The founding director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute talks about the local film industry and the absurd conditions that have given it recognition
This year would be as good as—better, actually, than—any in many a Pinoy’s lifetime to talk about local cinema.[i] This early (last quarter, as of this writing), 2013 will be remembered as one of the major watershed moments in Philippine film activity, of which the most impressive ones transpired during the Marcos dictatorship: 1976, followed by the even-numbered years of the early ’80s: 1980, 1982, and 1984. Actually, closer inspection of any of this era’s readily available filmographies will support the argument that some of these “years” were in fact longer than 12 months. The first period, for example, began in 1975 with Lino Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, while the early 1980s was actually a sustained half-decade of growth, with the culminating year, 1984, extending way to the end of 1985. Sadly, for someone who had gone through those years, I’d tend to associate 2013 not with 1976 (when the country was benefiting from the then-recent stability provided by the implementation of martial law), but with 1984, when Pinoy film artists were performing at their peak right at the moment when the nation was reeling from the economic trauma wrought by widespread corruption and civil disobedience, exacerbated by the US-activated global economic recession.
The disasters of 2013 may have been partly environmental rather than entirely political this time around, but it should never be too premature to call attention to the productivity of local filmmakers, again because of the way that the 1980s anti-dictatorship movement overrode most reasonable responses to Pinoy film achievements: the early ’80s seemed impressive enough only in retrospect, mainly because what succeeded the Marcos era was several years of sub-quality productions followed by a spell of near-total inactivity and the studios’ inevitable attempts at profitability via the desperate measures of infantile fantasies, toilet-humor comedies, and exploitative sex dramas. If one were to read mainstream film commentary during the late Marcos period, it would seem that nothing of import was being done then—an attitude meant to reflect on the decline of the regime as a whole.
Hence any responsible observer would be obliged to declare that the evidence of quality film production in 2013 has so far been solid enough so that, if nothing else gets released during the rest of the year except for the middlebrow romances and funny-face comedies that established studios had been leaning on for the past couple of decades, we would still have more than enough reason to commemorate the year. Fortuitously, the promise of interesting productions has not been entirely exhausted: the very last event, the Christmas season’s Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), has been attempting a throwback to its glory years via its “New Wave” module, a side event of lesser-budgeted “independent” projects.
In ironic contrast with the present, the MMFF’s past role had been central to so-called Golden Age activity, with 1976’s first December edition yielding Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon? and Brocka’s Insiang, and subsequent editions showcasing some of the best output of their respective years, all more or less deserving of canonical stature: Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen in 1977, Marilou Diaz-Abaya’sBrutal and Brocka’s Bona in 1980, Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata in 1981, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala and Diaz-Abaya’s Moral in 1982, Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal in 1983, Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail in 1984, and Castillo’sParadise Inn in 1985 (two of the better festival franchises, the Panday and Shake, Rattle & Roll series, were also initiated during this period). From 1986 onward the MMFF had to struggle mightily but only wound up at best with also-rans, finally surrendering to the prerogative of stipulating box-office success as a major awards criterion about a decade ago, right at the point when it assumed a national character by appending “Philippines” to its name (MMFF-P). The process by which the event squandered its founding ideals should be an urgent problematic for any serious student of local cinema; unfortunately, the auteur-infatuated and canon-obsessed orientation of most local film scholars tends to preclude any initiative toward this end. Instead, the response of concerned individuals and institutions seems to have mirrored their reactions to the limitations of award-giving bodies: that is, first draw up a series of complaints about the flawed organization, then introduce a new award-giving system claiming to be an improved version of the earlier one – which in turn would be subject to the same dynamics that result in another process of deterioration, leading once more to the formation of still another group introducing its claim to award-giving validity.
Hence during the early 2000s, when film production had dwindled close to single-digit levels, there were actually more awards in existence than films produced; similarly, there appeared to have been a subsequent trend toward the proliferation of film festivals, with 2013 marking the year when their numbers began to escalate. The critical response to the MMFF’s problems was immediate, expressed as early as the year it first introduced commercial performance as a measure for artistic recognition. Yet the formulation of a solution to its problems arrived only after several other MMFF-inspired festivals had sprouted, and only as an apparent afterthought, with the December festival being required to showcase “digital indies” (à la Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, and Cinemanila) – as a pre-festival side event rather than in direct competition with the main entries.
