Category Archives: Film Criticism

Source Exchange for “The Transnational Pastime”

This exchange conducted on Facebook’s Messenger app formed the basis of “The Transnational Pastime: An Interview with Joel David,” conducted in early 2017 and published in the June 2017 (volume 4, number 1) issue of Plaridel. The interviewer was Paul Douglas Grant, a professor of film at the University of San Carlos in Cebu City. Answers that I first drafted as Notepad text files and attached to the Messenger service are indicated by the descriptor “From text file” and indented (appearing as italicized material in smartphone apps).

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 9:28 PM

Paul
Hi Joel, so…can we start with just getting a kind of run-through of your career, your work with the Manunuri, you studies abroad, your publishing history, your current work, etc.? And then maybe having written a number of books on Philippine cinema (and I see that there is a forthcoming book on Manila by Night!), you could talk a bit about the decision to have an online presence, and in particular your very generous approach to sharing your materials, for instance the PDF versions of your books that you have posted for free on Amauteurish! From there I can get a bit more precise. I’ll try to cause you as little pain and hassle as possible.

Joel
Hi Paul, I’ll try to draft a reply so that it won’t get lost when FB Messenger crashes (which happens occasionally on my laptop). Then I’ll send it to you tomorrow, if that’s all right with you. Thanks for being considerate about the “pain and hassle,” although I’m at the stage of discovering pleasure in pain. Never too late for anything, as they say.

Paul
Haha OK, OK, no rush either. Just to get the ball rolling. Thanks so much for doing this Joel.

Saturday, February 25, 2017, 5:02 AM

Joel [from text-file attachment]

My film criticism was something that started out as an option that evolved into a phase and that eventually solidified before I knew what to do with it. I started writing book reviews for the high-school paper – which sufficiently impressed the teachers who were then deciding whom to send to some secondary-school press conference. In college I attempted a few film reviews but felt frustrated about my inability to grapple with the terms of the form. But film was the medium du jour and most publications were interested in it. I was also determined to avoid the economic and political analyses that had marked me as an activism-oriented campus journalist, so my shift to cultural writing included a few more movie reviews. As you can imagine, the local critics group (Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, or Filipino Film Critics Circle) had to downgrade their definition of “critic” to include reviewers, or else they’d have comprised only two members (Pete Daroy and Bien Lumbera) and maybe two associates (Doy del Mundo and Nic Tiongson).

I knew I needed a lot of leveling up after interacting with the best film artists of the time, and even more after I joined the Marcos government’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. I read up on the standard early-film discourses (Arnheim, Balazs, Eisenstein, Bazin, etc.) plus active practitioners, with emphasis on stylists like [Pauline] Kael and the Philippines’s Nestor Torre (his early years). Kael was occasionally wrong and sometimes terribly so, but I was fascinated by how she could figure her way into sounding just right – a skill I might need in case I’d do regular reviewing. For some reason many prominent local critics of the time preferred John Simon, who to me was too willing to sacrifice insight for the sake of displaying wit and erudition.

During the late years of the Marcos regime, the University of the Philippines introduced the first undergrad film program in the country, and since I’d completed a bachelor’s in journalism at the Institute (now College) of Mass Comm, the ECP designated me to take the major courses so that the agency could eventually offer its own film courses. I said that if I took the equivalent of an extra sem, I could complete a second degree, so in effect I became an ECP scholar, required to complete the courses plus an occasional public-relations piece for the agency. The Marcoses were ousted, ECP was dissolved, and I had a film degree that no one else shared since it took the other majors much longer to complete the program. I tried industry work but got delegated to entry-level production-assistant tasks at starvation wages, then I retried journalism and TV scriptwriting – but all these jobs disappeared as media workers were unionizing for the first time and the panicked owners figured that shutting down their companies (and reopening them under different names) was the easiest solution.

The dean of UP mass comm bumped into me and said that, since I was the program’s first and only grad, I should teach film. Ellen J. Paglinauan, who adjusted her Fulbright program from geography to film, had just returned from the US and became my colleague and mentor. She knew my up-or-out deadline was approaching and that I could better serve the faculty with a film degree, so she helped me work out a Fulbright application. The politicking on the Philippine end was terrible, but fortunately the Institute of International Education “corrected” the Philippine-American Educational Foundation’s list of recommendees and repositioned the education minister’s daughter from first to somewhere near last, and (according to Ellen) ranked me on top. That was why no amount of pleading from PAEF could convince me to settle for any of the less-expensive choices. It was NYU or bust, although that also amounted to hubris on my end. The Fulbright was for a master’s degree; when NYU accepted me to the doctoral program, I could only apply for another US government grant (like another Fulbright) if I resided outside the US for two years.

UP was interested in getting a Ph.D. holder for the film program and told me to find work and apply for student loans. I managed both and intended to pay off all my loans once I reached a managerial level at the economic-database company that hired me, but I could only manage to reduce my loan amount by half when my residency deadline loomed up. Back in Pinas, UP could not provide me with the means to repay my loans either; my mother sold some property to settle my account, with the understanding that I should repay her instead. That’s how I took the first offer to teach in Korea, on exchange; upon returning to UP, my salary was withheld for some mix-up that I had nothing to do with, so I sent out an SOS to friends in Korea – which is how I found the university where I’m currently working.

Re the website: this was also part of another slow process of realization. The Korean university announced that a personal website was part of its tenure requirements, so I read up on blogging, observed some dynamics (useful also for teaching cyberculture classes), and launched the website…by which time it was no longer a university requirement. But then in seeking out ISI-listed publications to fulfill the bulk of the university’s tenure specs, I stumbled on Ateneo de Manila University’s Kritika Kultura, which was open-access, an obvious ideal combination of prestige and availability on the level of profit-oriented academe that had somehow never occurred to me before. Researchers were asking for copies of my out-of-print books, so I arranged with certain publishers to work out new and expanded editions – but publishing, like all the other predigital media forms, was no longer as vibrant as it used to be. I was fascinated enough with so-called film piracy via the Quiapo Cinematheque (with Laikwan Pang’s studies as guidepost), and also became familiar with the work of Jojo Devera and other people invested in reviving and strengthening the public domain.

To me it’s still entirely rational, once we take out the element of finance as the ultimate arbiter of success. Jojo and I have stable jobs that allow us to engage in blogging activities, in which the actual price of (in my case) paying for a domain and WordPress’s custom-design privilege isn’t all that exorbitant. I get to dispense with the guilt of telling researchers that my books can be found in certain hard-to-access libraries, as well as preempt sites like GoogleBooks from monopolizing readers with uploaded versions of my sole-authored books that I’d rather update and revise if I get another chance, which is now. It doesn’t really stop publishers from wanting to have exclusive rights to my future output, and I get to keep myself busy with feeding the machine, with the additional leverage of defying it (by getting my manuscript out on the blog) when it misbehaves.

The Manila by Night monograph and the special Philippine cinema canon volume for YES! Magazine are exceptional cases: I’d accumulated enough material about MbN, from my dissertation preparation onward, so that I was able to edit Kritika Kultura’s first film forum devoted to articles on the movie, and that provided me with the impetus to pique the interest of Arsenal Press’s limited queer-films series; Summit Media (the YES! publisher) saw some mini-reviews (which I collectively titled “Short Takes”) for a personal canon of 100 local film titles that I uploaded on Amauteurish!, and offered to buy the rights to them, upping the fee if I participated as a consultant in their one-shot canon project. Re downloadable copies of my own books, plus more PDFs of other materials – these are all in the future. I imagine I’ll need to spend for and train in page-layout software, so that I might be able to circulate the books better. All in good time, like everything else.

There’s a point, or a line, where I move from surrendering my own copyright to claiming those of others, when I find out-of-print material (usually institutional in nature) where the publisher is difficult to determine and often is already defunct. I know enough to tread carefully here and I generally wait until there’s enough of a social-media interest in an issue relatable to the material.

Maybe I should end here for now. The answers ran (or rambled) on for a while. Hope this can provide enough to help you formulate questions. Best regards.

