Like other developing countries, the Philippines finds itself at a disadvantage in coping with and adjusting to the manifold challenges posed by rapid technological changes during the current digital period. All predigital media have been profoundly transformed, with positive and negative consequences for each one.
The case of film is instructive and exceptional, since this has been the medium where most Filipino talents tended to converge, given its ability to bestow widespread recognition and financial compensation. Given the call to make as much of humanity’s cultural legacy as readily available as possible, the output of commercial media raises special complications, premised on issues of copyright and fair use.
As critic and scholar, my primary advocacy in this situation would be in favor of the public domain – the theoretical, legal, much-contested entity that lays claim to any true artist’s or author’s handiwork. In the view of public-domain advocates, the right of an investor and/or a creator to profit from her or his product should always be granted, but it should also be proscribed as immediately and urgently as possible when the public interest comes in conflict with it. We see this occur on a regular basis with the expiration of copyright, when any previously protected work forthwith becomes shared public property. Only when this happens does the creative process become complete: the poet, painter, composer, filmmaker, etc. finally yields her legacy, to be claimed and owned by humanity, with the acknowledgment of authorship as the artist’s or author’s only permanent reward.
This is the reason why in any generation in cinema, we find a virtual cadre of workers who continue the tasks of tracking, claiming, preserving, and reproducing titles that have become rare or that might have been lost. The human weaknesses of hoarding and reprofiting off found material has also been part of this tendency from the beginning, but with the formulation and propagation of values anchored on public interest, we are now witnessing collectors of rare material making their items available to all interested parties at little to no cost. This activity is enhanced by the global reach of internet media – a historical juncture that endows present and future generations with artefacts of culture and literature, many of which were previously reserved for only the most privileged members of society.
For the past few years, the Philippines’s most successful film studio, Regal Films, still involved in production though not as actively as it used to, has been deadlocked in its negotiations with the country’s sole remastering outfit, ABS-CBN Film Restoration, effectively freezing hundreds of movies from the 1970s to the present. Some of the most outstanding titles ever made, number among its releases. My personal disclosure regarding my interest in this state of affairs is that a Regal movie, Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980), was one of the 20-or-so titles included in the acclaimed Queer Films Series of Vancouver-based Arsenal Pulp Press. I wrote the monograph for the film – but, as the series editors (Thomas Waugh and Matthew Hays) reminded me, Manila by Night was the only entry that was unavailable to foreign scholars.
A far-from-satisfactory DVD edition went out of print several years ago, while copies presumably unsanctioned by the producer may be found online; I have found myself referring researchers to the published version of the full script (translated to English by Alfred A. Yuson) in the August 2012 issue of Ateneo de Manila University’s open-access journal, Kritika Kultura. Obviously none of these measures could subtitute for an adequately remastered and subtitled official version of the film. Ironically Manila by Night may even count itself lucky in relation to all the other Regal Films productions, since it can still allow the public to reimagine how its filmmaker must have envisioned it, based on the substantial traces it has inadvertently left on the web.
In an instance such as this, I would uphold the effort of individuals (many of whom must necessarily remain nameless for now) who sought to make as readily available as possible any reasonably acceptable version of the film, in the meantime that the producer and prospective distributor work out their differences. Since his outlet has taken the risk of providing this service to the public, I mention in particular Jojo Devera, where a translated integral version of Manila by Night resides in a carefully curated and remastered condition – entirely at his own expense, with the help of other public-domain activists – on his Magsine Tayo! website, free for anyone to watch and study. Since I had been making the call to my circle of friends to make this particular title available, Devera’s posting was in response to my request; for this reason, I hold myself entirely responsible for the movie’s free and ready availability on his web page.
I enjoin all other Filipino and Philippine-sympathetic collectors to heed the historical requisite to provide otherwise unavailable materials for present and future generations to pore over, in order to enable everyone to participate in ongoing discourses on the country, its culture, and its achievements and shortcomings. It is our moral duty to assist one another, in effect to strengthen the public domain, in instances when the institutions responsible for releasing rare holdings find themselves incapable of responding to this need.
April 15, 2018