Category Archives: Book

Canon Fire!

Film canons in the Philippines are recent enough so that some elderly Filipinos might be able to remember a time when none had been available. As far as anyone can tell, the first local film canons were, perhaps unintentionally, initiated by award-giving institutions—and so the most well-known ones are still those created and propagated by local academies, organizations, and festivals.

11011Are canons then synonymous with the lists of winners selected by award-giving bodies? Put another way, when an award-giving body is formed, do its jurors envision their selections as “best” choices, not just of the period in question—whether festival, quarter, year, decade, etc.—but also among all other possible all-time choices? As a rule, yes, although there may be significant exceptions: for one, the awards bodies that never persisted long enough to make a long-term impact; and for another, the canons drawn up by individuals and more recently, groups provisionally formed by these individuals.

11011As concrete historical examples, we can point to lost classics—in ancient Greek drama, especially—that we now only remember because they were considered worthy of formal recognition during their time. Sadly, this is reminiscent of how a number of Filipino films can only be recollected but never screened again, because of how they were celebrated during their time, whether via rave reviews or through awards. Also, in the present, we have the spectacle of winners of different awards claiming that their specific awards are better than those won by others, similar to how graduates of certain schools claim to be superior to the alumni of other schools by virtue of their association with their own institutions.

11011Hence if we were to inspect the strengths and weaknesses of film canons, we should begin by looking at film awards. As a distinctly modern phenomenon, film activity bears with it the contemporary notion of awards. Most people who look closely at both phenomena (films and awards) might be unaware of the fact that the first awards acknowledged as modern arrived almost at the same time that films emerged. James F. English, in his in-depth sociological study published in 2005 by Harvard University Press, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, traces the idea of the contemporary award—as opposed to classical prizes—to the Nobel Prize, introduced during the late 19th century, when film was also striving to create its now-permanent long-term impact.

11011A few other insights in J. F. English’s book might help us better understand the condition of film awards, and what we might call the institutional film canon, in the Philippines. For one thing, “prestige,” as we understand it nowadays, often functions ironically. During the Cold War era (roughly the 1950s through the 1980s), people could still believe in the authority of institutions; evidence of irregularities in, say, the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) Awards were aberrations that could be corrected internally—as in 1974-75 as well as in recent years, when critics and academics were invited to conduct the awards process—or externally, when critics formed their own organization in 1976 as a counterweight to the older institution. Nowadays, when we think of the most highly coveted global awards—the Oscars, the A-list European festivals of Cannes, Berlin, and Venice, even (to step outside of film) the Magsaysay, Pulitzer, Booker, or Nobel prizes—controversy tends to be associated with these institutions’ decisions so often that it becomes the rule more than the exception. J. F. English, in fact, winds up concluding that “the most prestigious awards draw the most intensely critical sniping,” something that any close observer of Filipino movie prize-giving will readily recognize.

11011Another fraught question might appear to be a recent development for us, although it has long become a matter of course for Western countries: the proliferation of award-giving bodies. The primary reason why the number of award-givers stabilized for a long while in the Philippines is the same reason that production of quality film projects also stabilized: while more films may have been produced during the 1960s, the ratio of prestige productions to total output was far lower than during the martial-law regime. Precisely, and ironically, because of the authoritarian intervention by the dictatorship of Ferdinand E. Marcos, film’s status as a favored medium was cemented. Permits for new projects would be granted only upon presentation of written screenplays, thus requiring the services of some of the country’s best writers, and the scandalous proliferation of award-giving bodies could be discouraged. As an example, during that period, schisms in government bodies, notably within the local film academy, were carefully mediated by the presidential daughter, Ma. Imelda (Imee) R. Marcos. Her father would eventually consolidate her influence in her capacity as Director-General of the industry’s support group, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. How the state of existing Philippine film awards contended with dictatorial influence should be worth a close recounting.

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Academic Controversies

The main focus of local award-giving controversy was the aforementioned FAMAS, which was evidently falling under the sway of too-influential producers and actors. For its first decade of existence, its choices could be counted on as the result of careful comparative assessment, regardless of the status of its nominees within the industry or in society and politics. Gerardo de Leon was a consistent awardee, with his Daigdig ng mga Api (World of the Oppressed) even defeating the biographical movie of the newly elected President, Iginuhit ng Tadhana: The Ferdinand E. Marcos Story (Determined by Destiny, dir. Conrado Conde, Jose de Villa, and Mar S. Torres), for the 1965 competition. By the time Marcos ran for re-election, the tables had been reversed: Pinagbuklod ng Langit (Heaven’s Fate, 1969, dir. Eddie Garcia), the sequel to Iginuhit ng Tadhana, bypassed at least one superior canonical title, Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi (Course of Life, 1968, released in Manila in 1969). The next year, Armando de Guzman’s Mga Anghel na Walang Langit (Angels without a Heaven, produced and written by a future presidential candidate, Fernando Poe Jr. or FPJ), won over three of Lino Brocka’s early films, specifically Wanted: Perfect Mother (his blockbuster debut), Santiago! (his major-budget FPJ starrer), and Tubog sa Ginto (Gold-Plated, included in the present canon listing). The year after, Gerardo de Leon’s less-than-competent Lilet defeated Celso Ad. Castillo’s Asedillo, while Ishmael Bernal’s Pagdating sa Dulo (Reaching the Top) was not even a best-film nominee. Incidentally, the Salvador, Castillo, and Bernal “loser” films are also included in the current listing.

11011Hence for the then-approaching mid-1970s years, the FAMAS strove to recover its lost credibility by relinquishing its awards decisions to media experts, with Gloria D. Feliciano, the founding Dean of the University of the Philippines’s College of Mass Communication (then an institute) acting as chair of its board of jurors. These years coincided with Brocka’s independently produced sleeper hit, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Weighed but Found Wanting, 1974), as well as his most widely acclaimed production, Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila: In the Claws of Light, 1975), both of which swept the prizes during their respective years. The recovery of the FAMAS’s reputation was short-lived, however. In 1976, a few members of its “credible” jurors formed the first local film critics’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, implicitly continuing its members’ occasionally explicit critiquing of the FAMAS, but this time as an independent outfit competing for public attention by conducting its own award-giving activities.

11011The FAMAS’s travails did not end just yet. By the start of the 1980s, an actual Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) comprising workers’ guilds was founded by presidential decree and mandated to hand out awards selected by the guild members themselves, again as a corrective to the FAMAS claim that it constituted, per its name, an “academy,” when in fact it had mainly comprised movie writers, including scriptwriters and reporters, rather than filmmakers, performers, and technicians. A year after the FAP’s first awards (covering 1983), the Philippine Movie Press Club announced its Star Awards in two events, one for film and another for television. Thus all the claims of the FAMAS—that it was an academy, that its members were capable of criticism, that these same members were movie press practitioners—were contested by the emergence of various groups that arrogated these functions unto themselves, one by one.

11011The most direct challenge, the formation of the FAP—which carried the term “academy” in its name, just like the FAMAS—was overseen by the eldest Marcos daughter Imee, who was preparing to wrest control of the still-to-be-launched Experimental Cinema of the Philippines away from her mother, Imelda.[1] To minimize the tension between the two award-giving groups, Imee declared that the FAMAS would have to be dissolved to make way for the FAP. Only the intervention of the FAMAS multiple winners, led by Joseph Estrada, then the powerful mayor of San Juan City, resulted in the anomaly of having two “academy” awards in the same year.

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Canons to the Left and Right

With the ouster of the Marcoses after the people-power uprising in 1986, critical film activity underwent a ferment that replicated the several developments that it realized in Western academia. Several now-forgotten local debates raged regarding the function and value of film and other critical discourses in popular culture; inevitably, a few breakaway groups comprising former and would-have-been members of the original film critics’ circle, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP), were founded. Personal disclosure, part 1: I was involved with all the organized critics’ groups.

11011Hence after the academy, the critics were the film participants contending with one another for visibility in the national culture. A difference, however, has to be pointed out: in the case of the FAP vs. the FAMAS, only one group, the former, was technically an academy. In the case of the MPP and its breakaway group, the Young Critics Circle, most members of either group could be considered practicing critics at best, inactive dilettantes at worst. In terms of my personal experience, the challenge was to reconcile the advantage of organizing with colleagues with the requisite of conducting responsible and effective criticism. In 1990, I and a colleague, Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr. (currently the festival director of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International or FACINE, the most successful Filipino-American annual film event), contacted other active film critics who shared our differences with the MPP, in order to found the YCC.

11011In short order, further differences arose within the new group, this time regarding ideology and strategy: do we reject the task of providing intermediate (though limited) educational lessons in favor of complete and radical deconstruction?[2] As a concrete example, if we know that creating canons like the present Top-100+ listing might be a futile, potentially misleading, and necessarily open-ended exercise, should we skip this stage and proceed with reading films for their radical cultural-studies value, without worrying about their contribution to a discourse of significance and excellence? This would mean opting for critical exercises, the more intensive the better, leading whenever possible to book-length or multivolume scholarship. Another way of stating this is: when we begin with the basic, immediate critical response to a new movie (called the film review), we may push it in the direction of further critique-based activity: film criticism, scholarship, long-term studies, etc., instead of consumerist recommendations. This is meant to challenge the present direction of most institutional reviewing, which leads to periodic assessments, ending with annual awards results, sometimes extended with longer-period declarations like best of the decade, best of the quarter-century, etc.—until we reach something like the present exercise, which is best of all time. My personal position was, and remains, that both options are not necessarily in conflict with each other, although then again, critics who are organized will find themselves having to uphold one at the expense of the other.

11011After helping found still another critics’ group called Kritika, I found my next direction determined by circumstance: I had to leave for foreign graduate studies, while the other members similarly found themselves having to take overseas trips for similar or related reasons. Since then I’ve written about further disturbing trends in award-giving groups, notably the MPP’s consistent abandonment of providing critical output coupled with its current tendency to recruit new members mainly from the media and communication programs of the country’s major academic institutions. This strategy has apparently ensured that the group’s orthodox orientation—where film is regarded as a technical challenge whose form may be evaluated according to discrete categories—can be maintained in educational programs and will continue to enhance and promote the group’s annual award-giving agenda.[3] Hopes for the emergence of dissent with the MPP’s current hegemony lie in the recent proliferation of unaffiliated, though occasionally also inadequately prepared, blogger-critics. The period after the 1980s had seen similar breakaway attempts within the industry and movie press circles, but an even bigger motive for the formation of more award-giving bodies was to emerge after the present millennium arrived.

11011The turning point for film criticism was provided by the sudden technological transition in film production, from exceedingly expensive celluloid to the extraordinarily democratic (because affordable) digital format—including its outlet, the World Wide Web. Seemingly overnight, anyone who wanted to create a movie did not have to shell out millions and arrange for studio-controlled distribution, waiting for decades while slaving away at menial production tasks for just this kind of break; merely whipping out, say, a mobile phone, finalizing the file on a computer, and posting the result on YouTube would suffice to complete the process.

11011This revolution in technology may be qualified because it actually strengthened the position of certain companies and countries and government-surveillance agencies: it provided profits for manufacturers of miniaturized technologies and owners of successful websites; it ensured Western dominance while redefining the global sphere of development to include East Asia; and it enabled security-conscious countries led by the US to eavesdrop into the private affairs of local and even foreign citizens. Nevertheless, several once-near-impossible functions became everyday activities: not just in terms of media production, as already mentioned, but also in the realm of media consumption. For the Philippines, the crucial stepping-stone was the so-called illegal piracy-disc sales center, wonderfully dubbed (by scholar Jasmine Nadua Trice, among others) the Quiapo Cinematheque and defended by every major filmmaker and scholar who had closely studied the situation and who was not receiving some form of largesse from government bodies influenced or pressured by the US’s International Intellectual Property Alliance.

11011Via the Quiapo Cinematheque’s “pirated”—or, from the perspective of cultural education, fairly priced—discs, and later via internet outlets including YouTube, observers of Philippine cinema could gain increasing access to movies from most historical periods, as long as they could understand the language(s) being spoken and forgive uneven surface qualities. Not surprisingly, several blogs that specialized in film commentaries sprouted during the past couple of decades—and here is where the idea of the canon took its latest and, as always, still-controversial turn.

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Scattered Shots

Although the organized, award-giving critics maintained their own websites—an example followed by other award-giving institutions—individual bloggers had the advantage of maintaining independence from the ideological pressures that organizations impose, overtly or otherwise, on their members. More important, by having their own ready outlets, they had the means to maintain steady, even voluminous, output, according to how the spirit of commentary moved them.

11011Hence although the organized groups continued their annual declarations, the new, decidedly more numerous online critics managed to out-perform their career predecessors in terms of critical output, albeit with far less media fanfare. Individual top-round-number listings, from ten to a hundred, started appearing, and at least three enterprising internet and social-network aggregators announced and conducted extensive surveys. Two of these were completed, one for the Facebook Cinephiles! group and another for the Pinoy Rebyu group blog, both in 2013. The Cinephiles! “Top 100 Favorite Films Poll” included foreign films, with only nine local titles figuring in the total, and the highest, Mike de Leon’s Bayaning 3rd World (Third World Hero, 2000), ranked 22nd. Pinoy Rebyu’s “100 Greatest Pinoy Films of All Time” focused exclusively on Filipino movies, including documentaries, but included already-unavailable choices such as Manuel Conde’s Juan Tamad Goes to Congress and Gerardo de Leon’s Huwag Mo Akong Limutin (Forget Me Not), both 1960 releases. Both provided ranked listings from 1st to 100th, with the Pinoy Rebyu’s first half (1 to 50) accentuated by short paragraphic citations.

