Reprinted from MichaelDSellers.com
One of the great icons of Philippine film-making and a true friend of mine has died. Rufo Balicas is gone.
Every time I hear some contrarian talk about how Facebook seems to be a waste of time I find myself getting just a tiny bit angry — because it’s thanks to Facebook that I’ve been able to reconnect with people from my past who really matter–people who without Facebook would have been gone forever from my life. So it was a particular delight when on October 10 I got a FB message: “Hi Mike, it’s been a long time. I’m your friend here in the Philippines – Rufo Balicas, Movie Technician.” I was thrilled to hear from Rufo. The simple modesty of his email was pure Rufo and reveals his character. He headed a team of the best grips I’ve ever worked with anywhere, mostly brothers, hardworking, incredibly creative “movie technicians” who could make miracles happen in record time and who would have your back as a film-maker in ways that only those who’ve tried to make tough movies in tough environments without enough time or money can understand. Rufo and his team were the best. And this isn’t just coming from me — they were there for Apocalypse Now, they were there for Platoon, the Delta Force Movies, Hamburger Hill, McBain (and Rufo named one of his son’s McBain) — he worked with all the Hollywood movies that came to the Philippines, and was hugely respected not just in the Philippines, but in Hollywood as well. One way or another, anyone over here who was getting ready to make a movie in the Philippines would get one message: “Get Rufo to work with you.” He was that good.
But it was much more than his talent and dedication as a key grip that made Rufo special. There was something essentially Filipino about Rufo, something that that is hard for me to describe but is something I can recognize — a kind of “humble pride” that is second nature to the great Filipinos I know (and completely absent from American culture, for whatever reason). It’s something that I believe I saw it in Cory Aquino when she took the oath of office after People Power in 1986, and is something I believe I see in Manny Pacquiao now. But it is something I KNOW I saw in Rufo — something that makes my heart swell with Pinoy pride (I’m married to a Filipina and lived there for 15 years and yearn to go back someday, so I hope I can say I feel Pinoy pride without offending anyone) when I think about him.
When I think of Rufo the first thing that comes to mind is how incredibly willing he was to take on the extra burden, make the extra thing happen — all with a playful twinkle in his eye and never a moment of hesitation or resistance even when the request was to rig some impossible setup in record time, or make a dolly do something it was never designed to do and could only be made to do through sheer will, tenacity, and creativity. That was Rufo. My fondest work memory is when we had to go back out and shoot a bunch of second unit action material for Doomsdayer in 1998 — not enough money, not enough time, and huge action sequences to shoot with half the support system we’d normally have, all done at a breakneck pace that felt like a non-stop sprint for six days. I have never run a production team ragged like we did on those six days, and Rufo was always one step ahead, always smiling — relishing the challenge and helping rally the troops when bodies and spirits were flagging. Ever since that shoot I’ve been dreaming of going back to the Philppines to shoot a run-and-gun combat movie with Rufo and his team.
We filmed three or four movies together in Olongapo, which was a 3-4 bone jangling hour busride from Manila, where Rufo’s family lived, but even though we worked six days a week and would finish our Saturday shoot at 6am Sunday morning, with a call time barely 24 hours later on Monday morning, Rufo would always take a bus back to Manila to see his family and deliver the money to them. I remember being worried that Rufo and others were doing this — if you’ve never made a film in the Philippines you can’t imagine the physical demands of a six day week in the heat and humidity there. I offered to have a courier take all the paychecks back to Manila, and some of the crew availed of the service. But not Rufo. It wasn’t just about getting the paycheck home — it was about seeing his family, if only for a few hours.
When Rufo contacted me a few weeks ago we began exchanging FB messages. We talked about how much I missed the Philippines and the “good old days” of our work together there. Rufo kept making reference to my success over here and how proud it made him, and I kept telling him that “success” is a relative word and while it may look like success from the outside, that my life here is mostly just hard and in so many meaningful respects (peace of mind being a main measure) is less “successful” than my life in the Philippines with people like Rufo. I’m not saying I made a mistake coming back here — but I haven’t found the Holy Grail I was seeking and there are plenty of moments when I wish i could click my heels three times and go back to my Kansas — which is, for me, the Philippines.
My last message from Rufo came on October 19th and I’m going to put it here in full because I think it captures his spirit, his grace, and his essential Filipino character:
You know mike i’m so glad when i open your email,to get in touch to each other again. Thru this we can communicate easily! I feel so happy that i know you are very successful in your life with your family and work. All your movies done, and all awards you got was so great you are lucky enough for you to have all the blessing from almighty God. Your health, your family with my “kababayan” Lorena and your siblings. Hoping to see you mike, we will meet again when you comeback here in the Philippines. I will always keep in touch with you! Thanks a lot Mike! Godbless!
I hadn’t had a chance to answer that when the next message came:
this is the daughter of Rufo balicas.. my father is passed away.. two days ago OCT.25 at 11:50 in the morning.. the cause of his death stomach bleeding… you know sir, my father is happy when he get in touch with you,
It chokes me up just to read that message again — so unexpected, so unwanted. I had been dreaming of getting back to the Philippines, of reviving the “old days” with my old comrade, and just like that — no warning — he was gone and here was his daughter telling me about it.
Rufo, from 12,000 miles across the ocean and decades of time, you are truly missed. Although I may be the most recent colleague and friend from America who was in touch with you, I know that there are many people over here who worked with you and remember working with you with great fondness and respect. But I think that as your kalahating-pinoy kababayan I miss you the most. God bless you and your family.