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Saturday, February 25, 2017, 8:21 AM

Paul
Great thanks Joel. Rambling is great! I’ll get back to you ASAP. Salamat.

Monday, February 27, 2017, 9:53 PM

Paul
Wow this is really rich, is it all right if I just go back for a second, concerning your publishing history. So for instance you mention your dissertation (BTW who was your adviser?), was this not among your early publication efforts? If my chronology is correct you had already published The National Pastime before going to the States. Then in Wages [of Cinema] and Fields [of Vision] it feels like the tone of the writing changes and becomes much more contemporaneous with the kind of poststructural film writing that was such a mainstay in Anglophone film studies. Is it fair to say that you were the first to really bring that approach to film writing in the Philippines?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017, 4:25 AM

Joel
I’ll need another day to answer, Paul, if you don’t mind.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017, 6:49 AM

Paul
Of course! No worries, and thanks again for what you’ve sent already. I’ll back off shortly.

Thursday, March 2, 2017, 4:42 PM

Joel [from text-file attachment]

Sorry for the delay in writing out my response. My diss adviser was the late Bob Sklar, and Bob Stam, Toby Miller, and Ellen Paglinauan were on the panel. I managed to spin off some chapters into journal papers, and even read books on revising theses for book publication, but I never had the time to work on that project. I was hoping this second half-sabbatical I was granted [for spring 2017] could provide me with the time to devote to that. Then I realized I’ll have to overhaul, rather than revise, some chapters, so I thought of writing them out as papers first. Looks like it will take longer than I would have preferred.

National Pastime and the second book, Fields of Vision, were meant to be just one book, an anthology of film journalism (articles and reviews) in two manuscript volumes. I tried to interest some university presses in it but they all gave two-year (or longer) timelines, so I went to Anvil. They said they could produce it in three months, which was just right for me, but I later realized it was too fast. They wanted only half of the manuscript I submitted, plus pictures (when I preferred to have none), and a glossary of film terms. A layperson editor took charge and insisted on an approach that could be summed up as “if it’s about movies, then I shouldn’t have to put in too much work to understand it.” I thought that was fair to a certain extent, but I also realized that it meant that an opportunity for casual readers to learn something new (by meeting the author half-way) was being discarded. That’s the reason why the glossary I was forced to write contained some sarcastic passages.

The remaining articles from the original volume would be my second book, I thought, and I brought the MS to the Ateneo Press just because Prof Esther Pacheco told me they wanted to handle my next title. But when I compiled the MS, I realized Fields of Vision would just be echoing National Pastime, so I held off until I was able to do some “academic” (mostly quantitative and canonical) exercises, with the rationale that all of the available local samples were too deeply flawed to be taken seriously. The third book, Wages of Cinema, was meant to be strictly a personal middle stage between completing my graduate requirements and starting work on my diss. I mentioned to Prof Laura Samson, then the director of the University of the Philippines Press, that I had performed this strategy of gathering my (necessarily not ready for primetime) material so I could find a workable direction for my final project, and she asked to take a look at the manuscript. In a few days she said she wanted to publish it as a book so could I grant her permission to do so. I thought fine, at least I’ll have some feedback [from readers] on how to improve the material even if in the end I wind up pulling it out of the publication process for being too callow, but apparently the readers signed off on it without any major changes.

So the approach you mentioned was deliberate in the sense that I looked for ways beyond repeating each previous book’s approaches, but it was also accidental in that I would have been more cautious about getting the stuff out if I had a name to uphold by then. People immediately told me about some progression they noticed – from classical to structuralist to poststruct – so I incorporated that insight in the back-cover text of the last book, but it wasn’t something that needed to be done if anyone had asked me. Each book generated some negative comments but I only answered the one (re Fields of Vision) that complained that the text required readers to do some work on their own. The fourth “book,” Millennial Traversals, was essentially a digital-edition mop-up operation, where I compiled everything else I’d written on film and media up to 2016, so that anything by me could be accessed in book form. Like I might have mentioned to you before, I’m hoping to get all the digital editions of my books in e-publication formats so that they could be downloaded and printed or read at the reader’s convenience. When I’ll manage to do that is the question.

Answers to your 2nd batch of questions, sir.

Paul
Great, thanks, Joel. Hopefully I can leave you alone after this.

Joel
No prob if you have further queries, Paul.

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 9:39 PM

Paul
Hi Joel, quick question. What was your dissertation? That was quite sad about Sklar, he taught my diss prop seminar. What a tragic end.

Also, when did you put up the site, i.e. what year? Thanks Joel.

Thursday, March 9, 2017, 1:31 AM

Joel
Re the website first: the 2014 record states that it went “live” on June 13, but that I was adding features since March of that year. But since it was originally part of the list of tenure requirements, I remember setting up another website, with a Korean webmaster, in 2009. I forget its name now (its URL was [joeldavid-dot-net], but I’m not so sure about this either), and I remember updating it (via the webmaster) five or six times. I realized that if I were to have my own website, the best arrangement would be to have as much control over it as possible – which is why I undertook some quick research on blogs and observed the more active ones (especially Michael Musto’s La Dolce Musto, when he was still with Village Voice). As I must have written to you earlier, these activities became part of my preparations for teaching the Cyberculture undergrad class, and later the Digital Humanities grad class, at Inha University. I must have opened a WordPress account in 2011 or 2012, since I kept tinkering with blog templates and formats for a while before I launched the website. I decided to make it archival in nature, after I saw all the trolling and spamming that went on in the blogs that weren’t moderated by their owners, and the badmouthing and resentment that went on when the blogs were moderated. Since anything archival would be less topical than ordinary web logging, it would justify my refusal to entertain any type of commentary and help me avoid this no-win situation. In late 2013 I also concluded that the free WordPress services would yield a stale-looking design. I subscribed to the most basic among their several paid features, and immediately the improvement in appearance was satisfactory enough, so I kept this arrangement. I also wanted a showy, trashy, corny, pretentiously funny name, but the best I could do was settle for a mash-up between “amateur” and “auteur” – amauteurish.

The dissertation was titled “Primates in Paradise: The Multiple-Character Format in Philippine Film Practice” – which is undergoing a really long process of revision, as I must have told you earlier. I don’t want to rush it at all, since it’s got a core that’s worth refining as carefully and ambitiously as possible. I’d cannibalized some chapters for journal articles that I’ve published, as a way of undertaking the revisions. Some books and several articles (including in the New York Times) have already come out on multicharacter movies, which is fine, since the phenomenon is fairly new in the US, with Robert Altman as its pioneer. Since one of my bachelor’s degrees was in journalism, I know enough about the relative worth of the scoop (or being the first to report on something significant) vis-à-vis the interpretive or feature article: it’s extremely rare for both to be the same, and between being first to report and coming up with the best article on the same topic, I’d rather leave the privilege of being first to others. That’s the reason why one of the people I was mentoring described me as “bukas-palad” or open-palmed, meaning that I didn’t mind cluing in people to useful bits of info, even exclusive ones. For me, the real competition lies in how well anyone reads any material. If you’re chronologically last and no one else follows, the careless smart-ass observers would focus on the fact that you were last; but the real implication is that you were definitive, since no one could add anything after you came along. Di ba?

Wednesday, Apr 12, 2017, 2:26 AM

Paul
Hi Joel, quick question (and I see I never thanked you for the last response! Thank you!). You mention that “Jojo and I have stable jobs that allow us to engage in blogging activities” – who is the Jojo you are referring to? Almost done with this thing, and I added a few transition phrases just to organize the flow of the text, I hope that’s OK with you. I have to make it look like I did some work.