11011Although late in monitoring social network activity—forced into it, in fact, by a cyberculture teaching assignment—I managed to observe this peak in internet-based canon-forming frenzy. Personal disclosure, part 2: both surveys acknowledged the groundwork I laid in my earlier stint as resident film critic in National Midweek, with the output, titled “Ten Best Filipino Films Up to 1990,” anthologized in my second volume, Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (published in 1995 by the Ateneo de Manila University Press), and the updated version posted on my archival blog, Amauteurish. The original National Midweek exercise was a survey of local critics and practitioners that I and my students conducted, in which the respondents were asked to submit their list of ten-best films, with the results tabulated and fine-tuned to yield variations on canonical presentations: films most cited as number one, films most cited regardless of ranking, and films most cited according to ranking provided by the respondents.[4]

11011Even that early, for the “ten-best” activity, I already noted certain problems. For one thing, although the number of respondents was the largest in any film survey up to that point (1990), their individual competence could not be determined. I had planned a second phase—which unfortunately did not materialize due to lack of time—where the complete list of all films cited would be returned to the respondents, who would then be asked to indicate which ones they had seen and rank those further, as assiduously as they could. For another thing, the results were not generated according to a group consensus facilitated by exchanges of opinions and ideas; consequently, no justification (in the form of citations or mini-reviews) could be articulated for the specific films that showed up in the results.

11011The most serious lack, to my mind, was the absence of the only useful guarantee I could make about comparative film evaluations: despite the differences between me and the MPP that eventually proved irreconcilable, I managed to pick up a lesson that has proved to be the surest means of determining comparative value. That is, in an instance when two films appear to have equally strong value, repeated viewings will almost always lead to a point where the evaluator can rationalize, however provisionally, the preference for one over the other. Having outlasted the conflictive period I mentioned, when critics with opposed ideological opinions insisted on the correctness of their pet theories, the practice of rescreening films—or, in a larger cultural sense, resampling entries—has turned out to be a far more reliable measure of a text’s worth than conformity to any predetermined framework.

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From this critique of the ten-best exercise I conducted, applicable to the other, more recent exercises as well, I managed to formulate a more ideal form of canon-formation: convene a group committed to the project, instead of listing survey respondents who might be unfamiliar with one another and who would be contacted only a few times; source all available films, using pre-existing canons (i.e., awards listings or surveys) as well as strong word-of-mouth recommendations; watch the films, rewatching those that appear to have so-far indeterminate value, especially when it comes to filling out the remaining slots in a fixed-number list—and be prepared to be flexible about “fixing” the said number; conduct informed deliberations about what films should be preferred and why; list the films without bringing up the further and ultimately frustrating hair-splitting complication of ranking them relative to one another; and articulate, to the best of one’s critical ability, why each specific film was selected.

11011I would have preferred a less-definite, or more mutable, set of guidelines that allow for no limits in terms of year of release and running time and total number of choices—as in, far less or far greater than the target number (over one hundred, in this case), depending on how the finalization of the list turns out. The digital era might make this wider goal easier to accomplish, particularly through the use of a periodically updated website where the results may be uploaded for further future revisions. But for purposes of setting the results of the project in a commemorative volume, more constrictive rules will always be more useful … as long as the project’s proponents foreground enough humility to admit to every possible limitation and commit to any opportunity to do better in future. At this point, for example, I could point out one major advantage in having a for-now “final” canon, rather than relying on the annual critics’ choices that I mentioned earlier: if we arrange the films chronologically, we would notice that “excellent” films do not get released once every year, the way that an annual awards listing would suggest. Rather, noteworthy projects tend to cluster during certain periods, and the talents and audiences that support these projects also subsequently tend to take time off to recuperate, usually after a wearying spell of excessive seriousness or box-office traumas.

11011Hence it would make more sense for any recognition body to note each “deserving” title as it comes along, rather than forcibly compiling a list of, say, five nominees and declaring one of them the year’s only possible winner. Like all the other canonical listings before it, the current listing suggests that certain years might have no release worthy of attention, although most years may yield maybe one or two, and a few fortunate years have gifted the culture with armloads of works to cherish. Given this reality, why should we insist that audiences keep focusing on always-only one “best” film every year, when the honest thing to do would be to admit that the award-givers might need annual public attention in order to, among other things, collect on the publicity benefits of awards ceremonies?

11011Any enthusiast would not find it difficult to locate starting points for future attempts that might seek to improve on the present canon project, although attempting a coverage of expanded canons might take far longer than the five-plus years it took for the present project to be finalized. Short films can be sourced from the early workshop output of the Mowelfund Film Institute[5] and the thesis projects of the country’s film-degree programs: the University of the Philippines Film Institute’s, De La Salle—College of Saint Benilde’s, and University of San Carlos’s in Cebu City. A documentary collection can be compiled from the output of the now-defunct Asia Visions, featuring the works of the now-forgotten Lito Tiongson; the several film-producing non-government organizations—Ditsi Carolino and Sari Dalena would be the names to start with; and the outstanding TV magazine programs, specifically the output of Howie Severino’s I-Witness (2008-14). Television itself promises to be a gold mine—or a mine field, depending on one’s preference—with a whole range of genres to pick from. Just as enticing would be the entire range of now mostly lost regional cinema, a realm of practice that might help us acquire a better understanding not just of Manila-centered production but also of our neighboring countries’ own regional issues.[6]

11011A similarly ambitious film-research project, with its own canon as by-product, can be made of the hundreds of non-Filipino and non-Filipino-hyphenated (e.g. Fil-Am) productions, whether or not shot in the Philippines, that deal with the country in some way or other—as a nation’s or people’s name, as deliberate or accidental linguistic crutch, as anonymous or non-Filipino (especially Vietnam) locale, as overseas presences, or even just as a globally recognizable entity; a corollary, sadder but just as essential, would be studies of films that are lost, or practitioners who have died.[7] One final area worth exploring would be films that may be apparently mainstream feature releases, but which partake of certain marginalized qualities because of their subject matter: queer films, for example, or diasporic projects, or some other still-to-emerge specialized categories. Some of these groups have entries in the present canon list, but their modes of production, talent hierarchies, distribution strategies, and the audience responses they induce will need to be teased out as distinct phenomena vis-à-vis what passes for “regular” Philippine cinema.

11011One of the hopes I expressed when I conducted my earlier batch of canon projects during the early 1990s, including the ten-best films survey, was that the existence of sturdier, more credible options will satisfy the curiosity of critics and audiences and enable us to advance to the more urgent questions of how to achieve a presence in the global cultural community, or how to use popular culture to productively intervene in issues of national identity and development. That is, instead of obsessing over finalizing canons and revising them every so often, we might be able to begin with a fairly acceptable listing and simply keep adding to it as more significant films get released. However, as it turned out since then, even more award-giving groups were to be formed, several of them overlapping in functions, and more canon projects were conducted.

11011A stable system of canon-formation, if that can be achieved for Philippine film culture, will enable scholars and audiences to devote attention to the wider issues surrounding cinema, where the question of quality can be set aside whenever necessary. James F. English, whom I referenced earlier, provides no further assurance when he states, still in The Economy of Prestige, that “each new prize that fills a gap or void in the system of awards defines at the same time a lack that will justify and indeed produce another prize…. There are not only more prospective founders and sponsors of awards than ever before, but also, and less intuitively, more positions on the fields of culture where new prizes can be installed” (emphasis in the original). If any new canons that emerge after this project can claim the same qualities of patient and multiple re-screenings, earnest deliberations, informed rationales, and minimal reliance on institutional influences, then they might yield similar results. That prospect alone ought to suggest that, with a project such as the present one, the biggest future advantage might be an ironic in nature: our eventual liberation from obsessive canonizing, with a stronger interest in in-depth and non-comparative film criticism as an ideal by-product.

Postscript: Since this piece was drafted, the Covid-19 global health crisis intervened and made media streaming the only safe means of consumption for the general public for two years (and counting). A few short works premised on online interaction, mostly so-called Boys Love teleseries but also including the instant-classic Lola Doc (directed and performed by Nora Aunor from the short “monovlog” written by Layeta Bucoy), functioned as reflexive experiences, with actors directly addressing supposed webcam viewers. The claustrophobic effect of having the performer confined within a limited space, along with the frustration of lacking an audience to interact with, ensures that theater attendance will not be permanently supplanted by this particular new-media trend. But the middle way between movie-going and online learning is being claimed and redefined by the streaming—of media, not just of film.

11011It may be possible to stream a film-viewing audience as well, similar to how participants appear in Zoom classes; even more excitingly, the interactive aspects of live theater attendance (ritualistic call and response, for example, or maverick activities in cult screenings) may just be around the bend. And since digitalization lends itself to a level of flexibility whose fuller potential can be seen in the more advanced games that anticipate the just-announced metaverse, “film” as we know it will once more have to confront the question of whether the medium has ended, to make way for a further stage of development, or reiteration, or devolution.

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[1] Millennials whose familiarity with the Marcos family has been defined by the strong and affectionate alliance between Imelda and her daughter might be surprised to know that the two women used to have a conflictive relationship. Psychoanalysis would traditionally ascribe this to their competition for the attention of the patriarch, Ferdinand Sr. This division between mother and daughter would explain how artists—including progressive figures, initially led by Lino Brocka—gravitated toward the ECP after Imee succeeded in taking charge of the agency. It also lends credibility to the belief that Imee’s parents were responsible for the “kidnapping” and subsequent “rescue” of their daughter’s paramour Tommy Manotoc—a sportsman, identified with an opposition family, who had then just divorced his wife, 1970 Miss International Aurora Pijuan; the “Communist terrorists” allegedly responsible for the crime were of course killed, supposedly in a firefight with Manotoc’s rescuers.

[2] At that time a new buzzword, deconstruction is a philosophically prescribed critical procedure that attempts to uncover the possible hidden meaning(s) in a text, whether a written or uttered statement, an audiovisual presentation, or any seemingly innocuous cultural product. Based on the theoretical output of Jacques Derrida, among several other authors, it proceeds from the premise that certain individuals and institutions may have vested interests in maintaining or influencing power imbalances in their favor. In order to attain this condition, they create, promote, favor, and/or standardize texts that uphold their points of view. Popular culture is a productive area for deconstructive exercises, because the texts in this field have to address, and consequently uphold, the interests of the audience—which provides opportunities for certain texts to oppose, repress, or question the advocacies of the ruling class.

[3] I have written elsewhere about the MPP’s contribution to Philippine film awareness, as well as its limitations. Since my criticisms clustered around the group’s awards activities, most of the MPP officials tended to take offense and voiced their disapprobation in several outlets and forums. The positive lessons I learned from the MPP are the ones I recount in this article, techniques of viewing and comparative analyses that have proved useful in drawing up a film canon.

11011Re the awards (called the Urian), my remarks merely rounded up already existing comments from various sources, and cover three aspects. First, the Urian uses a form-vs.-content approach, with their best-film criterion stating: “In the case of two films which are equally well-made, the film with the more significant subject matter is to be preferred” (“MPP Criteria” in The Urian Anthology 1970-1979). This separation between technique and “subject matter” is in fact more useful for the film practitioner, rather than the critic; when the work is completed, form is inseparable from content, and the other dynamics—social, political, industrial, financial, global, etc.—that impact the film and influence people’s perceptions should become part of its evaluation. Second, the awards format is misleading because it makes people think that films, after their completion, can still be reduced to distinct categories such as technical, performative, and creative ones, when in fact the work is already functioning as an organic whole. Third, the awards activity’s effect belies its claim: it supposedly supports the community of film artists by recognizing their best output on a regular basis, but in practice, it always insists on singular winners in artificial categories, thus having a divisive effect on colleagues by forcing them to compete with one another and finding ways to lobby for their respective entries. As the present YES! canon listing implies, certain years may be more fruitful than others, while other years may yield no canon-worthy titles. The awards practice therefore of recognizing one film, or one practitioner, per year leads to the problematic impression that each year’s winner fulfills the Urian’s criteria and that all the annual winners are equivalent to one another.

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[4] This was intended to rectify the incognizance of individual rankings practiced by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound survey of film critics, regarded as the definitive canon for global cinema and claimed, in a 2012 article by Michael Atkinson, as the originator of published film canons. The results have been announced decadally starting in 1952, with the next one expected around this time, in 2022. Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) was the 1952 first-placer, with all the succeeding decades dominated by Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) except for the last: the 2012 top winner was Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Since 1992, film directors were also consulted, with the top results mirroring the critics’ choices except for 2012, when the directors selected Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) as their all-time best. Final personal disclosure: I participated once, during the 2002 survey, and received responses from all over—including commentaries from the Observer, Slate magazine, and Roger Ebert—for my offbeat choices as well as my questioning of Citizen Kane’s worthiness.

[5] A series of mostly self-produced super-8mm. films by Noel F. Lim is still awaiting rediscovery, along with the short-film entries of various independent film festivals as well as those produced for the Cine Rehiyon festival of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts—not to mention the material commissioned by the hundreds of non-government organizations that proliferated since the collapse of the martial-law regime of Ferdinand E. Marcos.

[6] While the present canon project was fortunate enough to rediscover Leroy Salvador’s Badlis sa Kinabuhi (Hand of Fate, 1968), the impressive showing of contemporary digital-era regional cinema suggests that more celluloid samples of Cebuano movies should be unearthed, if they still exist. The reputed all-time best, Natalio Bacalso’s Salingsing sa Kasakit (Consequence of Pain, 1955) shares the same depressing fate of Gerardo de Leon’s Ang Daigdig ng mga Api (The World of the Oppressed, 1965), both masterpieces that in all likelihood have been lost to posterity. Even several other well-received entries by the likes of Emmanuel H. Borlaza, better known for his Manila-based work; Gene Labella, who never made films outside the region; Leroy Salvador, acknowledged in Manila as an actor; and Amado Cortez, remembered today as Gloria Sevilla’s husband—are nowhere to be found. Scholarly attention being paid to regional cinema would be better late than never, with Paul Grant and Misha Boris Anissimov’s 2016 volume Lilas: An Illustrated History of the Golden Ages of Cebuano Cinema (published by the University of San Carlos Press) as an outstanding sample of a pioneering study.

