Millennial Traversals – Commentaries

These articles’ functions eventually evolved from interpretive reports to intensive commentaries, the more I became familiar with industry issues and dynamics. Their topicality of course became their problem: unlike reviews, which serve to historicize specific film releases (many of which have been or will be disappearing), these aimed to intervene in a usually fluid historical moment that sometimes overturned or rendered irrelevant the points I raised. Also, by their generalist nature, several of these served as springboards – informal frameworks – for more in-depth studies I conducted afterward. Occasionally I would keep pursuing the same topic, revising and expanding as I went along; in the instance of film censorship, I wound up with a few articles that I managed to anthologize in my books and therefore dispensed with the earlier, less-developed discourses. Finally, in my capacity as media practitioner (in magazine offices, and especially at the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines) and in the interest of popularizing my findings, I had assumed that the data at our fingertips would be properly archived and wouldn’t need to be cited; that, as it turned out, was one of the worst oversights I committed during the pre-internet era.

PINOY IN GANGSTERLAND

Not since the early 1960s, when the box-office success of Pablo Santiago’s Asiong Salonga (1961) prompted the production of several gangster movies and, consequently, the thorough overhaul of Philippine censorship laws, has there been as profitable a market for gangster films as there is at present about two decades since. Hardly a month passes by without at least own movie that could fit the description of a gangster film or any of its subgenres.

Although one of the earliest silent features, Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, is fittingly celebrated as a predecessor, the gangster film as a genre originated in Hollywood during the early 1930s – an era now ironically regarded as having been relatively prosperous to any other in this century. A similar sensibility, however, was also apparent in the exceptional output of the German movie industry of that same period. Hence some significant crossovers between Hollywood and Germany were more inevitable than incidental: Josef von Sternberg, whose Underworld is considered one of the finest pre-1930s gangster films, made the underworld-set The Blue Angel in Germany in 1930, while Fritz Lang, who was deservedly admired for his treatment of the murderous psyche in M (subtitled A City Looks for a Murderer) and his Dr. Mabuse series, was to continue contributing to the genre in Hollywood after his flight from Nazism in 1933. Little Caesar, directed by Mervyn Le Roy in 1930, is considered the first major American gangster film not only because it contained the basic elements that would define the genre but also, and perhaps more important, because it was its year’s biggest box-office success.

In fact a recent reconsideration of the genre as a critical approach has yielded the creditable consensus that it provides nothing more than a convenient pattern for historical analysis. Even then its origin should always be kept in mind: a genre derives from the movie industry’s profit-oriented propensity to rely on commercially successful formulas. The movie-going audience in turn develops a reliance on familiar patterns if only because entertainment is made more accessible that way.

The 1930s Hollywood gangster films spawned a historical pattern that, because of its consistency, can be considered a genre unto itself. When no less than fifty gangster movies were produced the year after success of Little Caesar, concerned conservative groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Knights of Columbus almost succeeded in lobbying for a national American board of censors. The liberal leanings of leaders then prevented such a disaster, but not the enforcement of a so-called production code which limited the depiction of lawlessness in films. A sample excerpt:

Murder:

  • The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.
  • Brutal killings are not to be presented in detail.
  • Revenge in modern times shall not be justified.
  • Methods of crime should not be explicitly presented.
  • Theft, robbery, safecracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc., should not be detailed in method.
  • Arson must be subject to the same safeguards.
  • The use of firearms should be restricted to essentials.
  • Methods of smuggling should not be presented.

Similarly the success of Filipino gangster films during the early 1960s led to limitations in the depiction of lawlessness in films. But unlike in Hollywood, these restrictions obtain up to the present:

The board disfavors or disapproves the following topics, themes, and subjects:

  • Criminals and outlaws. The use of lawless elements as film subjects endows them with unmerited heroic stature.
  • Gangland warfare and other exploitative action stories. Action-filled stories dominated by the use of guns, firearms, and other fatal weapons.

The following are specific scenes or elements to be avoided or totally excluded from film scripts:

  • Scenes depicting gruesome and gory killings, showing bloodied or lacerated faces or disjointed parts of the body, or blood spewing out of a bullet or knife wound or any other wound inflicted through other lethal weapons.
  • Scenes involving the use of guns and other hardware, except in war pictures whose scripts have been approved for filming by the board.
  • Scenes showing in full detail methods of crime, theft, robbery, safecracking, dynamiting of trains and other similar acts of crime.

The reaction of establishment authorities to gangster films, in Hollywood as anywhere else (including the Philippines), has been an alleged aversion to the re-enactment of violence. But, after all, the depiction of violence in general is even more likely to create an adverse reaction rather than a favorable one. What is left unsaid is the fact that gangster films could encourage disrespect for authority, portraying as they do businessmen, politicians, and law enforcers as weak and/or corrupt or worse.

