Tag Archives: History

Condemned Property: Video Piracy as a Form of Nationalist Resistance

Before I proceed, I would like to state what an honor it has been for me to be invited to this event. As you can tell from my family name, Pampanga is the home province of my father’s side of the family. But because of the exigencies of surviving in the ever-expanding metropolis of Manila, which has been starting to claim portions of the neighboring province, Bulacan, for some time now, we stopped visiting our hometown of Magalang while I was still a child. This is therefore my first formal event in Pampanga since I became a professional scholar. As a consequence, the lecture I will be delivering will not be anything like the paper I submitted to the conference – which is probably also a positive thing, considering the proofreading errors I discovered when I went over it again. I would also like to plead for your indulgence in providing an alternate subtitle for my lecture, which is: “A Subjective Odyssey.” Not because I was or will be a video pirate, nor did I go or will go after one, but because the issue of video piracy has left virtually few aspects of our Third-World everyday existence untouched. The aim therefore of this lecture will be to provide the genealogy, or origin, of the paper I submitted. In effect, I will be recounting the narrative of how I came to be researching the recent and now nearly finished phenomenon of video piracy in our country.

11011When our heads of state dialog with bigwigs from our former colonizing center, the United States, regarding the matter they euphemistically term “intellectual property rights,” one would think that the situation has attained the same level of urgency as other issues such as terrorism, poverty, global warming, environmental devastation, new deadly diseases, and internet pornography. What’s subjective about this account was my personal and professional involvement in video presentation, as a teacher, researcher, and former student of film at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, which continued even after I’d left the institution. While completing my M.A. and Ph.D. in Cinema Studies during the 1990s in the US, I and my Filipino colleagues were attuned to an escalating scenario of video piracy in our home country in what was then the compact disc digital video or VCD format. Up to that point it appeared as if we overseas Pinoys would remain permanently out of sync in relation to our counterparts on the other side of the planet. Where the standard videocassette format in the US was VHS, in the Philippines it was Betamax; and where the video disc format we had was laser disc, back home it was VCD.

11011Even this early it was painfully evident that Filipinos would be doomed to the low-end technological option, which provided affordability at the expense of quality. The only consolation – a significant one, as far as we were concerned – was that people would still resort to theatrical film screenings. Before Betamax gave way to VHS and VCD to DVD, the Philippines still enjoyed double-digit annual film production. The numbers were less than half of the mid-two hundred peak realized by the local industry during the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, but even then, I was still able to argue to my dissertation adviser that the output per capita was higher than that of India, which was and continues to be the world record-holder in absolute terms.

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11011It made sense for people to still troop to movie-houses even when current releases could appear on videocassette or VCD. Audiovisual resolution in these formats was too miserable to be pleasurable; moreover, and here we’re treading on speculation, the continuing saga of political and economic upheavals visited by globalizing trends on our fragile system made it imperative for the population to continue seeking solace in social gatherings, of which film screenings, at their half-dollar admission price then, would still prove irresistible as an attraction.

11011It would be relevant to mention at this point that the world’s successful prosecution of copyright violation using file-sharing software occurred only as recently as 2005, in Hong Kong (“Man Jailed in 1st Copyright Violation Case”). Not surprisingly, the most extensive and useful book-length study of video piracy, Laikwan Pang’s Cultural Control and Globalization in Asia, provides an extensive analysis of VCDs, which served as the format for the supposedly rampant piracy of Hollywood film products in Hong Kong. In a later volume, Creativity and Its Discontents, Pang built on the observation that in the contemporary era, a new system, called the creative economy, centered on the production of original creative material, has effectively supplanted the knowledge economy (Creativity and Its Discontents Introduction). Her approach is premised on Roland V. Bettig’s description of the digital-era dilemma of filmed entertainment: that the cost of reproducing creative content is virtually negligible compared to the cost of producing it (Bettig 93).

11011In the late ’nineties my roommates and I celebrated the First-World film distributors’ decision to adopt and promote the DVD format. At the same time, we wondered how such a relatively expensive system would fare in the Philippines. As it turned out, the DVD pricing scheme in the US was surprisingly competitive and, more important, rationalized enough to challenge early attempts at piracy. In concrete terms, if (and this is a big if, okay) I intended to pirate a new DVD release in the US for myself, the cost I would incur in renting a copy, buying a blank disc, reproducing the cover art and accompanying booklet, and setting up my system to rip and burn the contents would not be that far from the cost of simply walking into a store and buying a legitimate copy. What tips the balance in favor of doing the legally preferred option is a combination of the calculable advantages of enjoying a warranty on the product, as well as the incalculable delights of shopping.

11011Flash-forward to the turn-of-the-millennium, when the installation of a Republican President and the collapse of the Twin Towers indicated to me that I needed to get out of that place, that country, and back to my duties in the backwaters of Asia. As it turned out, the process of dissertation-writing had kept me from catching up on recent developments outside of what was happening to the family of HBO’s Tony Soprano. Upon my return to Manila, my faculty colleagues and students alerted me to the presence of a thriving market in pirated DVDs in Quiapo, Manila’s downscale commercial district, site of occasional populist demonstrations and acts of criminality both political and personal. Its best-known landmark is the sixteenth-century Catholic Church that enshrines the Black Nazarene, one of a few major Filipino icons that make a case for the Africanness of the historical Christ. The Black Nazarene inspires hysterical devotion among lower-class religious males, particularly during its annual procession in January, because of its reputedly miraculous properties, including the ability to completely cleanse one of her or his sins.

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11011Quiapo is known for other historical events, such as the long-controversial bombing of the opposition’s miting de avance at Plaza Miranda in 1971, attributed by the right-wing pre-martial law government of Ferdinand Marcos to the Communist Party of the Philippines and blamed by the Communists on the Marcos government. There are also the Quiapo-set films of the top action stars in Philippine movie history: Joseph Estrada starring in Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo, and Fernando Poe Jr. countering much later with his own Batang Quiapo. But one marvel that can still be empirically witnessed today is the fact that the pirated DVD stalls lie just outside the sphere of Catholicity, in the Muslim ghetto on the other side of Quezon Boulevard, the main vehicular and pedestrian artery.

11011For over a year I was unaware of the exact whereabouts of this paradise-within-an-inferno. And meanwhile – big melodramatic moment coming up – my father was rapidly deteriorating from a terminal illness, so I decided to get him a DVD player where I could screen for him some of the films I had brought over from the US. I decided to get him one of his favorites the way I would do it in the US – that is, legitimately. So I looked up one of the biggest mid-priced mall chains in the country, entered its video shop, and bought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the equivalent of thirty-six US dollars. Never mind that it was selling for under fifteen dollars at Amazon.com – I figured there were multiple costs involved in importing the product – and well, what do I know, really. Besides, it made my father happy, but at that rate, I figured I’d never be able to get him the classical Hollywood titles he was asking for.

11011After he died, I finally managed to find the exact whereabouts of the flea-market style “illegitimate” DVDs peddled in Quiapo. You guessed right if you thought the first title I looked up was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There it was, selling, just like everything else, at the flat rate of about one US dollar. And that was just the start of my long rude awakening to the reality of video distribution outside the First World. For starters, the vendors had all the popular mainstream titles offered by the so-called legitimate outlets – and more, much more, several times over in fact. Allow me to flash a description of the possible categories of products posted online by an even more enthusiastic consumer.

11011To provide ourselves with a handle into the availability of products in this mecca (pardon the pun), I and a few of my faculty colleagues listed the titles we thought would fit the collection of your garden-variety film enthusiast. Every other week or so, we would tally our findings and, unfortunately for the completists among us, eliminate those titles we felt would be available in most “average” households anyway. Thus, no recent Oscar winners, Tom Hanks- and/or Meg Ryan-starrers, martial-arts movies produced in countries that never gave rise to martial arts, humanist dramas unless spoken in a language other than English, TV shows that all carbon-based life forms would have seen anyway … you get the drift.

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11011The last time I looked up our list, we had over seven hundred “preferred” titles, still an impressive number, dwarfing the individual wish lists we had compiled using “legit” online sources.

11011These discoveries were not ours alone to claim. Several major personalities from media and academe, some of them foreign-based, could be seen scouring the stalls for possible additions to their collections. When a local television program sent out feelers for any of them to come forward, one of those who responded was Joey Reyes, the person who at that time was arguably the most prominent prestige filmmaker in the country. He said, in Tagalog, “I need them for my own growth as a director. Anyway, it’s the big foreign films that are killing the local movie industry. I’m just helping our people slay these giants by buying their films from video pirates” (Diones, n.p.).

11011Moreover, and this is where my subjectivity intersects with his, “The system of piracy can be considered a ‘great equalizer’ because everyone is equal when it comes to purchasing power – even the poor can afford to buy the copies” (Diones, n.p.). Reyes’s assertion jibes with our informal observations, done roughly on a weekly basis over the course of the past three years. What might have sounded incredible anytime during the past millennium – say, a lower-class consumer inquiring about widescreen, subtitling, and extra features – is now commonplace enough to appear as images in local pop culture. As a corollary, the vendors themselves have done their own upgrading. Some of the stalls are now housed in air-conditioned buildings, and the personnel are up to the challenge of helping buyers sort through the wide variety of products on display. Ronnie (not his real name), a physically disabled man who operates the biggest stall in one of the buildings, said that he had taken a film course [not in our university, or I would have recognized him] just to be able to familiarize himself with the more exotic or antique samples available (David, interview).

11011The vendors were more than aware of the historical and political implications of their situation. They had a system of alerts when raids have been scheduled by the police force. Because of their minority status, they were unafraid to stand their ground, meeting force with force when necessary. In fact, the revised guidelines controlling optical media in the country stipulate additional penalties for “violators who employ armed resistance against agents of the [Optical Media Board]” (Republic Act 9239, 4.19.b3), a reference to the exchange of gunfire reported three years ago between the vendors and the raiding team of the now-defunct Videogram Regulatory Board.

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11011The Philippine Muslim population suffers from the many contradictions brought about by postcolonial development, or the lack of it. The people, currently constituting less than seven percent of the seventy-two-million total population (Joshua Project), are credited by nationalist historians as consistent resisters of foreign colonizers, so much so that the English word “amuck” was taken directly from the Malay original “amok” and had its meaning of righteous resistance distorted, to refer instead to “murderous frenzy” (“Amuck” entry, n.p.). Filipino Muslims have also suffered some of the worst depredations of the Christian majority, including massacres, militarization, land-grabbing, and religion-based vigilantism (see Vitug and Gloria) – not to mention the unconscionable cultural stereotyping that invariably accompanies such dehumanizing treatment.

11011In initiating, controlling, and most important, succeeding in the selling and possibly in the local production of pirated DVDs, Filipino Muslims have forged for themselves a historical intervention unique in at least two significant ways, to wit:

  • Unable to afford the interconnectivity facilitated by the World Wide Web, they have instead opted to be familiar with what has been described by Aaron Barlow in The DVD Revolution as a similar access to information via the interactive features of the new format. This of course applies not just to Filipino Muslims, but to the impoverished majority as well.
  • Aware of the current trends toward scapegoating and guilt-by-association through the links of some members of their community with the al-Qaida network, they have responded with what is recognizably an entrepreneurial innovation, albeit with severe consequences for American corporations yet with profoundly gratifying benefits for the rest of the Filipino nation. During my term as founding Director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute, I openly enjoined faculty and students to defer from calling the practice “DVD piracy”; I proposed instead the term “anti-imperialist video-dubbing service,” to call attention to the positive effects of the exercise.

Curiously, such a liminal position used to be associated with another racialized local group, the Chinese-Filipinos. Suspected, accused, sometimes penalized, and at least at one point executed for an array of socioeconomic transgressions ranging from gun-running, drug-dealing, to pornography, the Chinese-Filipino community had also had to suffer a number of flagrant and rampant human-rights violations, their economic potential circumscribed by retail-trade limits, and attacks on their presence being undertaken even by left-identified authors as recently as the nineteen-sixties. Their politicization as a community arrived after they had achieved economic clout (Hau 15-62) – a trend which appears to be occurring in reverse in the case of Filipino Muslims. In relation to the issue under study, the last wave of active film production in the Philippines, from the late ’seventies to the ’nineties, was also dominated by Chinese-Filipino producers, to the point where the martial-law government felt compelled to set up its own production arm and covertly supported the founding of a Filipino-owned studio to promote wholesome icons, reactionary narratives, and Hollywood-style aesthetics (David, Wages of Cinema 70-71).