[7] Preliminary studies, with extensive listings, of non-Filipino productions dealing with the Philippines and/or Filipinos can be found in the “Media and the Diaspora” special issue, dated August 2014, of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication journal Plaridel, as well as in the “OFWs and Foreign Cinema” monograph of the August 2013/February 2014 issue of Ateneo de Manila University’s cultural studies journal Kritika Kultura. Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s Daigdig ng mga Api: Remembering a Lost Film (De La Salle University Press & Film Development Council of the Philippines, 2022) constitutes a valiant attempt at reconstructing a long-lost film classic based on the traces it left behind, while Pro Bernal Anti Bio (ABS-CBN Publishing, 2017), initiated by Ishmael Bernal, continued by Jorge Arago, and completed by Angela Stuart Santiago, may be the most impressive Filipino biography ever written.

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Bringing Theater to the Home

Click here to jump to the following sections: The First Medium; The Transition to Film; Brocka’s Children; Enter Broadcast & Film Inc.; Specialized Training, Awards and Demise; Note.

The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) was a momentarily anachronistic entity when it first arrived. Productions by so-called legitimate Philippine theater companies had never been performed in any local language before. After the Spanish era, “serious” Philippine theater had always been done in the English language, with the occasional original productions in Spanish.

11011The advantage was that the English-language productions introduced dramatic realism, in contrast with the Spanish-language forms of the sinakulo, komedya, and sarswela. The only scripts that would ever include Filipino words would be those for the social-realist dramas of Alberto Florentino, where impoverished characters would speak fluent English and an occasional Tagalog or mispronounced English word.

11011Not surprisingly, when PETA announced a search for Philippine literary classics to be adapted into teleplays for its groundbreaking weekly anthology titled Balintataw, Florentino was among the earliest responders. Nick Joaquin, whose Portrait of the Artist as Filipino was filmed in the original English by Lamberto V. Avellana for Diadem Pictures, agreed to have his globally acclaimed short fiction to be adapted. In fact, it was via Balintataw that the public realized that the local language could be an entirely sufficient vehicle for delivering serious dramatic discourse.

11011Movies, of course, had already resolved the national language issue by the time PETA was founded, with Tagalog winning over English and Spanish, and Cebuano lording it over in the southern regions. Meanwhile, English-language Philippine theater had its last valiant gasp the same year, 1967, that PETA was formed. PETA’s same-age sibling, Repertory Philippines, had its own walk in the sun during the late 1980s when several of its performers, led by Lea Salonga, were cast for the original West End and subsequent Broadway runs of Miss Saigon.

11011Hence from the beginning, PETA had set for itself an ambition that would have sounded quixotic if it had been formulated in a different place and time. In her master’s thesis titled “A Prospectus for the National Theater of the Philippines” (published as Theatre for the Nation in 2003), PETA founder Cecile Guidote Alvarez described how “theater does not solely refer to the legitimate stage, which has been a powerful influence on human civilization for 2,500 years, but also includes its amazing twentieth-century offspring – film, radio, and television.”

11011If PETA was the first Philippine theater group to feature plays in local languages, Repertory Philippines turned out to be the last English-language local theater guild. Teatro Pilipino, for example, endeavored to present plays in both English and contemporary Filipino (translated by its founder, Rolando Tinio) – something that was regarded as “best practice” among local theater groups, notably those in the University of the Philippines, where bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater are being offered.

11011The only logical explanation for the persistence of what we may call the PETA spirit is that its founders were attuned to then-emergent social ferment: various interest groups, not all of them selflessly motivated, were invoking love of country as a means to lay claim to public patronage. What is remarkable about PETA, additionally, is that its early movers and shakers did not let patriotic fervor overcome their realistic assessment of what type of media could best provide the association with a foothold in the public consciousness.

11011Although pioneering among local media in its use of Filipino languages, film had just freed itself from the genteel and monopolistic strictures of the 1950s studio system – romanticized, problematically, as the First Golden Age – and was deliriously (and profitably) looking for barriers to demolish, hitting triple-digit annual output for the first time and building up to the taboo-busting bomba era by the turn of the 1970s. Radio acted as the support medium for film and print, providing news as well as entertainment series that would occasionally be adapted for the big screen.

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The First Medium

Like PETA, television was the Johnny-come-lately in Philippine mass media. Most observers attributed the success of Balintataw, PETA’s first mass-media effort, to serendipity. But it was more clearly a result of a well-considered survey of the field and an extremely sensible judgment of the local audience’s emerging preferences. Since film was in the throes of what film critic Bienvenido Lumbera described in his essay Problems in Philippine Film History as “rampant commercialism and artistic decline,” any well-intentioned newcomer would have easily been figuratively swallowed whole by the system.

11011On the other hand, the audience had been sufficiently modernized and would likely refuse to return to the wholesome patriarchal values at work during the First Golden Age. As written in A Continuing Narrative on Philippine Theater: The Story of PETA (edited by Laura Samson, Brenda Fajardo, Cecile Garrucho, Lutgardo Labad, and Malou G. Santos-Cabangon), Balintataw provided the middle ground from 1967 to 1971, with its adaptations of contemporary literary classics, handled with expert emphasis on performances, with a willingness and ability to innovate within budgetary constraints:

One unique aspect of this drama anthology was the use of a full teleplay script (15-20 mimeographed pages) to replace the former practice of working from a synopsis or sequential notes. Another was the scheduling of a separate day for rehearsals before the actual taping day. Of the many TV drama anthologies of the time, Balintataw was the only one that consistently followed the above practice. (Samson et al., 2008)

11011Resounding acclaim and a string of Citizens Awards for Television (then, ultimately, a CAT Hall of Fame recognition) affirmed the soundness of the PETA strategy and imprinted on the minds of attentive viewers the names to watch out for: Lino Brocka, Lupita Kashiwahara (then Lupita Aquino), Joey Gosiengfiao, Elwood Perez, Mario O’Hara, Nick Lizaso, Tony Perez, Frank Rivera, Lutgardo Labad, Orlando Nadres, Laurice Guillen, and several others. The newbies were not lacking in film-trained mentors, most prominent among them Pierre Salas, a veteran scriptwriter who was starting to venture into directing, and who was also known for his association with master filmmaker Gerardo de Leon.

11011Balintataw brought to the TV screen stories written by the outstanding authors of the time, starting with Nick Joaquin, N.V.M. Gonzalez, Jose Garcia Villa, Edith Tiempo, Narciso Reyes Jr., Sinai Hamada, Alberto Florentino, and so on. It also adapted material from authors who were barely known in classrooms for being too recent (Ernest Hemingway), non-Euro-American (Anton Chekhov), or sexually frank (D.H. Lawrence).

11011Although overwhelmed by the subsequent triumph of PETA talents in film, the story of Balintataw provides interesting angles that challenge existing assumptions. Nora Aunor, for instance, is celebrated for her seamless transition from film to theater via early 1990s PETA productions, specifically Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo and DH (Domestic Helper). Her friendly rival, Vilma Santos, is regarded as a runner-up in this regard – yet it was Santos who preceded Aunor at PETA, via Balintataw.[1] The spectacle of other highly regarded film performers like Vic Silayan, Robert Arevalo, Charito Solis, Rosa Rosal, and Barbara Perez lending their hard-earned prestige to the show, together with younger talents like Santos and Hilda Koronel – all this made it easier for even the most successful film performers (like Aunor, Lolita Rodriguez, and Chanda Romero) to consider invitations to appear in PETA stage productions.

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The Transition to Film

Brocka may have been the first PETA talent to land a movie credit, with his adaptation of Mars Ravelo’s Wanted: Perfect Mother in 1970. He started as a stagehand at the UP Dramatic Club and embarked on a stint as a Mormon missionary and California migrant before returning to the Philippines in time for the founding of PETA. With his emergence in Philippine cinema, he immediately set the template for the serious talents who would follow in his footsteps, including his close friend (who was also regarded as his rival), the stage- and film-trained Ishmael Bernal. The two would compete in completing city movies (Brocka with Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag in 1975, and Bernal with Manila by Night in 1980) and would stake their advocacies in different areas (Brocka in politics, Bernal in film form). Each one would, however, exhibit the influences of the other in their later output. Brocka and Bernal also periodically returned to TV and the stage, with Brocka, who was already a celebrated filmmaker, acting in Hanggang Dito Na Lamang at Maraming Salamat (PETA’s longest-running production) and directing Larawan, the Filipino translation of Joaquin’s Portrait of the Artist. Tragically, both of them died early – Brocka in a vehicular accident in 1991 and Bernal from health complications five years later.

11011It was through Brocka and Bernal that PETA members found their footing in Philippine cinema, with Bernal also recruiting talents from the other repertory groups. Like Brocka, Bernal carried a theater background from the University of the Philippines, where he was to return after his effective retirement from film practice. Several PETA talents, specifically Joel Lamangan, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and Mae Quesada, worked in Bernal’s media projects, with Ongkeko-Marfil later recruiting him to train the members for film and TV.

11011While Bernal’s impact may have been more medium-specific, introducing the multiple-character format by reconfiguring the earlier “smorgasbord” gimmick of Sampaguita Pictures and insisting on a societal analogy where no single character could claim to be the center of the narrative, Brocka’s industrial innovations were no less crucial. After Brocka’s own debut in 1970 (with Bernal following the year after), he had a flurry of film outputs, writing three scripts for his own projects and one script, a comedy, for a popular comedian. Contracted to work exclusively for a major studio, he slogged through a period action vehicle (Santiago!) with the top local actor Fernando Poe Jr., and had two hits in a row. Critics hemmed and hawed over these works, but by Christmas Day, Brocka provided a present that would resound through the rest of his career and prove himself to be equal to the best practitioners of the then-raging bomba (soft-core pornographic) trend.

11011Still considered a vital text in Philippine queer cinema, Tubog sa Ginto also provided Eddie Garcia, an extremely capable actor already being relegated to villain roles, with an opportunity to foreground a conflicted, obsessed, lustful-yet-closeted gay family man. Garcia responded by turning in what has since become a benchmark for Filipino male performance. Although Brocka would eventually suffer from creative burnout a few years later, the example he set with accepting a few commercial impositions before insisting on a project that enabled him some creative leeway (which he demonstrated again the following year with Stardoom) became a pattern that he and Bernal, together with several of the talents they mentored, would observe in their big-studio careers.

11011More impressively, Brocka ushered in a renewed Golden Age after his studio stint by taking time off to organize an independent production company and coming up with a personal project based on his small-town experience, with the assistance of a talent he introduced in Tubog, Mario O’Hara. Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang was not just a sleeper hit; with its audience primed by Brocka’s campus and office tours to discuss the movie, it also swept the industry awards and enabled Brocka to come up with his city movie, Maynila, which is possibly the most well-known Filipino movie among foreign film enthusiasts and also the first Filipino movie to be made available in Blu-ray, through a remastering by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. The year after Maynila, 1976, was considered a milestone in Philippine cinema, with local financiers seeking to replicate Brocka’s one-two punch by producing their own anti-formulaic film projects.

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Brocka’s Children

Brocka’s impact on Philippine cinema was so all-encompassing that his name has become a virtual shibboleth for most contemporary “indie” practitioners who declare his example as their ideal and who aspire, in their own way, to be “the next Brocka.” In fact, if Bernal and a few other filmmakers did not emerge, it would be possible to define the Second Golden Age as Philippine cinema’s Brocka period. Since he effectively remained the custodian of PETA during Guidote-Alvarez’s political exile in the US, eventually being appointed its executive director, the public was inclined to perceive PETA through him.

11011On a personal note, I was surprised to realize that several film talents associated with PETA productions were actually fielded by Brocka, and that a few filmmakers associated with Brocka films (notably Mike de Leon, cinematographer and co-producer of Maynila; and Laurice Guillen, performer in several titles including Tinimbang Ka) were not from PETA either. After he made a name in European film festivals, starting with Cannes, a number of other personnel from Brocka Productions – notably Orlando Nadres, Bey Vito, Lito Tiongson, Soxie Topacio, Jeric Soriano, and Joel Lamangan (all deceased except for the last two) – were also able to initiate their directorial careers. Except for Soriano, all were PETA personnel. Tiongson, Lamangan, and Topacio were mentored by Brocka (along with Balintataw veterans O’Hara and Nadres) via another drama anthology, Tanghalan, which aired for only one season in 1977, as well as via a follow-up program, Lino Brocka Presents.

11011O’Hara (also deceased), de Leon, Guillen, and Lamangan established significant directorial careers. Nadres focused on writing (both scripts and plays), Topacio continued directing and occasionally performing mainly for theater. He took over PETA’s executive directorship after Brocka. Tiongson forged a still-to-be-rediscovered career as political documentarian via an NGO, AsiaVisions. Another PETA talent, recruited by Lutgardo Labad, was Maryo J. de los Reyes, who became a member of the theater’s pool of directors. When Labad was assistant director for Lupita Kashiwahara’s Alkitrang Dugo, Labad endorsed de los Reyes as acting coach. Since then, de los Reyes (also recently deceased) became a successful blockbuster director and the festival director of To Farm Film Festival.

11011Finally, one of the strangest career turns is that of Labad, who is musically gifted and is also an all-around PETA hand and cultural-policy expert with a solid foundation in people’s aesthetics. He directed, among others, May-i May-i, Dupluhang Bayan, Nasa Puso ang Amerika, and Radiya Mangandiri, and has been spearheading cultural tourism in Bohol, his home province. In film, Labad is known almost exclusively as a music director (Tinimbang Ka Nguni’t Kulang, Ganito Kami Noon… Paano Kayo Ngayon, Magnifico, Independencia). If closer attention were to be paid to the overlooked aspect of production, he would arguably be the country’s finest film scorer since Bayan Ko composer Constancio C. de Guzman.

