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As long as the Almighty has permitted intelligent men, created in his likeness to fight in public and kill each other while the world looks on approvingly, it’s not for me to deprive the chickens of the same privilege.”

Abraham Lincoln

Thus, the sport of gladiators put into modern context goes ever vibrant in the Philippine milieu. In this case, the combatants bear no resemblance to the mighty warriors of Rome in canvas loincloth. The modern gladiator in the Philippines is a beautifully feathered animal, with his crowning glory all cut off, bred for hundreds of years… to kill.

While there are numerous controversial issues surrounding this bloody affair, cockfighting or sabong in the Philippines is considered a national pastime, where the rich and the poor huddle together in a dusty dirt ring called the cockpit or gallera, both waving money that’s either saved or spare.  The Kristos taking bets from everyone. A sentensyador at the helm.

Kristo, is the conductor of the symphony of wagers and betting.  Much like a commodities trading floor in a bull market, he takes the bets of everyone who raises hand signals and confirms every bet with just eye contact and hand signals– no handshake, no signed piece of paper.  In fact, the Kristo doesn’t even list betters on a piece of paper at the least, he holds everything in his memory.

The sentensyador is the referee. He is the ring master. And referees decision is final.  Abraham Lincoln was called Honest Abe because he was a sentensyador.  He loved cockfighting and participated in the sport at an early age. Famous US presidents who were lovers of the game were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

Cockfighting has a history which traces back to the times before Christ.  According to Diodorus Siculus, the Ancient Syrians worshipped the fighting cock as a deity.  The Ancient Greeks and Romans associated the bird with the gods Apollo, Mercury and Mars.  Magellan claimed that in Borneo, the bird was so sacred that no one could eat it’s flesh. In South Canara, the bird claimed to ward off evil demons. In Sumatra, the gamecock was worshipped, a temple built to it, and rituals performed to honor the deity.

The original king of sports and sport of king was cockfighting.

From the Phoenicians, Hebrews, Canaanites to Moses, Themistocles to Julius Caesar and King Henry VIII, the fighting-cock has been revered a heroic symbol but enjoyed also as a sport.  During the middle ages in France, cockfighting was so popular that eventually, France adopted the cock as a national emblem.

Chinese characters were originally inspired by the tracks of a rooster.  If this were true, no other animal has left better tracks because of the extensive history of Chinese literature.

The fighting cock lost to the Eagle by one vote in being the symbol of America.

In the Philippines, cockfighting was already popular by the time the Spaniards arrived. It was recorded that in 1565, natives of Butuan were watching cockfights when the Spaniards came for supplies.  According to Magellan’s chronicler Pigafetta when they landed in the island of Palawan, “We found the natives fighting huge, but very tamed roosters”.

History tells us that the first semblance of upheaval by the Filipinos was when Spanish government raised the fees and taxes on cockfighting.

Host to the biggest derbies in the world, estimated to be a fifty-billion peso sports industry in a country with a population of 90 million, it is estimated that roughly 9 MILLION male Filipinos are involved in the sport, cockfighting is arguable the number one sport in the Philippines.

As a kid, every morning I woke up to the sound of chickens.  Wherever place I woke up in in the island of Negros, there were always chickens.  Negros island belonged to Region VI, comprised of three islands (Guimaras, Panay and Negros) which is undoubtedly the country’s game fowl capital. I grew up surrounded by people who loved chickens—whether they were blood uncles or family friends.  Every town you’d pass by on the highway had a gallera.

What is it about cockfighting that the male Filipino– from politician to celebrity to farmer-Juan reveres?   In almost every town in the country, a legal cockpit or gallera exists. In almost every barangay or township in the country, an illegal cockfight or tupada exists.

From Araneta Coliseum which in 1960-63 was the biggest coliseum in the world to the La Loma cockpit of 1902, cockfighting reigns supreme. The Araneta Coliseum also hosted the first World Slasher Cup, regarded internationally as the Olympics of Cockfighting, it is the most prestigious and biggest cockfighting event in the world, up to this day.