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11011In terms of relations with the regional body-politic, we can take a cue from Michel Foucault’s brief foray into racial politics, originally delivered as a series of lectures at the Collége de France. In looking at European history during the Middle Ages, he noted that what eventually became racist discourse was originally a discourse of race war, which had the useful function of operating as a counterhistory to the then-standard justification and reinforcement of the power of sovereigns (51-84). Here we note – and it goes without saying, with a lot of caution – that three groups within the same nation-state interact diachronically: the Filipinos, who identify with the West, which in this case embraces both Washington and the Vatican; the Chinese, who were regarded as outsiders because of their association with East Asian culture; and the Muslims, whose allegiance extends to the Middle East by way of the larger archipelago comprising Indonesia and Malaysia, the two major Islamic republics of Southeast Asia. From the last reformulation, we can see that the Philippines, from one possible perspective, is not just an unacknowledged component in the term “Indo-Malayan archipelago,” it is also the outsider to Islam, with Christianized Filipinos constituting the minority in the region.

11011Thus a basis for belligerence emerges: just as the West-identified Christianized Filipinos are really Westerners manqué, not white-skinned enough, not to mention wealthy enough, even in relation to East Asians, neither are they adherents of the predominant religion within the immediate region. The connection with Indonesia and Malaysia becomes more direct when we look up the alleged sources of pirated discs and find that it is these two countries that are pinpointed by vendors and administrative officials alike (Inquirer News Service, Arab News). Although as of about a year ago, the Optical Media Board claimed to have closed down DVD-burning equipment involved in “pirate” operations (Valera, n.p.), the insistence by everyone on identifying the Philippines’ neighboring countries as the primary source of illegal products resonates with the larger issue of global terrorism. It were as if our Islamic neighbors first furnished our links to the current millennium’s historical villains, and now this too.

11011But on a level playing field, one in which the voices of the racialized others can speak out, one difference stands out prominently enough to suggest a rupture. The nature of the Muslims’ transgression this time is economic. It lays bare the hypocrisy of American distributors in their desire to police the market so that it would have no choice but pay through the nose for their overpriced products. Such global-scale ironies generate numerous local ones, and I’d venture one fond example: the Filipino legislator who first argued that the US distributors’ best way to combat piracy is by reducing their prices was none other than the daughter of Ferdinand E. Marcos, the dictator installed and supported by a series of American Presidents and businesses until he proved too unpopular to be profitable for them (Villafania, “RP Lashed for Rampant Piracy,” n.p.).

11011One vital process in the study that I still have to fully complete is a content analysis of the so-called Special 301 Reports of the International Intellectual Property Alliance. The IIPA is a US private-sector coalition (IIPA, “Milestones of the International Intellectual Property Alliance” 5). Its formation coincided with the growing concern of copyright-based industries over the emergence of technological advancements that enable consumers to appropriate, process, and reproduce pristine content that had formerly been accessible only through direct purchases from producers and their authorized distributors. As a so-far effective strategy for pursuing its objective of stringent policing of copyright-related acts, the IIPA held entire nations responsible for copyright violations within their territories, and enforced its will through the US Trade Representative. In effect, a country’s economic performance can be affected by the presence of so-called pirates, and anti-piracy measures become part of the preconditions for unimpeded trade relations with the US.

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11011The IIPA’s Special 301 Reports are annual evaluations of the state of various countries’ degrees of violation of the IP laws of the US. They openly provide no further justification for their existence other than that the US is determined to defend the IP interests of American companies and that it is willing to leverage its trading clout as a means of enforcing its policies. What makes the reports frustrating to evaluate is that they shift in tone and emphasis, not just from one country to another but also from one year to the next for the same country. They start in 1989 comprising eight mimeographed pages and continue that way for all of the 1990s. Then suddenly, during the year of the 9-11 attacks, they become book-length. The 2001 entry is in fact the shortest, at just under 630 pages, with the report on the Philippines running for ten pages – longer than the first complete report.

11011The reports’ recommendations range across a number of unstable categories, some of which get adjusted and even readjusted in later reports. From mildest to worst, these would be: Pending, presumably meaning that the IIPA is awaiting further reports or confirmations from IP companies or associations; Monitoring, which appears to indicate that the IIPA wishes to determine for itself whatever charges are being raised against a country under suspicion; Watch List, which is what most countries fall under, wherein a country has been notified via the report that it is in violation and must endeavor to prove good behavior; Priority Watch List, which applies to countries that are in serious IP rights violations requiring more intensive attention; and finally, Priority Foreign Country, which indicates that a country lacks adequate and effective protection of IP rights or fair and equitable market access to US citizens who rely on IP rights protection. Ukraine is the only country that merited this final designation during the current millennium. Other countries such as Brazil, Paraguay, China, India, Thailand, and Taiwan were declared PFCs at some time or other during the 1990s.

11011The Philippines only reached Priority Watch List status from Watch List and back. But the Special 301 Reports would be disturbing to any student of national security and surveillance. The reports mention specific shops in various areas – along Recto Avenue, for example, or even the recently burned Shopping Center at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines. At some point the reports begin dropping the names of Filipino filmmakers who might be deprived of royalties, despite the fact that the so-called pirates of Quiapo avoid selling local titles. Even more awkwardly, the list of names includes artists who had long died, such as Gerardo de Leon, Ishmael Bernal, Eddie Romero, Nick Joaquin, Edith Tiempo, Antonio Molina, Jose Maceda, and Ernani Cuenco.

11011One interesting trend, however, concerns the call to violence. The Special 301 Reports focused on the Philippines tended to observe an escalating call for more raids, speedier court cases, and further legislation. True to colonialist strategy, they recommended the formation of agencies to oversee only specific problem areas and raised the specter of terrorism by echoing the late Jack Valenti’s unfounded claim that the pirates were assisting Islamic-extremist groups. Yet during the late 2000s, this type of agitational use of language suddenly died down. We may say that this reflected the triumph of the previous years’ excesses, but we can also look toward reports where shop owners began resisting raiding parties by using firearm weapons.

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11011Another development would also have occurred on the home front, from the perspective of the US. The media began criticizing the scare tactics being deployed by IP rights lawyers, mandating jail terms and million-dollar fines even for minors who downloaded files even without the intent of sharing those files with others. Events came to a head when Aaron Swartz, who helped develop RSS feed and Creative Commons and cofounded Reddit, was arrested by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for allegedly using its guest account in order to download articles from the JSTOR digital library. When his plea bargain was rejected, he committed suicide and caused a backlash against IP rights prosecutions. That same year, 2013, Edward Snowden fled the US in order to leak information classified by the National Security Agency. As a result of these high-profile cases, attention turned to a non-American, Alexandra Elbakyan from Kazakhstan, whose website Sci-Hub [spell] performed the tremendous service to impoverished scholars of downloading articles from paywalled journals.

11011At this point, we find ourselves on the verge of an unprecedented opportunity in information science. Text and image files from most available periods of history are being uploaded online, at a rate that grows faster than anyone can track. Several new fields such as Digital Humanities are premised on what has been termed big-data analysis. The insistence on IP prosecution as well as unlimited copyright is being regarded as one of the final obstructions to this inevitable advance in our instant access to knowledge. So if we were to raise one final question, it may as well be: who exactly has been condemned?

Works Cited

“Amuck.” Word entry. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=amuck. Accessed Feb. 22, 2005.

Barlow, Aaron. The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Bettig, Roland V. Copyrighting Culture: The Political Economy of Intellectual Property. Westview Press, 1996.

David, Joel. Interview with “Ronnie.” Quiapo, Manila. Jan. 29, 2005.

———. Wages of Cinema: Film in Philippine Perspective. Quezon City: Univ. of the Philippines Press, 1998.

De la Cruz, Julius. “Quiapo Underground.” Experiment Orange. Website publication. http://www.experiment-orange.org/archives/2005/02/08/quiapo-underground/#more-103. Accessed Feb. 21, 2005.

Diones, Allan. “‘Pirated’ Watches, Pinagkaguluhan ng mga Artista” [Actors Go Crazy Over “Pirated” Watches]. Abante Tonite. Website publication. http://www.abante-tonite.com/issue/dec03/enter_others2.htm. Accessed Feb. 22, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1975-1976. Eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 1997.

Hau, Caroline S. On the Subject of the Nation: Filipino Writings from the Margins, 1981 to 2004. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Univ. Press, 2004.

Inquirer News Service, Arab News. “Optical Media Board Head Denies Anti-Muslim Bias.” Arab News. Website publication. http://www.arabnews.com/node/255847. Accessed Feb. 20, 2005.

International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA). Special 301 Report on Copyright Protection and Enforcement. Annual. The Philippine sections per year are as follows: 2001, pp. 175-84; 2002, pp. 197-214; 2003, pp. 213-28; 2004, pp. 165-76; 2005, pp. 215-34; 2006, pp. 127-40; 2007, pp. 371-91; 2008, pp. 295-311; 2009, pp. 110-21; 2010, pp. 108-20; 2011, pp. 76-86; 2012, pp. 222-34; 2013, pp. 327-38; 2014, pp. 199-202. http://www.iipa.org/reports/reports-by-country?country_filter=120&q=.

———. “Milestones of the International Intellectual Property Alliance: Twenty Years of Global Copyright Reform (1984-2004).” Press release, October 2004. http://www.iipa.com/pdf/IIPA_Milestones_20_years_100704b.pdf.

Joshua Project: People Cluster Listings. Entries for “Filipino, Central” and “Filipino, Muslim.” http://www.joshuaproject.net/peopcluster.php. Accessed Feb. 22, 2005.

“Man Jailed in 1st Copyright Violation Case.” BizReport, 7 Nov. 2005, http://www.bizreport.com/print/9473. Accessed 18 April 2006.

Pang, Laikwan. Creativity and Its Discontents: China’s Creative Industries and Intellectual Property Rights Offenses. Duke UP, 2012.

———. Cultural Control and Globalization in Asia: Copyright, Piracy, and Cinema. Kindle ed., Routledge, 2006.

Republic Act 9239. “An Act Regulating Optical Media, Reorganizing for this Purpose the Videogram Regulatory Board, Providing Penalties Therefor, and for Other Purposes.” Congress of the Philippines. Passed Jan. 13, 2004 and approved Feb. 10, 2004.

US Embassy Manila Public Affairs Section. “Piracy Has Become a Serious Problem in the Philippines.” Official website. manila.usembassy.gov/wwwhpira.html. Accessed Feb. 20, 2005.

Valera, Nini. “Edu Offers $5,000 Reward for Information on Pirates.” Inq7.net. Website Publication. news.inq7.net/entertainment/index.php?index=1&story_id=15103. Accessed Feb. 20, 2005.

———. “RP Lashed for Rampant Piracy.” Metropolitan Computer Times. Website publication. http://www.mctimes.net/News-01162003-RP%20Lashed%20for%20Rampant%20Piracy.html. Accessed Feb. 20, 2005.

Vitug, Marites Dañguilan and Glenda M. Gloria. Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao. Quezon City: Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Social Affairs, 2000.

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What Lies Above: A Mini-Commentary

Several global and national changes have been so pervasively eventful that people in positions of responsibility will be devoting part or all of the rest of their lives to tackling the problems raised by these developments. Which is why any publishing milestone will seem understandably insignificant, unless it purported to address one or more of these central issues of our time. It won’t seem to be terribly earth-shaking, for instance, if the worst review ever written of a local film appeared in a national publication – but that’s precisely what just happened, and to my regret, I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t point it out.

11011For an idea of how awful this situation is, when a far milder bit of irresponsible commentary came out in the 1980s, Lino Brocka went on national TV to denounce the writer. The present-day sample focused on the filmmaker’s personality as well as the cirumstances of the screening, with the reviewer not watching more than once to give the text an opportunity to redefine itself if that were possible – in fact the said reviewer didn’t even finish the premiere screening! Several other psychoanalytic complications can be read from the commentary, starting with the reviewer’s charge that the filmmaker was egotistic: the defense mechanism of projection becomes evident when we look at the writer’s other output.

11011As for the film itself, it may be appreciated as a reasonably competent sophomore effort, with the filmmaker’s extensive stage experience and record in historical allegory providing some plus factors. The biggest gamble was in his directing himself as lead actor; only rarely has this attempt succeeded anywhere, and nothing would have been spoiled if one of our many excellent character actors were hired to play the role instead. Far from a stone masterpiece, all in all, but a worthy endeavor nevertheless, with the promise of better work clearly in store for all of us.