11011Looking at the larger picture of PETA’s participation, it would be possible to conclude that the theater group would have found itself in film, via television, even if Brocka had not come along. But inasmuch as Brocka embodied PETA’s ideals and visions, it would be more appropriate to assert that Philippine cinema has distinct characteristics that may be traced to PETA itself: the concern for issues of national and global significance, the drive to reach the widest possible sector of the public at large, the willingness to work within industrial limitations, and the readiness to introduce formal and thematic innovations that have the potential of advancing audience appreciation of both medium and material. Even in the face of shifts in presidential regimes, industrial dynamics and technologies, these ideals have persisted, a testament to the theater group’s solid grounding and adaptability.

11011Evidence of this persistence may be seen in PETA’s handling of Balintataw. The declaration of martial law in 1972 resulted in the closure of Channel 5, which aired the program. By then, Brocka already had a solid foothold in the Philippine movie industry. As PETA was witness to the dismantling of the Marcos regime in 1986, as well as to the mass media’s power to mobilize participants in the people power uprising, PETA endeavored to revive the program in its original medium – it initially reappeared as Radyo Balintataw, under Guidote Alvarez’s tutelage, on DZRH. With Soxie Topacio overseeing the process, the TV program was reintroduced in 1988. From the start, Balintataw was never envisioned as a profit-generating venture; this time around, it was primarily intended to demonstrate PETA’s aim to upgrade the media literacy of its audience within politically progressive terms. Because of the then-novel atmosphere of democratic space, the program was able to assume a more confrontational tack, telling stories “of marginalized sectors in Philippine society – peasants, workers, urban poor, indigenous peoples, women, and others” (Samson et al.).

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Enter Broadcast & Film Inc.

In order to facilitate the orderly transition of talents from stage to mass media, PETA set up in 1987 a unit called Broadcast & Film Inc., or PETA-BFI, under the supervision of Soxie Topacio. It was, according to Joel Lamangan, “a continuation of Lino’s desire to bring to TV and film PETA’s commitment to truth” – Balintataw was, in effect, its laboratory. When Brocka’s commitment to the Concerned Artists of the Philippines heightened following the assassination of Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr., PETA was, in turn, guided by Soxie Topacio. One controversial detail that slowly came to light during that time pertained to Brocka’s political journey: he had not always been what you may call a fully formed social radical. In fact, at separate points during his tenure as executive director, he discouraged queer behavior and later denounced members who were allegedly Communist-underground partisans using their PETA membership as legal cover (see Johven Velasco’s “Brocka’s Theater: Something for the Heart,” in Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times, ed. Mario A. Hernando). PETA stalwarts like Topacio and Labad were the ones organizing general assemblies so members could collectively articulate the organization’s position.

11011Funds for the PETA-BFI program had to be sourced from abroad and were solicited on the basis of a Community Media Education Program facilitated by trained theater counterparts. The program brought episodes to various rural communities using videocassette technology. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, who had become the most active film director among the PETA-BFI trainees, was in charge of the PETA-BFI following her participation in the directing workshop. Her first directorial output was an early episode for Handog ng PETA series. She was originally assigned to assist Marilou Diaz-Abaya, who eventually declined because the deadline was too tight. Ongkeko-Marfil organized a PETA-BFI directing workshop with Ishmael Bernal as main facilitator, in cooperation with the Mowelfund Film Institute. The MFI students, including renowned cinematographer Neil Daza, attended the workshop. Topacio brought in Brocka to lecture on lighting and provide feedback on the participants’ output. Lamangan was requested to mentor individual students. Finally, as if to provide contrast between the series’ pilot program and Brocka’s less politically pointed TV series Lino Brocka Presents, Topacio set the tone for Handog ng PETA by tackling the long-standing yet always controversial agrarian conflict between landholders and tenants – the basis for over half a century of resistance and armed rebellion reflected in his teleplay, “Si Panyong at ang Hatol ng Guhit na Bilog,” an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.

11011Unlike its earlier incarnation, which garnered the enthusiastic support of its home TV station, the revival of Balintataw confronted a situation where the media technology was about to transition from film to TV, and then with other media and the internet. Hence, the rampaging commercialism that marked Philippine cinema during the 1960s was starting to make its presence felt in TV, culminating in the current scenario where TV studios have taken over mainstream film production. But unlike the commercial cinema predicament where several independent studios could occasionally challenge the major producers – which they continue to do at present – TV can only count on a limited number of players and has to contend with stricter censorship centered on family values, not to mention competing for advertisers based on the results of hotly contested audience surveys.

11011As a result, the new Balintataw’s reliance on grants could not be sustained. The realities of commercial production – where name stars, for example, get the bulk of the budget – made the PETA-BFI members realize that all the attention they devoted to production and creativity would be for naught if they continued to overlook the business and management aspects of their undertaking. The most successful PETA-associated filmmakers since Brocka’s demise were Mario O’Hara and Joel Lamangan, with O’Hara (who died in 2012) dealing with box-office traumas during his debut year (1976) by incorporating happy endings even in his darkest material. Lamangan rose to prominence as the mainstay director of Viva Films (to which he was introduced by Brocka), a major studio during the Second Golden Age. Lamangan succeeded by fostering a reputation for swiftness and budgetary discipline. He ended up with an extensive filmography, nearly the equal of the combined number of films by Brocka and Bernal, and managed to embark on an ongoing legacy project of telling the overlooked stories of the struggles against the martial-law dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

11011From the perspective of PETA-BFI insiders, however, the unit was still a part of PETA. Brocka and the practitioners who followed may have come from PETA but they were shared with the rest of the country and the world, given media’s universal appeal and accessibility. Hence, on the basis of the outpouring of sadness and the wealth of recollections that followed his recent death, Soxie Topacio has remained foremost in PETA-BFI members’ remembrances. He was almost literally a PETA mainstay, starting out at 17 and never leaving until death claimed him nearly 50 years later. Topacio also had a string of some of the most memorable PETA productions to his name as director: Pilipinas Circa 1907, Canuplin, Macli-ing Dulag, Kung Paano Ko Pinatay si Diana Ross, DH (Domestic Helper), and Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo. His devotion to PETA was so complete that he managed to make himself known in Philippine media in only one instance each time. For TV, his role as Neneng in Duplex was regarded as too groundbreaking so that RPN-9 executives, probably worried that the censors might inspect their programming, decided to dissuade all other depictions of gay characters so they could focus on upholding Neneng – and like a true trouper, Topacio delivered. Interestingly, when the Directors Guild of the Philippines Inc. got funding for “indie” productions, Topacio came up with Ded Na si Lolo, adjudged not only the best in the series, but as the Filipino movie worthy of sending to the Oscar competition for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on Topacio’s experience of family wakes, Ded Na si Lolo necessarily had a gay character, played by Neneng’s successor, Roderick Paulate.

11011In a real sense, PETA-BFI provided its own set of lessons for members who started out as talents trained for the people’s theater. Even those who had passed on left indelible marks – Soxie Topacio with his fluid, cinematically staged plays and rambunctious characters in various performing arts media; and Johven Velasco, with a long list of trainees including award-winning performers, and an impressive record of scholarship on theater, film, and TV at the University of the Philippines. Those who passed on in a different sense, by migrating abroad, continue to demonstrate the lessons they accumulated. Evelyn Vargas-Knaebel supplements the efforts of her husband in promoting Philippine indie films in foreign venues. Her husband, Martial Knaebel, is Director of the Fribourg International Film Festival, formerly the Third-World Film Festival, in Switzerland. Beth Mondragon Williams brought her experience in CMEP (as grants-person and video director) to her job as large-scale show producer and fundraiser in Australia. Louie Pascasio left for the US and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in mass communication while teaching mass communication theory and production and participating in Circa Pintig, Chicago’s Fil-Am theater company.

11011The members who remain Philippine-based followed and expanded on the lessons and examples bequeathed by their predecessors and mentors. Mae Quesada-Medina joined PETA-BFI while doing a stint for another TV drama anthology, Dear Teacher, directed by Ishmael Bernal. Her participation peaked as the executive producer of Petabisyon. Avic Ilagan branched out to audiovisual productions for various activist NGOs, along with a stint, like Johven Velasco’s, at a local university’s film scholarship and instruction program. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil responded to PETA-BFI’s traumatic experience with funding shortages by resolving to explore mainstream TV and film setups, with the objective of disseminating the PETA-BFI ideal to wider audiences. This while confronting the media industry’s limitations and exploiting their potentials, which she managed as director for Maalaala Mo Kaya and Pira-Pirasong Pangarap and as manager for Star Cinema’s children’s films and GMA-7’s News and Public Affairs programs. When digital technology arrived and enabled everyone to create and distribute content more easily, financially and technically speaking, she opted to venture into self-produced independent filmmaking – the first PETA talent to immerse actively in this mode of practice. The only effort by another PETA member that came close to a “personal” production outfit would be Brocka’s Cinemanila, which only managed to put out four films during the director’s mid-1970s comeback. Ongkeko-Marfil’s Erasto Productions and Erasto Films have the same number of titles, with more projects in the pipeline. An even newer area of exploration is new media, which Ongkeko-Marfil is also exploring as PETA pioneer, via her recently launched website Pelikulove (

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Specialized Training, Awards and Demise

The first scriptwriting workshop was held at the Philippine High School for the Arts in Mount Makiling, Los Baños, Laguna. Ricardo Lee acted as facilitator for the original materials, while Rene Villanueva and Velasco took on the materials adapted from the stage. There were participants from various theater groups and regional partners, including George de Jesus and Bundo Deoma from Negros, and PETA’s Liza Magtoto. The second Writing for Television Workshop was supported by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and was facilitated by Rene Villanueva. Avic Ilagan also re-collected a season-long TV anthology titled Handog ng PETA, directed by the PETA-BFI members plus PETA veterans. This TV anthology was essentially composed of televisual adaptations of past PETA productions. This became the culminating activity of the BFI workshop participants who, in effect, added TV production skills to their stage expertise.

11011The first major directing workshop was held at the UP Film Center in cooperation with the Cultural Center of the Philippines through the office of Rowena Concepcion. Soxie Topacio and Lito Tiongson participated, while Lino Brocka, Joel Lamangan, Lutgardo Labad, and Peque Gallaga were invited as guest lecturers. The second batch of workshops was held in cooperation with the Mowelfund Film Institute, with Ishmael Bernal lecturing on directing, Amado Lacuesta on scriptwriting, Manolo Abaya on cinematography, Jaime Fabregas on musical scoring, Peque Gallaga on production design, Noel Clemente on sound, and Nick Deocampo on film theory.

11011PETA-BFI’s Handog ng Peta and Petabisyon series, its Children’s Television Program Sige Sali Ka Na, and its Telesine specials won awards from various recognition bodies. By the end of the millennium, however, PETA-BFI stopped producing any more programs. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil explains:

While we were all focused on this newfound creativity, we found the managerial and financial requirements to survive the industry too daunting. We couldn’t break the rules because, in fact, we disagreed with the rules. Perhaps another time, a new strategy could be found to conquer the medium…. For this particular period, victory was giving birth to programs that fulfilled the needs of that particular time as well as in giving birth to another generation of practitioners who would carry and implement the vision at their own time and place and hopefully pass it on to others as well. (Samson, et al.)

11011The call for PETA-BFI would be to recognize the ongoing transformation of mass media, with TV merely as the transitional medium and the internet as an even more challenging option and, so far, the ultimate destination. The internet promises to be the next major area of confluence and contention, directly responsible for the decrease in profitability of the so-called analogue media: print, film and TV – although these have been undergoing digital transformations as well. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, who had stints in Second Golden Age film projects as well as the TV-dominated digital-era productions, took to heart the lesson learned from the revival of Balintataw and made sure to develop a CMEP-type marketing strategy for her projects, starting with Boses (2008) and continuing through Lakbay2Love (2016). She kept away from new film productions in order to set up Pelikulove, still at its initial stage but aiming to be a women-centered website that provides content resembling the PETA package: films, trainings, coverage, and, as a tribute to theater, plays on video, starting with its coverage of the political play Indigo Child, a story based on martial law, written by Rody Vera and staged by Jose Estrella. Unlike previous approaches (e.g., Avellana’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino), the ideal represented by Indigo Child retains the integrity of the play while simultaneously maximizing the strength of cinema, such as its ability to tear down the fourth wall to facilitate intimacy with its audience. Online distribution is also part of Indigo Child’s future trajectory.

11011The democratic nature of new media (the academic term for the internet) is its strength, since those without financial resources could register and post their material and have the same chance as major corporate players at attracting public attention. But the same democratic nature is also its weakness, since it would be relatively easy for the malicious minded, including hackers, to spoil people’s interactions to push whatever motive they might have. In this case, Joel Lamangan’s insight on performance comes to mind:

11011Acting is not the monopoly of so-called stars or actors in the industry. For ordinary citizens – as long as it’s their personal stories and they’re familiar with the emotions, the conflicts, that are being narrated, even more if they’re the main characters of the story and if they’re convinced by the resolution that the story wishes to uphold, because they experienced it – like the material I directed for Petabisyon, a story from Davao about urban-poor folk who fought back, got killed or arrested – all the actors were Davaoeños – they knew the story, the life, so it was so easy for them. I didn’t have the heart to teach them. I could only adjust what they were doing, for the medium. (Phone interview translated to English, conducted by E.O. Marfil, September 4, 2017)

11011Perhaps the most useful insight, as far as the broadcast and film training and application unit within a theater association is concerned, would be the concept of reciprocal integration. Mass media possess the technological advantages of streamlining human exertion (one only needs a single staging of a filmed event), perfecting the presentation even after production via editing, graphic enhancement, and sound and music effects, and then providing reproducible material that could be marketed everywhere simultaneously, even abroad, to ensure bigger returns for the equivalent investment in a stage play. On the other hand, theater is capable of harnessing individuals and challenging them to perform at their peak capacity, usually with an unpredictable ensemble and an approach that resists atomizing or focusing on only one specialized element to the exclusion of everything else. So it makes perfect sense for PETA to start with the stage, then move on to mass media, especially considering that at both ends of the process are the people. They provide the raw material for the research that gets turned into plays, which are then refined and presented in media, and then returned back also to the people, as the audience this time. PETA-BFI, during its existence, performed as the conduit by which a nation was able to witness, assess, and critique itself. The ending of the PETA-BFI narrative is open, and a passage from A Continuing Narrative on Philippine Theatre might provide us with some realistic insights for moving forward:

…the vision to use “theater’s offsprings” of television and film to bring forth a national theater of cultural and social significance to the people, to give a country a name and a soul through the stories of its children,… would find fruition… for a time, but sadly thwarted as well in the end, first by the dictates of one man, later through the dictates of an industry. But it would be far from the truth to say that these efforts were in vain. PETA     has also grown and learned through these difficult and trying years, undaunted in making its voice heard, uncompromising in its conviction and principles. Many Filipinos from the city to remote barrios have seen and heard the stories and been touched by the fire of this vision (Samson, et al.)