Joel
Re organizing, structuring, and correcting interview material – that’s part of the magic, as we know as students of film. The Jojo I’m referring to is Jojo Devera, who runs the [now defunct] Magsine Tayo! blog. I don’t know if I’m repeating info I already gave you, and sorry if I do, but Jojo’s an avid collector of Pinoy movies, sometimes with titles that can’t be found anywhere else. Unlike the typical archivist-hoarder, he makes an effort to remaster what he has and post the results on his blog for free. It tends to alarm still-active producers and distributors, although he recently found his own ways around the problem of having to take down the movies that producers don’t want to make readily available. First, he gets the approval of the filmmaker, or maybe another producer also involved in the production in question. Next, and worst comes to worst, he had a lawyer advise him that film owners can only claim overseas copyright if they’re listed as foreign distributors of their films. Nevertheless he still concedes to producers’ claims just to be able to avoid too much fuss. In the past, they were able to petition YouTube to shut down his website. In the last few months, he migrated all his film uploads to Vimeo, which (according to him) has better terms for uploaders. His troubles are reminiscent of the Quiapo Cinematheque controversy, when “legit” DVD distributors (with the encouragement of Imelda [Marcos]’s pal, Jack Valenti), insisted on outlawing videocopies that sold for Php 20 so that people could be forced to buy their stuff that would cost Php 1,000 or higher. The producers aren’t really overcharging the public this time, although Mike de Leon supposedly priced his 3rd World Hero at Php 3,000 per copy (I bought Marie Jamora’s director’s cut of The Missing at Php 2,000 and it was worth it). But the legit copies are just too hard to find, and besides, Jojo’s material comes from older videos or TV broadcasts, sometimes censored or shortened for airtime. So a number of film researchers (JB Capino’s the most vocal one) have come to Jojo’s defense; I’ve been acknowledging his help in several of my research projects, since if he’s got a rare copy of anything, he won’t hesitate to share it with you.

Paul
Wow thank you Joel, this is all new to me, i.e. no repetition. Thanks so much.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017, 9:45 AM

Paul
Hi Joel, it’s me again…. Can I just check with you about a couple of publications that you might have written for? Sagisag magazine, Midweek magazine, Diliman Review, and Humanities Diliman. Were these important for you?

Joel
Not Sagisag. It folded up before I started freelancing after I was graduated in journalism. Not Humanities Diliman either – one of my submissions languished too long with them so I pulled it out. (Unless they printed it without my knowledge and skipped the peer-review process.) Diliman Review – I only remember getting published there once, although the office was my favorite hangout whenever I revisited the campus. Some members of the staff were also with the Literary Apprentice, so I submitted a piece to them as well. National Midweek was where I published regularly for almost its whole period of existence. I was with another periodical when I started, so I used a pen name. The former chair of the critics group I drifted away from wanted to invite me to join them, but he had a good laugh when he found out it was just me. Most of my writing for Midweek was subsidized in effect by my teaching at UP – Midweek rates were next to nothing, but you could barely survive as a UP instructor either. I just learned to live on a tight budget, a skills set that was useful for living, studying, and working in NYC later. Today it’s still the same. All the writing I do, including maintaining my blog, is subsidized by my teaching. But the difference between the Philippines’s national university and a second-rank school outside of the capital city in Korea is tremendous. You get the impression that [in Korea] you could live strictly as a scholar and the institution will cover your needs as a matter of course – no need to beg for anything.

Paul
Oh man that’s enviable. I keep trying to imagine what it will be like to go back to the States and work as an adjunct at five or six different universities just to make ends meet. Here I can get by, but it’s not sustainable. Anyway, what was your pen name at Midweek, does any of it appear online?

Joel
Re the Diliman Review connection – when its editor, Bien Lumbera, started a journal at the Cultural Center of the Philippines titled Kultura, he encouraged me to provide them with critical material (including lengthy reviews). That’s where my Second Golden Age article originally came out. My Midweek pen name was Jojo Legaspi. My entire Midweek output has its own listing on my blog. I mention the pen names I used in a still-to-be-updated “How to Use the Blog” page. I don’t really remember my underground aliases in the student movement, or kept copies of what I wrote then. It’s amazing how [the late National Democratic Front chair] Tony Zumel had his whole collection of UG writings printed in book form, but they’re of a highly specific genre (agitprop we used to call it, or agitational propaganda). I don’t think I’ll want to be remembered for the literary accomplishments of that type of writing. You lived and studied in NYC too, right? Everyone who does that goes through a specific (and special, but we don’t want to self-aggrandize no?) experience that non-NYers will never understand, or will probably perceive as a type of neurosis.

Paul
Wow great! Personally I’d love to see those writings from the underground. Yes I lived in NY for a big part of my life and definitely had periods where I had to struggle for work there. Can’t imagine now what it’s like to be an academic there!

Joel
Couldn’t be caught with keeping [the agitprop material], Paul. It would be like admitting I wrote them, which would have been true. But I also made sure to use a “dead” journalistic style so I could deny authorship. To be honest, the writing [I did there] dismayed me, but that’s probably why I never got suspected of being a UG contributor. At NYU I roomed with Bliss Lim, who was a former student of mine and a published poet. We realized we’d be writing scholarly material for a long time, so we had some intensive discussions on writing style. Mainly how the “flat” approach that our teachers prescribed in order to foreground content was as much a myth as objectivity in journalism. We hoped to reach a point where we could come up with a better formula, but that would have been impossible. It was enough to just know where the seams were. In fact I think Bliss found a great way to use poetic devices in her scholarly work. I’m more prosaic like everyone else, so in theory a lot more technique is available to us, but there’s always the danger of falling back on the ones that we’re already able to handle well. It’s strange how an obsession with style was palpable among writers in English during the time we were in college. Probably because of the awareness that you could be suspected of succumbing to colonial mentality. That’s also probably why a lot of local writers in English are stylists, in addition to whatever their area of specialization happens to be.

Á!

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Peerless Vampire Killers

Vampariah
Directed & written by Matthew Abaya

In contrast with politics, the consensus among Filipinos is that 2016 has been an unqualified triumph for cinema. Not only did we have a second major prize at the Cannes Film Festival, we also won big at A-list European and Asian filmfests, topped by the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Even if we concede that using foreign acclaim as a measure of achievement might be problematic, the output of local film artists has been no less appreciable. Whatever else one’s position on Rodrigo Duterte might be, one will have to acknowledge that the first Metro Manila Film Festival during his presidency recalled the better MMFF editions of the Marcos years – which were some of the few positive contributions the dictatorship ever made.

Because of my status as an Overseas Filipino Worker, it takes me a while before I could watch all the significant Pinoy film releases of any given year. The unusual distinction of 2016 is that no single film, or even a couple or three, is or are front-running for that dubious credit of being “year’s best.” Even if one extends this insight further, by including Filipino films made outside the country, one could still have a noteworthy sample like Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, a documentary made in Hong Kong that turned out to be the MMFF’s surprise winner.

My own contribution to the list of memorable titles in the batch of 2016 is from even farther afield, a movie made in the US by Fil-Am talents, tackling the usual issues of national identity and alienation, but using the unexpectedly “trashy” genre of horror, in its even more reviled goth-punk configuration. Titled Vampariah, the film, directed and written by Matthew Abaya, has been earning raves from viewers who had seen it in various US festivals (including San Francisco’s FACINE, where I first watched it as the event’s closing film, and where Abaya’s short films had been screened over the past two decades). In resorting to a format that had proved useful for a long list of discourses on Otherness, Abaya manages to break out of the usual Fil-Am film’s stifling and predictable realist mode, and kicks open a Pandora’s box of lower mythology, colonial excess, racialized cross-cultural conflict, volatility of identity and desire, and (literally) posthuman development.

Vampariah was intended as an expanded version of Abaya’s short film “Bampinay.” In Abaya’s full-length debut, Bampinay becomes one of two lead characters – or, one could also argue, half of one. The title more likely refers to Mahal, a Fil-Am vampire hunter who sets out to avenge her parents’ death by tracking a specific type of supernatural predator, one that has started attracting the attention of American celebrity ghosthunters. The most notable instance of the latter is that of John Bates (a “whitesplainer,” per Abaya) of Crypt Hunter, who keeps hilariously enunciating “ass-wang” – the Midwestern twang makes it sound even more risqué – before being unceremoniously devoured on-cam. While wondering why her minder (Michele Kilman, intended to resemble Michelle Malkin) refuses to grant her more challenging assignments despite her superior vampire-killing abilities, Mahal manages to track down a particularly pernicious manananggal (a self-segmenting viscera-sucker) from a rural town through Manila to San Francisco.