11011The real complication revolves on the venue used for this piece of critical embarrassment. It came out in an outlet that has been projecting an image of valor in its contretemps with the outgoing (and presumably the incoming) administration, which is why I’d risk being tagged illiberal or worse, if I were to name it here. Publications of this stature used to be picky even with cultural submissions – critical of criticism, to be smart-alecky about it.

11011It may not be evident from my early record, but the act of my constantly having to revise according to the specifications of editors, eventually enabled me to find my voice and attune it to a variety of publication requirements. Even today, the outlets I consistently agree to write for have editors who read through my text and try to read or watch the products I write about, or have their own system of peer reviews, both of which result, when necessary, in suggestions for revisions that I have to work on.

11011What happened between the period when I could freelance for editors who worried over submissions, and the carelessly inconsiderate present? Nothing less momentous than the overthrow of a dictatorship, the fulfillment of an aspiration shared by the best of our generation. Only to be replaced by a regime whose first declaration, regarding culture, was that it had no interest in it whatsoever. This disdain for cultural production (including cultural commentary) spread throughout the body politic and persisted close to the here and now: I kept in touch over the past decade with a circle of faculty who expended every effort to introduce contemporary literary, cultural, and media studies to secondary education, finding their efforts thwarted by government administrators who had other priorities in mind.

11011And now, when the family whose members were (among other things) Pinas history’s evergreen culture aficionados, whose attitude was rejected by successive regimes because of the association with said family’s rapacity – now that they’re back in power and turning the heat once more on culture, now we find ourselves in a tizzy about what should have been done to preempt the destruction they’re about to wreak.

11011Live and learn, is the one depressing lesson to garner from this mess. Start with the careful oversight of cultural commentary, since that requires nothing more than basic intelligence.


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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

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. 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 (https://www.pelikulove.com/).

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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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Every Tier a Victory; Or Why Film Awards Don’t Have to Be So Divisive

I endeavored to provide this postmortem-of-sorts of a film event that I wrote about just recently (specifically my October 30, 2021, contribution to The FilAm, reprinted in its newsmagazine’s December 2021 issue). The awards results, which are too bulky to contain within the body text, will show up as the equivalent of appendices in the endnotes.

One of the this year’s FACINE Gold winners for Best Film. [From the FACINE 28 Facebook page.]

This late in the year, a set of film awards has been generating social-media buzz, though it’s not from any of the usual sources: it’s from a preselected (film-festival) collection, and it’s not even Philippine-based. It’s also the second year that the annual festival of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International or FACINE handed out its highly modifiable tiered arrangement of winners.[1] After what seemed like collective head-scratching last year, you could look up the winners’ online posts at this time and see how a lot of mutual relief and bonding has been fostered by the results.

11011A “tiered” system may be just an approximation of the awards results that the FACINE has been presenting, since the term still refers to fixed categories that allow for a multiplicity of levels of achievements. Film awards of course have always proved fascinating for the general public, since they grant recognition in several more-or-less permanent categories. But the FACINE’s tiers not only adhere to rationalized recategorizations and more than one level of achievement within a category; they also accept multiple winners, when the evaluators agree that more than one talent deserves to be upheld.

11011My appreciation of the warm public response toward FACINE’s tiered system derives from more than just the satisfaction of knowing I helped promote the right kind of event. Believe it or not, a decades-long stretch of nostalgia’s at play in my case, from the time during the late 1980s when I and Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., FACINE’s founding director, counted ourselves as stragglers from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino or Filipino Film Critics Circle. Since a number of active film critics had also resigned from or were refusing to join the MPP, we thought that organizing an alternate group could provide innovations that the earlier body was by then already too calcified to implement.

11011One of our several extensive discussions with a growing number of prospective members, in consultation with progressive film practitioners, raised the issue of how a system of recognition could avoid the MPP’s hypocrisy in claiming to support a community of artists, only to have them resenting one another after only one winner per fixed category has been declared. (“We still live in a capitalist society,” one highly reputable elder told me after I expressed my objection to the winner-take-all concept, “so we have to provide a system that capitalist subjects can recognize.” There’s more where that came from but we’ll leave the more exciting stuff for later.)

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11011Did alternative models exist? Not in the Philippines at that time, although regular attendees at the year-round film screenings of Goethe-Institut Manila were aware that the Federal Republic of Germany’s national film awards handed out gold, silver, and bronze appraisals to deserving film titles from any given year. When the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’s Film Ratings Board started classifying film applicants in terms of their quality achievements in order to qualify for tax rebates (i.e., A for 50%, B for 25%, and C for nothing), the practice proved so popular that the FRB can be considered the only ECP agency in continuous operation since 1982, even after its supervising organization was dissolved a few times over (it was renamed the Cinema Evaluation Board during the early aughts – see Butch Francisco, “The Birth of the CEB,” Philippine Star, January 6, 2003).

11011Hence the Young Critics Circle, with Mau as founding chair, started out by declaring, minus a nomination process, winners in Gold and Silver categories, with performances conflated in one gender-blind arrangement that dispenses with the usual actress/actor, supporting/lead, and multiple/individual divisions; only the second innovation is still observed by the group, while FACINE, to maximize celebrity presence, listed the traditional categories while maintaining the more-is-merrier approach.[2] The difficulty of introducing a hitherto non-existent system is twofold: the year under consideration might not require too much complexity and potential rewards; and the attempts at announcing new or shifting categories could prove tricky for the evaluators themselves.

11011A hint of the second can be seen in the first set of YCC prizes. After we decided on the first two sets of winners, we felt that one final release deserved some kind of runner-up status. It was given a prize for direction, which of course was entirely not its distinction. The next year, Mau and I set up Kritika, again with him as chair, with the purpose of designing results that were as flexible as they were fair, as responsive to the year’s output as we could make it.[3] We were fortunate in that the two films that impressed us the most that year happened to be a superstar genre vehicle and a short art film (also in the literal sense, since it focused on an outstanding female sculptor).

11011Said art film was also arguably a documentary, but the Silver group affirmed our resolve to break down the boundaries that separate formats, modes of distribution, screening length, and the feature/nonfiction binary (with the local industry’s and critics’ prizes finally following suit exactly three decades later, with last year’s best-film win for Alyx Ayn G. Arumpac’s documentary Aswang). That time also, a particularly noteworthy entry too minor to include in either Gold or Silver category was declared exactly that: Particularly Noteworthy. In the list of individual achievements, we had a writer who was cited for two films as well as two winners in the performance category (one of whom won for three titles); this turned out to be the only critics’ prize ever given to Elwood Perez, until FACINE declared him a life-achievement winner in 2015. Finally, we also decided to provide certificates of appreciation for the foreign-film distributors who released some of the better non-Filipino entries of the year.

11011Up to the end, all the recipients of these tiered prizes kept remarking how grateful they were for the recognition. If you ever hear from the FACINE jurors what a tough assignment it was, believe them; the MPP might claim their awards system is the best they could come up with, but that’s either a load of bunk or an indicator of the limits of their imagination. By the end of 1992, nearly all the Kritika members had left or were preparing to leave for various purposes – overseas graduate studies in several cases, migration on Mau’s end. As a US resident and naturalized citizen, he was able to continue his organizational activities, with a global-showcase film event as his cynosure this time, while I plug along elsewhere in my sinecurish tenured post. So the good vibes over the FACINE awards announcement? That’s always good news, even if it’s no longer news to me.

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[1] From the Facebook page of FACINE 28:


Gold: Lockdown (For the Love of Art Films); Midnight in a Perfect World (Globe Studios, Epicmedia)
Silver: Isa Pang Bahaghari [Another Rainbow] (Heaven’s Best Entertainment)
Bronze: Nerisa (Viva Films)


Gold: Joel Lamangan (Lockdown)
Silver: Dodo Dayao (Midnight in a Perfect World); Joel Lamangan (Isa Pang Bahaghari); Irene Emma Villamor (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)


Silver: Eric Ramos (Isa Pang Bahaghari)
Bronze: Dodo Dayao & Carljoe Javier (Midnight in a Perfect World); Irene Emma Villamor (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Lead Actress

Gold: Bela Padilla (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)
Bronze: Jasmine Curtis-Smith (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Special Citation: Elora Espano (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); Kim Molina (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending [You and Me and the Ending])

Lead Actor

Gold: Paolo Gumabao (Lockdown); Jerald Napoles (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending)
Silver: Oliver Aquino (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); Phillip Salvador (Isa Pang Bahaghari); JC Santos (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Secondary Actress

Gold: Rio Locsin (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)
Silver: Bing Pimentel (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Bronze: Sheree Bautista (Nerisa); Elizabeth Oropesa (Nerisa)

Secondary Actor

Gold: Jim Pebanco (Lockdown)
Silver: Michael de Mesa (Isa Pang Bahaghari)
Special Citation: Dino Pastrano (Midnight in a Perfect World)


Gold: Renard Torres (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending); Law Fajardo (Nerisa)
Silver: Gilbert Obispo (Lockdown); Lawrence Ang (Midnight in a Perfect World)


Gold: Joshua Reyes & Jess Lapid Jr. (Nerisa)
Silver: Pao Orendain (Ikaw at Ako at ang Ending); Albert Banzon & Gym Lumbera (Midnight in a Perfect World); Pao Orendain (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Visual Design

Gold: Production designers Benjamin Padero & Carlo Padije, art director Katrina Napigkit, costumer Nikki Tabije, visual effects supervisor Vladimir Castanedo (Midnight in a Perfect World); production designer Law Fajardo, art director Ian Trafalgar, costumers Bryan Bermudez & Andi Balbuena, make-up artists RJ Coste Reyes & Barbie Rotschild (Nerisa)
Silver: Production designer Jay Custodio, art director Rodel Calimon, make-up artist Ruffa Zueta, wardrobe supervisor Rosel Cuarentas (Lockdown); production designer Ferdi Abuel, art director Patrick Topacio, set designer Mace Cruz, costumers Benedict Fajardo & Fernando Quilala, make-up artist Shiela Villegas, visual effects supervisor Ogie Tiglao (On Vodka, Beers and Regrets)

Aural Design

Gold: Musical supervisors Malek Lopez, Erwin Romulo, & Juan Mguel Sobrepena, sound supervisor Corinne San Jose (Midnight in a Perfect World)
Silver: Musical supervisor Alfredo Ongleo, sound supervisor Albert Michael Idioma (Lockdown); musical supervisor Angeline Carlos, sound supervisor Andrew Milallos (Love and Pain in Between Refrains); musical supervisor Peter Legaste, sound supervisor Kaye Balmes (Nerisa)

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[2] From the Sine Sipat annual awards program brochures of the Young Critics Circle:

(1990 Film Awards)

Gold: Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina? (dir. Gil M. Portes; MRN Films)

Silver: Bakit Ikaw Pa Rin? (dir. Emmanuel H. Borlaza; Viva Films); Bakit Kay Tagal ng Sandali? (dir. Chito S. Roño; Viva Films); Hahamakin Lahat (dir. Lino Brocka; Regal Films); Kasalanan Ba’ng Sambahin Ka? (dir. Chito S. Roño; Viva Films)

Individual Achievements: Augusto Salvador (direction of Angel Molave); Ricky Lee (screenplays of Andrea & Hahamakin Lahat); Nora Aunor (performance in Andrea); Jun Pereira (cinematography of Bakit Kay Tagal); George Jarlego (editing of Gumapang Ka sa Lusak)

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[3] From “Some Words on Film Awards,” Millennial Traversals: Outliers, Juvenilia, & Quondam Popcult Blabbery (Part 2: Expanded Perspectives), UNITAS 89.1 (May 2016), pp. 136-49 (for first four entries only):

(1991 Film Awards)

Gold: Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. (dir. Elwood Perez; MRN Films); Yuta (dir. Hesumaria Sescon; Julie Lluch Dalena)

Silver: Huwag Mong Salingin ang Sugat Ko (dir. Christopher Strauss de Leon; Viva Films); Ynang-Bayan (dir. Nick Deocampo; Goethe-Institut Manila, Mowelfund Film Institute, Philippine Information Agency); Masakit sa Mata (dir. Jo Atienza, Ditsi Carolino, Cesar Hernando, Joseph Fortin, Mario Guzman; Goethe-Institut Manila, Mowelfund Film Institute, Philippine Information Agency)

