IN THE MOTHERLAND: Remembering Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc on All Saint’s DayBy Laurel Fantauzzo
In Vancouver, Canada, where Alexis Tioseco spent his grade school years, his four remaining siblings gather each year on September 1. They buy his favorite foods, eat, and watch a movie they know he would have loved. This year it was Canadian candy—Purdy’s chocolate and Coffee Crisp—McDonald’s chicken nuggets and Chungking Express.
The Tiosecos are a family whose adult members all choose to live within a few blocks of each other. When they talk about Alexis, they often compete over who first ignited his love for film.
Their mother lent Alexis her membership to Video Update, their local movie rental outlet, when he was a child. His sister, Bettina, was the family’s original collector of VHS tapes. When Alexis and his brother Chris moved to the Philippines together with their parents in 1997, they rented enormous VCDs and watched “Don Juan: Da Dancing Policeman” repeatedly, without English subtitles. Later, when their father wouldn’t pay for Alexis to attend international film festivals, his eldest brother, Leo, would send him cash.
For Alexis, his homebound interest in film transformed into professional, festival-attending passion one night in 2001, the year his brother Chris returned to Canada without him. Alexis attended a screening of Lav Diaz’s “Batang West Side.” The five-hour epic—a Filipino detective story set in New Jersey—echoed Alexis’s sense of migration and shifting identity, as a Fil-Canadian who developed his streetwise Tagalog in a Manila high school, and at curbside pickup basketball games. He was, after all, the only Tioseco sibling who chose to remain in the Philippines, out of love for the country, and its cinema, despite his mother’s direct request that he return home to Vancouver with her.
In Pampanga, Philippines, Alexis’ friends and family members visit him constantly over the week of September 1. They visit over the week of All Saint’s Day in November, too, sitting at his resting place in the Tioseco mausoleum. In keeping with Filipino tradition, they, like his siblings, bring his favorite foods to eat in his memory. Here, it’s pork sisig, and a Tupperware tub filled with his favorite snack chips, Nova.On November 2, 2011, Nathan Tioseco, Alexis’ 25-year-old Fil-Canadian cousin, places a five-piece box of chicken nuggets with barbeque sauce on the mausoleum altar.
Ador Antonio sits across from Nathan in a plastic chair with a plate in his lap. Ador has been working for the Tioseco family business as an administrator since 1976, becoming, in the process, more uncle than employee. He would overhear the repetitive instructions Leonardo Tioseco gave to his sons Alexis and Chris.
“The brothers have a duel of predicting what the father will say,” Ador says, looking up at the right wall of the mausoleum where Alexis is buried, next to his father.
“We put Alexis right up against Dad’s wall,” Chris says of his brother’s burial. “Just so he could hear the lectures in the afterlife.” He smiles.
Their father—a businessman who began the fuel company that supports the family to this day—grumbled often that Alexis’ love for film, and his rising career as a film critic, was impractical.
Though, Ador notes, when Alexis was named best film critic by local media in 2004, Leonardo sent a text to his sister: Best Filipino film critic! I’m so proud!
“It’s very different,” Ador says, “to love your work.”
When Alexis was still alive, he came here himself to honor his father after Leonardo died in 2006. The bouquets he brought were cheap. “I can’t spend more,” Alexis quipped, looking at the same burial wall Ador is looking at now, “because my father might get angry at me.”
For all of his father’s disapproval of his son’s artistic aspirations, Alexis shared his adeptness with math and bookkeeping. “He had a business sense,” Chris says. “He was smart, he was fast.”
Alexis took over the family business. But his heart was wholly for independent Filipino cinema. He kept nocturnal hours, watching movies, reading cinema tomes, writing essays and reviews for last-minute deadlines. He became a young film professor at his and Chris’s alma mater, University of Asia and the Pacific. He guided his students through multiple viewings of Lav Diaz’s 11-hour “Evolution Of A Filipino Family.” He warmly befriended scores of filmmakers, fellow writers, and editors on the film circuit. “He had sole focus,” says Chris.
It was a focus elevated, eventually, by the woman who would become his partner.
In January 2007, Alexis was brimming in a phone call to Chris. He had just attended the Rotterdam Film Festival and had spent hours of it with a woman named Nika Bohinc.
“She’s really special and I like talking to her and she’s hot!” he said to his brother in a rush.
What Alexis was to the Philippines, Nika Bohinc was to Slovenia. A passionate prodigy who wanted to push her country’s cinema forward, and in doing so, push forward the country itself.
In her twenties, she became the youngest-ever editor of Ekran, Slovenia’s oldest film and culture magazine. Her love for film was as restless and all-encompassing as Alexis’. She led conferences for young film writers in Ljubljana. She curated symposiums, sat on film boards, and collaborated on international festivals. She was president of Slovenia’s International Federation of Film Critics.
“If she was calm and not voicing her opinions,” wrote Nika’s friend, fellow film critic Gabe Klinger, “there was usually something wrong.”