The gangster film as a genre had been imbued, right from its very inception, with generic elements by cultist critics. At the aforementioned risk of over-esteeming the genre as a critical tool, these elements are as follows: clothes, as an indication of increased prosperity; cars, both as a measure of status and as a means for terrorizing enemies and passerby; guns, as the gangster’s most important and ultimately only means for asserting his manhood; phones, as a means for facilitating communication within the underworld network; the big city, as a metaphor for law and society within which the gangster must function; and misogyny, probably though inexcusably intended to play up the gangster’s paranoia.

Each decade succeeding the 1930s is considered to have seen modifications in the genre. The thriller emerged in the 1940s with the success of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, in which, no thanks to a revitalized Legion of Decency, the crime fighter became the central character. In the 1950s another and perhaps a better Huston film, The Asphalt Jungle, dwelt upon the syndicate instead of individual gangsters, thus expanding the sociological dimensions of the genre. The 1960s foreran the next decade’s women films by dealing with female gangsters, culminating in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama in 1970. Reworkings of the genre were all that ever came out of the past decade (Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies are considered the most outstanding accomplishments here), all of which at least served to confirm the legitimacy of the genre.

The Filipino gangster movie, although as Hollywood-influenced as any other local genre, has succeeded in evolving some distinct features of its own. From the elements enumerated earlier as a basis, the local gangster film excludes or at least minimizes all accoutrements of prosperity; usually it includes a flight from Manila to the countryside (incidentally observing the revolutionary tenet that an armed struggle is easier to win when waged outside urban centers); lastly, it deals with women sympathetically. The contemporary prestige-sample of the local gangster genre can be traced to as far back as 1950 with the late Gerardo de Leon’s Double-Cara. Know-it-alls would probably prefer to namedrop Lamberto V. Avellana’s first feature, Sakay, as a precedent, albeit the reactionary image of nationalist rebel Macario Sakay as a bandit was precisely what the movie was upholding.

Another de Leon film, Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (made two years after Doble-Cara), is also reputed to be a “commercial” gangster movie. It is, however, more of a predecessor to the recently re-emerging cowboy movies of the late 1960s, save for and saved by the fact that the latter are derivative of imported Hollywood Westerns. The local gangster film attained an apex with Lino Brocka’s 1979 Cannes Film Festival competition entry Jaguar, a box-office flop. More that its impressive production values (most outstanding of which was Conrado Baltazar’s cinematography), the movie managed to infuse an old genre with structural significance. As written by former political detainees Jose F. Lacaba and Ricardo Lee, the script delineates the rise in ambition of a loyal security guard named Poldo and his consequential fall from social and legal graces. His relationship with a similarly ambitious but less scrupulous starlet named Cristy is made to contrast with his fate. Although the two eventually fall in love, they are prevented from staying together since each has already been claimed by her or his destiny: Poldo by imprisonment for having killed his boss’s best friend (ironically in defense of his boss), and Cristy by the lure of stardom wisely realized by using the casting couch of Poldo’s boss as a stepping-stone.

The renewed local appreciation for gangster movies preceded Jaguar though. Jun Gallardo’s Bitayin si…Baby Ama! did good box-office business in 1976 if only because it was then-nymphet Alma Moreno’s second starring role. The year after, Danny L. Zialcita’s Hindi sa Iyo ang Mundo, Baby Porcuna was nominated for all major awards by the local critics’ circle and won for Beth Bautista the best actress award. The financial performance of Jaguar can therefore be best explained as a combination of inadequate marketing strategies and unfortunate timing. As a matter of fact, considering how increasingly profitable the genre has lately become, industry insiders speculate that the movie could turn out to be a sleeper if it were to be released any time during the present.

Of course mere speculation could never compensate for the losses suffered by true quality ventures. The citation by the critics’ circle of Romy Suzara’s Pepeng Shotgun for film, direction, script, actor (Baby Ama lead Rudy Fernandez), cinematography, and editing, and Mike Relon Makiling’s Ako ang Hari for direction, actor (Jaguar’s underrated Phillip Salvador), and supporting actresses (Amy Austria, who played Cristy in Jaguar, and Gina Alajar) for 1981’s second quarter should help define directions for the serious-minded gangster film. For as proved by Jaguar, working within a genre would paradoxically be more difficult if artistic integrity were the filmmaker’s primary purpose. The very formula provided by the genre is primarily intended for commercial certainty, not aesthetic ease. The filmmaker working on a gangster movie should therefore excel within, if not above, the genre’s requisites of realism as well as its formulated speciosity. Again, that might be easier said than done.

