for Film Lamberto Avellana. He later went to France to study French literature and philosophy at the University of Aix-en-Provence.

Bernal studied film directing at the Poona Film Institute in India as a Colombo Plan Scholar. After returning to the Philippines during Martial Law, when there was strict censorship in media and artistic expression, he started making critically acclaimed films that reflect the harsh realities of society and the hardship that ordinary Filipinos face at the time.

Film director and National Artist Ishmael Bernal. Photo from www.philstar.com

Among his notable films are Pahiram ng Isang Umaga (1989), Pinulot Ka Lang sa Lupa (1987), Working Girls (1984), Broken Marriage (1983), City After Dark (1980), and Nunal sa Tubig (1976).

City After Dark was originally titled Manila By Night and highlights the pressing socio-political problems plaguing the country’s capital city such as poverty, unemployment, criminality, and homelessness, among others. The film was renamed after former first lady and Metro Manila governor Imelda Marcos criticized it for “maligning the city.”

However, his most memorable film was the 1982 drama film Himala, which was penned by screenwriter Ricky Lee and starred Nora Aunor. It won several awards in the 1982 Metro Manila Film Festival, including Best Picture, Best Director for Bernal, Best Screenplay for Lee, and Best Actress for Aunor.

The following year, Himala became the first Filipino film to be part of the competition Section of the Berlin International Film Festival. It also competed in the 19th Chicago International Film Festival, where it won the Bronze Hugo Award, and in the 29th Asia Pacific Film Festival, where it received the Special Achievement for Best Depiction of Socially Involved Religion.

In 2008, Himala was included in CNN UK’s shortlist of 10 film vying for the title of Best Asian Films of All Time in Asia Pacific Screen Awards — the only Filipino film to be shortlisted. It joined the likes of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The film has since been restored and remastered by ABS-CBN Film Archives and Central Digital Labs in time for its 30th anniversary in 2012 (see trailer below).

A four-time Best Director at the Urian Awards, Ishmael Bernal died of cardiac arrest on June 2, 1996 and was posthumously declared a National Artist for Film in 2001.


Arago, Jorge and Stuart-Santiago, Angela. “Pro Bernal, Anti Bio.” StuartSantiago.com. June 2, 2010.

Philippine Entertainment Portal. “Himala vies for CNN’s Viewers Choice Award.” GMA News Online. October 22, 2008

Catch Ishmael Bernal’s Remastered Films Later This Month.” Esquire Philippines. July 10, 2018.

Sallan, Edwin. “Ishmael Bernal’s ‘lost’ Marcos-era docu evokes nostalgia.” Concept News Central. July 5, 2018.

Ishmael Bernal” in List of National Artists of the Philippines. National Commission for Culture and the Arts

Trivia Question:

What film, which Bernal wrote while he was studying film in India as a Colombo Plan scholar, did he eventually make starring actress Rita Gomez?

Yesterday’s answer: Juan Padilla and Emilio Gonzales

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