One may argue (persuasively, to my mind) that film festivals are more directly productive than award-giving activities. More films being produced is always good news, and I’d maintain that in the most progressive sense, quality should become at best a secondary consideration: industrial activity always signifies that some people, few though they may be, are being gainfully employed, so no matter how loud the complaints against MMFF rise up, there will always be voices, belonging to the least privileged participants in the festival’s film projects, who will have been grateful for the event’s continuance simply because at the end of the day, they were able to earn an adequate living from a legal undertaking.
Yet the dangers of unreflective festivalizing (per Kanye West’s useful coinage) ought to have been inferred from the problems that awards activities have faced: not for nothing has an award-giving component been institutionalized in standard filmfest arrangements. So when an innovation like the MMFF can be bowdlerized to the point where in its current phase it could never be recognized as a kindred spirit by any of its earlier versions, the first issue to keep in mind is a paradox: that its current failure actually proceeded from its earlier success. The current iterations of the project-subsidizing merit-conscious festivalization of noteworthy film output stand at a remove from (and assert their superiority to) the MMFF in large part because of their inability to amass the same amount of profits—i.e., their moral superiority is perceived by critical observers in direct proportion to these events’ symbolic distance from filthy lucre. Once these admittedly enormous differences dwindle enough to relieve the seeming atrociousness of the older festival, there had better be mechanisms (not based on the personal preferences of their founding leaders) in the younger events to ensure that these do not follow the MMFF’s disgraceful about-face.
Sample “Fringe” Events
As long as the MMFF is around, any of the newer events can claim to be an Other type of undertaking: the “Cine” triumvirate of Cinemalaya, Cinema One Originals, and Cinemanila are only begrudged a limited measure of institutional support, while 2013’s Juanas-come-lately share the earlier trio’s troubles, plus they have to operate in their predecessors’ shadows.[ii] Yet, if I may beg the reader’s indulgence, I would like to demonstrate how festival Otherness can never be pure, and can always be a matter of what anyone—organizer, participant, even observer—can be capable of imagining. In doing so we might be able to run through a few significant products of one of these events, so we’d even be returning to the auteurist and canonical issues that I had attempted to shunt aside earlier.
The redundantly titled Sineng Pambansa National Film Festival, like the MMFF, is more overtly a government-sponsored undertaking than, say, Cinemalaya, which is run by a team of outsiders in a government agency. The Sineng Pambansa organizer’s clout was demonstrated when the Film Development Council of the Philippines managed to wangle a full week’s run at SM Cinemas, the country’s top movie-theater chain. Also, all the names in its so-called All Masters Edition (hereafter AME) would be recognized by the relatively elderly among us as veterans of the MMFF, either as direct participants or as the latter’s contemporaries, and with an early winner (Celso Ad. Castillo) represented posthumously. How then does this event become its own Other?
From the fairly basic process of tracking its participants’ career trajectories. Inasmuch as the MMFF itself, as we noted earlier, had transmogrified into the very condition—excessively commercial film practice—that it had originally sought to rectify, the auteurs who had been its prestige era’s most successful players would have had to give way to more mercenary colleagues or newcomers, or to their own less illustrious tendencies. Since the newer digital-indie festivals stake their reputation on the breaks they provide younger practitioners (Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals even reverse the MMFF’s tokenism by allowing side events for masters – which in fact results in the same kind of Othering for the same group of people), we can provisionally conclude that at this point, it is the favored practitioners of yesteryears, the names that get listed immediately after the local Parthenon’s top-ranked Brocka and Bernal, who get marginalized when it comes to festival film production projects.
The AME’s decision to dispense with the standard award-giving procedure (performed via the equalizing decision of declaring all the directors winners) has distinguished it further from both the MMFF and its “Cine” rivals. In a sense, this forces us to appreciate what this festival has been able to achieve that the others will be unable to: a throwback to the old MMFF, wherein even the least successful entries guarantee the mass-identified viewer that she or he is not going to be regarded as unworthy of understanding whatever statements the texts wish to make. In this instance, one’s disappointment will always be tempered by a personal longing, the same way one gets let down by a close friend; we are able to understand the intention behind the effort, and wish that the person had been up to the challenge, or had been capable of the kind of reflective and ego-free honesty that would have prevented this kind of waste of time and money. In terms of the type of disappointment one occasionally encounters in a contemporary digi-indie filmfest, where even an otherwise impressive display of school-trained skills could not mask the sense that the filmmakers would rather skip the local screening process and fast-forward to the Euro-filmfest circuit, I would be willing to rewind to a few decades back and slap around my younger self for having wished for more of this type of sensibility.