Months of epic, cross-continental Skype conversations led to Alexis’ eventual visit to Slovenia. Then Nika visited Canada in December 2008. The pair stayed at Leo’s condo in Vancouver while a snowstorm raged outside. Alexis and Nika talked at length about whatever film subject—theory, plot points, structure—met their minds that day. “Oh man,” Chris says. “The boring conversations I would overhear!”
Sometimes, though, Chris saw that Nika tired of their sole focus on film. She would turn her conversation with Alexis to the country they were in, or what they were seeing as they traveled, or the political concerns of the day. Or she would lead Alexis on mountain hikes.
“My brother’s not an outdoorsy guy,” Chris says, slipping into the present tense. “But he’s going on hikes because Nika likes to go hiking.
“She completely changed him. There was this contentment. As much as they wanted to change in the world, they didn’t want to change what they had.”
Feeling the sweet inevitability of their bond, Alexis and Nika arranged for her to move to Manila by Christmas 2008. While preparing the house for Nika’s arrival, Alexis called his mother in Canada for advice.
“Mom?” he asked, wanting to replace his 10-year-old sheets. “What’s a good thread count?”
They lived together in the Tioseco home on Times Street. Nika set up her office in the room Alexis once shared with his brother Chris, decorating it with scores of film postcards from festivals she’d attended around the world. Alexis ran the family business in a room a few feet away.
Ador Antonio says that Nika would prefer to prepare her own meals instead of having the maids cook for them. Broccoli and lettuce salads, most frequently, to counteract Alexis’ constant intake of pork sisig and chicken nuggets.
She often cracked jokes with the Tioseco family staff. In between working on her writing, she would light a cigarette and sit outside with Ador.
“Alexis is introvert. Nika is extrovert,” Ador says—like Chris, slipping into present tense. He nods, looking at the portrait of Nika and Alexis resting on the mausoleum’s altar. “A nice couple. Very nice couple.”
This is a mere outline, I know, by someone who wasn’t lucky enough to know Alexis or Nika. A too-short summary for two, too-short lives.
Anyone wanting to chart Alexis Tioseco’s career should find his website, Criticine. And there is his most cited essay, “The Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person.” It’s a manifesto of love for Philippine cinema and a reflection on his identity, styled movingly as a love letter to Nika.
There is no mitigating the horror of September 1, 2009. The facts are flatly cruel. Alexis was 28 years old. Nika was 29. They returned to the Tioseco family home on Times Street, in Quezon City, after dinner with friends. They closed the front yard gate behind them and entered their front door.
Three armed men shot Alexis and Nika in their kitchen. The family’s most recently hired maid, Criselda Dayag, had let the men in. They looted the house. Dayag fled with them in Alexis’ car.
Two years later, Dayag is the only known suspect. She is still missing. Police work has been grindingly slow. But the National Bureau of Investigation eventually found that Dayag had worked as a member of a crime syndicate in the past, helping to stage robberies.
It is bizarre and unspeakable to the people who love Alexis and Nika that the words murdered, shot, investigation, and suspect apply to the end of their story. Two years on, their family and friends remain clenched in the daily, agonizing pursuit of whoever could have conspired to murder two people they held so dear.
They offer a million-peso reward. They prod and oversee the investigation daily. They provide the NBI a special dual-SIM card cell phone for any tips on Criselda Dayag’s whereabouts.
“The one thing I’ve told everyone is the day that they catch her,” Chris says, “I’ll drop everything here and be there for an indefinite period of time.”
Early last month, Chris did brace to drop his life in Canada. The Philippine Star reported on October 5 that Criselda Dayag had been found and arrested.
The story was inaccurate. The Tiosecos’ investigative lawyer soon after issued a request for the Star to retract the article. The woman NBI agents detained in October was not Dayag, but an innocent homemaker from La Union. She was released.
The Filipino practice of All Saints’ Day means that countless people do their best to reach into the recent past and hold Alexis and Nika close to them.
They visit the Tioseco mausoleum. They gaze at the portrait there of Alexis and Nika. Two years on, they spend hours at a time talking about the couple, summoning them again by remembering out loud.
Alexis wrote that the word “critic” was a troubling one, for him. It implied a meanness, a willingness to tear a work apart, if need be. He did not waste column space on deriding Filipino film. He wanted to be its champion.
In Alexis’s public letter to Nika, he said, directly, what drove him, and what he knew drove her too. He was talking about their work for film. But what he wrote applies now to everyone who still lives for him and for Nika.
It applies to Chris, ready to abandon his life to pursue his brother’s murderers. It applies to his friends and family and former staff who still bring his favorite food to Pampanga, and tell him what’s happening lately in their lives. To his siblings in Canada who gather around a movie screen with him in their hearts. To everyone working faithfully to push the investigation in the Philippines forward. To everyone still championing Alexis and Nika, keeping the two of them firmly in the present tense.
“The first impulse,” Alexis wrote, “is always one of love.”
Laurel Fantauzzo is currently living in Quezon City, Philippines. She’ll be returning to the University of Iowa’s MFA in Nonfiction program in January 2012. She is at work on a much longer piece about Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc. If you knew them and would be willing to share your memories, please feel free to contact her at Lfantauzzo@gmail.com.