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The monstrous entity in question turns out to be Bampinay, and it would be no big surprise for horror aficionados to predict that hunter and hunted discover that they have more in common than they realize. Their sisterly bromance (womance?) is in many ways preferable to the guilt-ridden treatments in more famous samples such as Harry Kümel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), while the 300-year-old Bampinay’s critique of colonial history, derived from firsthand experience, would be the envy of the bloodsucking dissertation candidate in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995). Vampariah herself calls to mind a whole lot of other generic predecessors, notably the title character in Stephen Norrington’s Blade (1998) and Selene in Len Wiseman’s Underworld (2003).

The intertextual possibilities in Vampariah are even more extensive than the titles I’ve listed, an inherent attraction of the typical B-movie product. Yet where the B-movie generally rests on this attribute, Vampariah takes the extra step of inculcating an awareness of local and regional cross-references, a challenge that can best be formulated and achieved by our mixed-blood compatriots. Not since the Blood-Island movies of Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon have there been alien monsters (not necessarily a redundancy) in Filipino horror films, and if for nothing else, Vampariah deserves to be remembered for featuring a first-ever showdown between a manananggal and a jiangshi, an East Asian reanimated corpse that moves around by hopping and that extracts qi or the life force from human victims.

The film’s ultimate achievement is in its exploitation of the genre’s ability to conjoin disparate ideas and sentiments in order to enhance what would otherwise be difficult or unpalatable messages. Vampariah distracts the potentially hedonistic and self-involved millennial audience with a surfeit of humor, surprises, frights, and irreverence, if not outright profanity. What this nonstop delirium effectively enshrouds is a pathos of profound proportions, ensconced in the permanently diasporic condition of individuals who can never be considered fully human anywhere they go, and who figure out ways of coping by wisecracking and ass-kicking their way through a hostile environment – whether that happens to be the home country from which they had fled or the host country that resents their presence as Others. If anyone had told me that a film embodied a certain Derridean principle, I would have steeled myself for an encounter with barely bearable high-art perorations; yet the demonstration in Vampariah of hauntology, of nostalgia in permanently effaced futures and possibilities, would be capable of sustaining a paper, perhaps even an entire panel, in a high-powered academic conference.

Abaya thus takes full advantage of the B-movie’s subversive potential as well as its ability to supply guilty pleasure, and the sadness in the experience of watching this fine little sweetmeat is in the awareness that it may be destined to subsist in the liminal world that its own characters inhabit. (Anyone who finds out that a game based on the film is currently under development would find the notion amusing yet logical.) But then we can always take heart in Bampinay’s assurance to Mahal that “We’re aswangs. We can do anything.” In the perfect world that these intrepid characters envision, they and people like them would be capable of dominating cinema screens everywhere. If the movie happens to breeze by your vicinity, don’t hesitate to give these ravishing monsters your (life)time. It would be a drop-dead occasion that could reanimate any vestige of movie love you still possess.

[First published January 13, 2017, as “Vampariah as Subversive Aswang Film” in The FilAm]

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Gawad Lingap Sining citation

The 23rd Annual Filipino International Cine Festival

Filipino Arts & Cinema International (FACINE)
is pleased to honor
Professor Jose Hernani S. David
with the
Gawad Lingap Sining
Art Nurturing Award

for his exemplary work in Filipino film criticism and scholarship. His writings on Filipino cinema are widely considered as original, provocative, and insightful, with remarkable awareness of the contending yet complementary forces of the artistic pursuit of the filmmaker and the prerogatives of the mass audience; and his firm belief that film criticism is important in the development of film culture in the Philippines and elsewhere.

Given this 18th day of October in the year 2016,
on the occasion of
FACINE/23: the 23rd Annual Filipino International Cine Festival
held on October 18, 2016,
at the Diego Rivera Theater, City College of San Francisco,
and on October 19-22, 2016,
at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, California, USA.

(Sgd.) Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr.
Founder/Director, FACINE

Á!


The Original Post of the National University’s Roundtable on Film Criticism

The vol. 13, no. 1 (2016) issue of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication’s journal, Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society, initially uploaded a file for “A Round Table [sic] Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism,” which met with some derision among netizens for its errors in transcription. As a consequence, the editorial staff withdrew and revised the file in question. Unfortunately, the current version dispensed with the original’s open-forum section. Inasmuch as the timing of the roundtable was arguably in response to my article “A Lover’s Polemic,” I have claimed the prerogative to upload a PDF copy of the original file on Ámauteurish! – with an appeal to readers to refrain from remarking on the quality of the transcription. The file appears here primarily for the roundtable participants’ responses during the open forum.

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Searched For, But Not Missing

Ang Nawawala [What Isn’t There]
Directed by Marie Jamora
Written by Marie Jamora and Ramon de Veyra

After over a decade of existence, the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival has garnered its share of controversies, many of them centered on differences between officials and practitioners, often proving beneficial to both sides because of the publicity that inevitably attends such spectacles. Lost in the shuffle would be an increasing number of titles that deserve as much (if not more) attention, but that get shunted aside because of jurors’ preferences and the festival audience’s tendency to take their cue from media mileage. Among the titles I had the good fortune to stumble across, I remember Arah Jell Badayos and Margaret Guzman’s Mudraks [Mom] (2006) and Vic Acedillo’s Ang Nerseri [The Nursery] (2009), well-observed modest films whose central performances by established actresses (Rio Locsin and Jaclyn Jose respectively) apparently could not lift them out of the cycle that regularly smothers the entries that do not generate their own hype. Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil’s Boses [Voices] (2008) was a special case – an entry locked out by the jury but that proved so popular among audiences that it became, via a series of still-continuing special screenings, the festival’s highest income-generating production.

Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala (2012) possesses its own special package of scandal. It was denounced during the festival period by organized critics from academe (overlapping categories, in the case of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication and the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino Film Critics Circle). Rolando Tolentino, the then-concurrent UPCMC dean and MPP chair, published a review in Filipino whose title described the film as “Burgis na Juvenalia” or bourgeois juvenalia (see screen capture) – a serendipitous error when we realize that juvenalia is not the same as juvenility (the reviewer’s likely intended word), but rather that it refers to the celebration of Juvenal, the Roman poet and satirist. Moreover, in a separate article (excerpted in my entry, Fallout over “A Lover’s Polemic”), Tolentino recounted the dissenters to his review by way of downgrading “film bloggers” as presumably inferior to critics like him and his fellow MPP members.

Burgis na Juvenalia

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While I take care to avoid responding to specific reviews, and regard Ámauteurish! as primarily an archival blogsite, my recent viewing of Ang Nawawala convinced me to make an exception to my personal policy of watching a film at least twice, with at least one theatrical screening, in order to provide some (admittedly limited) critical intervention. Tolentino’s review mistakenly opens by stating that the film has “Walang self-reflexive [sic] gesture o take sa pagiging mayaman at pribilehiyado” [no reflexive gesture or take on being rich and privileged]. One would wonder what movie the reviewer managed to watch, when the entire narrative of Ang Nawawala, anchored on a main character who refuses to speak, turns on reflexivity at every opportunity. The reviewer worries that he might be mistaken for “minamaliit ang ganitong uri” [demeaning the members of the (wealthy) class] – quite disingenuous considering the circumstances of the MPP members’ pelf and power; and begins his conclusion by saying that “May ipinapanganak na problematiko ang ganitong pagtahak ng buhay ng maykaya, lalo pa bilang binary oposisyon sa pangkalahatang tema ng indie cinema, ang abang uri” [this treatment of the life of the wealthy gives rise to a problematic, especially in the form of a binary opposition with the general theme of indie cinema, which is the poor class].

Not surprisingly, Tolentino disapproves of the warm Cinemalaya audience reception to Jamora’s film, since he insists on his preconceived notion that “indie cinema” should preoccupy itself with the poor, and imposes this bias in literal terms – i.e., once a filmmaker turns her attention to the higher-than-poor classes, then she has wound up betraying his cherished Cinemalaya ideal. The implication of Tolentino’s premise is astounding in its vulgarity, not only because of its (vulgar-)Marxist origin, but also because it winds up dismissing the vast bulk of global art and literature, if we were to regard only material about “the poor class” (let alone the question of whether these were produced by the same class) as worthy of serious consideration.