About half of the AME entries—a higher average actually than the typical local festival, except for the exception-that-proved-the-rule 1977 MMFF—may be regarded as noteworthy, in both the positive and the negative resonances that such a term conveys these days. In fact, in the case of Mel Chionglo’s Lauriana, Chito Roño’s Badil, and Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’s Sonata, the worst that can be said is that these filmmakers had done better work—capable of laying claim to lengthy lists that would be the envy of any directorial newcomer—in the past. In the case of Jose Javier Reyes’s Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap?, Joel Lamangan’s Lihis, and Elwood Perez’s Otso, one could even make the more brazen assertion (beyond contention, in the case of Perez) that these were their respective directors’ career best.
I had been able to focus on half of these aforementioned titles mainly because these were the ones I was able to rewatch, for highly subjective as well as pragmatic reasons; given a freer schedule and even freer budget, I would gladly reacquaint myself with the rest as well. Nevertheless, we could begin by taking note here of the manner in which two of these six constitute throwbacks to the debates on cultural politics circa the Marcos era. Gallaga, whose Oro, Plata, Mata launched the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ production scheme (the mother of all quality-determined film-subsidy programs in the country) in 1982, experienced pushback from leftist quarters for his alleged empathy for the plight of the landed class in his home province. This perspective belies the arguably stronger sympathy his debut film extended to the movie’s underclass characters, including the disgruntled and sexually exploited lumpen gang whose (initially successful) response lay closer to anarchy than to principled revolt; this would conceivably have aggravated the critical perception of any concerned-though-Orthodox Marxist observer, enough to override the film’s larger achievement as a triumph of naturalist cine-aesthetics.
Sonata references Oro, Plata, Mata in a literal manner, by setting the narrative not just in Bacolod but also in the very house, in the older film, where the extended family and their servants had their extensive idyll, before the incursion of the Japanese Imperial Army forced them further into the jungle and incited the behavior that one character described as asal-hayop or beastly. In contrast, Sonata presents a major character (played by the same actress who essayed the asal-hayop character in the earlier film) without the benefit of the perspective of secondary characters; the fact that she happens to be an eccentric crisis-ridden global artist – a middle-aged woman alienated from her society and culture, one eager to interact with social outcasts since she perceives herself as one – ought to have clued overeager commenters to the warning that the narrative is not meant to be read as a “correct” allegory of class relations.
The Gallaga-Reyes command of feature filmmaking craft has reached a point where one may note the ways in which the filmmakers tread on possibly politically contentious territory yet revel in the seductive pleasures of high culture, scenic bounties, childlike innocence, and honest emotions foregrounded in the film, held together by the larger-than-life delivery of Cherie Gil, who in her prime has been towering over her gifted clan and who, in a just system, should now have several other bigger stars begging for her mercy and producers begging for her service. As a way of further qualifying my notions about Sonata, I decided to rewatch Behn Cervantes’s Sakada (1976), which purported to depict the aspect of sugar plantation workers supposedly neglected by Gallaga (prior to and with Reyes), and a curious event took place: I witnessed a film where the harshness of hacenderos was received without humor or goodwill from otherwise sufficiently mature characters on both sides of the divide; the area they lived in was devoid of natural attractions, except for the grotesquerie displayed by the lords of the place; and in its world no perversion, much less perverse pleasure, could thrive beyond always-politicized decadence. I would believe myself capable of accepting both versions of reality proffered by these two conflicting texts, but I might have to state that one of them might be closer to the real-life existence I had been able to observe in my peripatetic lifetime; and once Sakada eventually qualifies its political agenda by laying conflictual blame on middle persons rather than on the enlightened and essentially well-meaning plantation owners, I knew that at least in this regard, the Gallaga texts display a more progressive attitude.
Another AME entry, Lihis, set me off in another direction, this time the recent past through a still-to-be-realized future. Joel Lamangan had announced a few years ago that he had decided to embark on a series of projects that would constitute his legacy as Pinoy filmmaker: a coverage, via digital feature-film texts, of organized resistance to institutional repressions, as a means of commemorating (and in the process redefining) people power.[iii] The few that I had seen among his half-dozen installments so far evince a mature artist seeking to grapple with new technology as well as material that walks a tightrope in bypassing the generic excesses of commercial practice while acknowledging its audience’s entertainment expectations. In particular, one of the early texts, the Cinemalaya entry Sigwa (2010), goes to the extent of acknowledging the internal divisions that had effectively balkanized the once-monolithic Communist Party of the Philippines, although one’s receptiveness would depend on what position one would take regarding the legitimacy of the organization’s founding leadership.