Particularly Noteworthy: Ipagpatawad Mo (dir. Laurice Guillen; Viva Films)

Individual Achievements: Elwood Perez (direction of Pacita M.); Ricky Lee (screenplays of Pacita M. and Huwag Mong Salingin); Nora Aunor (performance in Pacita M.); Christopher de Leon (performances in Huwag Mong Salingin, Ipagpatawad Mo, and Makiusap Ka sa Diyos)

Citations for Foreign Film Releases [reconstructed]: Distributors of Beauty and the Beast (dir. Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise); Boyz n the Hood (dir. John Singleton); Cape Fear (dir. Martin Scorsese); Dreams (dir. Akira Kurosawa); Flirting (dir. John Duigan); JFK (dir. Oliver Stone); Man in the Moon (dir. Robert Mulligan); Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme); Thelma & Louise (dir. Ridley Scott)

(1992 Film Awards; reconstructed)

Silver: Andres Manambit: Angkan ng Matatapang (dir. Ike Jarlego Jr.; Viva Films)

Particularly Noteworthy: Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal (dir. Carlos Siguion-Reyna; Reyna Films)

Individual Achievements: Johnny Delgado (performance in Lumayo Ka Man sa Akin); Ike Jarlego Jr. & Marya Ignacio (editing of Andres Manambit)

Citations for Foreign Film Releases [unsure of others]: Distributors of Basic Instinct (dir. Paul Verhoeven); Howards End (dir. James Ivory); Unforgiven (dir. Clint Eastwood)

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An Error in the Urian’s Internet Record

Despite how this article may sound at first, I’m really taking a respite from my usual role as the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino’s most (in)famous tormentor. A well-meaning researcher, possibly even a younger MPP member, must have conducted a search of the organization’s prizes for best films for the decade of the 1970s, and included titles that I was certain were roundly rejected during the final deliberation session.

11011So yes, I’m writing because I was involved in the organization during that period, and as I’ve emphasized in several other articles beforehand, the processes I managed to observe during my Manunuri years helped shape my careful approach to canon-forming activities. I might even add that the group seems to have yielded to a latter-day tergiversation in its methodological purpose, but that’s not really our concern right now.

11011How bad is the resultant placement of wrong information? Awful enough to have affected at least two major internet resources, one general (Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, excerpted below) and another film-specific (the Internet Movie Database). I was close to lobbing another stink bomb aimed at my former colleagues, until I thought of looking up possible online causes for the errant material.

Screenshot of Wikipedia‘s “Gawad Urian Award [sic]” page, as of the current time. Click pic to enlarge. To see the IMDb record, search for a film title and click on the “Awards” link.

11011As it turned out (bear with me now), the data was accurate, drawn from a reliable source: an article published January 10, 1980, in Expressweek, the weekend supplement of the Philippines Daily Express, one of many business concerns that coterminated with the Marcos regime. Titled “Ten Best Films of the ’70s,” it came out in a column (on pages 8, 22, & 34 of this specific issue) allotted to the MPP. This would have been one of the group’s then-persistent attempts to encourage its members to write by taking turns filling up pre-assigned periodical space.

11011The column was titled Urian (what else, right), and I could even deduce who wrote it. From the members identified during the survey-taking session, the only active one not mentioned, except as “this writer,” was the late Mario A. Hernando.[1] (Scanned files of the article were uploaded in 2009 to the Pelikula, Atbp. blogspot and are excerpted below.) The only error I recognized in the report was when it attributed the script of Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974) to Orlando Nadres rather than to Mario O’Hara.

Click pic to enlarge. The rest of the post comprises scanned items, like the pic on the left. The typewritten section may have been an attempt at presenting a clearer version of a messy photocopy.

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11011Again, as in most historical problems, the currently available legit-seeming list of the MPP’s choices of the best films of the ’70s isn’t entirely in error: seven of the ten titles were the ones the group officially declared – with no other film missed out. That’s because the members eventually refused to round off the choices to ten. These seven were, in alphabetical order, Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? (Eddie Romero, 1976), Insiang (Brocka, 1976), Itim (Mike de Leon, 1976), Jaguar (Brocka, 1979), Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Brocka, 1975), Nunal sa Tubig (Ishmael Bernal, 1976), and Pagdating sa Dulo (Bernal, 1971).

11011So how could I be certain that the internet list is technically correct yet officially wrong? I could jokily reply that I wasn’t included in the enumeration of participants identified by Hernando, along with other members whom I remember during the final deliberation session but described as absent or inactive in the article. If we resort to a timeline of events, that would make things clearer: although the Expressweek article came out right before the awards ceremony for films released in 1979, no such announcement of “best of the decade” choices was made then.

11011Instead, the decadal prizes were handed out in 1981, during the awards cycle for the movies of 1980, when I became an active member. The full list came out in media reports as well as in two official publications: the program brochure and the first Urian Anthology published much later, plus of course the telecast of the event.[2] That meant that there was enough time – a year, more or less – for a reconsideration of the three other titles in the initial version of the top ten: aside from Tinimbang Ka, these included Behn Cervantes’s Sakada (1976) and Celso Ad. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak (1978).

11011The process by which we decided on what films to honor turned on their ability to sustain repeat screenings. Pagputi ng Uwak might seem increasingly heavy-handed, but Tinimbang Ka would be unbearably moralistic and reactionary while Sakada would be, shall we say, amusing if it were regarded as a radical-left counterpart of Reefer Madness, minus the latter’s Classical Hollywood expertise. These last two might still be available on DVD (as is Reefer Madness on YouTube) so check them out if you think I’m being unfairly dismissive.

11011In fact, the session where we finalized the entries had an entirely different set of also-rans. I remember Burlesk Queen (1977) emerging as Castillo’s favored entry, and some votes as well for Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto (1970), Bernal’s Aliw (1979), and get this, Elwood Perez’s Isang Gabi, Tatlong Babae (1974). I must add that any of these titles would still be superior to the original trio, as would a handful of others, some of which unfortunately have been difficult or impossible to locate for some time.

11011Calling for and demonstrating carefulness in canon discourse was only an intermediate aspirational stage for me, however. My idea of an ideal film culture is one in which canonizing concerns become secondary at best – something that the MPP has declared will never happen as long as it’s around. No surprise in how yesterday’s flowers have turned into today’s rotten veggies, but then when they believe that they’re still in bloom,…


[1] As of this writing, the “Gawad Urian Award [sic]” page of Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia lists only part of the current membership and includes two who have since died (Mario A. Hernando and Bienvenido Lumbera, the only lifetime members as far as I can ascertain). The complete roster, as listed in each of the organization’s decadal anthologies, is as follows:

  • 1970s list: founding chair Nestor U. Torre; founding members Behn Cervantes, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Pio de Castro III, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Justino Dormiendo, Mario A. Hernando, Bienvenido Lumbera, Manuel S. Pichel, and Nicanor G. Tiongson; and subsequent members Mario E. Bautista, Isagani R. Cruz, Joel David, Christian Ma. Guerrero, Ricky Lee, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Tezza O. Parel, Jun Cruz Reyes, and Agustin L. Sotto;
  • 1980s list: all the preceding plus Grace Javier Alfonso, Paul Daza, Butch Francisco, Alice G. Guillermo, Jose Sevilla Ho, Ellen J. Paglinauan, Miguel Q. Rapatan, Emmanuel A. Reyes, Rolando B. Tolentino, Mauro F. Tumbocon Jr., Alfred A. Yuson, and Joselito B. Zulueta;
  • 1990s list: some of the previous plus Benilda S. Santos and Tito Genova Valiente and excluding Ellen J. Paglinauan, even though she remained active during this and most of the next decade;
  • 2000s list: the current membership as listed in the Wikipedia entry, again excluding Paglinauan.

11011The 2010s anthology is presumably being completed and may include the aforementioned Wikipedia list comprising Alfonso, Francisco, Rapatan, Santos, Tiongson, Tolentino, Valiente, Zulueta, plus (per the group’s official website) new members Patrick Campos, Gary Devilles, and Shirley Lua – that is, unless a name like Paglinauan’s might be inexplicably dropped again (I specified her as the dedicatee of my article “The ‘New’ Cinema in Retrospect” in the 1990s collection, my only condition for having the article reprinted, but her name was also deleted). All the preceding volumes were edited by Nicanor G. Tiongson and were cited as follows: The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (Quezon City: Manuel L. Morato, 1983), 406-07; The Urian Anthology 1980-1989 (Manila: Antonio P. Tuviera, 2001), 336-43; The Urian Anthology 1990-1999 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2010), 404-07; and The Urian Anthology 2000-2009 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2013), 504-07.

[2] The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (see previous endnote) would be the only still-available definitive source of info. Unfortunately the MPP’s collections, numbering one for every decade since its founding, are affordable only to the deep-pocketed – so very progressive of them innit. The seven “best of the ’70s” choices were allotted a page each, but rather than show each title plus immediately adjacent pages, I figured that providing proof of their page numbers should suffice:

Pages v & 397 of the 1970s Urian Anthology. Click pic to enlarge.

11011As shown on page v of the book’s rather idiosyncratic table of contents, the list of films begins on page 397 and ends on page 404, with page 405 announcing the appendices. Page 397 (printed sideways on silver background, for that classy look) heralds the feature and explains how “In 1981, the twelve members of the MPP decided to honor the best films of 1970-1979…. Seven films emerged as the critics’ choice.” The featured titles per page were as follows: Pagdating sa Dulo, 398; Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, 399; Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon?, 400; Insiang, 401; Itim, 402; Nunal sa Tubig, 403; and Jaguar, 404.

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Experimental Cinema of the Philippines: A Hasty Recollection

The Experimental Cinema of the Philippines once appeared as a category in my list of pre-internet non-journal non-newspaper periodicals, which provides an incomplete picture of the agency’s persistence in my output. For this reason I thought of providing this landing page, essentially a provisional and still gap-filled collection. I happened to have just a few materials from the agency and only one from the Manila International Film Festival, which was officially one of the ECP’s departments but repudiated by the director-general (originally slated to be Imelda Marcos but preempted by her daughter Ma. Imelda a.k.a. Imee). These were the publications I brought along with me to my graduate studies abroad, to serve as basic research material; as it turned out, everything else I left back home – periodicals, videos, and memorabilia – was either pilfered or damaged by typhoons and/or termites.

11011The discovery of a building proposal, submitted in 1981 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, classified as restricted and titled “The Manila Film Centre,” was something I found online, presumably after having been cleared for whatever was confidential about it. The historical structure appears to have followed the proposal, implying that the former First Lady was closely involved in its design from the start.

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The Film Palace: A Divergence

Regarding the collapse of the Manila Film Center scaffolding during its construction in November 1981, attributed to careless building procedures, I have consistently presented the following qualifications:

  • the architect in charge, Froilan Hong, had extensive global academic preparation and experience in modernist construction (he was Dean of the national university’s College of Architecture around that period), so he understandably contested the number of victims – of which, typically, an exact number will never be determined;[1]
  • also, anyone then who still remembered the temblor-triggered collapse of the Ruby Tower residential building about a decade earlier (an event that vicariously traumatized Filipino architects everywhere, including my father) would not be tempted to cut corners in a far more complicated undertaking.

Since the martial-law regime imposed a news blackout for over a day, I have found it impossible to confirm any preliminary report of the incident even in foreign-press accounts. For this reason, two dates are also mentioned in various accounts (either the 17th or the 18th), possibly arising from the confusion caused by the delay in the release of information.

11011The national dailies that carefully printed similar-sounding news acknowledged that some workers died but that construction activities had resumed. As anyone with sufficient experience with media psychology could have foretold, several speculations – ranging from natural to metaphysical – emerged to clarify, embellish, or challenge the official version of events.

11011For my part, I can only add what first-hand experience could affirm: on the (still-to-be-determined) date of the incident, I was in the vicinity of the construction, along with the rest of the public-relations staff, winding up overnight preparations required to beat some printing deadline for the production of materials for the MIFF. Our office at the Philippine International Convention Center faced the same parking lot where the MFC was rising dextrally, so occasionally we would peer out to see the structure, brightly lit as if being readied for a Hollywood blockbuster, with ladders, derricks, and hoists on all sides.

11011A few hours after midnight a strong tremor shook the place. Everyone rushed to the windows to see what happened to the construction. The sight was uncanny, with workers scampering everywhere, the ladders filled with men clambering downward. From this distant spectacle we knew that something dreadful could have happened (as it did), but we had our tasks to complete and were groggy from working nonstop already.