[First published October 1981 in The Review]

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CINEMASEX

The recent leniency of the censors board concerning the approval of nonconventional movie material should be regarded with sobriety instead of enthusiasm. For if past patterns of censorship are to be taken into account, a clampdown on sex and violence in local cinema should have been imminent by now. The current countercheck against excessive censorship is provided by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, whose libertarian accomplishments may yet give way to more commercially oriented activities.

The depiction of human sexuality in Philippine cinema, typical of Catholicized culture, has been given shorter shrift than that of violence, notwithstanding the commonsensical notion that the former would normally be preferable to the latter. A decade-long study by American government commissions, in fact, confirmed the harmful effects of violence, as opposed to the harmlessness of sex, in media. The suppression of sexual themes in local cinema has led to the occasional proliferation of musical and/or comic romances, in which the socially dictated pattern of love, courtship, and marriage is observed. The first feature-length “pure” Filipino film, Jose Nepomuceno’s Ang Dalagang Bukid (1919) and the first local production to incorporate sound, Vicente Salumbides’s Collegian Love (1930), although both lost to posterity, can be speculated as conforming to the same romantic mode.

Musical and/or comic romances, however, cannot completely compensate for the ignorance of sexual issues imposed by predominantly conservative institutions on the Filipino public, due to the genre’s tendency to trivialize personal and social responsibilities. In lieu of the inadequacy of musical and/or comic romances to convey substantial lessons in human sexuality, Filipino filmmakers have managed to provide insights into sexual problems during libertarian spells in censorship. Even more impressive are the accomplishments of at least two local artists in the face of prevailing reaction.

The Legacy of “Manong”

Sexual themes in Philippines cinema were first explored by the late Gerardo de Leon, who may yet be rightfully regarded as the greatest of Filipino film stylists. Considering the conservative bent of post-war Philippine society, de Leon certainly had a rough go of it. First he started with socially justifiable issues of sexual exploitation, succeeding in 1951 with Sisa. Then he employed double-entendre in apparently less serious undertakings like Dyesebel, in which the siren’s rival asks the male lead to consider what she, the rival, could offer which the siren could not. Typical of the establishment’s inability to accommodate de Leon’s daring was the reaction to his barrier-breaking 1960 film Huwag Mo Akong Limutin. A woman censor complained that “all of the crimes in the book and the various forms of immorality have been centered in this one picture.”

The film was banned by the board of censors for its frank confrontation of sexual taboos like adultery and abortion, but was eventually passed on the basis of a political compromise: then President Garcia, to whom the movie’s producers elevated the censorship issue, had to reassure the industry for his recent ban on films from Communist countries. Although the movie eventually won an industry award as its year’s best picture, certain significant portions, including a merely attempted abortion scene, did not survive the censors.[1] (In contrast, Lino Brocka’s 1974 critical and commercial hit Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang began with a prolonged and graphic depiction of a forced abortion, thus driving home the same point that de Leon indicated he had wanted for Huwag Mo Akong Limutin – the immorality of the practice.)

Largely due to de Leon’s singular achievement, local cinema can be considered to have been liberated, if only on the thematic level, from the tradition of desisting from the discussion of sexual taboos. The past decade alone saw several serious, if not entirely successful, treatments of sexual issues in contemporary Philippine society. The following list of films according to alphabetically arranged sexual issues, followed in parentheses by their respective directors, would comprise the best among the most recent (and accessible) ones. Although intensely psycho-sexual issues like bestiality or necrophilia still have to be tackled, one can readily see that, circa the early ’80s, the field has been well-represented:

  • Adultery. The sixth commandment cuts through all social classes, and is thus accordingly approached in local cinema. Rusticity defines Romy Suzara’s Laruang Apoy (1977), while urban squalor does the same for Brocka’s Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (1979). An insightful and witty approach is provided by Eddie Romero’s Sino’ng Kapiling, Sino’ng Kasiping? (1977), while an emotional one can be found in Maryo J. de los Reyes’s Gabun: Ama Mo, Ama Ko (1979) – both dealing with the middle classes. Danny L. Zialcita’s Ikaw at ang Gabi (1979) is an atmospheric study of loneliness among the so-called beautiful people.
  • Extra- or pre-marital affairs. This pastime can understandably be indulged in only by those with plenty of leisure time, beginning with the upper middle class (with Baguio as backdrop) in Mike de Leon’s Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising (1977). The working-class girl figures as na object between two well-off brothers in Isang Gabi sa Iyo, Isang Gabi sa Akin (1978) and the middle-class mistress pays her dues in Relasyon (1982), while the male dilemma is adequately handled in Ikaw Ay Akin (1978) – all by Ishmael Bernal.
  • Homosexuality. The best films on the subject are by Lino Brocka: the tragedy of concealment in Tubog sa Ginto (1970), the inadequacy in the fulfillment of sexual roles in Ang Tatay Kong Nanay (1977), the ostracism of the otherwise gifted gay man in Palipat-Lipat, Papalit-Palit (1982).
  • Incest. Celso Ad Castillo’s Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw (1975) is an exhaustive inquiry into the romantic relationship between two cousins, but the definitive treatment, complete with political overtones, would be Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata (1981).
  • Lust. Castillo’s Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa (1974) is a semi-successful allegory, Bernal’s Nunal sa Tubig (1976) attempts at philosophical significance, and Init (1979) and Insiang (1976), both by Lino Brocka, concern the present and proletarian classes respectively.
  • Machismo. A critical view of the Filipino male’s many insecurities is held by Brocka’s Caught in the Act (1981).
  • Nymphomania. Castillo’s Nympha (1971) regards with sympathy the plight of the sexually driven woman, while Laurice Guillen’s Salome (1981) examines the social consequences of her actuations.
  • Prostitution. Illegal recruitment is the villain in Gil Portes’s Miss X (1980), economic deprivation in Mel Chionglo’s Playgirl (1981). The issue is tackled on several levels in Bernal’s Aliw (1979).
  • Rape. Again Lino Brocka predominates with the real-life Rubia Servios (1978) and the fantasy-fulfilling Angela Markado (1980).
  • Sexual exploitation. The woman as an unwilling sex object can be found in Castillo’s Burlesk Queen (1977) and Brocka’s Bona (1980). The women in Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko (1975) and Lagi na Lamang Ba Akong Babae? (1978), both by Ishmael Bernal, as well as in Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Brutal (1980), develop an understanding of and consequent adjustment to their roles as sex objects. Those in Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (1971) and Brocka’s Kontrobersyal (1981) attain the level of self-exploitation in the conducive world of show business, while those in Danilo Cabreira’s Mga Tinik ng Babae (1978) arrive at some form of collective desperation. The male syndrome, on the other hand, is explored psychologically in Mario O’Hara Mortal (1976) and socio-economically in Christian Espiritu’s Alaga (1980).
  • White slavery. Brocka’s Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) deals effectively with this contemporary phenomenon.

Another Milestone

At the top of this already formidable list would belong Bernal’s 1980 masterwork City after Dark – a hard, innovative, and ultimately affecting study of perversion and brutality in the big city. As in the case of Huwag Mo Akong Limutin, City after Dark was initially banned by the censors and passed months later, only after sustained media furor, with what must be the longest censors permit ever (three pages of specific cuts and deletions). The mangled version, however, still retained enough of its original merits to win the local film critics’ award for best picture.

City after Dark (originally titled Manila by Night) delineates the turbulent state of affairs revolving around, among others, two sexual outlaws – a lesbian drug pusher and a gay couturier. The pusher pimps her girlfriend, a blind sauna masseuse, to the couturier’s drug-addicted lover. Meanwhile the couturier’s real steady, a cab driver, impregnates a naïve waitress who, to be able to afford an abortion, agrees to a persistent pimp’s offer of prostitution to Japanese tourists. Here the waitress learns of the taxi driver’s live-in mistress, a professional prostitute in nurse’s disguise. The masseuse, for her part, resists an attempt by her boyfriend, a victim of illegal recruitment, to perform with him at live-sex shows; eventually she betrays her girlfriend the pusher to narcotics agents. The drug addict loses his “liberated” girlfriend, and himself gets lost in Manila as his mother, a former prostitute who married a police officer, watches helplessly and herself becomes addicted to her painkillers.

The original version featured a staggering array of locales, including a sauna cubicle, a whorehouse, a gay bar and rundown morgue, and had advanced state-of-the-language lines of dialogue, whose obscenities and political references were either cut or deleted. A case is currently growing for the movie as one of the best, if not actually the best, Filipino films ever made – one that will assure the country of lasting recognition in world cinema; meanwhile the assent of culture officials on the foreign exhibition of City after Dark, like the acceptance of the public-at large of the value of local sex films, still has to be ascertained.

Note

[1] Jose F. Sibal, the movie’s scriptwriter, prior to migrating to the US, provided me with a copy of the script he wrote for the film – which by then (the late 1980s) was declared missing. In the plot, a young couple seeks the service of an illegal abortionist but back out from guilt at the last minute.

[First published August 25, 1982, in Who]

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BIG HOPES FOR SHORT FILMS

The history of filmmaking in the Philippines, as in anywhere else in the world, begins with short filmmaking. Considering that the first film cameras in the country arrived in 1897, local film historians can easily presume that the earliest footage in the Philippines goes as far back as that same year; in fact the earliest extant footage, a copy of which is currently in the custody of the film archives of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, was made the year after by Spanish Lumière camera operator Antonio Ramos, who called it Escenas Callejeras (Street Scenes). Up until the advent of the studio system in the early 1900s, historians have been able to document several other short films and a few features films made in the Philippines mostly by foreigners. At about this time filmmaking in the Philippines began to demonstrate the distinctions, which persist up to the present, that allow for a categorization of filmic activity between feature filmmaking and short (actually intended for specialized audiences) filmmaking.