Lihis allows for an externalized critique that may be shared by outsiders, a fact which might have enhanced its achievement as the most successful box-office performer among what we might provisionally term Lamangan’s progressive film series. The primary reason for its appeal is its clever reconfiguration of the inseparability of the personal from the political, in situating a then-disallowed preference, homosexuality, within the set-up of the still-disallowed New People’s Army. From observing the mostly young and presumably straight mass viewers who watched it, I’d speculate that their shock of recognition lay not in the now-tolerated display of male queerness, but in the intense romanticism that it could engender, with the idealism of a liberation army, ennobled by its opposition to the fascist dictatorship then ensconced in the country’s seat of power, affirming the tendency’s righteousness (per Foucauldian discourse) paradoxically by repressing it.
Thus, just as Marxist principles had to struggle against right-wing forces, so did queer desire set out to prove that an organization claiming to uphold radical change had its own limitations to confront. That it succeeded in doing so redounds to the NPA’s credit, inasmuch as it soon thereafter opted to recognize same-sex marriage, and in fact preceded the US, the object of its anti-imperialist critique, in introducing this socio-legal innovation. Lihis primes an audience conceivably less sympathetic to the historically demonized options of Communism and queer love by relying on capable storytelling as well as strong performances; Jake Cuenca in particular had my memory scrambling for any previous depiction in local cinema of such an intense combination of male longing and frustration – and when I finally remembered an equivalent sample, it was (not surprisingly) Eddie Garcia’s in Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto. The other means by which Lihis makes a connection with unaffiliated viewers is through its feminist advocacy, not just in framing the narrative via the investigative research of the daughter of one of the gay male characters, but also in allowing the daughter’s mother, excluded by the inevitable fruition of her husband’s same-sex relationship, to express her disappointment not in her eventually divorced husband’s preference but in the hypocrisy of the movement’s leadership in declaring the relationship wrong but condoning it anyway for militaristic reasons.
Lamangan continues to earn flak for having once been extremely successful as a commercial player in the industry. In this regard, he has risked his own recuperation as Pinoy film artist by selecting material that requires the very opposite of flashy style—the cinematic “value” that over-schooled critics and aspirants regard as proof that one is not (or is no longer) profit-oriented, as if wasting producers’ currency and consumers’ patience were the whole point, or even a major part, of justifying one’s participation in industrial activity. A major local filmmaker, Ishmael Bernal, had been similarly penalized for resorting to aesthetic strategies that were more apt for Third-World contexts, and it would be tantamount to critical arrogance to maintain that Lamangan’s previous modes of practice and the stylistic decisions he makes for his progressive film series belong in the same realm just because they share the same credit. One could be disabused of this notion by watching the series chronologically; a still-forthcoming but already completed entry, Burgos, might soon be available and boasts of an even more subtle command of what may be described as a resolutely stylish stylelessness, with the same clutch of strong performances (Lorna Tolentino first and foremost playing against type, to surprisingly effective results) that help propel the narrative toward an open ending filled with grace and wonder.
Power of Two
With Elwood Perez and Otso, the AME could claim that it has performed a signal intervention in the historical narrative of Philippine cinema. Otso is the kind of work that incites observers to return to the filmmaker’s early output, usually in order to search for evidence of how she or he had been dropping hints of the genius that had lately just bloomed and taken everyone by surprise. Allow me to simplify the hunt by stating that it gets easier the closer we get to the present. In his early years Perez was identified, whether rightly or wrongly, as part of a circle of “camp” filmmakers that, in its most basic configuration, included Joey Gosiengfiao and Cloyd Robinson; not only was the group mislabeled (they used some elements of camp and were therefore campy in style whereas camp, in contrast, could never be deliberate by definition), the membership was not one of equals, with poor Robinson the least significant of the three. Gosiengfiao peaked early and came up with at least one successful genre satire; those puzzled by the current cult devotion paid to Temptation Island(1980) can rest easy, since it’s Underage (from the same year) that I’d champion, for its gleeful skewering of the poor-little-rich-kids tearjerker movie without having to resort to easy misogyny and sloppy execution.