11011I mention this specific detail because it appears in no other account except “Grains & Flickers,” the article I wrote for the 2016 book edited by JPaul S. Manzanilla and Caroline S. Hau, titled Remembering/Rethinking EDSA, as well as in my monograph Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic (Arsenal Press, 2017). One careless commentator blurted out in a group discussion (all right, chat) that my story sounds like an exoneration of the people involved in the tragedy – neglecting the crucial facts that first, it happened, and second, I was with witnesses. Undeniably it complicates the narrative, but I wouldn’t say it exculpates the usual suspects unless one were to operate within the fully guilty-vs.-fully innocent binary to which critically ill-equipped (though unfortunately typical) netizens have become accustomed.[2]

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The Malakas at Maganda mural displayed at the entrance to the main theater of the Manila Film Center (from Lakbay ng Lakan, reprinted with permission). For a discussion, please see the Illustrational Problematics page I uploaded for my book Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic.

A Haunting

I have to begin by expressing my mounting vexation at the number of netizens asking about the presence of ghosts in the building. Scientific and historical materialism before everything else, please (and sorry for stating what should have been obvious already). We moved in after the MIFF for which the MFC was constructed had ended, and a number of accounts correctly state that government officials were hoping for an exorcism ritual – but identify Imelda Marcos as its instigator. This made no sense, since her event had just finished and it was the ECP, led by Imee Marcos, that was to hold office in the building; it was also out of character for Mrs. Marcos, whose advisers would have dissuaded her from conducting such an exercise. (The MIFF, as an independently run ECP department, occupied an upper floor but was operated by its Deputy Director John J. Litton, who preferred to use the initials JJL.) Fortunately a former supervisor, Nena C. Benigno, provided a definitive account of Imee Marcos’s direct involvement in the ritual in a magazine interview in 2015.

11011The news about Betty Benitez perishing in a vehicular accident after an assignation with Onofre D. Corpuz had a whiff of karmic schadenfreude about it, since Benitez was in charge of the MFC construction project. The story that what caused their car to swerve disastrously was a vision of bloodied workers crossing the street first circulated as a persistent rumor, but it was another death – that of Benigno Aquino Jr. in September 1983, returning from exile in the US – that finally facilitated the publication of the tale. It came out in a Catholic Church opposition broadsheet, Veritas, minus any authorial credit, and added the slant that the couple, married but not to each other, were conducting an affair. I recognized the article’s stylistic flourishes as typical of a former office co-worker, Eddie Pacheco, who had started expressing dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the Aquino assassination and resigned soon afterward. (Pacheco lived in Pampanga after his retirement but was killed in an apparent early-morning burglary in 2012.)

11011What haunted my memory during and after my stint at the agency was an encounter with an elderly security guard. He was extraordinarily avuncular, in the manner that working-class men carry over from their drunken states when they realize how well it goes over with strangers they want to impress. I was leaving work with some of my office mates and lingered by the exit as they timestamped their employee-record (“bundy” in Noypi & Aussie English) cards. The old man started talking about how he’d been guarding the place during the construction period, so I asked if he witnessed the collapse of the scaffolding. He talked at length about workers who lost their limbs, if not their lives, and bodies that had to be cemented over in order to meet the building completion deadline.

11011I knew he was gravely endangering himself but he seemed to be unaware of the kind of reality I’d been able to observe: Imee Marcos enrolled in the same class on Philippine nationalism that I was taking under Renato Constantino a few years earlier, and several heavyset middle-aged barong-clad men, definitely not national-university types, presented their registration credentials and positioned themselves all over the classroom while she sat in the center. I thought I could just warn him another time, when less of a crowd would be standing around … but he never showed up again afterward.

11011He could have been fired, or transferred, or just scared away from his job – but this was martial law, and it was never advisable to assume anything less than the worst. If I’d been one of the over-imaginative (though frankly airheaded) cinema attendants who loved indulging in ghost tales and never wanted for listeners prepped by the MFC’s bloody history, I would have spread the story that he must have been one of the fallen workers who wanted his version of events told right, a revenant who returned to the afterlife upon accomplishing his mission. It would have been a far less distressing account than the real-life possibilities I had to accept.

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Other ECP Materials in Ámauteurish!

I’d reviewed a few films that came out during this period, including the ECP productions except the last one. I’d still been working out a critical voice and perspective then, so I’d prefer not to list these titles here, although anyone interested for whatever reason will be able to find the films in this blog’s Reviews section.

11011The release (in more ways than one) of the Ishmael Bernal film Manila by Night may be regarded as the ECP’s final positive contribution to Pinas pop-culture history: it was banned upon completion in early 1980 and screened with seemingly uncountable cuts and deletions – the most severely censored movie ever in local cinema. After the MIFF’s reliance on pornographic films in order to fund the First Lady’s world-scale bacchanals followed a few months later by the killing of Aquino, the MFC sounded out a call for artistic sex-themed products.[3] I remember writing an informal letter to an official suggesting that MbN should be considered a prime candidate because it was officially accepted for the Berlin International Film Festival competition (though prevented from leaving at the time because of the First Lady’s disapprobation); it won the local critics’ award despite its badly mangled condition; and its producer actively participated in providing well-attended titles for MFC screenings. After this I also recall processing the documentation necessary for the release of the integral version of the film for screening exclusively at the MFC.[4]

11011The definitive empirical summary of the agency’s performance lies in documents, stored on drives, that are now lost: its annual reports, all of which I researched, compiled, and wrote. The first one, titled Experimental Cinema of the Philippines: Year One, came out as a glossy publication, while the second and third were bound printouts. Why only three years, when the ECP was set up in 1981 and the EDSA uprising was in 1986? Once more, despite most accounts’ misperception, the organization existed only for as long as Imee Marcos could devote her full attention to it. After the Aquino assassination (and upon getting her now-controversial law degree from the national university), she decided to run for the interim parliament and focus on her duties therein. With the MIFF only too willing to take over the agency, she arranged for the ECP to be dissolved and a new body called the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines set up in its place. This was the body that was shut down in February 1986.

11011While it was around, the public relations department where I worked managed to come up with a magazine, SineManila, limited to a maiden issue because of a nasty turf war waged by a military agent and her staff who insisted that her department’s tiny magazine, Filipino Film Review (my complete file of which was lost), be the only ECP publication that the public could access. We also managed to come up with only one in-house publication, Jario Scenario, since the ECP at this stage was nearing its transition to the FDFP.

11011Since the officials in our department were outsourced from the National Media Production Center (now the Philippine Information Agency), we were obliged to serve all ECP departments including the MIFF. (Recall the opening account where our experience of the tremor that caused the MFC tragedy was due to one of several all-nighters necessitated by an impending MIFF printer’s deadline.) The start of my employment was right after the MIFF dry-run edition, during which I managed to secure passes for the critics circle and experienced the kind of overload that led me to regard filmfests as less-than-ideal venues for appreciating movies.

11011The next year’s (first regular) MIFF was the one held at the MFC building, already and inevitably notorious even before it opened. It had Satyajit Ray as chair of the competition jury, and honored a now-forgotten film, 36 Chowringhee Lane, Aparna Sen’s debut as a director, defeating entries by the likes of Roger Donaldson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lawrence Kasdan, Karel Reisz, François Truffaut, and Peter Weir. A daily magazine, Manila Film International (of which my complete file was also irretrievably damaged), was published but not by our department. The next year’s winner was another close-to-forgotten entry, the late Yu Wigong’s Memories of Old Peking (a.k.a. My Memories of Old Beijing), but unlike the previous year, it also had Filipino films in competition: Oro, Plata, Mata (which won a special jury prize) by Peque Gallaga and Moral by Marilou Diaz-Abaya.

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Essential Readings

In coordination with the now-defunct Metro Manila Commission, the ECP and MIFF launched separate publications the next year. The ECP’s was a book edited by Rafael Ma. Guerrero, titled Readings in Philippine Cinema – as definitive a text as it was possible to compile up to that point. The MIFF had strictly supplementary material, also edited (though uncredited) by Guerrero, titled Focus on Filipino Films. The eponymously titled film module that the latter accompanied can well be regarded as the highlight of all the MIFF editions put together: a nearly ideal canon-formation project that conscripted film experts who screened available films (though only once) and deliberated on whether they should be included or not; new prints of the selected titles were then struck, with French and English subtitles. Eye-opener accounts such as “Manila’s Angels,” Elliott Stein’s article in Film Comment, made exceptions in a properly critical report of the MIFF’s proceedings in order to express admiration for several of the module entries.

11011Needless to add, this first-time attempt was never to be replicated thereafter. Many of the now faded prints are regarded as still the most acceptable available copies of their specific titles, with digital remastering the only possible future stage for them. The next year’s MIFF reverted to the dry-run dimension, to be able to evade the then-growing united-front movement that arose in protest over the Aquino assassination.

11011A still insistently forward-thinking ECP administration proceeded with its last batch of productions, which gave me the opportunity to interview Soltero director Pio de Castro III on location in Baguio – at the Hyatt Terraces, the same hotel that collapsed from another tremor several years after. They also assigned me to attend the courses of the lately introduced undergraduate film specialization at the national university, to be able to eventually set up the ECP’s own education program. I countered that, since I already held a bachelor’s diploma from the institute that proffered the degree, I would need only a few extra units in order to earn the new baccalaureate itself. I thought my proposal would have come across as audacious, but then there were already less tasks to attend to with the “indefinitely postponed” MIFF and the impending transition of the director-general to her interim Batasang Pambansa commitment. The February 1986 ouster of the Marcos administration occurred during my final semester of undergrad film studies, so just like in my first bachelor’s degree, I was once more a working student who was out of a job upon graduation.[5]

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I do acknowledge that the memoir format will better serve some of the material presented here, but I prefer not to let this opportunity pass in case I wind up unable to complete the writing project. So I will name this early the people to whom I plan to dedicate the forthcoming effort: the ones (possibly entirely men, but we have no way of knowing any longer) who unwillingly and prematurely gave up their lives for the construction of the hideously pretentious building where we had to work for too long. The ouster of the Marcos regime was not bloody enough to redress the violence visited on you (as well as on countless others), and the silence with which your annihilation was completed.

[1] A letter sent by Baltazar N. Endriga, former chair and president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, states that Froilan Hong counted seven fatalities and recapitulates the standard account of how “the scaffolding supporting the platform into which concrete was being poured collapsed and the seven workers fell to their deaths. The bodies of all seven were then retrieved and given the proper rites befitting the dead. [Hong] belied the popular story that many workers were buried alive in concrete and that in the hurry to finish the construction, they were simply entombed under the Film Center’s bowels” (“Account on the 1981 Manila Film Center Deaths,” Inquirer.net, February 26, 2021). Endriga does not state his involvement in the project or whether Hong was present during the accident and/or rescue operations.

[2] I did manage to secure recent official confirmation that short night tremors, ranging from moderate to strong, hit Luzon during both dates, after the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology referred my query to the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration. (Since PHIVOLCS was founded only after the incident, in September 1982, the tracking of earthquakes during the period in question was performed by PAGASA.) I have no knowledge of the reliability of the government’s seismographic instruments or record-keeping activities during that time, however, so these questions will have to be regarded for now as compounding the other problem I mentioned of determining the exact date of the MFC tragedy.

[3] Not surprisingly, the MIFF concerned itself with the same goal, since it had already reaped profits from adults-only screenings from all over (downtown venues were censorship-exempt during the festival period). Producers were convened at the MFC’s MIFF office for specific instructions as to what they may be allowed to present – in porn parlance, tits & asses as well as simulated sex scenes. The ECP, for its part, provided support in the form of flyers and warm bodies for the Concerned Artists of the Philippines’s anti-censorship rallies.

11011When the expected moralist backlash occurred, with the chief of the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures asserting her presidential appointment and thereby operating at the same governmental level as Imee Marcos, a high-ranking MIFF official issued a statement that the films were smutty because producers were deliberately violating the limits that the government prescribed. The producers themselves, who were constant visitors at the MFC because of other services such as funding subsidies and tax rebates, replied (in strict confidence, understandably) that it was this same top MIFF official who kept pestering them to shoot far raunchier scenes even if these no longer had any relevance to the films being considered. Said official was blasted on national television after February 1986 by Lino Brocka, for his opportunistic claim that he had been supportive of the anti-Marcos opposition all along.