Refinements in the definition of the medium, however, remain unresolved in so far as practicable applications are concerned. In this regard the first ECP Annual Short Film Festival can be considered the first step toward activating short filmmaking on the level of a legitimate national industry, instead of merely serving as an adjunct to commercial film production, the activity against which it is at present defined.

Short Film Bodies

With the exception of politically motivated short filmmaking projects initiated by the turn-of-the-century colonial government, local short filmmaking first flourished largely with the help of the commercial sector. Banahaw Pictures, for example, produced some short works of Manuel Silos (best known for Biyaya ng Lupa or Bounty of the Earth), whose first work, a 1927 16mm. silent film called Tres Sangganos, he later expanded into his first feature, a three-part series called The Three Tramps. As late as the 1950s LVN Pictures was producing, although for non-commercial purposes, documentaries directed by Lamberto V. Avellana and Manuel Conde. By this time the prevalent attitude among film industry practitioners was that short filmmaking was a less profitable (and therefore less preferable) alternative to feature filmmaking. Short films were being produced for prestige, if not for considerably lesser purposes like promotions or propaganda.

With the inevitable decline of support from the private sector, short filmmaking survived through the agencies of first government, then educational, and most recently foreign institutions. An exception would be a 1979 documentary on Pinoy rock, Gil Portes’s Pabonggahan. The film, which was commercially released, reportedly broke even; nevertheless no follow-up by way of subsequent commercial documentary releases was made. The rule, meanwhile, consisted of the diversification of institutional support for short filmmaking. Toward the 1960s about a dozen government bodies were involved in separate filmmaking activities. The next decade realized similar participation by educational institutions, notably the mass communication departments of the Ateneo de Manila University and the De La Salle University, and the Film Center of the University of the Philippines.

The incursions of several foreign filmmaking outfits which utilized local sources for the production of foreign-owned work, reminiscent of the American propaganda shorts during the early local history of the medium, constituted the latest feature of short filmmaking in the Philippines. On the subject of faith healing alone, at least three countries – America, Canada, and West Germany – have shot shorts which have also been exhibited locally; these, in respective order of nationalities, would be Dorothy Dietrich’s Psychic Phenomena: Exploring the Unknown (1977), Global Video Productions’ Revealed! Psychic Surgery in the Philippines (n.d.), and Werner Schiebeler’s Paranormale Heilmethoden auf den Philippinen (Paranormal Healing Methods in the Philipines, 1973). In fact the relatively active West Germans continue to undertake projects along the same line as well as in other directions, as in the case of Peter Kern & Karsten Peters’s Die Bootsleute von Pagsanjan (The Boatmen of Pagsanjan, 1980).

More widely known (though not necessarily widely seen) among local audiences are several semi-critical documentaries on Manila which have elicited adverse reactions of varying degrees: the BBC’s To Sing Our Own Song (1983), François Debré’s Les trottoires de Manille (Sidewalks of Manila, 1981), and Gesichter Asiens’s Die Stadt, die sich menschlich nennt – Manila, eine asiatische Metropolis (The Place, Which Calls Itself the City of Man – Manila, an Asian Metropolis, 1981). All of which goes to prove, whether pleasantly or painfully, the sufficiency of material for cinematic exploitation – enough, ironically, to attract outsiders to the country which, on the basis of readiness of local producers to seek foreign locales, its natives may be taking for granted already.

Short Notice

In spite of primarily financial (and thereby almost overwhelming) limitations, Filipino filmmakers have performed creditably in foreign short-film competitions. Almost immediately after his Grand Prix and ad hoc awards in two consecutive Southeast Asian Film Festivals, National Artist Lamberto V. Avellana reaped two Spanish Conde de Foxa awards for El Legado (The Legislator) in 1958 and La Campana de Baler (The Bell of Baler) in 1960. Another Spanish award, the Prix Cidalc, went to Manuel Conde’s Bayanihan also in 1960. Other Filipino filmmakers, who in their time represented the select few who kept faith in an economically pointless concern, were also rewarded with returns on a level more lasting than inflation-prone terms for efforts whose pursuit of profit had fallen far behind that of quality.

