100 Years of Philippine Cinema Shines at the Busan International Film Festival

Photo Credit: BIFF
The pride and joy of the Philippine delegates were palpable as they took the stage for a special talk at the 23rd Busan International Film Festival, which has a special focus on Philippine cinema this year. It was an all-star team, consisting renowned directors Brillante Mendoza and Kidlat Tahimik; actors Christopher De Leon, Piolo Pascual, Joel Torre, and Sandy Andolong; and film critic and educator, Tito Valiente.

Celebrations leading up to the 100th anniversary of Philippine cinema in 2019 have already kicked off. In June, the Ayala Museum in the Philippines organised a series of talks on film. In September, the University of Philippines Film Institute and national cultural bodies came together for a “Centennial Conference.” Filmmaker José Nepomuceno’s 1919 work Dalagang Bukid marks the first “Philippine” film.

A commemorative book was launched at BIFF and an exhibition featuring Philippine films was set up near the Busan Cinema Center’s main outdoor theatre. For Mendoza, it was a moment of many connections and reconnections, as he realised through this retrospective, that numerous Philippine “classic” films were distributed by people who are now his producers. Tahimik, widely regarded to be the “father” of Philippine independent cinema, commented that it was the first time he saw so many Philippine films placed side-by-side, which helped give a better sense of the history and culture.

Philippine cinema does not shy away from the scars and wounds of its past. Their films are deeply connected and intimately woven with history—drawing inspiration from it, as well as referring and reinterpreting its events. This interrogation of the past through the medium of film is linked to modern conversations on Philippine identity—reconciling pre-colonial, indigenous visions of nationhood with all the turmoil and foreign occupation that have come to pass. The Philippines spent almost 300 years under Spanish colonial rule and later, the United States. It was then occupied by Japan during World War 2 and continued to suffer a brutal military dictatorship post-war, under the regime of the exiled Ferdinand Marcos.

Tahimik quips, “We spent 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood,” referring to periods of Spanish and American governance respectively. Indigenous Philippine culture defined by colonial rhetoric can appear “primitive, backward, pagan…something to be ashamed of,” Tahimik added. However, local independent films are uniquely positioned to redefine such discourse on their own terms and embrace both the “Westernised and ancestral sides” of the country’s history. It is this constant grappling with native visions, colonial pasts, and modern conflicts that makes Philippine cinema so fascinating—and one to keep an eye out for, as celebrations continue for its centennial anniversary.

Another important part of the celebrations was the premiere of an omnibus project, Lakbayan (“Journey”), made up of three shorter films by directors Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, and Kidlat Tahimik.

Lav Diaz’s “slow cinema” has found much success on the international stage, notably picking up the Golden Leopard and FIPRESCI awards at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2014 and the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 2016.  In the Lakbayan omnibus, Lav Diaz’s black-and-white short film, “Hugaw” (“Dirt”), for which he served as both writer and director, is an abstract, pensive exploration of myth and terror in the dense tropical forest.
Staying close to the theme of the omnibus, a physical journey takes place in Tahimik’s short, “Lakaran ni Kabunyan” (“Kabunyan’s Journey”). An endearing road trip film, a man (played by Tahimik’s real son) sets off on a trip from one tip of the Philippines to the other in a rugged little van he names “Jumbalaya.” Tahimik revealed that this short, like most of his other films, had no script, though he did have a general idea of the “beginning, middle, and end.” The film takes on this free-spirited character, its heart open to the people along the way and indulging in the occasional muse on life and its philosophies.

In the other short film of the omnibus, “Desfocado” (“Defocused”), Mendoza brings his signature blend of drama and documentary, putting together the film in a “found footage” style. “Desfocado” follows a recently-unemployed cameraman-reporter as he tags along with a group of angry farmers from the Sumilao municipality. They walk more than 1000 km from their village to Manila on foot in a bid to reclaim their “ancestral land.” Drawing from a real incident from 2007, Mendoza’s crossing of genres lends itself to a wide range of possibilities, asserting the authoritative voice of a documentary, yet also taking full advantage of the creative liberty that a narrative film offers.

Additionally, through featuring the cameraman as its main character, Mendoza’s film has a subtle, self-reflexive edge, exposing the very production apparatus of cinema itself, as the film points towards the character’s camera. The cameraman walks the entire journey with the farmers, videotaping and interviewing them along the way before they reach Manila, where a large media crowd has gathered. TV and news crews line the streets, but frankly, they look pathetic. They stand there—well-dressed and well-equipped, while the main character is unkempt and exhausted—the image of someone who has embraced the grit and spirit of his job. It is here where Mendoza most clearly makes an argument for the role of independent film—to journey with the common people, hardships and all, and ensure that their stories do not go untold, or unseen. One farmer tells the reporter, “You really walked with us.”

Yet, at the same time, even amidst the glamour of Philippine cinema at the festival and the general celebratory atmosphere, it is impossible to escape the ongoing socio-political conversations that follow its filmmakers. In particular, Mendoza has been a controversial figure, as he is seen as a supporter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s politics, having filmed two of Duterte’s State of the Nation Addresses. His Netflix series, Amo, has also been criticised as promotional material (and propaganda) for Duterte’s violent “war on drugs.” Being a filmmaker in the Philippines is no easy path—one must constantly negotiate between social contexts, personal creative inclinations and the powers that be. It seems—nothing can ever be truly apolitical.

A hundred years of Philippine cinema has indeed brought well-deserved triumphs, but also a fair share of conflicts and controversies. Amidst the celebrations and revelry that will surely continue for the next year, it is perhaps crucial not to forget the darker side of history, as well as the stories out there that remain untold.

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