[4] What mystifies me is why members of the critics circle (who that time congratulated me for actualizing the release of the uncensored print) insist on calling the film anything except the title its producer and director-writer provided: because the film that their awards honored was not titled Manila by Night? (City after Dark was the censored version, while Manila after Dark does not even apply to any movie whatsoever, although check out this kink in my argument.) The same government that banned, then censored, the film, also restored the original title when it was approved for an MFC screening. As the person designated to host the premiere night’s program, I saw with my own eyes the words “Manila by Night” projected onscreen during the movie’s opening credits.

[5] I might as well provide one of the plausible urban myths that some media colleagues of mine claim as factual, since it does denote a happy ending and resembles my experience: one of Imee Marcos’s bodyguards supposedly realized that his official enrollment in the same courses she was taking at the national university was an opportunity for self-advancement, and actually completed for his own credit the same undergraduate and law degrees that she claimed to have finished (though without any official documentation in her case); he passed the bar exam and no longer had to risk his life for the sake of any high-ranking government bigwig. Some day some enterprising investigative journalist will have to uncover the truth (or falsity) of this singularly marvelous story.

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Farewell Farewell, Bernardo Bernardo

Rapid Pinoy pop-culture quiz: name another media celebrity with a double name. Aside from the usual nickname or fancy given name (Jonjon, Zsa Zsa, or, for political controversy, Bongbong), only a sufficiently elderly local observer might be able to remember Justo Justo. And unlike Bernardo Bernardo, Panfilo C. Justo opted to use a pseudonym by reduplicating his family name.

11011More recent friends of Bernardo would also know that he specified a second name, also reduplicated: BB, coined (as he once told me) to facilitate conversations in Facebook and FB Messenger.[1] Born on January 28, 1945, BB was too young to remember the intensification of World War II, leading to an ending, about half a year after his birth, where there were in fact no winners except for the abruptly wealthy Americans. The recollections of his elders must have induced in him a resolve never to face any historical crisis without contributing his share to social change, for better or worse.

11011This much can be seen in his choice of college major: journalism, then-available (circa the mid-1960s) only at the University of Sto. Tomas, with the national university still laying the groundwork for its own media program. In addition to his stint as editor-in-chief of the Varsitarian, Bernardo struck an imposing Adonic figure, tall, smart, and confident; his moreno features only served to heighten his appeal – and not surprisingly, the performing arts started knocking on his door and never stopped calling on him till the end.

11011Before he succumbed last March 8 to a particularly severe bout with pancreatic cancer, BB had made a name for himself as the most successful crossover actor in the country, conquering stage, film, and television (in that order) and expanding his reach to global stages and festivals, while also directing and producing some of his projects. Name a Philippine National Artist still alive during BB’s active years, and chances are that the name “Bernardo” will appear in the roster of participants, twice. Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., director of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International (FACINE), confirmed in private that the Annual Filipino International Film Festival was planning to recognize him with a life-achievement award during its twenty-fifth anniversary celebration in San Francisco this year.

11011Regarded in retrospect, Bernardo was always a step or more ahead of his colleagues. He parlayed his facility in English into lead roles at Repertory Philippines, known for its restaging of US theater and musical hits. By the time the production of the West End musical Miss Saigon scouted for Filipino talents, zeroing in on Rep and discovering Lea Salonga in the process, he had long moved on. He first sought a more remunerative arrangement via the then-burgeoning dinner-theater scene, and stood out in the multicharacter sequel of Boys in the Band at Century Park Sheraton, where he was “flaming enough to burn the ballroom down,” as he described in an interview I had with him, titled “Manay Revisits Manila by Night.”

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11011Ishmael Bernal, who had seen his performance, was then on the lookout for an actor who could play one of the lead roles in Manila by Night, intended to be the second-anniversary presentation of Regal Films as a production outfit. The character, Manay, was meant to represent the “conscience” of the film – a flawed one, it must be added, since the project entailed an encompassing and necessarily dystopic vision of the city under militarized dictatorship. Nighttime was when everything repressed by prevailing social institutions during martial rule could emerge – prostitution, drug transactions, queer assignations, live-sex shows, drag displays, hypocritical masquerades, political corruption, police abuse, polyamorous promiscuity, and so on.

11011The other requisite that made the role of Manay the most challenging in the film was that, like the rest of the other characters, it was intended to be improvised by the actor in conjunction with the director as well as a number of script consultants, with help from the very denizens that Bernal modeled his characters on. In “Manay Revisits Manila by Night,” Bernardo describes his process of collaboration with Bernal: “Although it is true that there were no conventional shooting scripts provided, there were definitely scraps of paper on the set with key dialog for the film character’s objectives for the day. On a typical shoot, with Bernal’s approval, I would ad-lib during blocking rehearsals to bookend the philosophical riffs of Manay that Bernal wrote. Bernal understood that this process helped me to give the dialogue a more conversational, spontaneous feel.”

11011When contemporary filmmaker Lawrence Fajardo, who has been specializing in the multicharacter film narratives that Bernal pioneered in, opted to return to his theater roots, he picked out a play, Herlyn Gail Alegre’s Imbisibol, and cast Bernardo in a role intended for a straight actor. Realizing that BB’s strengths lay in camp and humor, Fajardo requested him to collaborate in revising and improvising Benjie, a character several steps removed from Manay: older, impoverished, sickly, working overseas as an undocumented laborer, whose only happiness lay in the domestic relationship he shared with his same-sex partner (played in the film by Ricky Davao). When the film version was completed, shot on location in Hokkaido, Bernardo won his second critics prize for performance (the first was of course for Manila by Night) – the only actor since Vic Silayan to win in all the instances he was nominated.

11011In effect, BB was drawing from his experience as a health worker in the US, where he had gone into self-exile after enduring stereotyping in his film and TV roles because, ironically, of his triumph with his Manay character. An avowedly queer subject, he had also had, after all, his share of heterosexual romances, including a years-long high-profile affair with Chanda Romero. Younger acquaintances familiar with his occasional cross-dressed socnet pics needed a double-take or two to grasp the full measure of his boundary-busting, genre-challenging, culture-crossing persona, what with some of his female contemporaries admitting to having had crushes on him.

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11011A more direct deduction one could make regarding his facility in various professional capacities is that he was always fully prepared, in practice as well as in theory: his professional record yields an enviable number of academic qualifications, including scholarships and graduate degrees at prominent American universities, as well as faculty stints in US and Philippine educational institutions.[2] During the past couple of years he would mention work on a memoir as his legacy project, and posted some wonderful little-known anecdotes on his Facebook wall as samples.

11011This was about the same time that he came out, as it were, in another sense – in support of the presidential candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte. Such a political stance set him off against several of his friends in literature and the arts. As someone who refused to capitulate to polarized positions, I was able to continue corresponding with him, and saw how his motives were as earnest as when he linked up decades ago with Bernal, Lino Brocka, and the other founding members of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines against the Marcos dictatorship. He read the drafts of the book I was working on (titled Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver, where “Manay Revisits Manila by Night” appears as an appendix), and suggested some helpful changes and corrections.

11011During the final revision, I informed him that I expanded the book’s conclusion, saying in effect that not only had nothing changed since the Marcos years, but that the plight of the country’s poor had worsened. To drive the point home, I juxtaposed some scenes from Manila by Night with drawn-from-headlines photographs of extrajudicial executions, and offered Bernardo the opportunity to revise anything in his interview by way of responding to this harsh indictment of the Philippine political system. He took an unusually long time before he finally replied, on FB Messenger: “I’ve decided not to make a statement regarding the current state of affairs in Manila under the new dispensation. After those years of depression in the US, I think it’s healthier for me to cling to a more hopeful outlook. Eyes wide open. [Smile] Love the book, Joel. [Heart] So proud and honored to be a part of it. Maraming, maraming salamat.”

11011Before we consign Bernardo to a historical past, a few things ought to remind us that he deserves to be around longer. Manila by Night remains the only major Filipino film still awaiting restoration and the memoir he left behind still has to be published. FACINE also recently announced that he’ll be the first posthumous awardee of their Golden Harvest prize – an indication that when BB left, he made sure we would all be enriched by his presence.

[First published March 21, 2018, in two parts, as “Farewell Farewell, Bernardo Bernardo” and as “Toward the End, a Hopeful Outlook for the Philippines,” in The Filam.]


[1] Posted in Ámauteurish! as “Bernardo Bernardo: Exchanges on Facebook Messenger.”

[2] Many thanks to Sari Dalena (director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute) and Ina Avellana-Cosio (UPFI researcher) for information on Bernardo Bernardo’s extensive academic background.

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Source Exchange for Review of Heneral Luna

I’m including the buildup to the exchange on Heneral Luna between me and Jerrold Tarog, the film’s director and co-writer. I had been introduced to Tarog by Johven Velasco, his mentor at the University of the Philippines Film Institute. He was a major at the College of Music, located beside the College of Mass Communication, and was dropping by for a quick hello. After having been nodding acquaintances for several years (in the course of which Velasco’s sudden departure occurred), I managed to reconnect with him on the social network. [Passages in Taglish were translated to English.][1]

Monday, August 5, 2013, 11:23 AM

Hi Jerrold, it’s Joel David. Congratulations on the Cinemalaya [Philippine Independent Film Festival] results. Was Sana Dati [which had won best film and director] part of the trilogy that includes Confessional and Mangatyanan? (If so, what’s the title of the trilogy if you don’t mind? I read it somewhere and noted it but I left those notes behind in Korea. Won’t be returning until February next year [when my half-sabbatical ends].) Will there be further screenings lined up for it?

Monday, August 7, 2013, 9:02 AM

Hi Joel. Yes. Last film of what’s called the Camera Trilogy. Theatrical release September 25.

Thanks! Sent you a friend request.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 1:52 AM

Hello Jerrold, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you directly some questions which I need for fully evaluating Sana Dati. These have to do with the larger work, the Camera Trilogy.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013, 1:52 AM & Tuesday, October 22, 2013, 5:55 PM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Jerrold
1. The 3 films have characters who own & operate cameras. Is that all that unifies these films?

Plot similarities: main character goes to the province, his/her life is changed, comes back with what we expect is a new hopeful outlook on life but actually reaches a compromise. Visual similarties exist particularly in shot composition during certain important events (e.g. the wide two-shot with characters facing each other). They may be trivial but they add to overall visual integrity. I imagine the plots of all three films as clotheslines from which we hang the real concerns of the trilogy, which would be, among other things, the loss of innocence and the resulting compromises we’re forced to make to reach certain truths – maybe there’s some cognitive dissonance at work in the characters’ lives. In Confessional, the conclusions are on a socio-political level. In Mangatyanan, cultural (albeit disguised). In Sana Dati, personal. Side note re Mangatyanan: the film was an attempt at allegorical filmmaking. There’s a reason why Laya’s mother is named Luzviminda. There’s also a reason why Laya chose to forgive her mother instead of her father who molested her.

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2. I can detect some progressive agenda in Confessional (critique of local-govt political roguery) and in Mangatyanan (womanist agency). What I could see in SD was a reworking of the runaway bride narrative, including the expected containment where she accedes to committing to her conventional future. My other problem was that the main character could get away with being a runaway bride mainly because her class position affords her that privilege, and in the end some empathy is directed toward her bridegroom for having the patience to tolerate her. Am I misperceiving the narrative’s intent?
Except perhaps for Sana Dati’s attempt to subvert Pinoy genre conventions, I hesitate to identify a “progressive” agenda in any of the three films primarily because the stories are founded on very cynical roots. All three films present different levels of “giving up,” accepting loss, and moving on with a handicapped position as starting point. Accept that one is damaged then maybe there’s hope afterwards. If that kind of cynicism can be called progressive, so be it. The resulting empathy for Robert Naval in SD is partly borne out of said attempt to subvert genre conventions. Who expects the perceived bad guy to be the real good guy, after all? As for class issues, upper middle class is the film’s milieu. We cannot fault the characters for existing in a privileged position and having no social agenda within the film’s universe at that particular time the story was told. Maybe if the story started with Robert’s attempt to run for governor and focused on the resulting cynicism borne out of his loss (“You can’t be a public servant and a politician at the same time”) there would’ve been class and social commentaries in the film. But there are none, and the film is happy to exist without one.