This documentary will trace the roots of cockfighting in the life of Filipinos from decades ago to the present.  Even as early as 1887, the premiere Filipino hero, writer-activist Dr. Jose Rizal devoted a whole chapter of his classic “Noli Me Tangere” to cockfighting describing it as a popular activity more widespread than opium-smoking among Chinese.

The most fitting description of cockfighting, perhaps can be found long ago in the words of a noted fictionist: “You don’t know Filipinos until you have seen some fellow who had trained a chicken for months, put it into a ring against another’s rooster. He bets everything he owns on it… If he wins, glorious; if in one pass his rooster gets its throat cut, then you will see how a philosopher takes disaster…”

This film will follow all the main players of the sport in one full season and will try to understand not just the game, not just the sport but the culture of the people behind it and answer two of mysteries that have piqued my interest for the last decade and a half as a filmmaker:  first, what makes a champion breed?

Initially, I always thought that the blood line of a Filipino cock is bred with that of a foreign line and a good combination of traits will produce a champion.  I was wrong.

First of all, there aren’t any chickens with Filipino line fought here in the country anymore.  The Filipino chicken line runs away. Every blood line fought here in the country are of foreign origin.

The British have bred these chickens for thousands of years just to get that killing instinct and the Americans have kept these blood lines strong and alive for hundreds of years as well.

This brings us to the Holy Grail each breeder tries to achieve which is the “gameness” of a fighting cock.  That magic that makes a bird endure relentless, grueling punishments no matter how battered or bludgeoned and remain in the fight even to death.  Yes, gameness is bred.  How is the question that’s intrigued me for so many years.  How is this killer instinct of a chicken bred?

This documentary will trace the roots of these chickens—United States of America where they’ve perfected the science and skill of animal breeding.

The second question that baffles me is:  what is it with this sport that gathers this much people from all walks of life and has created this billion-peso industry?  And how is it that a third-world country like the Philippines has the biggest derbies in the world?

This film begins with the World Slasher event in the Araneta Coliseum in Manila, 3rd week of January.  We will follow the 2014 winners up until the 2015 championships and see the whole game-fowl culture from the inside out.

The cockpit or the gallera is an institution on and of itself and it is the veritable home of the sport.  Late journalist Louie Beltran explains: “The cockpit is the most honest institution in the Philippines. You can walk into the pit and bet ten million pesos, and they’ll take your word for it.”

Blood in the Gallera  attempts to understand Juan (everyman).  He can be the breeder.  The promoter.  The gambler.  The heeler.  The handler. The spectator.  And  the bet taker.  The sentensyador. Every Filipino is represented.

Weird, crazy stories of the Filipino’s obsession with cockfighting…from a popular promoter’s huge winnings to the farmer who left his wife.  Some game fowl breeders house their cocks in air-conditioned rooms.

First, the trained cocks who are lavishly pampered for months to either live to kill or kill to live. Second, the breeders whose gusto to the sport require them to coddle their game fowls in a lifestyle as regal as the royalties of England. And then there are the betters whose wagers, regardless where the money comes from, are of equal odds. This film puts all these together in an arena of game, battle, and blood.

All wagers in place. Onto the spurs, the gladiator takes position in the middle of the arena, whether legal or not, cockfighting in the Philippines commits to the true form of an egalitarian society – where the rich and poor engage in an equal game of chance.

Far from embodying democracy, the cockpit is the country’s cleanest allegory of class and caste. It is a wonderfully absurd ruse that anchors the status quo, offering the “tao”, the Filipino common man, a picture of the prize in place of the price itself.

It is a danse macabre, combining scientific breeding and ancient wizardry, that ultimately turns on the idiosyncracies of an animal with the brain the size of a pea.  (Alan Berlow, Dead Season)

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