Fortunately, Ang Nawawala stands a good chance of outliving such prescriptive guilt-by-association. It invokes the haunting of history by allowing a specter from the main character’s past, in the form of his long-dead twin brother, to engage him in debate regarding his recent actuations, including his decision to remain mute to everybody else; the living brother finally manages to score his own point by telling the ghost (or memory) that if he had been alive, he might have turned out gay – a rather weak riposte, considering how queerness has no longer become the devastating insult it had once been. By this means the brothers maintain a comic-melancholy balance between affection and regret, complicated by their awareness that their mother would have preferred the dead brother to survive.

The fact that the brothers are played by real-life twins adds resonance to the performances, with Jamora providing Dominic Roco (as the survivor) with a distinctive opportunity to play out his man-boy vibe, reminiscent of (and for me, preferable to) the persona that Aga Muhlach once purveyed. Their mother, who wreaks inadvertent cruelty in her performance of heartbreak, is essayed with a surprisingly fragile expertise by Dawn Zulueta; her resolution, one of several in the film, brings the proceedings to a head and rewards the curious viewer with an emotional satisfaction rare in familial depictions in indie cinema.

The aforementioned series of resolutions would be regarded in proper narrative classes as a weakness, but then each succeeding one manages to build up on what had preceded it, and Jamora would not be the first potentially major filmmaker who didn’t know, or maybe didn’t care, how to effectively end a genuinely fruitful journey. In fact one of the biggest lessons that could be drawn from the work of possibly the best local director, Ishmael Bernal, lies precisely in this direction: that once you have taken your audience on a trip that they never had before, you may be excused for worrying less about how the trip should end. (When I accidentally found out that Jamora had been mentored by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, a lot of her aesthetic choices suddenly invoked an unbearable nostalgia, as well as a solid logic: Diaz-Abaya herself had been mentored by Bernal.)

Ang Nawawala should have been recognized as the best debut film by a Pinay filmmaker (with the best pop-music soundtrack of all time as bonus), possibly exceeding even Laurice Guillen’s Kasal? [Wedding?] (1980), and it doesn’t detract from its achievement when we acknowledge that Hannah Espia’s even more impressive Transit arrived the year after, in 2013, along with Sigrid Andrea Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita [Anita’s Last Cha-Cha]. With the only successful contemporary film studio, Star Cinema, already dominated by women directors, we may just be witnessing the indie scene starting to mimic one of the mainstream trends worth emulating.

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Fallout over “A Lover’s Polemic”

After “A Lover’s Polemic” came out in The Manila Review (August 2013, pp. 6-8), the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication invited me to participate in a rather awkwardly titled “A Round Table [sic] Discussion on Poetics and Practice of Film Criticism.” Without anyone informing me outright, I knew that the event was motivated by the impulse of the members of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Filipino Film Critics Circle) to engage me in public, possibly to defend its practice. In the article I wrote, I acknowledged some positive contributions of the MPP, but I also maintained that several current problems in local film criticism could be traced to its shortcomings. The college dean at the time, Rolando B. Tolentino, also happened to be the MPP chair, and of the final list of participants, three out of seven (including Tolentino) were members of the circle. All the participants except one were faculty at the CMC, and three of them were members of the Young Critics Circle. Inasmuch as I was a former member and corporate secretary of the MPP, a founding member of YCC, and founding Director of the CMC’s Film Institute, it made sense for me to participate in the roundtable even if I knew, from past experience, that the MPP could recognize its weaknesses and resolve to confront them – but would continue anyway with its more lucrative counter-critical practice of award-giving. Unfortunately the roundtable was scheduled on March 19, 2014, when I had to be back at work in Korea.

The contributions were published in the vol. 13, no. 1 (2016) issue of Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society, where I happen to be a member of the International Advisory Board, and where Tolentino is Editor-in-Chief. As expected, the pieces written by MPP members displayed varying degrees of pique, starting with none: my former adviser and criticism mentor Bienvenido Lumbera provided a short and charming autobiographical account (“Kung Paano Ako Nakapasok sa Film Criticism” [How I Started in Film Criticism] 162-63) of how his interest in literature eventually extended to film. Former CMC dean Nicanor G. Tiongson (in “Critiquing the Filipino Film Today: Notes for the Round-Table Discussion on Film Criticism” 171-78) made attempts at reviewing a number of recent releases using the MPP’s antiquated criteria and then, apropos of nothing, claimed that one of the “qualifications that are necessary to be able to analyze and evaluate films well” included “a healthy respect for other critics in order to encourage dialogue; and above all, an attitude of balance and fairness, which is free of all personal agenda and self-promotion” (177-78) – strange words, considering their source.

The meanest attacks were rendered, surprisingly enough, by Tolentino, who had requested letters of support from me for his deanship candidacy. Titled “Hinahanap, Kaya Nawawala” [Searched For, Therefore Missing] (178-84), the rambling presentation revisited the quarrels Tolentino had with what he called “film bloggers (a.k.a. critics)” over Marie Jamora’s Ang Nawawala [What Isn’t There] (2012). Tolentino’s text is in Filipino, so I have provided excerpts below of relevant passages, with italicized translations in English. (Many thanks to Jek Josue David for correcting the translations.)

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…nanghihimok na ang dalubhasa na lamang ng disiplina ang may natatanging papel, katungkulan, at kaalaman para sa pagpapaunlad ng disiplinang araling pelikula (178).

[Like any other area, that of film studies] ensures that only experts in the field would have the right, duty, and knowledge in developing the discipline….

Pero hindi nangyari ito, o hindi pa nangyayari ito. Sumpa ng midya ng pelikula na ang lahat ng nakapanood ay may awtoridad na makapagbigay ng kaniyang kuro-kuro sa pinanood na palabas, na ang publiko ay awtoridad – bilang konsumeristang nagbabayad – sa kaniyang karanasan bilang manonood. At walang ipinagkaiba ito sa teritoryalisasyon ng mga kritiko sa iba’t ibang disiplina sa humanidades at agham panlipunan na tumahak din ng landas tungo sa pagpapalawig ng pelikula hindi sa isang disiplinang pampelikula na panuntunan kundi sa kanilang disiplina’t espesyalisasyon (178-79).

But it didn’t happen, or hasn’t happened yet. The curse of the film medium is that every viewer has the authority to convey her opinion on what she has seen, that the public has expertise – as paying consumers – in their experiences as viewers. This is no different from the territorialization of critics in various disciplines of humanities and social sciences in expanding film’s potential not within its own discipline but rather in their own fields of discipline and specialization.

Tila isinasaad, dahil popular ang midya ng pelikula, kailangan ay popular din ang paraan ng paglalahad ng teksto at konteksto nito: diyaryo, magazin, libro, at ang kasalukuyang pamamayagpag ng diskurso ng pelikula sa internet (179).

What’s asserted [is that], because the medium of film is popular, then the means of explicating its texts and contexts should also be popular: newspapers, magazines, books, and the current supremacy of film discourse on the internet.

Ang isang sumunod na sumpa sa kritisismong pelikula ay ang Internet, at ang pagsulpot ng pigura ng film blogger…. Mas mabilis silang magsulat, at may kalakaran sila ng pagsulat na may apela sa mga 35 porsiyento ng mamamayang may akses sa internet – kalakhan, kabataan, at gitnang uri. At kung nagsusulat sila sa Ingles, nababasa sila ng mundo ng mga art film festival, at naiimbitahan sa press junket at film junket, kundi man, maging jury pa sa mga ito. Ang kalakaran ng pagsulat ay may gaan at maraming patutsada na wala naman sa mismong pelikula pero nasa konteksto ng gitnang uri’t virtual public na intelektuwal na nagsusulat, at ng karanasan nito ng panonood at pagsusulat, kundi man ng kaniyang gitnang uring buhay (179).