Through the early ’60s such strokes of more than just luck prevailed. The Department of Agriculture and Natural Resource’s The Gray Menace was cited in West Germany’s Asian Film Week in 1961. Jose Avellana’s Son of the Sea won a Berlin Film Festival special award in 1960. Emeterio Ornedo’s They Shall Not Want was the lone local entry to the Film as Communication Competition in the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1963. The year after, 1964, provided a golden harvest of sorts: Tony Smith’s Brave Little Island won a citation in the Nigeria Film Festival, Jesus Ramos’s Masinloc won a similar citation at the London International Film Festival, Ferde Grofe and Emmanuel Rojas’s Soul of a Fortress won second place in the Bilbao Film Festival, and Jesus Ramos’s Mangadingay, a Place of Happiness won the Rotary Award for Service to Mankind [sic] in the Asian Film Festival. Filipino short films did just as well during the late ’70s. Tikoy Aguiluz’s Mt Banahaw, Holy Mountain won the silver prize in the now-defunct Young Filmmakers of Asia Film Festival in Shiraz, Iran, in 1976, while Kidlat Tahimik’s Mababangong Bangungot (Perfurmed Nightmare) won the Berlin Film Festival’s international film critics’ awards in 1977. All of which again goes to prove the availability of local talent in proportions formidable enough to face up to the best from the rest of the world.

Foreign recognition of local short film accomplishments actually preceded local recognition. The first National Short Film Festival was held 1962 by the Film Society of the Philippines. After proclaiming Lamberto V. Avellana’s The Barranca Story the winner, the FSP held another such festival the next year before abandoning the undertaking altogether. Thirteen years later the Catholic Mass Media Awards provided categories for excellence in television productions. Jurors were allowed to proclaim as many deserving winners as necessary, thus allowing for recognition of short films shown on television.

In 1981 the participants in the then five-year-old Cinema-as-Art Workshop conducted by the UP Film Center competed among themselves in the first Manila Short Film Festival, where Rochit Tañedo’s Ang Kutsero sa Purok Himlayan won the short feature prize. The same year the UP Film Center and the UP President’s Council on the Arts again sponsored another Manila Short Film Festival, the ECP announced its first Annual Short Film Festival, thus giving the country the distinction of having had two short film festivals, each enduring for two years, with a third one on the way so far. Will the third observe the numerological pattern set by the first two and give way to the next sponsor’s short film festival after 1983?

Support for Shorts

For short films’ sake it ought not to. At the moment the future of Filipino short filmmaking points in the direction of integrated institutional support, one which can best be provided by a government-sponsored film outfit like the ECP. As proven in the case of Pabonggahan, short films still have to acquire a steady (read: commercially viable) standing among feature film producers. Another alternative would be the reliance upon foreign capital, as in the instance of Kidlat Tahimik, who was commissioned by the German television network WDR, ZDF to do his second short film Sino’ng Lumikha ng Yoyo? Sino’ng Lumikha ng Moon Buggy? (Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy?) on the basis of his Berlinale coup for Mababangong Bangungot mentioned earlier. This global approach to maintaining one’s filmmaking presence, however, would obviously entail expectation imposing enough to discourage prospective practitioners from trying themselves out at the craft.

Evidence of promise among practitioners abounds. For the past few years the Film Forum of the Goethe-Institut Manila has been showing well-attended short film accomplishment of both members and non-members; some exhibitions featured outputs by film students and practitioners. Philippine television may not be long behind. Recently a three-year effort called Life Cycle of the Philippine Eagle was shown during prime time. The indispensability of institutional support, however, cannot be over-emphasized. The ECP festivals may yet provide the impetus for retrospectives, appreciation courses, workshops, full-scale production – culminating in a local short-film institution which would pave the way toward legitimizing a truly alternative form of cinema. Meanwhile, the public’s attention has been attuned to the ongoing festival; if only for the recognition afforded our better modern-day short film practitioners, its purpose may well have already been served. The long hard life of Filipino short films need not unspool with the next tail leader.

[First published November 1982 in The First Experimental Cinema of the Philippines Annual Short Film Festival brochure]

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CLASSICS FOR COLLEGE KIDS

The founding parents of the film program at the University of the Philippines hit on the practical idea of introducing so-called film classics to their students through a regular credit course, instead of having the poor things catch the necessary screenings on their own. Of course cynics could add that the arrangement somehow reflects on the prevalent honor system in a rather unflattering manner, but the other side of the argument is that both students and teacher enjoy the convenience of doing nothing except sit through 15-or-so (meets are scheduled once every week) movies every semester, with the benefit of claiming to have been exposed to a basic literature of film titles afterward. As it turned out, the task of handling “Film and Literature,” as the course is inaccurately titled, fell into my hands, and I must say I was only too glad to be able to grab the opportunity; I also grasped the implication of there being no explicit film-theory course in the program – which meant that it was up to the course to supply the majors with at least a passing acquaintance with the history of ideas in the medium.