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[1] I must clarify that I have not found any definitive first-hand proof of this claim, beyond the account of old-timers.

Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Mini-Appendices & Works Cited

Mini-Appendix A: Self-Study

There is a wealth of introductory books on film theory, most of which provide an adequate overview of ideas on the subject. I usually recommend Robert Stam’s Film Theory: An Introduction for the author’s acknowledgment of the interests of non-Western peoples; it is accompanied by a supplement, edited by Stam and Toby Miller, titled Film and Theory: An Anthology. The more comprehensive standard collection, continually updated, is Film Theory & Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, now on its 8th edition. A still-useful reference would be the two volumes edited by Bill Nichols titled Movies and Methods: An Anthology. A recommendable process would be to complete an overview, read up on the authors who prove interesting and useful, and proceed to these authors’ book-length output. (Make sure though to still read up on the other authors later.)

11011I would also urge any beginner to provide herself with a beyond-theoretical summary of the field; a sample (that badly needs updating) might be The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. Considered a basic and vital introduction to film aesthetics would be David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith’s Film Art: An Introduction, currently on its 12th edition. Bordwell himself maintains a website that contains his recent articles and updates, as well as an exemplary blog with Thompson (as primary author) titled Observations on Film Art. I mention this to be able to badmouth all the other film-studies websites that fail to display the same degree of rigor and thoroughness, and these are legion. Avoid getting into those (and writing similar crap later – you’ve been warned) by using Thompson and Bordwell’s material as benchmark, and focus instead on reading as many entire books as you can find useful, whether for instruction or pleasure.

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Mini-Appendix B: Deconstruction

Two French names are central in studying deconstruction (unfortunately still far from being fully assimilated in Pinas education, even in grad-school programs): Jacques Derrida, whose principles were initially reduced to methodological approaches by overeager American literary critics, but who persisted in tackling forward-looking global issues through the turn of the millennium; and Michel Foucault, acknowledged as influential by several new progressive activist movements as well as historians grateful for the opportunity to regard the past in new ways.

11011Both have been extensively translated to English, with Foucault generally more readable than early Derrida; both are also well-served by scholars who sought to explicate the deconstructive turn, which requires a grasp of interdisciplinary principles drawn from history, literature, aesthetics, sociology, politics, psychoanalysis, and economics. (Sounds intimidating, but it gets easier as you go along.) Read up on as many introductory materials as you can find, then explore each one’s body of work before forming your own take on deconstruction and its usefulness for social change. You may even reject it, but if your ultimate motive is to return to an older set of ideas, then save yourself the trouble and find other ways (if you can) to defend an order that has become part of the past.

11011Your encounter with deconstructive principles will lead you to certain trends and ideas that may or may not be familiar to you, depending on how updated your educational institution was: binary systems, poststructural frameworks, identity politics, and so on. Unlike preceding systems of thought that mimicked monotheistic religions in claiming the finality and correctness of their premises and prescriptions and abhorred all manner of dissent, deconstruction has the potential of operating without end and leading to relativistic, if not nihilistic, conclusions. It can of course turn into its own form of dogma, open to exploitation by both left and right extremists, so the challenge (recognized early enough by politicized thinkers) is in harnessing it to attain progressive social change. At the very least, the excitement of encountering a new set of ideas for the first time will be yours to claim.

 Works Cited

Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Volume 1. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

Bordwell, David. On the History of Film Style. 2nd ed. Madison, WI: Irvington Way Press, 2018.

Bordwell, David, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith. Film Art: An Introduction. 1979. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2020.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory & Criticism. 1974. 8th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.

David, Joel. “Corrigenda & Problematics for Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic.” Ámauteurish! (June 6, 2020).

———. “The Reviewer Reviewed.” Ámauteurish! (December 12, 2015).

Fowler, H.W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. Ed. David Crystal. 1926. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hechler, David. The Battle and the Backlash: The Child Sexual Abuse War. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.

Hill, John, and Pamela Church Gibson, eds. The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich. “Directives on the Film Business.” 1922. Volume 42 of Lenin Collected Works, October 1917 – March 1923. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971. 388-89.

Longworth, Karina. Meryl Streep: Anatomy of an Actor. Cahiers du Cinema series. London: Phaidon Press, 2013.

Malko, George. “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies: A Profile.” Conversations with Pauline Kael. Ed. Will Brantley. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. 15-30.

McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies series. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

McMahon, James. “Life Is a Great Screenwriter.” Interview with Francis Ford Coppola. The Guardian (December 5, 2020).

Modern Language Association of America. MLA Handbook. 9th ed. New York: MLA, 2021.

Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Vols. 1 & 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976 & 1985.

Rice, Mark. Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Simon, John. “A Critical Credo.” Private Screenings: Views of the Cinema of the Sixties. New York: Macmillan, 1967. 1-16.

Smith, Zadie. “That Crafty Feeling.” Columbia University Writing Program lecture. The Believer (June 1, 2008).

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2000.

Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller, eds. Film and Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell 2000.

Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell. Observations on Film Art. At David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema (September 2006 to the present).

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Persistence of Vision

Your best way to proceed is to start out knowing what kind of final project you’ll be writing, and more important, you have to know what kind of intervention you’re providing for Philippine film scholarship. It will be a critical project, which is why we’re in film criticism (duh), but it will have implications for history, education, archiving, society (if we’re lucky), and so on. This is why you cannot just swoop down on the pop-culture field, armed with some conventional tools provided by long-standing institutions, unless you don’t mind being ignored or getting blasted by some annoyed expert later. From what you have read, watched, and observed in a comprehensive review of your area of concern (including foreign counterparts when applicable), what do you think requires improvement, and how will you be able to provide that improvement?

11011Once you have answered that, you can structure your larger goal(s) and the means by which you can get there. Let me provide a sample template, one that has become feasible for me and a number of other contemporary netizens: a volume (or two) covering the issues confronting audiences and/or practitioners and/or producers in the area of independent and/or mainstream and/or regional (including diasporic) Pinas cinema during the millennium and/or the late celluloid era, raising the issue of aesthetics and/or reception and/or industrial processes using a critical deployment of the ideas of some native or foreign school of criticism.

11011Once you have concretized these elements, you will know as you go along what films will matter and what won’t, what issues to raise, what people and texts to consult, and so on. In the (still-distant) end, you can compile your output, jettison whatever may be extraneous or redundant, organize the material, write an introduction, write short or long texts to bridge adjacent sections, draft a conclusion or epilogue, hire an artist or two and an indexing service (if you’re self-publishing, with funds on tap). You’ll have the volume you planned in the beginning; if you wrote scholarly articles, you’ll have a thesis or dissertation. Not as easy as it sounds, but better than stumbling around hoping to be the best film critic you can be.

11011But what happens if, say, your concern for an area outside critical writing or artistic production becomes too distracting, and promises opportunities for professional advancement as well? The answer should be obvious to anyone who’s already familiar with the principles I laid out in this manual. The practice of critical thinking and the ability to work out creative solutions limit themselves to art and literature only in the minds of the hopelessly old-fashioned. Several former students of mine have opted to work in fields as diverse as talent management, archiving, festival organizing, music, porn performance (you read that right) – and made their areas of practice richer by their presence. Find your vocation, make sure it makes you happy and productive, and keep everyone else posted whenever possible.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #3

A final batch of reminders to make sure that complacency won’t be assured of a handy victory.

Be prepared to revise constantly.

After over four decades of writing, mostly intensively, the danger I’m most wary of is starting off without worrying about how I come across. It’s a variation on an earlier anxiety, when I was a practicing journalist for a few years: as a resident film critic, I knew that readers would always pay some attention to what I had to say, so as long as I met my deadlines, no one complained. Imagine my dismay when I started compiling my pieces for book publication for the first time, and realized how extensively I had to revise almost half of them. (For what it’s worth, at least polishing my pieces has always been a fun activity for me.)

11011The worst moment for what in journalism is called lead-writing (“lead” as in lead instrument, not lead battery) came when I had to start drafting my doctoral dissertation. Days of formulating a sentence that sounded both succinct and witty ended with my decision to rethink what I had (sometimes a few pages’ worth already) and start from scratch. It had to acknowledge a non-Filipino readership and draw in political relations between the country that (re)introduced film to its first and only formal colony. Finally, possibly because I’d been confronting the problem for over two weeks, it came instantaneously and unexpectedly: “If the field of American cultural studies were to be reconfigured as topographic terrain, then postcolonial studies would constitute its jungle and the Philippines its heart of darkness.”

11011I wish to avoid marvelous claims for the already-difficult act of writing, but once I had set the sentence down, the rest of the opening chapter virtually wrote itself. Maybe this only applies to me (because it happened earlier in the past, and continued to happen afterward). But certain factors had to be in place before I could make it work: I had to be prepared with a sufficient measure of confidence, with as much of my research material as I can assemble on hand, and have the right balance of pressure to attend to writing with minimal worrying over mundane matters like bills, tax deadlines, house repairs, etc. Unfortunately for the peculiarities of my writing habits, I associate quotidian settings with mental anxiety and physical rest – which means I could only work in newsroom-like places, of which coffeehouses may be the closest contemporary equivalent.[1]

11011You may find that this exact combination of elements would not apply to you. But if you write long enough, you will find certain places and conditions more conducive to your productivity. Once you do, try to find a convenient and affordable version of the locale and make sure you have access to it whenever crunch time nears. Fluidity is the benchmark: a work you sweated over while writing will (more often than not) cause the reader to slog through the output in turn; something you felt like you lightly tossed off could also induce the reader to relax while going through it. As long as you made sure that you put in effort where it mattered – in preparing for the writing process – you should have less to worry about, and maybe even enjoy writing your piece.[2]

11011The earlier pointers I brought up would have told you how you could develop a welcome argument. If it’s too new or involved, provide the equivalent of a road map in the beginning, after announcing the crisis you want to tackle (yup, I used crisis, a word from narrative writing – just in case we forget again: any difference in these writing modes is artificial; the crisis of a plot would be, in academic terms, its problematique).

11011What I could present as good news to you would be: if you feel you’ve already completed a complex and thorough presentation, you can opt to end there and then. A “cold” ending is better than an unnecessary summary, as anyone who’s ever had to read theses or dissertations published as books, whose editors failed to call for revisions, might recall. On the other hand, if you want to leave a longer-lasting impression, go for a kicker. Insightful humor would be best, or even an unexpected downer if you feel you’ve been too light-hearted throughout already.

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Submit or upload your text, then attempt further revisions.

You may think I’m merely fastidious, but you’re wrong: I’m hyperfastidious. Unless you can afford an excellent editor, self-editing (including the soul-crushing act of close self-copyediting) will be the way to go whenever and wherever you decide to publish something you’ve written. When the publication has its own editor and she realizes that you can do as well or even better, you’ll enable her to focus on matters specific to the publication. A good editor will be able to create (pardon the buzzword) synergy out of your writing and the publication’s agenda, but if you’ve already maintained that consideration in your writing, you can hope for the even better type of editor – one who’ll leave your submitted text alone.

11011Before you reach this point where you can continually critique and revise (let’s call this process C&R) your material after you submit it, you need to guarantee yourself that you already C&R’d it at least once, preferably a few times, beforehand. (I know, I started with the bad news, then announced the worse one afterward – a bit of sadism I enjoy inflicting occasionally.) If you find yourself C&Ring as you write, you don’t have to hold yourself back; just be aware that you’re slowing yourself down, and try the alternative – drafting everything first before conducting C&R – to see which strategy works better for you. In my case, I can tolerate a mild attempt at C&R during writing, since lead writing (see the previous entry) already involves an intensive C&R process.

11011Once you’ve finished drafting and revising, if you have the luxury of time, tear yourself away from what you wrote. Sleep if you haven’t, have a meal and/or a pleasant intoxicant, hang with friends, lose yourself in music or fiction, exercise, indulge in some mild consensual pleasure – whatever you need to forget the trauma of writing. I did go into psychoanalytic matters, because guess what, you have to go back to it yourself in an even more neurotic state. Once you’ve forgotten what you wrote, prepare yourself anew, this time by imagining that you’ll be reading something that someone else wrote. Then reread, and C&R. If you’ll be uploading to a blog, then you ought to know that you can make changes on your own post, no matter how long ago you placed it there.

11011I’ll provide a practical method that works for people who started writing when most typewriters were manual because only rich offices could afford electric contraptions. It proceeds from the insight that your text on a printed page looks different. A printout of your manuscript would be a step closer to its published form, even if it will come out digitally, if only because it will not have the same appearance as when you drafted it. I realized once more how invaluable this step was for me, when I retyped, copyedited, and uploaded my out-of-print books on my blog, and occasionally read through articles at random in order to further correct any errors I overlooked. Some time later, I had to print out everything I placed there. That printout turned out to have at least one error per page, sometimes far more than I could ever allow myself. So if you’ve never printed out anything you drafted, try it once and see if it better helps you assume the readerly function when you C&R yourself.

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Own your errors.

The unreflective film critic, after years and years on the job, will finally sigh and go, There’s no such thing as a perfect film after all. Aren’t we lucky to work in writing, a medium where perfection is possible? “Unreflective” was the word I used: there can be no such thing as a perfect anything. Fortunately, as an atheist, I preclude myself from answering, well what about god? Because, as supreme being, I never believed in deluding myself about my own perfection. So there.