3. If my previous observation has some degree of accuracy, would it be wrong to say that the trilogy isn’t actually concerned with progressivity after all? Or that whatever seemed progressive in the previous films was just incidental – that these are really texts that seek to uphold specific middle-class individuals as heroes of their own cine-narratives? I’m asking strictly in the spirit of wanting to know what you had in mind. As you might be aware, this line of questioning does not automatically uphold the artist’s intention as the only correct interpretation, but it definitely counts as a privileged perspective, so I’d greatly appreciate being apprised of what your project was all about. Many thanks!
Mostly answered in #2. They cannot be considered heroes. They are middle-class losers, trapped by selfishness (Sana Dati), emotional trauma (Mangatyanan), or ignorance/cowardice (Confessional). In the end, they reach a 50-50 compromise: Ryan Pastor knows the truth but chooses to keep it hidden, Laya forgives her mother (accepts fate as molested country) but not her father, Andrea Gonzaga says “I love you” to Robert even if it’s not completely true (she looks away from Robert at the last shot).

Saturday, October 10, 2015, 8:52 PM

Hi Jerrold, warm congrats for the success of Heneral Luna, which (as I told [co-producer] Ting Nebrida) I appreciated highly. I was willing to write a review but I needed a 2nd screening, but then I had to return to Korea before it opened in theaters. I keep trying to caution some academic acquaintances to keep in mind that it’s meant as a popular piece, and was received [by the general public] exactly in that way. But then I’m no longer surprised at their insistence on feeling superior to the work. [Brickbat deleted] I’m writing for another reason as well. I was being asked to revise the biography of Johven Velasco for the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s Encyclopedia [of Philippine Art’s 2nd edition], then I saw a review you wrote of his posthumously published book, titled “Velasco’s Legacy.” I remember Ellen [Ongkeko-Marfil] forwarded this to me, but I don’t remember if this got published, and I also googled the title and your name and apparently it’s unpublished. Would you mind if I posted the review on my archival blog? We’ll put your name and announce it as your article. (There are a few other pieces on the blog not written by me, but they’re all duly acknowledged.) Best regards and I’ll be looking forward to your historical trilogy, whatever shape it takes.[2]

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Sunday, October 11, 2015, 12:28 AM

Hi, Joel. Wow. Totally forgot about this. It’s all fine with me. Post away. Thanks for taking the effort to caution academic critics. I find it funny that intelligence doesn’t really make one immune from adopting a myopic viewpoint. Most of the criticism thrown at Luna boils down to what the critics wanted the film to be. Somehow they can’t judge the film based on what it was trying to achieve. Anyway, we just laugh it off over here. Let me know if you’d like to see the film again for review purposes.

Sunday, October 11, 2015, 7:31 PM

Salamat for the green light. Re acad critics – I didn’t caution them directly, just entirely in passing. But when an extended discussion came out, I could sense that some of them were aware of people’s warning about the paradox of claiming to be pro-people while disparaging something the audience “voted” for. The tone became defensive [as a result]. I continued upholding examples of [netizens] who differed with the film’s statements but whose perspective did not include the sense of penalizing any of the people behind the project. [Further disparagement of organized critics] I got immediate clearance from [editor & publisher] Cri-en del Carmen Pastor to review Heneral Luna for her NY-based The FilAm (my usual outlet). The timing seems right because the film will be released end of October in NYC. So could you send me the link to the [screener file]? I promise to keep it confidential and never to download it. Also, in case I rewatch it and I’ve got some further questions, hope you don’t mind if I ask you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 10:08 AM

[After providing link] Do let me know once the review is out. And, yes, I don’t mind answering further questions.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 8:34 PM

Went thru the movie and still appreciated it, warts and all. I can argue it’s your best, but since that’s a matter of opinion, we’ll leave that for the review. If I may ask some questions, which have been raised by some commenters already.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015, 8:34 PM & 11:29 PM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Jerrold
1. The worst that can be said about focusing attention on Pinoys as our own worst enemy is that it can have a cynical mercenary effect – i.e., it will make the movie palatable even to illiberal American observers, since their country isn’t condemned as heavily as its actual historical role calls for. Were you aware of this possible accusation and how did you work this out?

I was aware that I was leaving many things out, especially regarding the role the Americans played during the war. But that was the whole point of the opening disclaimer. Luna is less a history lesson and more of an indictment of certain Pinoy traits that have been in existence even before the Americans came. Was it the fault of the Spaniards? Maybe. But in our current state, is it really useful to condemn our colonizers and lay the blame on them for our troubles, or should Filipinos get their act together and move forward since we’re already enjoying certain freedoms we never had before? It’s very important to acknowledge what America did but that would be an entirely different film. Clinton Palanca in Spot.ph said it best: [Luna] is a two-hour treatise on the current state of the nation, couched in costumes and poetic intonations of a fictive 1898.

2. A few people I knew who might have been progressive or sympathetic [toward the film] refused to watch. I later figured out that they were Cavite-based, or were born in Cavite. Personally I’m glad the movie refuses to perform the humanist act of sparing everyone from blame. But doesn’t the film plug into the “we’re too parochial to be a nation” argument by criticizing certain participants according to their place of origin?
I will have to refer to one of the film’s inspirations: Nick Joaquin’s A Question of Heroes, where the author identified cavitissmo and regionalism as instrumental to the collapse of the revolution. I think once people read that and Vivencio Jose’s The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna, they’ll pretty much understand our take on things. Some historians have told me that regionalism doesn’t exist but I beg to disagree. Regionalism isn’t the cause of our troubles now (probably because traditional and social media have done their part in addressing our commonalities) but, back then, when people would proudly identify themselves by their place of origin, I believe it played a big role. However, you can’t deny that Filipinos are still clannish today. Whether that contributes to our feeble sense of nationhood, I’m not sure. Maybe.

3. This is the closest you’ve gotten to a full-length studio assignment, even if it’s an indie studio [that produced the film]. The indicators would be not just the budget and scope, but also the fact that you were hired to work on a script that was written by the producers. How were you able to make sure that the movie would not wind up the impersonal & mechanical metteur-en-scène type of output? Sorry, these queries sound difficult and may not even be resolvable. But I’ll appreciate any light you could shed. Again, I’m not out to judge harshly (or so I hope). I’m also taking the opportunity to learn from the experience of watching and interacting. Maraming salamat! And congrats several times over!
I actually once did a full-length film for [mainstream outfit] Regal called Aswang. Not too proud of that one though. I asked permission from the producers of HL to rewrite the original script, which was entirely in English. I added more humorous bits (especially the dynamics among Luna, Roman, and Rusca), toned down the more theatrical dialogue, added and deleted scenes, and put in every cinematic flourish I could think of that was appropriate to the piece (including the reference to [General Antonio Luna’s painter-brother Juan’s prizewinning masterpiece] “Spoliarium”). That’s how I always turn an existing screenplay into something more personal – by rewriting it and making it somehow my own. I did that in my [omnibus-horror series] Shake, Rattle & Roll projects too.

11011Thanks a lot, Joel! I didn’t mind the questions at all. It’s a breather from the countless questions that have been asked ad nauseam in god knows how many interviews I’ve had. Hope it helped clarify things.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 12:34 AM

Very honest & admirable answers. I always make a point of understanding where an author’s coming from so that I don’t wind up imposing my own should-have-beens in my reading. Sometimes I quote directly, but generally I just use the author’s intention as starting point. I haven’t seen your horror films so that’s a gap in my familiarity with your output. Also the critical treatment that Heneral Luna deserves right now won’t be one more review (like what I’ll be doing) but rather a scholarly article, to be able to inspect the innovative phenomena that it participated in – social media, historical discourse, indie-mainstream intersections, etc. Times like these make me wish Johven were still around, because he would have found the perfect way to attain the perfect critique. That’s also my ethos in film criticism: the effort should always be worthy of the object that it’s studying, otherwise it won’t have a shot at any kind of long-term significance. Once again, salamat for your effort in formulating your answers. I’ve always maintained that the best artists are the ones capable of critical thinking (which is why critics should also understand the artistic process). That plus connecting with the mass audience – a difficult challenge that only few have been able to hurdle. HL’s Exhibit A for that standard of achievement.

Thank you very much, Joel. Yes, I do wish Johven were around. I would’ve wanted to know his thoughts on everything that’s been happening. I truly appreciate your effort in knowing where the creators are coming from. That helps a lot in the discourse. I’ll be looking forward to your article.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015, 8:52 PM

[After reading a draft of the review] I don’t see any inaccuracies. It’s all good with me. Love the closing statement! Haha.[3]


[1] The review I wrote, “Antonio Luna’s Fall and Rise,” was published on October 15, 2015, at The FilAm.

[2] The other installations in Tarog’s second formal trilogy would be biopics of Gregorio del Pilar – being produced as of first quarter of 2018 and titled Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral [Goyo: The Young General] – and of President Manuel L. Quezon.

[3] Subsequent discussions in this message thread pertained to Tarog’s participation in a foreign film festival as well as his responses to a takedown of Heneral Luna, attributing the rise of fascist sentiment to the film.

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Source Exchange for Review of Vampariah

Vampariah was the closing film of the 2016 Filipino Arts & Cinema International, which I attended as recipient of the Gawad Lingap Sining (Art Nurturer Award). FACINE founder and director Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr. introduced me to Matthew Abaya, whom I sought out after the screening to congratulate and ask if he didn’t mind my reviewing it. When I told him that that could entail some Q&A exchanges, he indicated his willingness to participate. As soon as I recovered from the trip, I initiated a Facebook Messenger discussion thread that included Mauro Tumbocon. I edited the exchange below to exclude superfluous or redundant material. My own messages are indented. The review itself came out in early 2017.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016, 8:24 PM

Hi Matthew (with Mau listening in), I know that if I keep aiming to complete prior assignments I’ll never be able to get around to reviewing Vampariah. So I’m writing to you now to see if we can arrange for this. I normally require at least two screenings of any film, since the 1st is where I allow for my subjective take and observation of audience responses and the 2nd is when I write notes. That means I need one more screening – doesn’t have to be theatrical this time; if you have a screener or a link to an online posting, that would be fine. I assure you that it won’t circulate beyond me. The other matter is venue. I have only one ready outlet, the NY-based TheFilAm.net, which is edited by a friend of mine. I usually ask whether the film will be having a Tri-State or North American release so I can refer to it in my review. Other producers or directors prefer a different venue and time frame; they just tell me where and when (for example, for a Philippine daily by such-and-such a date), I write the piece and give it to them or to their contact person in the publication. Since I’m in neither Pinas nor US, I can’t cultivate these contacts myself. But I do prefer to tailor my writing to specific readers (in terms of vocabulary, length, tone, etc.), even in the case of TheFilAm with its 1,500-word limit. I don’t ask for payment because at this time I won’t need it (plus it’s always insultingly low, although I used to rely on the $30-per-review checks I would get as a resident reviewer during the late 1980s). If a check’s available, I always request the editor or producer or director to donate it to any favorite charity. As I prepare the review, I’d also often ask anyone in production (usually the director) about certain background info on the project, or list any issues I might find regarding the text, for them to answer if they wish to. Most critics, and some of my graduate-school classmates, consider this a wrong procedure, but it always worked for me, and I suspect they’ve come around to doing it, if they wanted to be productive in the long term. I still have to meet a film person who felt this interaction was unnecessary, so that confirms for me that it’s just the right thing to do. Will look forward to your response. Best regards.

Thursday, November 24, 2016, 4:09 AM

Thank you. You can watch Vampariah again [at this online venue]. Let me know if it plays OK. Thanks again for giving the film a good look. There are many layers to the film and I am happy to talk about them. I don’t think any reviews have been made with the subtext of post-colonialism which is a major theme of the film. With the current climate of political relations between the US and the Philippines, I would be curious as to your interpretation.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016, 8:48 AM

Thanks for the link. Just a quick clarification: no, I don’t (wish to) get paid for reviewing. If you’ve got a budget for it, just donate it to a lesbian POC NGO, if one exists. So TheFilAm.net as outlet will be OK with you? (Some of their articles get picked up by Philippine media.) Is there any future screening or release of Vampariah I can point readers to? Last, have you got any write-ups (by you or others) about yourself? Salamat. Hope to get this done soon!

Sounds good. As far as future screenings and distribution goes, we are still sorting out distribution options. We are planning more US and international screenings next year. A homecoming to the Philippines is in the works. Nothing is solid yet.