How to start then? A most obvious reference would be the several listings of greatest-films-of-all-time surveys conducted among film practitioners, observers, and just plain dilettantes, which of course would be (and is, if you look at any representative example) subject to the dispiriting influences of the indifference of the majority and the tyranny of statistical evaluation. Moreover, for an understandably but unacceptably academic reason, the titles tend to date back to the black-and-white, if not the silent, era, since the test of time purportedly needs to be applied in determining classical stature. Nevertheless any list of the usual must-sees, specifically Potemkin and Citizen Kane, happens to coincide with the mainstream of a supposedly resolved debate in the “plastic” (i.e., purely technical) aspect of film, whether for formalist or realist purposes; reduced to layman’s terms, this can be paraphrased in the question of what property of film to uphold, whether that of telling a story or that of capturing reality.

For the rest of the fare, another complication crops up. Video rental stores either pass up the historically significant titles in favor of entertainment, or couldn’t make them available for reasons of internal efficiency. I couldn’t secure a copy of Intolerance (the first exploration of epic possibilities in film, hah!) or Fritz Lang’s M: A City Looks for a Murderer (expressionism, in aesthetic and social aspects), but the class did enjoy the Chaplin comedy (theatricality of early film style) and Blue Angel that I found on short notice instead. I finally was able to source, pardon the academese, copies of the Griffith and Lang, but surprisingly couldn’t find a copy of Bicycle Thief (Italian neo-realism) anywhere. Open City filled in, if a little less perfectly – after Anna Magnani’s character was shot down, the class couldn’t seem to pick up on the pieties of anti-fascist resistance minus the earthiness of La Magnani.

A return to Hollywood via Sunset Boulevard prepared the viewers for the more complex double film-within-a-film treatment of Fellini’s . Later you could hear the runts raving over “mirror construction” (we used to call it “movie-movie”) in the “Mummy Daddy” sequence in Amazing Stories. Although cut short by a brownout, Rashomon elicited a surprisingly healthy amount of interest – in structure and cinematography, for chrissake, whereas Kurosawa placed upfront the sex and violence inherent in his tale for obvious commercial titillation. In contrast, Psycho seemed too obligatory, notwithstanding the still-effective shower sequence.

For lack of an old and authentic documentary – no Nanook of the North, Tabu, not even The Sorrow and the Pity – I turned the tables round, in a manner of speaking, and opted for Woody Allen’s Zelig. The class seemed prepared to be floored by how documentary techniques were appropriated by a cleverly conceived feature film, when we had already come to expect feature techniques in docus. Another frustration that equaled the unavailability of Bicycle Thief was the case of Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. On hand was That Obscure Object of Desire, but it only served to convince me that, like Rashomon, the other title deserved to be in any basic film-theory course, not to be casually confused for a canonical list.

The win-some, lose-some principle obtained in the presentation of what I intended to be highlights of the course. Rules of the Game had the entire class agreeing with me that it was at least better than consistent survey topnotcher Citizen Kane, but Nashville, which I had introduced as another peak in the maximization of plastic and narrative elements in cinema, saw, or rather didn’t see, the members of the class, who walked out for whatever slightest excuse they had for doing so. I felt a bit let down, and this toward the end of the sem: they were asking for a movie in color, with plenty of music and nice faces, and I thought I was giving it to them, and more! Well, maybe I gave too much, I told myself. After all, Nashville’s appreciation within my circle of acquaintances happen to constitute the only guys I could honestly respect and admire – and not everyone could be that special As for the forthcoming Film and Literature class, only a more adventurous imagination plus the acquisition of better titles in video-shops will spell the difference – and I intend to case (upper and lower, funny eh?) every available list from A to Z.

[First published October 7, 1987, in National Midweek]

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LEVELS OF INDEPENDENCE

The current catchword in film circles is independence, and it’s a measure of how far film awareness has progressed when the sector laying claim to the term intends it to refer to a format-based difference vis-à-vis commercial-gauge products. But first a few technical clarifications. The fact that [circa 1990] film exists in varying formats, measured in widths, is ascribed to the practicality of various industry-based purposes: super-8mm., an improvement over 16mm.-halved 8mm., was home-movie stock until video became far more economical; 16mm. serves specialized industrial purposes, mainly advertising; 35mm. is for what may be called mainstream production, normally national but preferably international in scope of distribution; outside the country lies the possibility of 35mm.-anamorphic projection (which expands to twice the image width with the use of the proper lens) plus its real-thing equivalent, 70mm. wide-screen, for roadshow presentations.