More relevant to the issue of reception, Gosiengfiao and Perez (and, why not, Robinson) were generally ignored, if not reviled, by serious commentators of the time for indulging in what were perceived as frivolities—humor, soft-core sex, reflexivity, genre send-ups, avoidance of or cynicism toward political issues—and, even worse for the critics though obviously not for the producers, profiting considerably from these attempts. This was the period when martial law was starting to worsen, after all. The price extracted from Perez must have stung since, after the Marcos regime, when Robinson and Gosiengfiao were becoming less active, he came into his own, possibly by accident, the same way that Otso appears to have been unexpected. In 1989 he completed the final installment of Regal Films’ revival of the Guy-and-Pip musical romance and provided the definitive sample of how a genre that seemed irredeemable, for having been excessively profitable for so long that it had gone out of circulation and had to be forcibly revived, could be reconceptualized as an epically proportioned social melodrama. Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit (1989) ought to have had a continuing impact, especially in today’s artificial separation between “artistic” indie practitioners and “commercial” romantic-comedy specialists, but it was downgraded by the critics’ group during its annual recognition ceremony in favor of a decidedly minor achievement by the more highly statured Bernal.
Bilangin ang Bituin, unlike, say, Bernal’s Pahiram ng Isang Umaga (the film that the organized critics preferred), exhibited a number of emotional high points, customary characterizations, plot coincidences, and anticlimaxes that might have doomed its chances for people still unable to appreciate the creative rigor required to pull off generic transformation. Its prefiguration of Otso can in fact be seen in one of its most audacious (and consequently heavily criticized) stunts, that of casting the same love-team performers to play their own respective children, who in turn attempt to form a love team of their own, and who assuage their heartbreak upon discovering their relationship as siblings by counting out 2,001 stars in the night sky and driving off a cliff.
Perez’s movies thereafter seemed bent on insisting on such a predilection for the perverse, which he had been able to indulge previously only in his sex-themed films.[iv] With Otso he had come across a kindred spirit in the film’s writer and performer, Vince Tañada, and finally had an opportunity to bring together fantastic symbolism, absurd logic, slapstick humor, surreal developments, substantial in-joke references, and that intangible element, the ability to continually tickle and titillate the audience so that they wind up forgiving the movie’s several flights of fancy and pretentions to meanings that often get overturned in the end. Who could have imagined that a Pinoy film could present a full character’s conflicted existence and multi-levelled disputes with political and showbiz figures without requiring several hours’ worth of footage, and without aspiring to deaden its viewers’ sense of fascination and discovery?
With Otso, Perez brings himself, and the rest of Philippine art and literature, to what we might be able to hope would be one of several peaks in postmodern practice. It should be made required viewing for the filmfest greenhorn hoping to impress occasionally even more clueless jurors on who should be the actual appreciators of cinematic achievements, just as mainstream filmmakers need to study it closely to learn how they can provide entertainment and still wind up with artistic self-respect. Tall order, I know, and it would be far easier to simply begin revising the assessment of Elwood Perez’s significance. And if works with Otso’s quota of audacity, substance, and pleasure can be ensured in future film festivals, then I’d be willing to revise my doom-and-gloom assessment of their future possibilities: let a hundred filmfests bloom.The author wishes to express gratitude for help extended by Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr. and Patrick Flores; Peque Gallaga, Joel Lamangan and Ricardo Lee, Elwood Perez and Vince Tañada; Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil; Ronald Arguelles, Tammy B. Dinopol, and Nestor de Guzman; and Leloy Claudio. Among the newly launched or relaunched occurrences are: an additional digital independent event (Cine Filipino); a few local-government revivals; a number of regional fests; auteur retrospectives; and foreign screenings of Pinoy products, highlighted by the twentieth anniversary of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International in San Francisco, California. Apart from the movies discussed in this section, the films that Joel Lamangan set out to direct as part of his legacy project are Dukot from 2009; Patikul from 2011; and Migrante from 2012. In an interview with the author, Lamangan stated that he has no plans so far of determining at what point the series will end, and that he hopes to be able to focus on the plight of rural workers in future assignments. Another distinction that Elwood Perez had, relative to his “camp” buddies, was his willingness to depict ambitiously narrated sexual kinks and anomalies, thus aligning himself with such innovators as Ishmael Bernal and Celso Ad. Castillo. Disgrasyada in 1979 solidified Regal Films’ status as purveyor of the “bold” trend, and supposedly instigated a dressing down of producer Lily Monteverde by Imelda Marcos (in her infamous though possibly apocryphal “bamboo” speech castigating “Mother” Lily for being, in effect, un-Filipino); Shame launched Claudia Zobel in 1983 as the hottest sex kitten of her time, her career cut short in the next year by a fatal car accident; Silip (1985) rode on the censorship-exempt Manila Film Center’s propensity to offer increasingly extreme material.