11011We are at the historical stage where Eastern philosophical principles, though still formally unacknowledged in the West, have finally managed to prevail over the old-time tendencies to abhor contradictions and seek so-called stable conditions. The more ambitious a system is, the likelier it is to contain weaknesses or flaws. So it would be no reflection on your hard work and integrity for anyone to definitively argue, sooner or later, that something you wrote can be subjected to a process of deconstruction.

11011“Own your errors” means being a good sport when someone points them out – or better yet, pointing them out yourself, to yourself, and revising your work if you still can. But if all that involves is self-flagellation, then signing up for a rural Holy Week ritual would be more efficient. Once more, take the longer look. We should not be after the avoidance of mistakes, since the act of learning from errors, especially published ones, commits us to doing better or else. Ask yourself now, if you haven’t done so earlier, what your larger project is. You should always have one, and much as I hate using the modifier, it would be appropriate in this context: your long-term goal should be a worthy one.

11011Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the social-network game of amassing as much positive feedback for your pieces as you can wangle. Determine the worthy purpose first, so that what you write is actually building up toward it. If you’ve been in graduate school and getting world-class advice, you’ll recognize what I’m saying. You don’t start your program like a bachelor’s degree aspirant, hoping to be guided toward a topic and shown how to successfully pull it off. On the other hand, if you’re in a graduate program where your final research project has remained amorphous for the most part, never interrogated during the application stage, note well what I’ll say right now: you’re being conned; while claiming to be compassionate, the faculty are taking advantage of your presence to finagle the higher honoraria they’ll be getting from grad-level classes and exams and defenses, so the longer you stay the happier they’ll be, and they can always dump you later if you don’t meet whatever standards they claim to be upholding.

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Careful with claims you make.

Not a vital piece of advice, since this should be obvious to anyone who presumes to write and publish anything. I claimed to have ten entries and ended with eleven, possibly even twelve (which is something I always do when providing lists of anything). I never claimed to be an expert in math, so when this sort of thing happens to you, you can forgive yourself. I never claimed to be an expert film critic either, but that possibly comes from superstitious observation: over the decades, the few people I managed to observe asserting themselves in the practice tended to crash and burn, for a variety of reasons. For that reason, I never regarded hubris as a friend, except for comic or camp purposes.

11011A few other things I make no apologies for: aspiring to figure out the popularity of current releases without recourse to the official critics’ high-handed call to “enlighten” the local audience via reviews and awards; supplementing my insights with what little anthropological information I can uncover via casual and anonymized conversations with actual mass-audience members; catching myself from declaring that a project should never have been released, with the ethical reminder that most of the people who worked on it were working-class wage earners; championing practitioners who’ve been handed a raw deal by the country’s tastemongers, whose self-serving antics I’ve seen up close and for which my turn to gossip writing might prove useful eventually.

11011When you set yourself against a prevalent trend or two, people whose interests feel threatened will find ways to mount hate campaigns. I’ve seen acquaintances crumple or fight back, but as a media practitioner, I also recognize that such hostility can be helpful. If you’re certain of your own assessment and have the confidence of sound analysis, then any opponent will have to begin with the foundations you’ve laid out (which means, if they’re right, you’ll be able to correct yourself). When they proceed from a position of hysterical anger, that’s a sign that they have nothing substantial to present, and that some covert corruption may be at play. It would be great to command respect across a wide spectrum of the public – great, but boring; better to have negative reactions from people who’re saddled with issues that your output provokes to antagonism. The contrast between mercy and meanness would be instructive for an observant public.

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[1] An even weirder twist for me is the way that self-rewards function: completing (a draft of) a project is its own reward, so anything extra I promised myself afterward will feel anticlimactic; besides, a sufficiently ambitious project is never really ever finished, so a certain amount of anxiety will always impinge on my enjoyment. On the other hand, I discovered that rewards acquired prematurely, timed during periods when I know I’ll be facing writer’s blocks, will induce me to buckle down and work even harder, out of sheer guilt. Hey if it works for you, then it works with (maybe only) you so don’t let anyone else convince you otherwise.

[2] See the end of the very first entry in this list of pointers (titled “There is no such thing as too much preparation”), for a point made by US film performer Meryl Streep. Several other successful pop performers make the same assertion in their interviews.

What about my actual motives?

No shame in admitting you’re really into film activity to meet media celebrities. It doesn’t give me any thrill, but I don’t see anything wrong with yielding to fandom, so long as you admit as much whenever it becomes necessary, and either steer clear of public-relations work or drop commentary writing altogether if PR proves too lucrative to ignore. Then again you’re reading this to pick up any useful tip from me, so here it is: find out if your colleagues are still spellbound by the rejection of authorial intent, as stipulated by (old) New Criticism. This means that an author’s purpose is never supposed to be the ultimate measure of correct textual analysis. There’s a difference of course between determining the author’s motive and uncovering the exigencies of creative work, which to me is indispensable to critical practice. My solution is simply to never announce that I consulted any practitioner in a project I’m working on. The guiding principle here, as you may have guessed by now, is that when you find your peers are ideologically … slow, leave them behind. This is one rare instance where not divulging the complete truth will work in favor of enhancing your critical output.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #2

This next batch of tips focuses on the writing process, specifically on the issues that responsive film critics need to resolve before and during the act of writing.

Review or critique, or is there a difference? (Part 1)

As in the question regarding the difference between criticism and literature, there should be none in this case. The only trouble is that in practice, most people insist on one or the other type of output, accepting that one (criticism) is superior to the other (reviewing). When in fact the only difference that matters is that between good and bad commentary. No one should be surprised to come across bad criticism just as good reviewing can and does exist. And no, I won’t allow us to fall into the trap laid by the late John Simon (unfortunately idolized by an entire generation of Pinoy film critics), that reviewing is just bad criticism.[1]

11011We can proceed by viewing each activity in terms of the frame of mind the author brings to it. Reviewing involves a micro perspective while criticism is macro exertion. One will seem easier than the other – except again for the earlier precept I brought up: the seemingly simple or fun diversion is in fact what’s fraught with more danger and renders the writer prone to failure and embarrassment. If you need any proof, just take a look at the reviews that the “official” critics circle (there’s only one) requires of its members when awards season happens along.

11011Each member makes a valiant effort to prove the qualification of the author as an expert in Philippine cinema, but sinks from the homogeneity of the militaristic call to arms to defend the institution’s selections. Uniformity only looks impressive on troops, preferably those about to engage in actual warfare, but film commentary made to order to fortify the year’s canon fails against the macro challenge of upholding canons in the first place, vis-à-vis the always-urgent need to inspect and figure out the actual preferences of the mass audience … that the supposedly progressive circle avows as its primary beneficiary.

11011The surest way I can suggest to determine for yourself if you’re ready to embark on an extensive activity of providing film commentary will sound counter-intuitive. You will hear professions of passion, or at least of satisfaction, from nearly all the film appreciators you’ll encounter. It’s like a declaration of faith: I’m so into film, I live it and breathe it and can’t help but talk and write about it all the time – wait is this real celluloid OMG I just have to kiss it, yakety-yak. Pay no heed to this buffer-than-thou nonsense. When you find yourself engaged by a film-generated idea regardless of whether the film text in question affects you emotionally or aesthetically, then you’ll be in a better position to conduct research and evaluation than self-proclaimed film commentators.

11011On the other hand, if you find yourself impassioned by specific film releases and feel that your audience badly needs to be educated by you or a group you represent, the best course of action would be to pause until the delusion passes. If it morphs into an overpowering moral crusade, look for the nearest tall structure, climb up, and jump off.

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Review or critique, or is there a difference? (Part 2)

So micro or macro, which one should be it? Both, whenever possible. The reviewer who overlooks context, history, and the interplay of ideas just because these interfere with the call to provide subjective responses will just as surely fail as the critic who refuses to be honest with herself and dismisses the imperative of engaging the reader. The pros of each activity do not license the commenter to shunt aside the requisites that will ensure a well-rounded piece of work.

11011Finally, as if we didn’t have enough stumbling blocks to watch out for, I’ll be pointing out what to me is the most crucial one. This occurs when academically prepared authors venture into writing on pop culture. As I already made clear, I hold no judgment when people from any other (or from no) discipline attempt to tackle film material. The trouble arises when a subconscious form of colonial mentality takes hold, wherein the writer purports to display an expert grasp of existing (usually Western) theory and uses it to size up a local artifact, with the native sample always likely to fail in relation to the abstract ideal.

11011This would be pathetic if it were not utterly insidious. Any human exertion, in any period and place, rarely measures up to whatever perfect formal counterpart we can conjure up (its ideal essence, as expressed by Plato). This tendency comes from a secularization of biblical hermeneutics, which refers to the struggle to arrive at a correct and definitive interpretation of so-called holy scripture. Since our and our instructors’ training is rooted in theological assumptions, and our cultural capital derives from demonstrating competence in European languages starting with English, preferably prepped in Western institutions, we wind up with scholars who think they’ve been equipped with critical ideas and methods, eager to present themselves as proponents of whatever may have been hip or cool or edgy in the places where they studied.

11011We can and should value anyone who elucidates for us any new ideas, from any place, that happen along. But the more valuable critic is the one who realizes that theory, even and especially foreign ones, can be subject to critical analysis as well – can be challenged, modified, overturned, even rejected, depending on its evaluation in relation to urgent contemporary material conditions. (Even scripture should be treated the same way, but that’s not the war that needs to be won here yet; or rather, that war’s already been won.) So is this the best that any film critic can get – conversant with theory yet critical of it, sufficiently familiar and accepting of the film(s) under study? Not quite. Remember another even earlier point I raised, about humility. That should always remain the first object of any aspirant’s critical consideration: oneself.

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Watch and read the necessary texts more than once.

Pauline Kael, who I mentioned earlier, was famous for, among other things, claiming that she only needed to watch a film once in order to review it.[2] The resultant prose was brilliant, complex, witty, insightful, though sometimes premised on irrelevant detail or a possible misreading. I have read other film philosophers, starting with the foundational authors Sergei Eisenstein and André Bazin, and I recall a few instances where they talk about a contemporary or then-forthcoming function of film on the basis of a possibly indefensible assumption. (Speaking of philosophers, be very wary when Marxist-identified thinkers presume to write on film, unless you already subscribe to their ideology and there’s nothing else anyone can do for you; in fact nothing I can write about, with all my carefully finessed and updated Marxist notions, will be of help in that case.[3])

11011Advanced film thinkers – and I do include Kael in this category, despite the insistent rejection of her by many of my peers – don’t really have to be dependent on matching their ideas with any ordinary film release. When you are ready to do some theorizing of your own, after taking a comprehensive survey of film products and mastering all the relevant film and non-film ideas, then you can be dismissive of entire traditions and generations of practitioners if you think your notions will justify such radical purging.

11011In the meanwhile, you’ll just have to take my word for this: nothing will boost the critical credibility of any newcomer as a solid reading of a film-text coupled with a reliable grasp of related material, just as nothing will ensure long-standing embarrassment than a confidently declared conclusion that amounts to fake news. To be sure, a lot of pop-culture products get misread fairly often, by large sectors of the public. Our goal of course is to have, whenever possible, the certainty of accurate perception.

11011How you arrive at the right number of repetitions will depend on the conditioning you allowed yourself. For people of my generation, when getting to watch a film in itself was a luxury, with the product constantly in danger of getting lost for good, I could allow myself an occasional exception. (Many of the celluloid films I’d reviewed, and many more that I’d seen before I started writing on film, are in fact permanently lost.) But during the present historical moment, when films are increasingly easier to access, two screenings – one for gut response, another for note-taking – should be the minimum requirement.

11011What if a movie is just not worth watching twice? If your job is resident reviewing, you owe it to your own mental and emotional well-being to avoid those types of products whenever possible; your first desideration is to convince your superior, or yourself, to focus on titles that you can engage with, and allow yourself to stretch on your own terms. Remember as well that what you find unacceptable may be premised on entirely subjective responses. If you can’t stand, say, reptiles, body fluids, poor lighting, screaming voices, slapstick, atheism, or people of a certain race or gender (all conditions I’ve noted in people I’ve met through the years), then you’ll have to recognize that these may be conditions that don’t normally exist in the case of expert practitioners. You’d have to work on your own limitations first, and foreground these same limitations when you write. It would be ethically questionable to keep assailing your pet peeves while keeping your preferences closeted. People will not (and should not) be forgiving when they’re able to figure out what quirks you insisted on indulging.[4]

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Pay attention to your stylistic approach, to determine its adequacy.

As if working out your ideas weren’t hard enough, you’ll also have to be careful about how you’ll be expressing those ideas. Many starting critics adopt a shoot-from-the-hip approach, in the hope – and even confidence, if they’re less bright – that the resultant tone marks them as honest and straightforward. News flash: critics since ancient times have been writing that way, and absolutely no one remembers who they are today except for a few names mentioned in passing by annoyed authors; even worse, no one bothered to preserve what they wrote. The senior authors you may have read writing that way have either paid their dues in better-considered commentaries in their earlier period, or are just slumming around in an area that they think provides easy pickings (and should be denounced for it, but better just leave that to other senior authors like me).

11011Notice I mentioned tone, a really tricky stylistic permutation that involves the manipulation of elements like diction and syntax. It’s easier to achieve when you’ve attained a level of literary competence that allows you to play around as you write. People rarely display a mastery of tone at the outset, which is a way of saying that most writers have not fully attained the style they aspire to master.[5]

11011But here’s a secret most successful writers won’t tell you: whatever style you think you want for yourself, someone already pulled it off earlier, possibly in an unrelated genre. So part of your preparation, apart from reading the ideas you wish to contend with and viewing closely the films you wish to write about, is to read strictly for pleasure. Check out as many authors as you can read, in the cultural contexts that you find fascinating, until you find a writer whose voice seems to sound like how you would want to be heard by others (needless to add, we’re referring here to the printed, or digital, page).

