Philippine Cinema on the Map

Women of the Weeping River (2016)

A version of this essay is first published in Dutch in the Flemish film magazine Filmmagie (“Filipijnse film op de kaart”) in its July–August 2017 issue, translated by the editor Bjorn Gabriels. I express my deepest thanks to Bjorn for allowing me to publish this here.

An exhibition of modern Filipino film entitled “A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema” ­ — a selection of 18 films by 13 directors that boasts the industry’s “diversity of genre and style, audacious formal experimentation, and multiplicity of personal/social/political perspectives” — was held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in June 2017. Organized by the MoMA’s associate curator La Frances Hui, it screened movies released from mid-2000s to the present, works that belong to and, as one could deduce from the scope of the project, properly represent what it calls the “Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema.” Several directors, partly by virtue of their popularity in the international festival circuit, had more than one film under their names.

This should have been a proud moment for an industry that has long been absent from the political map of world cinema. With the MoMA’s high reputation as a cultural institution, it not only puts the spotlight on Philippine cinema and validates the significance of the recent surge of Filipino films under its so-called independent cinema, but it also legitimizes a convenient term that has been thrown around many times for years. Calling an era a golden age never fails to give an impression of unquestionable importance. Unfortunately, despite its merits, this exhibition is but a reinforcement of a prevailing system that foregrounds a type of cinema and ignores another, “unwittingly continuing the promotion of a homogeneous, Manila-centric vision of a Philippine national cinema,” as the Cebu-based scholar Paul Grant puts it. No representation is innocent or apolitical, and this disregard for a responsible survey of what purports to be contemporary Philippine cinema can have a harmful, not to mention irreparable, effect on how Filipino narratives are interpreted.

Like most national cinemas, Philippine cinema is impossible to be fully and fairly represented by one film or filmmaker alone, or even by a bunch of films selected for a special retrospective. However, with the usual names of directors being invited to the world’s biggest festivals, championed by their respective programmers, foreign viewers and those who value their opinions can easily formulate a rather homogeneous view of a country and its culture based on what they see in these movies and how they read them. This is not to say that the poverty and crimes shown in Brillante Mendoza’s works do not persist in Philippine society, or the bleak milieus and tortured souls evident in Lav Diaz’s stories do not exist. But a serious understanding of a national cinema requires going beyond dominant representations, attempting at least to see not only the picture and its scenery but also the process of how it was taken, the struggles leading to its creation and the conditions from which such political art springs.

A quick look at the map of the Philippines already reveals a lot: It is an archipelago made up of thousands of islands, divided into three big groups (Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao) from north to south. Separated by waters and languages, it is a nation whose unifying quality is its diversity. There is one national language — Filipino, not Tagalog as often presumed — but hundreds of others across the country are also as rich. And with different languages come different stories and histories, each unique on its own, each defined by its nuance, and each belongs to what constitutes a national identity. Sadly, not each one is given the opportunity to be told, or at least be told by its own people.

Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975)

Up to this day, the majority of film productions and screenings take place in the capital. Manila-based filmmakers and Manila-centric ideologies and narratives have long upheld control and privilege, even though Cebu in Visayas has its own industry as well, not to mention two golden ages (in the 1950s and 1970s). It is no surprise that two of the considered greatest Filipino films have the city in their titles: Manila: In the Claws of Light by Lino Brocka and Manila by Night by Ishmael Bernal. These two works are exceptional in their bold critique of living in Manila in the 1970s and 1980s under martial law, unabashedly unapologetic in their portraits of a cruel city. Over the years, the term “imperial Manila” has often been used disparagingly but not unfairly: The logic of asserting an all-inclusive national cinema is defeated by blatant hegemony, unfortunately perpetuated on both large and small scales.