So would a review be useful at this time or would you prefer to wait? I can work with either option. If you want the review timed for some event, just let me know. Otherwise I’ll just mention your plans for the film as you’d written.

Hmmm. Good question. At this time I kind of would like to get as much exposure as we can. We don’t have anything to report for next year just yet but it would be nice to get film festivals and audiences excited to see it happen in their town. I think we are lacking a lot of good reviews on the internet as a whole. At least we have some good radio podcast but nothing in writing. The best one we have is with SF Sonic.

OK then, I’ll let [the editor] know that I’ll be drafting a review, maybe by next week. She tends to rush me but that’s OK – it forces me to work more quickly.

Haha thanks. [laugh]

Not to be too big-headed about it, but if you read the NY Times review of [Jerrold Tarog’s] Heneral Luna, it sounded suspiciously close to what I wrote for TheFilAm. [link provided]

Thursday, November 24, 2016, 10:30 AM

For real? Wow.

Just my conceit. Or maybe delusion haha.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016, 12:53 PM

I think it might’ve been lifted from your review.

Some basic insights were what I recognized. I don’t mind, since mine came out 1st, and ideas can’t be copyrighted anyway. Some of my earlier declarations got propagated in the past, but not my 2nd thoughts or reversals about those same ideas – like the statement that the Marcos era constituted a Golden Age of cinema. BTW, where can I find some basic info about you?

I love that statement about the Golden Age of [Philippine] cinema.

I can send you my bio. Yes I love the Golden Age.

Sige, pls send me a copy. I tried repudiating that Golden Age statement but it didn’t take off. Maybe I should conduct a stronger self-deconstruction. [smile]

It will be all right as long as you are clear about its meaning, and at the same time, are cautious about its use one way or another. It’s also important to periodize our history.

My point was: the 1st Golden Age “theory” resulted in an underappreciation of 1960s independent cinema, so the 2nd one shouldn’t distract us from inspecting any productive efforts that were done after February ’86.

You mean, post ’86 pre-digital.

Yes, the periods between supposed Golden Ages. Many directors did some of their best output during those moments – Gerry de Leon, [Lamberto] Avellana, [Cesar] Gallardo, [Cesar] Amigo during the 1960s, [Chito] Roño, [Marilou] Diaz-Abaya, [Carlos] Siguion-Reyna, a few others during the ’90s.

Wow [smile]. Was ’86 the beginning of digital?

Digital may have started in 1999 with Jon Red’s Still Lives.[1]

Yeah that’s when I remember digital becoming more a trend.

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Hence 1986 to 1999 is indeed fertile ground for study, the period immediately preceding the surge of independents via digital – which was of course, immediately post-martial law.

It became standard industry format a few years after, around mid-2000s.

Friday, November 25, 2016, 3:35 AM

Check this out [link given]: my film won 2 awards at the same event in the feature-film category alongside [Pedring Lopez’s] Nilalang which is another Filipino monster film. I’m looking for more write ups like this. I picked up three [comments] in the last week and there’s actually no press on it.

Saturday, December 31, 2016, 1:50 AM

Hi Matthew – I tried to watch [what you provided] but the website said the password was incorrect. (I copied and pasted what you wrote, then I typed it out – same result. I’ll be leaving in less than two days so I’m trying to watch it before I wind up with the Philippines’s slow internet speed.) [After Matthew provides a fix.] Thanks and advanced Happy New Year! Sorry it took me this long to start watching!

No worries. We will be going into 2017 with a distributor so it would be really good to have a review.

I’m also thinking of catching the better entries at the Christmas film festival so that when I make a declaration about Vampariah, I would have a basis for making the assertion. But if that takes too long, then I’ll just draft the review and turn it in to The FilAm.

Thank you so much. I definitely want to go back to the Philippines.

I’ll be there until late July [2017, for a] half-sabbatical. Let me know if you’ll be in town. Maybe you can interest one of the local festivals in showcasing it? Cinemalaya & the Metro Manila filmfest are the ones where non-mainstream entries have a chance of having some audience patronage. Otherwise you’ll be up against the majors in cahoots with the theater owners, and only a handful have been able to buck that system.

Will be really nice to get into those festivals but I don’t have a good in [frown]. I need to find a way get their attention. Having more written about the film would be helpful.

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Will see what I can do. Plus there’s the stuck-in-the-’60s brand of nationalism, where if you’re not homegrown or home-produced, you get ignored at best or criticized at worst. Better to take careful steps. Mau might also be able to help out. I’ll see what I can do by way of generating some buzz for it.

I’ve been told to expect a lot of criticism. I guess the film fights up and [claims] a very interesting spot, being an American movie done by Filipinos who were born and raised here. I appreciate your wisdom on this.

I’ve seen Fil-Ams go through that predicament before, where they’re never “authentic” enough for either culture. That’s why I found Vampariah’s embrace of the liminal so true & refreshing.

Authenticity is definitely an issue related in the film. That’s awesome. [applause]

It’s raised as an issue in a few other Fil-Am productions, but this is the 1st time where even the stylistic elements demonstrate the struggle. Will show you the draft when I’ve finished it for your comments &/or corrections.

Exactly. I definitely feel a strong connection to films like [Rod Pulido’s] Flip Side or [Gene Cajayon’s] The Debut, albeit a very different kind of film.

Sunday, January 1, 2017, 12:55 AM

Hi Matt (saw this nickname in one website but if it’s wrong pls let me know) – would you mind if I ask some questions about the movie? I’ve looked at the press materials but they weren’t comprehensive (and didn’t have to be). No need for a quick answer, just do it when you have the time. I’m supposed to be in transit myself, from Korea to Pinas, by tomorrow.

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Sunday, January 1, 2017, 12:55 AM & 7:49 AM

Combined Q&A between Joel & Matt:
1 – The 1st supernatural creature was “Kouji” (from the credits at IMDb) – a creature that hops in order to get around. Is this based on a local or regional “lower” myth in the Philippines? It seems similar to some early Euro accounts of undead movements.
Kouji is a hunter. He dies when Bampinay kills him for trying to hunt down Mahal. Mr Fang is a Chinese vampire called a jiangshi – 殭屍. Hack Daddy refers to him as a kyonshi, which is the Japanese pronunciation. The character uses this word because it is easier for him to pronounce. I always found it interesting that 2 creatures I loved to watch movies about in my teen years, aswangs and jiangshis, never faced off in a movie before. Mr. Fang is somewhat-tragic comic relief. He lost everything and is left to wander aimlessly hunting and being hunted. In the end he is sort of released and begins to recapture part of his humanity.

2 – The hunters stick some yellow sheets with what appears to be Oriental (Chinese?) characters on them. Are these Buddhist prayers similar to how East Asian cultures vanquish their supernatural monsters? There’s also what appears to be shadow puppetry that resembles wayang kulit – let me know if I’m wrong, or if this was unintended.
Mahal apparently has some old magic in her. Vampire films often follow European traditions and it seems she knows how to deal with a Chinese vampire like Mr. Fang. (Mr. Fang’s name is a homage to Mr. Vampire films from Hong Kong.) [The use of] wayang kulit was intentional. I had written this lengthy backstory to be sort of like Scrooge’s haunting by the ghosts of [Charles Dickens’s] A Christmas Carol, but the scene required us to take a dramatic yet bold way to tell a long backstory without running up the production budget. I always wanted to incorporate Asian shadow puppetry in the film. Aureen Almario (Bampinay) and players at Bindlestiff Studio often incorporate [ethnic material] into their stage plays. She was instrumental in the construction of the scene.

3 – The TV aswang explorer who gets killed – was that meant to be a reference to Steve Irwin? More on references – was Blade an influence? (I’m not against the idea of homage.) Because I’m thinking of calling it by the same genre, punk horror. Also, the main characters are “half-breeds.”
“The Cryptid Hunter” John Bates is based on Josh Gates of the show Destination Truth. I used it as a criticism of expats and “whitesplaining.” You can say we killed it.

4 – The monsters that Michele creates – are they zombies, or zombified vampires?
They are both, but mostly missing disinters who don’t agree with a hidden master plan designed by the faceless male voice that controls Michele. [Incidentally,] Michele Kilman is intended to resemble Michelle Malkin.

11011Blade, Underworld, Interview with the Vampire, The Lost Boys, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula must have been my biggest influences.[2] Blade and Underworld feature martial arts, a goth-punk driven score, and a vampire protagonist. It seemed like a great template for a more complex story and capable of making a story about identity relatable. Clearly a homage to my favorite vampire films while introducing something entirely different to the American landscape. It wasn’t merely trying to explain it to non-Filipinos and non-Asians.

5 – Bampinay drawing Mahal into realizing and accepting her aswang nature – was that intended to be an allegory about Fil-Ams completing their identity via Philippine culture? (It’s a complex issue because Pinas culture is itself highly syncretized.)
Yes indeed.

6 – Where did you have your film training and/or apprenticeship?
The bulk was in community college at CSM (now defunct) – same class as fellow Pinoy filmmaker HP Mendoza. I also took more technical classes at the City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University. I worked on other feature films as an assistant, to build chops. [Additional remark: Thank you. This film does need a little decoding as it has to be left open to its creative interpretation.]

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These are all the questions I have for now. I don’t know if you read Tagalog, but the best recent Philippine novel I’ve come across is Ricky Lee’s Amapola in 65 Chapters (Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata), which is also queer-themed but involves a cross-dressing performer as the manananggal hero. (I once wrote a review of it.) Once more, no need to rush with the answers. Thanks and Happy New Year.

Sunday, January 1, 2017, 7:49 AM

I hope this adds clarity. You both have a Happy New Year!

Thursday, January 12, 2017, 9:17 PM

The draft I prepared [is attached]. I forwarded to [the editor] Cri-en Pastor because she asked for it over a week ago, but I can still make corrections in about a day, before she uploads it. Wasn’t able to use all the info I compiled (plus my usual small notebook of scribbles) but it’s always better to have more knowledge than you need. It will also be helpful in more scholarly writing I might wind up doing later, or if I have advisees interested in this type of cinema. Many thanks for the help – and pls let me know if there are urgent/serious errors that have to be corrected.

Friday, January 13, 2017, 2:17 AM

Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you mention that we are using a subversive genre as a vehicle and a means of empowerment. It is the main takeaway from the film. What do you think will be different from the final [version of the review]?

Friday, January 13, 2017, 4:08 AM

Unless I warn Cri-en of any serious errors and give her a revised draft, she’ll upload what I submitted. I provide myself the luxury of a more-final-than-final version (including updates and corrections) via my blog. So I’ll see what else I can improve after a while, and incorporate it in the blog version.

Perhaps, if okay with Matt, you may as well qualify – “Bampinay” was not his first short film; he has been doing short films since FACINE started 23 years ago, most of them of the horror/sci-fi genre, except for one called “HoMe,” a collage of photos, the text referring to cultural identity and Filipino iconography, which I love much. Matt, you may add to this too.

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Oh yeah. Thanks Mauro. I been also known for music videos [like Mud’s “Careless”].

Corrected and forwarded the draft already. Don’t be surprised if the publication changes the title. That’s standard practice in journalism, where editors have to fill up available spaces in their page layout. In my books and in my blog, I usually restore the title I suggested if I find it preferable to what the editor prepared. Cri-en said she’ll get it out “tonight” (tri-state area time).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017, 11:35 AM

One other thing that’s been hitting me lately in Hollywood is the whole “whitewashing” issue with [the remake of Mamoru Oshii’s] Ghost in the Shell. I made Vampariah to counter that. I hope this one interview I did in NYC comes out where I opened up a lot about that.

Is this the Japanese anime? I remember watching that after I learned that it was one of the main inspirations for [the Wachowski sisters’] The Matrix.

The Hollywood remake. I love the anime.

Me too. Didn’t know Hollywood remade it, but that’s no longer surprising. Sige, I’ll look it up.

Basically I spoke of how 2016 was a challenging year for Asian Am actors and a film like Vampariah if pitched to a Hollywood studio would not get made, mostly for its casting.


[1] Mike de Leon’s Bilanggo sa Dilim, made in 1986, was produced by the Philippine branch of Sony Solid Video and screened at Wave Cinema in Cubao, which was equipped to screen films shot in video. See my review titled “Return to Form” in The National Pastime.

[2] These films were directed by the following: Stephen Norrington (Blade); Len Wiseman (Underworld); Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire); Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) and Francis Ford Coppola (Bram Stoker’s Dracula).

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