11011This subjective type of reading should add to your store of ideas, but you should really be doing it in order to study how the author set those ideas down in a way that engaged you, her reader. As if that weren’t burdensome enough, I’d add that you should seek at least one other author with an approach opposed to the one you favor, but who also winds up provoking your interest. Meaning, keep reading on – which is why pleasure should be your primary purpose. If you’re able to find the best anti-writer to your earlier discovery (meaning someone whose voice you wouldn’t mind adopting as well), you’ll be able to perceive a dialectical difference in literary approaches, which may be able to contribute more effectively to the development of your own writing.[6]

11011I’ll close with two important pieces of advice along this line, but I’ll start with the one that I already mentioned at the start of this manual: never listen to a teacher who tells you specifically how to write, again unless you share enough ideological sentiment with this person and wouldn’t mind being considered her clone. But then why are you still reading this?

11011The second and possibly most important word of advice I as a writer can impart, is: be funny whenever you can. If a situation seems too grim and apocalyptic to laugh at, and you write about it unironically, like some prophet bearing the promise of a solution you somehow arrived at, then you should know that you’re already failing. Because you can always – spoiler alert – laugh at yourself. Try it and see: self-deprecation, when pulled off successfully, can ease your readers into some difficult or complex set of ideas that you want to present. And when you start out with that tone, you wind up committing yourself to a project that includes entertainment (at your own expense, if necessary) – always a noteworthy goal, in filmmaking as well as in criticism, despite what awards-obsessed practitioners might say.

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[1] From page 10 of John Simon’s “A Critical Credo” in Private Screenings.

[2] See pages 18-19 of George Malko’s “Pauline Kael Wants People to Go to the Movies.”

[3] Bias deserves its own extensive discussion. I recognize that it’s difficult to function effectively when devoid of it, but what I’d caution against is ideological bias of any kind. Media experts recognize that the most ideologically independent institutions (wire agencies, for example, or top-ranked academic journals) are the ones for whom reliability becomes a primary selling point. In this sense, ideological pandering becomes an easy way out, with sets of more-or-less fixed groups of appreciators and haters.

[4] The standard realization in psychology, originating from Freud, that hatred is actually a reflection on the state of mind of the hater has finally become acceptable in popular discourse, thanks to the efforts of race and feminist activists. Several Filipino authors and auteurs who traversed this shift in perspective will inevitably manifest reversals in their output. A favorite example of mine in Philippine cinema is Lino Brocka, about whom I’ve written more extensively elsewhere, most recently in my Manila by Night monograph as well as the corrigenda (actually a list of problematics) I posted on Ámauteurish!

[5] The first classroom exercise in my Pinas film-crit courses requires each student to write a personal letter to her best friend in order to point out a socially embarrassing habit that the friend needs to attend to. This comes directly from my experience of writing negative reviews in formal (a.k.a. “objective”) language and then running into the filmmaker in one of the many social occasions that a then-small industry enjoyed sponsoring. I’ve written elsewhere about their responses, which were always unfailingly fair and professional. I’ll be writing more about this, but not for and in the present text.

[6] Maybe a childhood fascination with cockfights (whose cruel methods appalled me only much later) accounted for this drive to find opposing authorial styles. I remember listing a number of favorite writers, but the ones whom I regarded as equally matched in terms of social awareness and linguistic innovation were Charles Dickens and William Faulkner. Even today when I read anything that reminds me of one, I’d find myself seeking out a sample of the other just to ask myself which one I’d consider more successful.

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You call these writing tips?

The mechanics of learning writing is what school attendance is for. Ideally a student should have sufficient competence in at least one language, official or otherwise, by the completion of secondary studies. College-level training could then supply the equivalent of what I endorse for authors anxious about stylistic expertise: the study of literature, to be able to identify models they can emulate and eventually surpass. Before the internet made a wide range of style guides (at least in English) available, I would spend study or work breaks rereading an author I admired, alongside one of many standard writing reviewers. During my earlier years, I would also draw up a list of style questions that I would ask from, starting with my high-school writing mentors. These could probably be served at present by the practice of crowdsourcing on social media, although my own efforts never yielded answers as satisfactory or definitive as when I looked up experts in person. For one practical bit of advice: master an academic stylebook (I’d recommend, for English writers, the Modern Language Association of America’s, since it’s formulated for humanities authors) and make any adjustments you feel will be useful, so long as you maintain consistency in your writing. Once in a while, look up a much older and necessarily dated reference (such as H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage) in order to have a sense of where today’s notions of (beyond-political) correctness came from.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Inklings #1

What I will be drawing up will be ten matters to keep in mind. Following these will ensure that you’re on the right track, since I came by some of these insights from trial and error and use these as a way of making sure that I remain within a zone of confidence while still allowing myself some leeway for productivity.[1]

There is no such thing as too much preparation.

This applies to everything in life, not just in one’s profession. But it’s a simple matter to overlook when dealing with so-called easy material. In fact, people who study everyday “fun” things – food, sex, recreation, pets – will be the first ones to tell you that the ease with which they can be apprehended is misleading. From teaching for the past decade-plus at what is essentially an institute of technology, I’ve had several exchanges with instructors and students in engineering and the sciences who wind up confessing that they never imagined that film studies could be so fiendishly complicated a challenge.

11011Just as important is the issue of what preparation is the right kind. I’ve had students assigned to complete a semestral project laboring for the first few weeks over what title they wanted to use – when they explained their problem to me, I told them to just go with “Untitled.” Other students I was asked to advise were incapable of tearing themselves away from such long-debunked frameworks like anti-contraception or the validity of Ayn Rand’s ideas or the efficacy of underground “water veins” for health treatments; usually these were imparted to them by well-meaning but horribly incompetent parents, so be careful what you pass on if you’re some impressionable person’s adult authority.[2] I’ve also been unable to forget a scholar who came all the way from a tropical island, only to complain that his host country’s food was too spicy and the weather was getting too cold (with winter still a few months away), plus his war-trained colleagues were too masculinist.

11011Always, the common denominator in these cases is an excessive sense of privilege that blinds people into believing that no other questions about their specific set of convictions need to be entertained. The students’ influential figures – family, school, church, sometimes even government – misguidedly assured them that they were already equipped for some misplaced reason: they were rich enough, pedigreed enough, “blessed” enough, and so on, so that anything they tossed out in public deserved to elicit gratitude for their sheer effort.[3]

11011So we may as well begin with the right attitude for this kind of undertaking. In one word, humility. When you think you’ve done your best, be prepared to accept if someone else did better, and take a long hard look at your output vis-à-vis the superior one: inevitably, that one will have had better preparation behind it. Within the circles of doctoral degree-holders, we find this syndrome as well. Most so-called doctors of philosophy (mediocre ones, by definition) will throw their weight around and claim that they don’t need to know more than they do because some higher institution accredited them already; but the very best ones will speak truthfully in saying that they still have a long way to go, even after retirement. The value of the doctorate is in teaching where and how to seek knowledge, how to validate and evaluate it, and how to deploy it in scholarship; in the age of Google and Wikipedia, only unstable personalities will claim to be stable geniuses who’ll know everything.

11011A final observation I’ll be making is that writing, like any other profession, always presents the danger of roteness, when you achieve a level of competence that enables you to produce work according to a set schedule, format, vocabulary, etc. Nothing wrong if it’s a bread-and-butter activity, and if you made sure that no one else can excel on the same level in the first place. I would argue from long experience, however, that what can be fulfilling about writing – even critical writing – is that every challenge met (successfully or otherwise) is an entirely new experience every time: “I have a smattering of things I’ve learned from different teachers … [but] nothing I can count on, and that makes it more dangerous. But then the danger makes it more exciting.”[4] In that respect, writing is really as much a performing art as anything else, a point I hope to maintain at several points throughout this manual.

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Start with the long view: history, theory, long-form study.

This is just the beginning of the paradox I mentioned, where something that should be easy because everyone enjoys it requires more intensive preparation compared with some less-appreciated subjects.[5] Many students of film love to show off technical buzzwords that are now readily accessible in online glossaries – montage, lenses, light sources, transition effects, performative style, and so on. A few others will come prepared with terms like actualities, Classical Hollywood, New Wave (or its foreign-language equivalent), and any number of isms – neorealism, Expressionism, feminism, etc.

11011These should suffice for any global citizen, but news alert: we are not just “any global citizen.” People of the Philippines bear certain distinctions that mark them off from other population groups – first Far East Asian colony of any European power, first (and only) formal US colony, first (claimed) anticolonial revolution in Asia, and so on. And the invention and propagation of cinema is closely tied in with this history. It is not some benign or neutral technology that lends its usefulness to anyone interested in facilitating social change. Film history books will say that the first governmental use of film was Vladimir Lenin’s declaration that it should be deployed (by the Soviet Union) to promote international socialism, but how many people, even in the Philippines, are aware that Americans were already using it – and declaring its usefulness – to convince people in the US as well as the Philippine Islands that American colonization was morally justified and needed by our ancestors, the very victims of imperialist expansion?[6]

11011The next obvious question is something that’s been so neglected – because it’s been unasked, but that’s no excuse. What value then should we hold for a medium that has also proved helpful for our own purposes of change? (One, we should add, whose imperial country’s representatives faced censorship threats from their own officials when they produced films in the colony.) Are we really the ones, or the only ones, entitled to its use? What happens when our own audiences refuse to watch the movies our artists so painstakingly planned and funded and completed, only to discover that foreigners were more receptive to them?

11011Beyond this last still-vexed question, we have an impasse regarding the status of theory. At some point in the past, right after the people-power revolt in 1986, the local intellectual community was all agog over the emergence of all the “post” theorizing, starting with poststructuralism, proceeding to postmodernism, postfeminism, postracism, postgender … until someone came up with post-theory. And of course, what we know today as film has really been post-film for some time now: celluloid was phased out in Pinas even earlier than in most other countries, while the debates over film specificity (the issue of what technique was essential to defining film) were “answered” with some finality in the 1950s in France.[7]

11011As you will see, and probably be alarmed by, there is no excuse to be as unaware of these issues regarding film and the theories it raised, as there is no reason to be ignorant of how film (as well as preceding media like photography and print, and succeeding media like radio and TV) was used by all the colonizing forces that occupied the country: the Spaniards (who introduced it, during the eve of the execution of Jose Rizal), the Americans (who reintroduced it and made it a social and industrial institution), even the Japanese. Next time you’re tempted to crow about “film for social change,” imagine first the voice of Donald Trump countering, “You should be glad we bigly developed that unpresidented medium and made it available for the rest of the world, instead of claiming it for yourself. Sad.”

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Look inward at your personal motive(s).

All social intercourse necessarily involves a certain degree of narcissism, so it won’t be useful denying that fact or decrying its presence in others. It bears repeating, though: narcissism only becomes a liability when it’s enabled by privilege – of any kind, even a justified one. I know, a prominent local film authority once went on record to say that film critics should have the proper academic qualification, by which he meant, ideally, a doctorate in film. Bad news: I have one, and I never assumed that I was qualified, even when I still had to get one and knew I’d be able to, if the opportunity presented itself. For all our complaints about American personalities, one of the best cultural takeaways I had was that, in any “best” institution, people called everyone else by the nicknames they prefer.

11011What this means is that you might have enough of a record to demand respect from everyone else, but if you stumble, you stumble, and you can’t expect anyone to say she saw you walk straight unless you bribe or bamboozle her. The informality of American culture ensures this: we called everyone by their first names because if they were professors, they all had doctorates; if they didn’t, they could probably earn it eventually; and even if they already had their degrees, someone else will always be able to come along and excel as well as or better than they did, so they were always aware that they had to constantly prove themselves.

11011You can imagine how this worked out for me in an East-Asian Confucian situation, where people always had to defer to others for being old, or male, or wealthy, or superior in position, and so on. A few people would insist on their privilege, but the outcome was always predictable: these turned out to be the same people who’d never be able to boost their names beyond the degrees that they already had.

11011We also have to mention here the special case of critics who aspire to make a name so that they can be accepted as auteur personalities. A film critic is always-already an auteur personality, but we’re talking about the example of people from an era when the medium was still insufficiently developed, so it was always possible for an aesthetician to articulate a vision for improving film practice, then engage in that same area in order to illustrate her point.

11011If that’s what motivates you, well and good if you own up to it, but keep in mind a few things: first, when you want to talk critically about someone’s command of audiovisual language, better be ready to prove your own expertise in the present language you’re using; second, success in crossing-over will not be predictable even so – Philippine cinema is littered with the figurative corpses of competent film critics who wound up with less-than-impressive movies; third, cynically motivated criticism, where you provide mediocre and/or slapdash output because you’re biding yourself for the big industry break, will result in readers so turned off that they won’t want to have anything to do with you.[8] Again, if you’re privileged enough not to care, go ahead and write what you want and give yourself the break you think you deserve; but don’t be surprised if no one is impressed by the results.

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Insist on the use of basic study tools.

“Basic” is always relative, but assuming you’re a layperson, these refer to such methods as research, critical analysis, and scientific review. These sound academic, and they are, at least in origin, but people who’ve been working in scholarly disciplines long enough already own the key to making them work for anyone. It has to do with the previous bit of advice – knowing yourself – and making sure, in the face of objections from all over, that this is exactly what you want to do. When that happens, all the negative responses you’ll hear from people forced into the activity (too many things to read and watch, too much theory to work through, too much drafting and revision to undertake, and so on) will not matter. What’s work to others will be fun for you.