Despite the congestion and rampant poverty, Manila has thus become a place to aspire for, a city for dreamers, a melting pot of cultures in which different voices gather and wait for their turn to be heard. The Filipino migrant culture is not only spatial, with people being compelled by their socioeconomic conditions to move in search of better opportunities, but also adaptive, incorporating themselves into the present environment without foregoing their roots. For decades, those from outside Manila who have been unsatisfied in their respective fields would take on the bigger challenge of settling in the big city, some of whom are hopeful actors or singers waiting for their breaks, while some are willing to start from the bottom and work as production assistants to become writers and directors.

Nora Aunor, considered the greatest Filipino actor, hails from Iriga, Camarines Sur. Kidlat Tahimik, regarded as the father of Philippine independent cinema, is from Baguio, Benguet. Brocka, a Cannes favorite during his time, was from Pilar, Sorsogon. Mendoza, another Cannes favorite, is from San Fernando, Pampanga. Diaz, who has won the top prizes from Locarno and Venice, is from Datu Paglas, Maguindanao. There are countless others who can also be used as examples, but the fact remains that whatever is being or has been produced in Manila, or shown in Manila, or depicted in films about Manila, is not only essentially Manila — it is made by people from different places with different sensibilities, one that is plural and heterogeneous and cannot be attributed to one distinct iconography. At some point, this has become a standard definition of Philippine cinema — the existence of a dominant industry that welcomes all but does not necessarily include all, a delineation dictated by political geography — and this has been accepted since no stronger alternatives have emerged.

Until the early 2000s. People often mistake this time for the birth and boom of Philippine independent cinema, which already existed and prospered, albeit on a more modest scale, decades ago. But what it has given birth to, with the advent of digital technology and the so-called democratization of filmmaking, is a decentralized industry that stands alongside the consistency and diligence of commercial cinema (which generally releases new movies almost every other week), a growing community that has taken advantage of cheaper equipment and the efficiency of the internet to make films with relative ease. The catalyst for this explosion is the accessibility and affordability of technology, making cinema a more attractive tool for storytelling and enabling a movement to encourage growth not only in quantity but also in quality.

As expected, the number of independent movies being produced has increased along with the number of festivals offering venues for them — beginning with Cinemanila, Cinemalaya, and Cinema One Originals — and several filmmakers have gone around the foreign circuits: Khavn dela Cruz, Raya Martin, John Torres, Adolf Alix, Jr., Sherad Anthony Sanchez, Jerrold Tarog, Auraeus Solito, Alvin Yapan, to name a few. Some directors who have been active in the previous years (or even decades) have also found a new audience: Jeffrey Jeturian, Erik Matti, Jose Javier Reyes, Joel Lamangan, Gil Portes, Chito Roño, Raymond Red. It is undeniably an exciting time for both the filmmakers and their audiences, as the landscape is changing, little by little, to become more inclusive.

Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (2010)

Many doors and windows have opened. Without undermining its other contributions, the greatest justice coming from this flurry of activity is the wave of filmmakers from different parts of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao finally given the opportunity to take the helm and tell their own stories. There is a huge difference between a Manila filmmaker going to Cebu or Davao and setting a story in these cities and a Cebuano or Davaoeño filmmaker doing the same. More than quality, it is an issue of perspective and sensibility (although these two also contribute to quality), a distribution of privilege, so to speak, that ideally diminishes cultural appropriation. The astonishing power of Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (The Dream of Eleuteria) by the Cebuano filmmaker Remton Siega Zuasola comes not only from its commitment to telling a complex story in one continuous take — a miraculous feat reminiscent of the magic of Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) by Tahimik — but also from its externalization, and extrapolation, of a poor family’s desire to have a better life, the circumstances coming across as something distinctly Cebuano yet also very Filipino, and upon realization, also similar to many of those living in emerging countries. Ang Paglalakbay ng mga Bituin sa Gabing Madilim (The Journey of Stars into the Dark Night) by Arnel Mardoquio and Women of the Weeping River by Sheron Dayoc are two of the finest anti-war films ever made, combining a clear political stance with visual poetry, arguing the decades-long conflict in Mindanao with urgency and wisdom.

