Words by Monchito Nocon
Illustration by Tim Lopez
Make no mistake about it: Philippine Cinema today, it can be argued, has never been this vibrant, this alive, at least not in a long while. It is against this backdrop that we therefore zoom in, focus our gaze, on what makes it tick and explore the issues that both fuel – and stymie – its forward trajectory.
The recent winning streak of Lav Diaz – his bagging the Golden Lion at the 76th Venice Film Festival for Ang Babeng Humayo; the Silver Bear Alfred Baur Prize, Berlin International Film Festival, for Hele Sa Hiwagang Hapis – and Jaclyn Jose's best actress nod from the Cannes Film Festival for Brillante Mendoza's Ma Rosa, has again put Philippine cinema on the map and in the spotlight. Not that it hasn't been making waves already.
It must be said that Philippine cinema – which is not only limited to the so-called mainstream film industry as we know it – is presently experiencing a renaissance, a resurgence, not just in terms of awards and accolades, but also in diversity of output, richness of subjects and stories being told, as well as with all the new faces – talented and daring – who are driving (or should we say directing?) its growth. And this despite the problems and challenges perennially gnawing at its feet.
A GROWING LOT
One key indicator of this upswing is the spawning of film festivals – both production grant-giving and otherwise – where a smorgasbord of fresh works by newbie filmmakers to established names are being brought to the big screen. From a mere two grant-awarding film festivals in 2005 – the Cinemalaya Independent film Festival, the progenitor, which was soon followed by CinemaOne Originals – four other similar fests have since joined the fray: CineFilipino, SinagMaynila, the QCinema International Film Festival, and the newest and the most unique of them all: the ToFarm Film Festival. And then, too, there's the CinemaRehiyon of the Cinema Committee of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts or NCCA which gathers a bumper crop of regional cinema's best from Luzon, Visayas, and MIndanao.
All of these festivals play a big part in 1) supporting up and coming filmmakers in their quest to get their stories told and seen; and 2) in the over-all increase in output or number of films being produced annually.
Cinemalaya, for example, recently received a total of 116 prospective entries (out of which 10 full-length films and 5 short films will be selected) – and this is for the 2018 festival yet! At QCinema, on the other hand, some 150 entries give or take are received annually after the call is announced and made public. For CinemaRehiyon, meanwhile, roughly 90 titles from different corners of the country are gathered and curated yearly, with figures growing each time.
LET'S GET DIGITAL
Of course, none of these would have come about if not for the advent of digital filmmaking technology, which has since replaced costlier celluloid, thus democratizing movie-making with its accessibility and practicality. "Thanks to the debut of digital cinema, we’ve been able to make films with lower production costs," relates filmmaker Paul Sta. Ana in a 2015 piece from the Tokyo International Film Festival. "This has created an environment where young directors can produce experimental and artistic works.”
SOCIAL MEDIA SENSATION
That Social Media has and continues to have a key role in the scheme of things can no longer be ignored. Case in point: Jerold Tarog's Heneral Luna, which was near to being yanked from the theaters on its first week. But thanks to a public clamor for support on social media, interest spread like wildfire, allowing it to stay on for nine weeks more, breaking existing records for an independent movie. And before that there was Antoinette Jadaone's That Thing Called Tadhana, wherein she harnessed the power of Social Media to crowdfund and raise the necessary money to pay for the rights to a Whitney Houston song, a crucial element to the movie.”You have to give space to word of mouth,” opines Moira Lang, the Producer behind Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington and Norte, Hanganan ng Kasaysayan. “Here in the country, so-called ‘sleeper hits’ are not given a chance and are pulled-out during the first weekend.”
RESTORATION OF FAITH
Another interesting and long-overdue development is the release of restored classic films. It is a tragic reality that the bulk of Philippine cinema's output is already considered 'lost' while many of the extant titles available are already in various states of deterioration. (The Society of Filipino Archivists for Film or SOFIA, the lead AV archiving NGO in the country, states that of the 8,000 films produced since the birth of film industry, only 3,000 works survive) Thankfully, film restoration technology, much like digital filmmaking, has become more advanced yet more accessible wherein it is now possible to scan film prints and negatives in high definition even up to 4K resolution. It is now also possible to remove dirt, scratches, molds etc. via computer software available.
The Film Development Council of the Philippines or FDCP, the lead government agency for film, has been responsible for the restoration of Manuel Conde's Genghis Khan, Lino Brocka's Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag and Insiang, all of which were done in partnership with Martin Scorcese's World Cinema Foundation and L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Italy.
Fernando Poe Jr.’s FPJ Productions, Inc. with its acquisition of a state-of-the-art Arri film Arri film scanner six years ago has been quietly busy scanning the over 160 titles in its collection.
Another entity that has been quite active as of late in film restoration – and who operates their own archive facility – is media giant ABS-CBN with its 'Sagip Pelikula' project, which has so far restored 100 titles including masterpieces by Ishmael Bernal, Celso Ad Castillo, Mike de Leon, Laurice Guillen among others. “To me, it strikes us at the heart of our national identity because if you do not care about your past, what do you care for?" shares Leo Katigbak, who oversees the restoration efforts of the network, in a previous interview. "I want to make sure it survives for the next generation,” he said. Of course, as a vast media company, they realize that content is king.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
Still, problems and issues plaguing Philippine Cinema persist.
"Philippine cinema is getting out there this year in a big way with awards at all festivals from big to small. That's a huge coup but here's a cautionary note," relates Philip Cheah, Singaporean film programmer and Founding Member of the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema or NETPAC, who attends our local festivals regularly. "This means that there is an imagined image of Philippines that the world wants to see and that which it is comfortable with."
And then there’s the issue of how the major studios stick to worn-out formulas, clichés, and bandwagon subject matter. In his biting piece that appeared in the Philippine Star titled “The future of Philippine cinema is not bright,” filmmaker Erik Matti wishes that producers “make insightful, progressive, relevant and fresh stories” and that they “become impassioned enough to share good stories.”
Lastly – and this is no doubt the most crucial issue facing the industry today: that of distribution, and how to ensure that local releases are given a fair shake at the cineplexes – dominated by the major mall operators – without being pulled-out unceremoniously. There are quarters who call for legislating the releases, of protectionist policies, and there are those, like film critic Philbert Dy, who prefers the expansion of more alternative venues. “Change the culture. Break out of the muliplex,” he declared in a tweet.
And perhaps that is what we need: to develop a more mature, a more enlightened, and a more risk-taking cinema culture.