Such a convenient availability for most conceivable filmic requirements belies the historical origins of the medium. Film formats differed not because usages varied, but because every investor who had the money and foresight was racing to get his standard – which may have been the first clear instance of the desperate competition that the medium has been exhibiting since, without letup, this first century of its existence. One way of providing some value to the numbers is by scaling them from least to most, and assigning some factors that observe the same principle of ascension or descension. Super-8mm., 8mm. and 16mm. provide maximum individual freedom at minimum cost, while 35mm. and 70mm. provide maximum profitability and audience exposure.

From the extremes it becomes immediately clear that both sides could formulate claims to the ideals of independence, presuming that such an ideal matters in this sort of undertaking. A practitioner in super 8mm., or even video (a non-filmic medium which could accommodate certain basic principles anyway), could point to the minimalization of authorship problems on the basis of the fewer workforce requirements of such a format; on the other hand, a mainstream person could counter that the essence of freedom is material-based, and so only those with sufficient financial, industrial, distributional, and popular support could achieve social change – which, after all, is (or should be) the goal of independence.

Proponents of 16mm., including film-educational institutions, have come up with their rationalization for its increased usage: assuming that both sides of the extremes’ arguments are valid but not necessarily conflicting, 16mm. offers a resemblance to mainstream technology at considerably affordable cost; though several times more expensive than super-8, it also happened to be more accessible in this country since 1985, when Kodak Philippines phased out local Super-8 processing.

Within mainstream practice, however, the issue of independence also assumes as many possible claims as there are self-conscious institutions. “Independence” actually originally referred to the production outfits that were relegated to the fringes during the post-war heyday of the studio system up to the early 1960s; once the majors were weakened by internal problems (talents’ dissatisfaction leading to labor problems) and external pressures (busting of production-and-distribution monopolies), the so-called independents closed in and instituted a system, if the word could still apply, of free-for-all enterprise. A subsystem of outfits based on stars, who were eventually distinguished from the rest of the constellation by the term superstars, has proved more enduring – and in fact constitutes what we can consider the mainstream independents of today.

Of course, the big three – Regal, Viva, and Seiko – in our current studio-dominated system all started out as independents relative to now inactive or defunct production houses. As mentioned earlier, any of these giants could claim, if they had a mind to do so, to being the true exponent of independent cinema in the country: all they have to do is admit that they don’t care to exercise this prerogative at the moment, and offer a genuine industry break to anyone who’d challenge their stature. The mad scramble for assignments in itself could serve as proof of the dissenters’ double-minded acknowledgment that, yes, enslavement to filthy lucre does liberate one from the poverty of cheap formats.

Meanwhile, there are the past and future processes of mainstream independence to contend with. Until as late as the early 1980s certain filmmakers could break free of, well, the Filipino language at least, by doing regional cinema in the Cebuano or, though rarely, Ilocano tongue. The system of distribution – outside the Tagalog region (and the attendant demands of Metro Manila moviegoers) – also enabled drastic reductions in budget costs and the use of non-stars: the profitability of such an option is still being realized by today’s countryside-circuit penekula or hard-core sex-film investors; in fact, the first color Cebuano film (and one of the last as well) was actually shot in super-8 and blown up, grains and all, to commercial-gauge 35mm., reportedly clobbering Manila and even foreign releases at the box office wherever it was shown. There’s a disturbing analogy somewhere, though, for future film scholars to ponder on: since we could say that regional movies have been replaced by sex films, does this mean that our provincial folk have “progressed” in their preference for spoken language to the inarticulate dictates of the, er, heart?

Finally, the most promising aspect of independence thus far almost became a local tradition were it not for the reckless conduct of an international film festival by the previous regime during the early 1980s. Exhibition in foreign film circuits proved favorable for Filipino directors fortunate enough to have been invited by patrons, but the problem is actually greater than the sanguinity of local producers in the sufficiency of the local film makers: Filipino authorities are pathetically simple-minded about the prospects of exporting our most impressive cultural body of work, preferring to dwell on the implications for the national image, as if that were all that the medium is good for.

The opening up of international film opportunities (confirmed by a corresponding ferment in film-theory circles) to Third-World cinema might find the Philippines typically left behind in an endeavor where we were in a sense pioneers – cf. our participation in foreign festivals during the 1950s. It’s a good thing that certain individual practitioners have gone as far as preempting both local producers and officials, notably the censors, in getting their dream projects produced not by themselves or by fellow Filipinos, but the foreign entities who’d have better access to worldwide distribution.

Such a notion of relying on foreigners for institutional support is, of course, profoundly antithetical to the concept of independence in the political scheme of things – which only goes to prove that the ideal of film may be more than merely material, or even political. In Japan, the world’s most economically independent nation, the best directors (Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura, among recent examples) look toward non-Japanese investors for aesthetic salvation. Tokyo also happens to be the closest capital where we can get super-8mm. films processed. Something like having one’s sushi and sashimi, too.

[First published April 25, 1990, in National Midweek]

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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