A later curse on film criticism is the Internet, and the emergence of the figure [sic] of film bloggers…. They write faster, and their writings appeal to the 35 percent of the population who have access to the internet – majority [or mainstream, since “kalakhan” means greater majority], youth, and middle class. When written in English, they are read by the art-film festival communities and get invitations to press and film junkets, and even get appointed as jury members in these events. Their writing is airy and has several innuendos not present in the film itself but in relation to how they see and write about the film as middle-class, virtual public intellectuals, if not in the context of their middle-class life experiences.

At ito namang peg ng mga film blogger (a.k.a. critics) ang siya ring pumapaimbalot sa isa pang quasi-, kundi man, pseudo-intelektuwal na publikasyon sa internet, The Manila Review, na ang apuhap din – batay sa “wafazan” ng mga interesadong indibidwal sa Facebook – ay tungo sa kontrobersiya’t espektakulo ng mga “intelektuwal” na lumelevel sa putikan at burak kapag umeestima ng puna at kritisismo (180).

And the standard of these film bloggers (a.k.a. critics) is also what suffuses another quasi-, if not, pseudo-intellectual publication on the internet, The Manila Review, that attempts to aspire – based on the “wafazan” of interested individuals on Facebook – toward controversy and the spectacle of “intellectuals” who thrive on mud and filth when evaluating attack and criticism.

In the interest of following through on Tolentino’s attacks on Ang Nawawala and “film bloggers,” I viewed Jamora’s film and made an exception to Ámauteurish!’s policy of functioning strictly as an archival website, by blogging my own review of the film. It may also be worth noting that Tolentino’s negative review of the film was posted on his own blog.

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An Intro to “A Brief on Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag

This is to introduce the essay discussed in my article “Thinking Straight: Queer Imaging in Lino Brocka’s Maynila (1975),” which came out in the August 2012 issue (volume 9, number 2) of Plaridel: A Philippine Journal of Communication, Media, and Society. Written by the late Ave Perez Jacob, the essay, titled “A Brief on Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag,” was published in the December 1975 issue (volume 48, number 1) of The Literary Apprentice, the official publication of the University of the Philippines Writers Club. It appears with the permission of the issue’s editorial board, comprising Professor Delfin L. Tolentino, Jr. and Messrs. Herminio S. Beltran, Jr. and P.T. Martin. Many thanks to Theo Pie for sourcing the essay, and to Vince Cuizon for photographing the pages.

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My Big Fat Critic Status

Before the days of personal computers, I had to draft everything on a typewriter, correct it, and type (and sometimes retype) the final version. I diligently kept all my drafts, as well as the latter-day floppy drives of the Commodore 64 where I managed to finalize my first two book manuscripts. Nearly everything was lost to floods and pilferage, though for some reason, the draft of the letter I wrote to the Filipino film critics’ circle survived. This was not the first time I mentioned my concerns about the group’s obsession with its much-vaunted awards, but this was the moment I first expressed my misgivings directly to the group. (The addressee, then-chair Gino Dormiendo, also subsequently left.) Needless to add, I never returned after taking this “leave,” and neither did the group members stop with their annual ceremonies. Upon my return from US graduate studies, I was asked (via an emissary) to consider rejoining, but by then I felt that our differences had become too vast to be reconcilable.

Letter re Manunuri status
April 26, 1985

Justino M. Dormiendo
Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino
Metro Manila

Dear Mr. Dormiendo:

I am writing to convey my intention of requesting for a change in status to that of a non-voting member of the MPP. I understand that no such position has been granted anyone who had been or has been in good standing with the organization, except through technicalities such as inclusion in the list of nominees or absence from deliberations for the year under consideration. The reason behind my appeal, however, is my disagreement in principle with the notion of critics handing out awards to the people whom they are morally committed to help. The effect of award-giving on a circle as small as our local film artists’ community is to foster competition of a divisive nature, instead of encouraging collective action even (and most especially) in the area of artistic production, which in the first place distinguishes filmmaking from most other popular artistic endeavors.

As a result, I find myself dismayed by an attitude on the part of the industry and the public as well – that of regarding the MPP as an award-giving body, as opposed to a genuine critics’ circle. Each award-giving ceremony has done nothing except reinforce this attitude, and even the MPP membership can be charged with playing along with this posture when the body becomes complete mainly during awards-related meetings.

Should this request be granted, I would only be glad to carry on with whatever contributions I could make toward the revival of the MPP’s original ideals as a critics’ group, including the finalizing of citations, which are not as competitive in the sense that awards are. I must also indicate that at the moment I cannot consider any alternative other than taking a leave from my membership, to be able to personally formulate resolutions regarding my perceptions of the present state and future directions of Filipino film criticism.

Yours truly, etc.

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Problems in Philippine Film Awards

As a member of the faculty at the Philippine national university, I provided a few statements that never failed…to be ignored. (One colleague reportedly tossed a letter I wrote directly into the nearest trash bin.) My purpose was to make sure I articulated my position, especially if said position happened to be unpopular with everyone else’s. In this instance, the statement also got dismissed by administration officials and the college went on to institute a singular annual life-achievement prize, which turned out to affirm the interests of the critics’ group (and the orthodox Communists controlling it) – but a critique of that specific prize will have to await some further study, and a quick evaluation of the aforementioned organized critics was one of the incidental findings in my later article, “A Lover’s Polemic.” To jump to later sections, please click here for: Early Years; Enter the Critics; Corrective Attempts; Genuine Scholarly Recognition; Looking Forward; and Notes.

Film awards perform a privileged function in a national cinema as historically significant as that of the Philippines.[1] Among several by-now-all-too-common observations, two items stand out, effectively bookending the history of Philippine cinema in the 20th century: first, the medium was introduced by Spanish colonizers and utilized by the Americans as a means of modernizing local culture; and second, Filipinos remain some of the most avid movie-goers (and movie producers) in the world.[2] This position statement is proffered to my faculty colleagues at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, in line with the plan of the current Dean of the College of Mass Communication to strengthen the college’s presence in Philippine media through the provision of annual awards for noteworthy achievements and significant modes of practice.[3] In the course of discussion I will be looking at the history of movie awards in the Philippines, with particular emphasis on those dispensed by film critics; I will then attempt to evaluate existing awards practice using critical thinking and dissemination as a controlling ideal; finally I will propose ways in which our institute’s awards for film can constitute an improvement over current practice.

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Early Years

The proliferation of Filipino movie awards is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact the earliest local awards on record coincide with the available celluloid history of post-World War II Philippine cinema – serendipitously, some of the first winners also happen to number among the earliest preserved films.[4] It is worth mentioning that the awards referred to, named after José Rizál’s heroine Maria Clara, were organized and administered by media commentators, as were the awards that succeeded the Maria Clara and that held sway for over two decades, those of the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (hereafter FAMAS).

Lest we overlook the role exercised by a just-as-important player, the Philippine government, city-based awards started to be handed out during the second decade of the FAMAS’s existence.[5] Both types of awards – government and press – continue, with varying degrees of credibility and occasional bouts of controversy, to the present. A difference in purpose distinguishes one from the other: at best, the commentators’ award provides recognition for works which may have been overlooked commercially or critically during their initial run, with a strong credibility factor compensating for the belatedness of the acknowledgment; at best, too, the local-government prize may be limited to a handful of entries, but the winners, if genuinely deserving of the prize, enjoy a boost in their box-office earnings.

A third type of award is what may be called the openly institutional award. The FAMAS, although nominally an academy, did not really exclusively consist of film practitioners; the local filmfest awards, while sponsored by local governments, could display partisanship only at the risk of being criticized by oppositionists in mass media. Only one institution with equivalent political clout claims for itself a moral supremacy beyond the judgment of mortals: the Catholic Church, which, through the Catholic Mass Media Awards, provides the “good cop” counterpart to the “bad cop” of its historically determined tendencies toward censorship.

