How Alden Richards became the face of a martial law documentary

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Alden Richards plays student activist and torture victim Bonifacio "Boni" Ilagan in "Alaala: A Martial Law Special." CNN Philippines Life talks to director Adolfo Alix Jr. on the television adaptation of Ilagan's story. Screencap from GMA PUBLIC AFFAIRS/YOUTUBE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Despite the rain, thousands of people gathered in Luneta on Sept. 21 for what is considered one of the largest protests in President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. The compounded rallies condemned killings in the name of the war on drugs, Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao, and Marcos’ declaration of martial law 45 years prior.

The Sunday before, despite online backlash, mainstream non-cable network GMA-7 proceeded with the airing of “Alaala: A Martial Law Special,” a take on the story of martial law human rights violations survivor Bonifacio “Boni” Ilagan. Playing the student activist and torture victim was Alden Richards, in a twist from the popular icon’s commonly lighthearted roles.

The film-slash-documentary was directed by Adolfo Alix Jr., known for the films “Donsol” (2006), “Porno” (2013), “Manila” (2009), and “Pastor” (2017), which won awards here and abroad. Alix has also directed several documentaries and series for television.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Alix to talk about the creation of the documentary, depicting torture on primetime television, and the role of both celebrity power and mass media in the discourse about martial law.

According to director Adolfo Alix Jr., Bonifacio Ilagan's story is not only about political problems he encountered, but also how his family dealt with it, including how he influenced his sister Rizalina. Screencap from GMA PUBLIC AFFAIRS/YOUTUBE

Why did you pick Boni Ilagan as the subject of your film-within-a-documentary?

The concept was initialized by our program manager, Ms. Joy Madrigal. I was approached to do the material and I brainstormed with them to further the idea. I think the impetus was the need to re-orient the younger audience about martial law through the eyes of one of its survivors. Boni's story and conflicts during martial law [are] very relatable as [they depict] not only the political problems he encountered but also how his family dealt with it, including how he influenced his sister and her unfortunate disappearance.

In a way, Boni Ilagan and Pete Lacaba’s experiences are similar — they both fought for the same cause, they were both tortured and freed, and they both lost siblings while resisting the Marcos regime. Tell us more about the friendship between the two which you wanted to capture on screen.

Boni was a big fan of Pete. He told us how he would read his articles and how he loved his ideologies. I wanted to capture the friendship and how they both fought for what they believe in. Pete helped shape Boni's ideologies and eventually, they went through the same ordeal and that strengthened them both.

"The impetus was the need to re-orient the younger audience about martial law through the eyes of one of its survivors." — Adolf Alix Jr.

Rizalina Ilagan, played by Bianca Umali, is also a driving force behind the production. When she is first introduced, she seems meeker and more soft-spoken than her brother. But she is the one who sticks to the cause until the very end.

Yes. Rizalina believed in his brother's ideals and she fought and stood by him. She followed him and went underground. She was unafraid of what might happen to her. What is important is the greater cause: [to fight] for her country. She is the flame that burns Boni's continued passion to fight for what is right.

Why did you choose Alden Richards for the lead? What is the impact of having such a popular figure in a role like this?

I've worked with Alden even before the Aldub phenomenon broke out. He is an actor who is always ready to take on challenges. When I learned that he [agreed to] take the role, I was very happy that he accepted this material. He is undoubtedly one of the most influential celebrities now and with him onboard, he can bring in a lot of the young people to be interested and with that, they can be re-educated with the right perspective about the realities of one of the darkest periods of Philippine history.

Support for the Marcoses seems to be very loud, especially online. How would you describe reception to the film? How do you respond to people who say that it's best to just move on?

It is inevitable that there will be various reactions to the documentary. I agree that we can continue moving forward but no matter how cliché it sounds: "The future builds on the foundation of the past." History cannot lie. The sins of the past have to be put on the right perspective so that it will not happen again.

"The freedom we are enjoying now is because of those unafraid like Boni [Ilagan] and Pete [Lacaba]. We must learn how to preserve and continue their legacy," says Alix. Screencap from GM PUBLIC AFFAIRS/YOUTUBE

Do you believe that the Filipino masses can take a decisive stand on the issue? What is the most important takeaway you want these viewers to have?

Boni's story is not fiction. He was witness and victim to that period. His testimony will bind the truth no matter what. We often ignore some parts of history but this is one situation that needs to be told. Its lessons still resonate especially with what is happening now in our country. We just want the viewers to be vigilant and protective of their rights. The freedom we are enjoying now is because of those unafraid like Boni and Pete. We must learn how to preserve and continue their legacy.

The scenes of torture may be discomforting for some audiences. What was it like to film and reenact such sensitive memories? What considerations did you have to make?

We talked to Boni about these sensitive scenes. We wanted to be as truthful as possible. Boni's screenplay was exact and specific with these scenes and the images from what he wrote is just jumping out of the page. My co-director, Rember Gelera, and I were just interpreting it and the actors were very open to experiment and discuss the scenes.

I was looking at Boni when we were filming the scenes and was thinking what was in his mind, with him seeing the scenes unfold again right before his eyes. He always tells me that the experience was gruelling but they stood by it because what they were fighting for is the truth and [that it was] their right as citizens of this country.

"Boni's story is not fiction. He was witness and victim to that period. His testimony will bind the truth no matter what." — Adolf Alix Jr.

In the introduction, Boni Ilagan says he went through a period of denial. It has also been said that confronting a painful past is one of the challenges in remembering the martial law years. How do you strike a balance between re-opening old trauma, but making audiences realize the extent and weight of injustice?

It is difficult to strike a balance, as opinions will always be abound as to why it is necessary to bring up stories like this. Again, I think, it is because of the times that we need to be reminded of the past so that they will understand why we need to fight for our freedom. We might have been too lax because of our preoccupation with a lot of things but we must be guardians of our own human rights. Boni's story will remind us that there is a greater cause than ourselves.

Another film of yours, "Madilim ang Gabi," debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it tackles the war on drugs. Tell us more about this project — what compelled you to do it, despite potential unpopularity?

Films are also recorders of history. As a filmmaker, I was interested with the plight of the victims. Some of them are not completely innocent. They were users and pushers but the question remains: Are we not willing to give them a chance? Also, who is behind the killings?

The film deals with the plight of a couple whose son went missing and as former members of the drug trade, they revisit their cohorts to reveal the larger food chain that feeds on this. They are just small [fry] but the authorities are afraid of them as their testimonies will lead them to the ones protecting the drug lords.

Apart from television productions like “Alaala,” what are other concrete efforts would you like to see when it comes to remembering the abuses and commemorating the martyrs of martial law?

It's a constant check and balance so I think it is important to continue various efforts in all platforms — including the arts — to constantly remind us all of the evils of abusive authority.


Catch “Alaala: A Martial Law Special” on Sept. 28, 5 p.m. at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Dream Theater, as part of CCP’s Pista Rizalina: Festival of Arts and Ideas. The full episode is also available on YouTube.