11011And if you think you’ll be “rewarding” yourself by promising that you’ll shift to creative processes later, here’s some bad news that should really be good news except for cynics and cheats: you’ll still continue needing the same tools I mentioned, though not in the same way obviously, and with a different form of end-result. But go ahead, look for the best art practitioners in the field you think you’ll excel in, determine how much productive discourse their work can engender, and see if you can argue that critical thinking had nothing whatsoever to do with it. The less-informed commentators will fall back on the usual magical explanations – that the artist’s a genius, touched by inspiration, lucky to possess good genes, and so on. It’s fine to dwell on fantastic speculations once in a while, but you’ll be fooling yourself if you think great work appears despite the absence of adequate materials that also prove useful in exercises as mundane as scholarly research and publication.

11011At this stage, we may as well turn to the conclusion that’s been obvious to anyone who’s practiced in productivity that makes use of critical and creative principles. Word of warning: this will prove so unthinkable that whenever I venture to mention it, I get responses that range from objections to violent denunciations. To be honest, it’s usually other academics who feel behooved to register their disagreement, probably because their profession is premised on (the artificiality of) specialization. The only fact I can state in my defense is that it works for me, and for the artists that I count as the best we can identify around us.

11011The point I’m about to mention is simple: there is no difference between criticism and artistic output. This should be obvious to anyone who regards any kind of writing as literature, but you will find Filipino critics who claim to be fully invested in praxis, who’ll nevertheless say otherwise. I’ve been fortunate though in collaborating with artists and writers who share the same regard for these essential values. This entire text is premised on that belief, so the only real choice for people conflicted about the usefulness of rules imposed in certain professional contexts like newsrooms or classrooms is to regard the prospective result as just another literary genre.

11011The formal requirements for criticism, like the ones that apply to poetry, fiction, dramatic writing, and so on, are simply sets of rules that any serious practitioner looks into opportunities to challenge and possibly overturn. It bears repeating here, that a teacher who prescribes a fixed approach to writing style is in fact ensuring that none of her students will be able to surpass her, just as she never will be able to surpass herself; although in the end, I always hold the students accountable for studying criticism without being critical enough to see when they’ve been trapped in someone else’s self-imposed strictures.

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[1] Acknowledging here the influence of the excellent lecture, “That Crafty Feeling,” given by Zadie Smith at the Columbia University Writing Program, where she admits her reluctance to prescribe approaches to writing, and instead proffers a list of markers that she observes when she writes her novels.

[2] I was still in US graduate school when the tide began to turn against the so-called Satanic Panic trend in North America. This began in the 1980s when day-care centers had proliferated to accommodate children of working mothers. Within a cultural atmosphere of dread and paranoia fed by televangelists who preached about the literal existence of angels and demons, parents, social workers, and investigators “interviewed” children and convinced them that they had repressed memories of their teachers engaging them in devil worship that involved sex orgies, bestiality, human sacrifice, and similar other outlandish claims. Several day-care centers had to shut down, their personnel languishing in prison despite a complete absence of evidence. For a comprehensive account, see David Hechler’s The Battle and the Backlash. A number of cases were dismissed and overturned in the 1990s. A direct line may be drawn from this scandal to the conspiratorial QAnon claims of the Donald Trump presidency.

[3] Same reason why I tend to gravitate toward rural and university-belt schools, where there’s less of a hurdle in reorienting young people toward more rational and scientific thought processes. Unfair as it may sound, my once-regular exercise in clearing out cobwebs in my mind’s chambers, prior to starting another academic year, saddled me with impatience in instructing people who still have to be taught this basic exercise in mental hygiene.

[4] Meryl Streep, as quoted by Karina Longworth (12).

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[5] The only review of my book that I felt compelled to answer was ironically an appreciative one, that nevertheless complained that I had a “penchant for unfamiliar words and ambiguous phrases” and named terms that were actually current in film, performance, and cultural studies. I was admittedly harsh but I was probably on alert regarding the implicit attitude of “why give me a hard time when it’s only about movies?” See “The Reviewer Reviewed,” which I posted in the Extras section’s FWIW subsection of Ámauteurish!

[6] See Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s “Directives on the Film Business” in Lenin Collected Works. For a detailed account of Dean Worcester’s photographic and film documentations in the Philippines as well as the New York Times’s enthusiastic reception, see Mark Rice’s Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands; a fuller context is provided in Alfred W. McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire. Note that despite the term “Pinas” in the title of this manual, I do not make a claim for any distinct Filipinoness in what I write, beyond the fact that I identify primarily as a scholar of the country’s pop culture.

[7] Several essays by André Bazin, notably “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” “The Myth of Total Cinema,” “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” and “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” – all in the first volume of What Is Cinema? – are regarded as the first in a long line of often contentious give-and-takes on the issue. David Bordwell, namechecked in a mini-appendix, regards Bazin’s theorizations as central to what he termed a “dialectical version” of film history, in On the History of Film Style (46-82).

[8] The only instance of a Filipino film critic successfully making a transition to filmmaking turned out to be triumphant at both ends: Ishmael Bernal had been publishing superior reviews during the late New Criticism period, with his other critical colleagues (somewhat dubiously) organizing themselves into the critics circle I mentioned earlier. Further disclosure: I once accepted an invitation to join this same circle, early in my own stage as nationally published writer. On the other hand, if you intend to maintain equal or stronger presence in scholarship, then my advice is to steer clear of the national university’s misguided example of granting tenure and promotion points for “creative” output (all the while complaining about the humanities faculty’s paucity in research), and look more closely into screen media practice research. Sometimes abbreviated as SMPR, this area of study is fairly recent, although unfortunately its rationale and methods fall outside the scope of this manual.

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But where are the shortcuts?

The short and sweet answer is: there are none. The downside of academic preparation becoming possible for aspiring film practitioners is that graduates get the impression that essential lessons from the past have been codified and handed down to them. But the existential condition is necessarily already absent. When people once envisioned a career premised on film expertise, without the benefit of formal studies, they had to draw up their own personal programs and find ways of identifying possible limits and loopholes in what they studied – and seeking ways to resolve those problems. This explains why a majority of earlier practitioners were lacking in many ways, compared to the pleasing and predictable consistency of applicants since the introduction of film-studies programs in the country. It also explains why (the lesser number of) gifted oldtimers tended to have career longevity, compared to the contemporary wealth of impressive debut outputs that wind up their makers’ best work, if not their only one. In effect, the most accomplished among the Golden-Age practitioners had no recourse except (but then also had enough time) to achieve the equivalent of master’s degrees before they presumed to knock on history’s doors. Given the state of graduate programs in Pinas, though, I wouldn’t say that completing a formal one today would provide a useful answer either.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Turning Point

Caught up in the planning and implementation of book and media projects that university tenure finally enabled me to pursue, I realized only with the approach of my retirement that my work, and concomitantly my output as Pinoy film commenter, is about to end in a few years. I’ve been able to witness the early part of my film-writing activity – consisting of reviews of recent releases, as well as the middle portion of my series of output, comprising canonical exercises – being replicated in film publications as well as in blogs and even social-media posts. I’m still awaiting a critical mass, pun intended, to take up research-based historicizing, theorizing, and critical revision, plus an upgrade of what we might unfairly regard as “lower” forms like gossip writing and celebrity analysis.

11011But if anyone tells me I should begin to prepare to accept the end of my contributions and witness how succeeding generations build up, change, or demolish them, all I’ll say is that I started doing so already. I’ll still need to complete a couple of vital book projects and perhaps a memoir, and prepare for my idea of a hedonistic retirement where I can pick out what I want to write on and attend to it at the pace I feel would be most workable, while mentoring some of the better talents around if they feel that they could be productive with my help, without any promise from me of institutional rewards.

11011Meanwhile the inevitable question: are there tips for writing film commentary that I can leave behind? Something that any layperson can go over and then approach film writing better prepared than before she read what I wrote (namely, as it turns out, this manual). I wish the answer were as simple as a yes or no, but only partly because of my academic orientation, I must say: it’s both a yes and a no. What I mean by this is: I cannot give writing tips other than anything that might arise from direct experience. Which means, that kind of advice will not be useful unless you find yourself in exactly the same situation I once had, dealing with the same personalities during that same period. You can of course watch out for analogous or comparable setups and use any of these lessons as guide, but it will be better to see if another approach will work better so you can be more assured of your capabilities and have something to write about afterward.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary: Forebearance

Film is an illusion. The audience just sees a lot of shadows on the screen. The emotion is in the audience. The trick is giving them something that unleashes that and suddenly they endow the images with their emotion. My theory is, when people say a movie is beautiful, I don’t think it can be unless there is beauty in the audience.

Francis Ford Coppola[1]

Essential disclosure first: I’ve never enjoyed teaching film criticism the same way I relish teaching theories of film (some more than others, understandably). My reluctance in teaching writing that requires the development of personal style is precisely because of what the term denotes: writing style is something that one approaches the same way that one deals with knowledge – incrementally, instructed by the best available models, ideally with sufficiently useful feedback and room for failure, shaped primarily by one’s needs and preferences.

11011Fortunately film programs never want for instructors eager to teach students how to write on film.[2] From another perspective, this was the reason I could not take the Paulettes, named after their idol and role model Pauline Kael, as seriously as the original: there has been only one occasion in film history for a female critic with a jazz-inflected writing style who made no bones about the subjectivity of her responses and took to demolishing all opposing opinions mercilessly; no matter how delightfully she wrote and spoke, the act of replicating her quirks and mannerisms in another time and place no longer seemed essential. When I noticed Filipino film students writing the same way that their teachers did, I felt sorrier for their being unable to realize what was delimiting and sometimes flawed about their instructors’ prescriptions.

11011On the other hand, once I had completed the apprenticeship I set out for myself by performing as resident film critic of a weekly newsmagazine in the late 1980s to early 1990s, I became increasingly focused on scholarly writing. As I just finished pointing out, I managed to figure out that, like any other literary genre, film commentary set out an entire clutch of rules to follow, but the basic requisites for competent film writing remained unchanged. Those who have been following my output even during the past few years will also realize that I’ve allowed myself the pleasure of engaging in scandal discourse, an activity I couldn’t get enough of, to be honest about it. Unfortunately the incidence of sensational showbiz developments that could withstand allegorizing as an embodiment of the national condition has been rarer than color celluloid prints from the studio-system era.


[1] From“Life Is a Great Screenwriter,” an interview feature by James McMahon.

[2] Another matter I have tackled elsewhere but can’t pursue here: writing on film, to me, involves the widest possible spectrum of activity, including scriptwriting and celebrity-gossip reporting; generally a bad writer in one area will wind up writing badly elsewhere. One may elect to do careless film commentary with the resolve to rein in one’s gifts until a “real” industry break comes along or until a “worthy” literary undertaking presents itself, but this kind of cynicism merely masks a poverty of spirit that will always become evident at crucial moments to knowledgeable observers.

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary

Original Digital Edition (2021)
Cover design by Paolo Miguel G. Tiausas
“Bomba” © 2019 by Mina Saha
[Click on pic to enlarge]

© 2021 by Amauteurish Publishing
All Rights Reserved

Introduction: Forebearance

Turning Point

Inklings 1
There is no such thing as too much preparation
Start with the long view: history, theory, long-form study
Look inward at your personal motive(s)
Insist on the use of basic study tools
11011Break: But where are the shortcuts?

Inklings 2
Review or critique, or is there a difference? (Part 1)
Review or critique, or is there a difference? (Part 2)
Watch and read the necessary texts more than once
Pay attention to your stylistic approach, to determine its adequacy
11011Break: You call these writing tips?

Inklings 3
Be prepared to revise constantly
Submit or upload your text, then attempt further revisions
Own your errors
Careful with the claims you make
11011Break: What about my actual motives?

Persistence of Vision

Mini-Appendices [including Works Cited section]
11011• A: Self-Study
11011• B: Deconstruction

Works Cited

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Writing Pinas Film Commentary’s entire text was written during the Covid-19 pandemic that left me (and several other citizens) stranded in foreign locales. The Twosome Place coffeehouse branch of Inha University in Incheon, Korea, became my virtual workplace during the several months it was allowed to operate, under the first-rate management of Lee Sanghun, with my occasional craving for Turkish coffee adequately covered by Sinan Çakiltepe’s Itaewon diner. Affairs in the home country were worked out by my brother Aris David, colleague Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, and scholars Juan Miguel Manansala and John Cris Velasquez. Upon deactivating from social media and discovering I preferred to remain virtually stranded as well, my connections to the digital world were sustained by a small circle of contacts, primarily Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. and Jerrick Josue David (not a relation). An accumulation of self-doubt was relieved by welcome news from Louie Jon A. Sánchez.

11011As always I managed to count on my colleague, Ha Ju-Yong, to make sure I could accomplish official work requirements that entail reporting or coordinating in my host country’s language (which I still to struggle to learn, embarrassing as that sounds), with Kwon Sungjin and Yoo Hee-chan taking care of the more casual end. The work of scholars from all over such as Patricio N. Abinales, Lulu Torres-Reyes, Caroline S. Hau, and Paul Grant continues to inspire me to be productive, and I share with overseas Filipinos everywhere the fond hope that in a future that ought to arrive soon, we can finally thank everyone who helped us in person, rather than in print. The individual with the most impact on my development as a writer was my high-school English teacher, Teret de Villa, now a professorial lecturer at the national university’s Open University; I dedicated my first book to her and my other HS English teachers, but her influence abides throughout all my publications. In the same spirit of acknowledging formative influences, this book is dedicated to the first circle of friends I made in Korea: 박신구, 박해석, 손범식, 유태윤.

Disclaimer: The manuscript occasionally makes use of literary devices, including satire, hyperbole, and absurd humor, and thereby assumes basic competence in comprehension. The author will not be responsible for any person who observes a literal application of these passages in real life.

National Library of the Philippines CIP Data

David, Joel.
11011Writing Pinas film commentary / Joel David. — Original Digital Edition. — Quezon City : Amauteurish Publishing, [2020], © 2021.
1101152+vi pages ; 30 cm

11011ISBN 978-621-96191-7-2

110111. Film criticism — Philippines — Handbooks, manuals, etc. 2. Film criticism — Philippines. 3. Philippine essays (English). I. Title.


US Copyright Office Certificate of Registration:
TXu 2-255-122

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