The FAMAS remained the force to be reckoned with into the so-called Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema. Without the self-critical perspective that could have been provided by members of the industry, and with the increased commercial activity brought about by the rise of the independents after the collapse of the studio system during the 1960s, the results of the FAMAS began exhibiting signs of wear, possibly of internal corruption.[6] Even the recognition that the organization gave Lino Brocka’s consecutive mid-’70s triumphs, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) and Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), did not guarantee in the public’s estimate that the FAMAS would be able to sustain the same consistent credibility that it did during the peak of the studio system’s best and brightest, notably Gerardo de Leon’s.[7]

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Enter the Critics

Thus was the stage set, so to speak, for the emergence of film critics. The Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Filipino Film Critics Circle), in the public mind, promised an alternative to what was then the only major player in Philippine film award-giving, the FAMAS. The MPP’s Urian Award promised reform in principle and in practice, with both areas so self-idealistic that their observation had been as flawed in some years as they had been perfected in others. Ideologically, the Urian subscribed to a still-prevalent misreading of Maoist prescriptions on art and literature, with form regarded independently of its purportedly superior partner, content.[8] Thus, “in the case of two films which are equally well-made, the film with the more significant subject matter [was] to be preferred” by the group.[9]

Methodologically, the critics announced a two-part system consisting of intensive film coverage, with re-screenings prescribed for front-running titles, and of decision-making by consensus. Such a mode of practice had had the effect of upending and sometimes reversing expectations for so-called critical favorites, when films without strong initial impact but which proved capable of sustaining multiple screenings won over early long-term favorites.

To see where the MPP had been, in practice, boxed in by its own declarations, one will have to return to its “Criteria for Evaluation.” Its tenets, on the one hand, merely expound on the importance given to content using nationalist ideals, expressed as “a truthful portrayal of the human condition as perceived by the Filipino [dealing] with the Filipino experience to which the greater number of moviegoers can relate.”[10] On the other hand, its prescriptions for form enumerate criteria according to conventional categories drawn from standard local and international practice – i.e., picture, direction, screenplay, acting, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, and music.[11] The increasingly lavish spectacles indulged in by the group point to the soundness – and profitability – of this strategy.

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Corrective Attempts

Encouraged by the MPP’s success vis-à-vis the FAMAS, a number of other sectors in Philippine film and media sought to institute their own awards system, using the same political strategy the MPP provided: pinpoint an existing awards group (usually still the FAMAS), evaluate the group’s shortcomings and weaknesses, and present a new-and-improved version. Thus the Film Academy of the Philippines, which laid claim to being the true local movie academy by virtue of its formation by industry-based guilds, came up with the FAP Awards. The Philippine Movie Press Club, in frankly admitting that its membership comprised film journalists rather than critics or industry practitioners, set up its Star Awards.[12]

One last award-giving group took on the challenge of rectifying what it perceived were the errors of the Urian. As one of the Young Critics Circle’s founding members, I and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., another former MPP member, concluded that what could have been the YCC’s strong suit – its claim to having academically trained members – turned early enough into its liability, when the ivory-tower tendency of a number of colleagues manifested itself in the form of highbrow arrogance directed against industry practitioners. More insidiously, the use of fashionable Western-derived theory became the weapon by which such self-proclaimed nationalists caused irreparable damage in their relations with serious-minded practitioners, all the while lacking the critical willingness to train such deconstructive approaches on the theories themselves. Since the theories as applied remained distinctively associated with their hemisphere of origin, the YCC’s deconstructive project (itself a Western-derived methodology) can be seen as nothing more than a transmutation of colonial mentality in its use of center-derived frameworks applied to a Third-World margin’s progressive cultural concerns.

The YCC projects an image of scholarly seriousness, coupled with disdain for the showbiz trappings of all the other awards ceremonies. However, the limitations of its members’ origins in non-film-specific disciplines comes out in its illiberality, particularly its refusal to recognize mainstream achievements even as it directs attention to a few maverick, possibly deceitful, accomplishments. Its own ceremonies enact a symbolically disturbing spectacle of coercing industry personalities to go to the State University and face a seminar-type crowd that hypocritically downplays the trappings of celebrity in favor of straight-faced discourse.

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Genuine Scholarly Recognition

The UP Film Institute therefore enjoys a position of having critically engaged faculty who also happen to be involved in the medium as teachers, observers, commentators, and practitioners.[13] The UPFI faculty members also have access to a film theater and a flexible screening program that could facilitate the revaluation of the year’s achievements, in addition to film-viewing privileges outside of UP. Their use of theory can be guaranteed as rigorous in terms of both aesthetic evaluation and sociological discourse. Best of all, their relationship with the industry does not have to be premised on an us-or-them binary, a long-running and fruitless form of self-policing that actually had its roots in the MPP’s defensiveness regarding some of its members’ avowed intentions to become industry practitioners. Since the UPFI faculty, by virtue of the impending publish-or-perish requisite coupled with recognition for creative output, will have to be at least occasional practitioners, the prospect of guarding against members “crossing over” to the other camp becomes moot and, literally, academic.

My proposal to my colleagues at the UPFI does not differ much from the same set of reforms I presented verbally to the YCC (rejected in print by the group’s then-chair, who was running a series of attacks against members perceived as critical of the YCC core’s self-proclaimed “deconstructive” project). Listed are the various elements of the proposal:

  • The US model of critics’ awards, which proceeds from a rough tallying of members’ choices, does not improve on the local version, since the constituency of each US critics’ organization is too large to allow for consensus-by-deliberation. European practice is more feasible. The German critics’ awards, which recognize films according to categories such as “Outstanding” and “Noteworthy,” are closer to a democratic ideal, since any number of winners (including a no-winner decision) can be declared.
  • Films should not be classified according to budget, length, or mode of production. The time may also be apt for dispensing with the barriers between celluloid and digital, between installations and screenings, and between broadcasts and theatrical presentations. Hence, any number of short, alternative, digital, even full-out experimental works may be recognized alongside any number of full-length commercial releases, instead of prominence being handed to the latter and the former being relegated to a comparatively minor category (i.e., Best Short/Student Film).[14]
  • Prizes for individual achievement are conventionally delimited in current practice by fixed categories and by single-entry recognitions. In this instance, international festival practice is more apposite. Categories may be opened according to their relevance for the year in question, rather than in observance of the standard requisite of having a definite number awaiting nominations and singular winners. Also, practitioners can be recognized for a clutch of achievements, if such happens to be their contribution for the year, instead of the usual practice of the awards body singling out just one representative accomplishment for each person.
  • Institutions may also be recognized, in order to encourage their leadership in promoting progressive film awareness and culture.
  • Foreign-film distributors may be given recognition for releasing non-Filipino movies regarded as difficult or daring because of their aesthetic or ideological content.
  • The recognition should not take the form of trophies. Short citations on parchment can be handed out to each winner. The announcement of the awards could also easily incorporate these citations. The nomination process should be deemed essential only for award-givers bent on arousing public curiosity in order to sell a show; for a truly discourse-oriented system as the UPFI’s should be, the announcement of nominees should be skipped altogether.
  • A recognition ceremony does not need to manifest the pretension of a discursive session. Since the citations were already publicized, the winners may just be invited to a celebratory event, preferably including a meal for the honorees, possibly in coordination with the CMC’s larger awards event. (In the event the CMC cannot yet implement its college-wide awards system, the UPFI can hold its own until it becomes possible for the college to integrate its awards programs.)

Membership in the UPFI Film Awards Desk, although de facto in the sense that it consists of the country’s film faculty, should also be allowed a certain degree of versatility and voluntariness. Hence, a call for participation in the Desk should be made annually by the UPFI Director; the Desk members elect a Chair, who then serially assigns Desk members (including herself or himself) to cover current film releases, local and foreign, as close as possible to the opening date. Film coverage consists of earliest-possible dispatches by the assigned viewer on whether the release should be seen by the rest of the Desk members, and whether the release raises issues that need to be addressed by the Desk. Quarterly citations may be announced, and at year’s end films being considered for awards should be shortlisted (the equivalent of being nominated) and re-viewed, but not publicized.

Desk members should be able to challenge any other member perceived as involved in films under deliberation, if such involvement induces a bias on the part of said member, whether for the film or against rival entries. Such a member will then have to inhibit herself or himself, if necessary via a memo from the Director, from the Desk’s deliberation processes.

