Mel Chionglo Photo credit  Kiko Cabuena - THE CALMING PRESENCE OF MEL CHIONGLO

Since November is the month dedicated to the deceased, let me honor the late director Carmelo “Mel” Chionglo who passed away on Sept. 21.

Direk Mel exuded a calming presence with his gentle stature. He started as a production designer after studying at the New York Academy of Theatrical Arts. His prominent films as a director include Playgirl (1981), Lucia (1992), Sibak: Midnight Dancers (1994), Burlesk King (1999), and Lagarista (2000).

Screenwriter and former production designer Raquel Villavicencio owes her showbiz career to him. They met at a film workshop and saw each other again after a year. “’Quelly, do you remember me? I’m doing this project in epic proportions at hindi ko kaya mag-isa (I cannot do it alone). I need an art director,’” Raquel recalls Mel saying.

That film was Aguila, directed by Eddie Romero starring Fernando Poe, Jr. “That was how Mel and I started working together. If I count the time, it would probably be 40 years. One hundred years na ang Philippine cinema and during 40 of those years, Mel was always there with me,” Raquel says.

The late director was also one of the founders of the Production Designers Group. “He always called me his eldest daughter. We became a family in PDG and we started calling him Mama Mel. We did two films together. My first solo script was Teenage Marriage with Maricel Soriano, Snooky Serna, and William Martinez. We also did a bold film together.” says the 2011 Cinemalaya Best Actress winner for Bisperas, laughing. “I told him, ‘Wow, Mel yan pala ang forte mo (so that’s your forte)—bold.’ Ang galing niya sa mga (He was very good at) sex scenes.”

But for Raquel, Mel was the voice of reason. “Meron akong problema, meron akong inaaway, siya ang takbuhan ko (If I had a problem or an enemy, I always consulted him),” she adds. Actress Bibeth Orteza first met Direk Mel on the set of Mike de Leon’s Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising as the film’s production designer. “Mel was an ally in anti-censorship issues. When Armida (Siguion-Reyna) became MTRCB chairman, he was one of the members of the board. He was always a sobering influence,” she muses.

Mel 2nd row with his Cinemalaya family. Photo by Kiko Cabuena  - THE CALMING PRESENCE OF MEL CHIONGLO

KALOKA! Direk Mel (first row, fifth from left) will be remembered fondly by his peers in the Filipino film industry

His big heart was experienced by both Bibeth and her husband Carlitos Siguion-Reyna during the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival. “Walang kadamut-damot (He was so generous). Si Mel ang talagang star doon (Mel was the true star there) because of Sibak: Midnight Dancers. There were no more tickets, audiences were lining up like a snake. But Mel did not treat us like his poor relatives. Carlitos brought Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (1991) there and he mentored Carlitos so patiently.” Direk Mel and Lino Brocka also gave Carlitos his first job in television when he was fresh from film school.

Devasted by the loss of a good friend is Joel Lamangan. In the late 1970s, Joel directed Ang Panunuluyan ng Birheng Maria at San Jose sa Cubao, Ayala, Plaza Miranda, ATBP, sa Loob at Labas ng Metro Manila at the Philippine Education Theater Association (PETA). At that time, Joel was nervous that the Philippine Constabulary might raid them. Direk Mel went up to him after the play to assure him to go on. “‘Huy, maganda, matapang. Huwag ka matakot.’ Doon ko siya unang nakilala (‘Your play is good and is brave. Do not be afraid.’ That’s the first time we met),” the 67-year-old director says.

Joel never worked with Mel as a production designer but he was always present in all his activities. When the two decided to resign from MTRCB, Joel followed Mel’s advice. “Galit na yung mga tao kay Erap. Sabi ni Mel, ‘Joel halika, ano pa ginagawa natin dito?’ Bakit, san tayo pupunta? ‘Mag-resign na tayo’ (The people were already angry at Erap. Mel said, ‘Joel, what are we still doing here?’ Why, where will we go? ‘Let’s resign’),” Joel says, adding that Mel stood for what he believed to be morally correct and true.

For Joey Reyes, Mel’s death is an end of an era. “A generation of filmmakers is leaving us. I choose not to be sad. I choose to remember my friendship with the most soft-spoken and gentle man I have ever met,” he says.

As Cinemalaya’s competition director and the head of the monitoring committee, Direk Mel was dedicated. His dedication and love for cinema was unbelievable to the point that he immediately went back to work after undergoing an angioplasty. Direk Mel believed in commitment. “He loved seeing young filmmakers blossom. That is a virtue that is slowly becoming extinct in a highly competitive dog-eat-dog world,” says the award-winning director of May Minamahal (1993). “Mel taught me you don’t need a big stage to be relevant. Relevance can be found in the simplest things we do in life. He was not in showbiz for the fame and the glory. Until the very end, he was doing something he really wanted to do.”

Direk Mel was given the Ulirang Alagad ng Pelikula sa Likod ng Kamera Lifetime Achievement Award at the 32nd PMPC Star Awards for Movies. He lived a life not filled with recognition or applause but one filled with peace and love. He never showed his “angry” side to the public. His favorite expression “Kakaloka!” will always ring with joy in our hearts.

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