The continuous development of the independent scene has provided the diversity that has long been lacking in Philippine cinema, yielding an array of Filipino directors whose films tackle the complexities of their roots using their own language, among them: Christopher Gozum (Pangasinan), Jason Paul Laxamana (Pampanga), Mes de Guzman (Nueva Vizcaya), Lemuel Lorca (Quezon), Ara Chawdhury (Cebu), Keith Deligero (Cebu), Ray Gibraltar (Iloilo/Negros Occidental), Gutierrez Mangansakan II (Maguindanao), and Bagane Fiola (Davao). There have also been short films made in languages such as Ilocano, Kankanaey, Bicolano, Waray-Waray, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, Higaonon, and Chavacano.

Whereas mainstream cinema has remained loyal to genres that can easily rake in money (comedies, romance, and horror), trying its best to recycle tropes and cater to a traditional view of what the masses would like (values-oriented, dramatic confrontations, happy endings), independent cinema would engage in sociopolitical issues that have long been thought unfit for film, subjects considered too serious or depressing to carry entertainment: human trafficking, street crimes, unemployment, calamities, violence, sexual awakenings, historical reinterpretations, the war in Mindanao, the death of culture, etc. — and situate stories and plots in places too uncommon for general audiences: urban shanties, rural dwellings, maternity wards, public cemeteries, government offices, culs-de sac, mosques, forests where soldiers and rebels clash, remote communities where taboos are exposed.

Although it has its share of missteps and mix of ill-intentioned people, this supposedly alternative industry has pushed and rallied for pluralism and achieved it, and the effect is felt not merely because Philippine cinema is on the map of overseas festivals again as it was in the 1970s and 1980s (a time of political turmoil) but because local audiences, young and old alike, have continued to support it up to now (another time of political turmoil) by attending annual festivals held almost every other month in which these films are shown. People are always quick to jump at every opportunity to make large pronouncements — for instance, by calling this era the Third Golden Age — and it is hard to blame them because for those who have not lived in the First and Second Golden Ages (in the 1940s and 1950s, and 1970s and 1980s, respectively), this period of persistence reasonably feels like one. But a golden age is not just about the production of major works but also the proliferation of key ideas, a mix of constructive and problematic, and the post-2000 Philippine cinema is brimming with them.

Manila by Night/City after Dark (1980)

There used to exist an impassioned debate dichotomizing mainstream and independent, a fleet of discussions ranging from substantial arguments (deliberating the modes of production that enable the creation of prevailing dogmas; or the abusive practices in production environments) to matter-of-fact attacks (the poor technical quality — ugliness! — of independent films; or the glossiness — fakeness! — of mainstream movies), ascertaining only how the industry thrives in resistance, in the push and pull of ideas until everyone gets tired and moves on. For quite some time, there has also been an uproar with the popularity of the term “poverty porn,” describing the inclination of several movies to depict poverty misguidedly, with uncomfortable fetishism, sometimes only to pique the attention of foreign programmers whose basic knowledge of the Philippines, though not untrue, is its being a Third World country.

One may ask: If this is the current state of Philippine cinema, what is its future? Easy: No one knows. It is not completely wrong to suggest that there is an uncanny parallelism between the country’s political ground and the film industry, with how Filipinos are triggered by social events to take action and make art that reflects on the struggles of living in present society. Both are problematic and have the tendency to go low, but each has its throng of good people who do their best to do the right thing. As documents of time, films have always been a tool to remember; an implement that connects the past, present, and future; a means to bring to mind the atrocities of the war in Mindanao and martial law, both of which are happening at the time of writing; a way to let audiences realize how poverty is as omnipresent as the gods and as powerful to decide their fates; a medium to exercise the freedom fought bloodily against imperialists; and a channel to point out the importance of telling stories because they are proof of life. If cinema, as real life, is survival of the fittest, then it is only moral, and noble, to do one’s best to let others live and help them carry on.