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Looking Forward

A system of award-giving that allows itself flexibility in determining formats and categories will be in tune with still-evolving changes in film technology. Moreover, it will emphasize the fluid nature of aesthetic preferences and the collaborative nature of film-production activity. In order to stress the importance of critical discursiveness, however, the UPFI awards should operate within the context of a vital and continuing research agenda, where, as an example, the awards’ citations function as encapsulated insights for full-length articles. The awards themselves would then serve as enticements for the general public to read up on writings by the members of the faculty, with a possible mechanism for feedback to be set up eventually.

The future direction of film may be regarded as dead-ended, if the decline in local production were to be taken pessimistically. However, said decline may also be seen as parallel to the historical drop in book production when journalism first emerged, and the retreat into safer commercial strategies when television started to challenge the cultural hegemony of film. The provision of narrative pleasure continues to the present anyway, whether in print or via imagery, regardless of past challenges. In fact the turn-of-the-millennium example in American popular music might be more instructive: although the production of studio-style efforts declined, the actual number of new CD releases set historical records, precisely because of the democratization of the means of production and dissemination. Once this access to formerly exclusive (and unreasonably expensive) production and distribution applies to filmmaking, the complaint by local moguls that they could not make as many movies as they used to will be drowned by the ready availability of personal films everywhere.

The system of awards proposed in this statement will be unique from the outset, and potentially responsive, liberal, and discourse-oriented. More important, in recognizing the unpredictable nature of collaborative endeavors, it assumes a position of humility in relation to popular culture while inviting the best contributions from some of the best-qualified evaluators in the country. The UPFI faculty ought therefore to proceed forthwith.

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Notes

[1] Submitted to the faculty of the University of the Philippines Film Institute on July 4, 2003 at the College of Mass Communication, Diliman, Quezon City. I expressed appreciation to my then-junior colleagues at the UPFI – specifically Roehl Jamon, Edic Piano, and Johven Velasco – for their comments and encouragement.

[2] For a summary of the introduction of film in the Philippines, see Ernie de Pedro, “Overview of Philippine Cinema,” Filipino Film Review 1.4 (Oct.-Dec. 1983) 26-27. A past edition of the Guinness Book of World Records cited Filipinos as most consistent movie-goers in the world, based on the average number of times a citizen goes to the movies during a certain period. Current editions use absolute measures (total number of citizens who go to the movies), which results in China topping the list. Re production activity, instead of the usual total number of films (which has resulted in India being undisputed topnotcher), one might set said number against total population for a per-capita figure. In this case, even with lessened film-production activity, the Philippines would still be “more active” than India. See Joel David, “Primates in Paradise: The Multiple-Character Format in Philippine Film Practice,” unpub. diss., New York University, 2001.

[3] Nicanor G. Tiongson, “Vision, Mission, and Goal Presentation,” submitted to the Nomination Committee for the Deanship Search of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication (Quezon City, March 19, 2003) 6.

[4] The Manila Times, after declaring in its past pages its choices of best film, set up its Maria Clara Awards, which lasted two years, in 1950. The last winner, Gerardo de Leon’s Sisa, is still available as a duplicate print. See “Exhibit Module 7: Filipino Film Awards” in Cinema Paraiso: An Exhibition of Cinema Artifacts and Memorabilia, exhibit catalog (Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2003) n.p.

[5] The Manila Film Festival was established in 1966 and expanded to include other cities and municipalities as the Metro Manila Film Festival in 1975 (“Exhibit Module 7: Filipino Film Awards” in Cinema Paraiso, ibid.). The MMFF’s Christmas-season playdate, however, was first realized in 1976 – a watershed year in many other ways, yielding as it did a bumper crop of quality productions before as well as during the festival itself, and heralding the first Urian awards. See “Filmography: Philippine Movies 1970-1979” in The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (Quezon City: Morato, 1983) 501.

[6] The startling breakout films of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, Tubog sa Ginto (1970) and Pagdating sa Dulo (1971) respectively, received only token FAMAS prizes (direction and screenplay resp.) during their years of release, overshadowed by such conventional blockbusters as Armando de Guzman’s Mga Anghel na Walang Langit (1970) and Gerardo de Leon’s Lilet (1971).

[7] Another way of looking at the FAMAS’ predicament during this period was that it insisted on rewarding the likes of Gerardo de Leon, even after the master’s evident decline – cf. Lilet’s win as best film.

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[8] The binaristic separation of form and content in progressive Philippine cultural writing was first formulated in the texts of Amado Guerrero (pseud.), who maintained that “[a revolutionary national culture] must adopt certain traditional and modern cultural forms and infuse these with content that enhances the national-democratic revolution” (Philippine Society and Revolution, 1970 [Hayward, Calif.: Philippine Information Network Service, 1996] 119-20). For all its similar reductiveness in its approaches to aesthetic and literary problematics, no such configuration can be found as a controlling framework in Mao Zhedong’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” (May 1942), Mao Tse-Tung on Literature and Art (London: Anglo-Chinese Educational Institute, n.d.) 1-44. I am grateful to Professor Wei Jiang for helping to clarify that such a misreading of Mao was prevalent even among native Chinese Communists.

[9] “MPP Criteria for Film Evaluation,” The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. In further subservience to Western dimorphic and hierarchic practice, local acting awards, including the MPP’s own, are subdivided according to gender (actor/actress) and prominence (lead/supporting). Such a surplus of awards for performances is also evidence of star personalities holding sway over the proceedings, at the expense of more productive auteurist considerations such as the contributions of directors, writers, and craftspeople. In the face of this concession to populist preferences, conservative containment is evident in the insistence on matching one performance per performer (a premise that promotes commodity fetishism) as well as in the refusal to acknowledge gradations and fluctuations between the sexes and between leads and non-leads.

[12] The most highly regarded among these newcomers was at one point the PMPC’s Star Awards, and the reason hinged on the worthiness of the example set by the MPP: the PMPC also observed the same practice of multiple screenings and consensus-based decision-making, in some years generating better-received results than the Urian. Implicit in this proliferation of local movie awards is the set of circumstances that made the development paradoxical: these were the worsening years of martial rule, when other forms of mass media suffered unstinting repression by government and military forces. The government of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, however, zeroed in on film as their preferred showcase of libertarian democracy, even setting up a support system, the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, which eventually challenged the government’s own censorship board. Hence no one was surprised when even the Metro Manila Commission enlarged, geographically and monetarily, on the concept of local-government festivals by launching the Metro Manila Film Festival during the most profitable season, the yearend Christmas break, and when the country further expanded its film scene in global terms via the short-lived Manila International Film Festival.

[13] Here of course I am shamelessly deploying flattery and in danger of lying through my teeth. The members of the UPFI faculty who have any measure of intellectual and ethical integrity can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and the rest are marked by scholarship that ranges from questionable to nonexistent and by an administrative record that veers from callous to corrupt.

[14] The MPP came around shortly after I circulated this statement and recognized digital products, a few years before local industrial production turned exclusively digital. It also continued including extra-length films (all by Lav Diaz), although it has continued to segregate “short” films in a separate category. I make no claim to having influenced the group by this or any other form of commentary: if they kept refusing to recognize digital products, they would have wound up without a “job,” in the form of their profitable annual awards ceremony. I should also mention here that a third local critics group (where I also participated), called Kritika, operated for a few years in the early 1990s and adhered to all these procedures, including the ones in succeeding entries on this list.

[Submitted in December 2003 to the College Executive Board (care of the Dean) of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication]

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Millennial Traversals – Reflections on a National Pastime


Thank you for your interest in Millennial Traversals, my fourth sole-authored book. In addition to its distinction as, to my knowledge, the Philippines’s first complete open-access (non-journal) volume, it has reappeared as a print edition of UNITAS, the semi-annual peer-reviewed journal of the University of Santo Tomas – which has also reposted it online. Please click on this link to open Part II: Expanded Perspectives, where the article you are seeking can be found. You may also find more information on the blog page of Millennial Traversals.

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