Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song*
Feature by: Alexis A. Tioseco
*(Or rather, are declared as often):
Amidst a State of Dependence, A New Philippine Cinema is Born.
The term independent once meant something in Philippine Cinema. It was reserved for such luminaries as Rox Lee (the great animator), Raymond Red (the great short filmmaker), and in recent years, Lav Diaz (the great stubborn filmmaker); artists who had earned their stripes and garnered accolades, but refused to sell out or cater to commercial demands, preferring to maintain control over their work than to cash in and see their name in lights. Today, independent, indie, or any of its many synonyms has become a hot buzzword in the Philippines. Young filmmakers, students, festivals, even commercial studios are beginning to use it, defiling the purity that was once associated with it. Questions arise: what is independence for when the content of your work is the same as commercial trash? What is independence for when your film is made to serve as your calling card to court the industry? What does independence mean when you're dependent on seed money given by broadcasting companies owned by the wealthiest men in the country to make your film (Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals) ? What does independence mean when you are making low-budget exploitation DV features for a studio on the decline (Viva Films, et al.)?
When parties from the commercial industry, from the mainstream or establishment, begin to infiltrate and claim the underground for themselves, what is left for the true independent filmmaker to do? Brakhage put it best:
"So the money vendors have begun it again. To the catacombs then, or rather plant this seed deeper in the underground beyond false nourishing of sewage waters. Let it draw nourishment from hidden uprising springs channeled by gods. . . . forget ideology, for film unborn as it is has no language and speaks like an aborigine—monotonous rhetoric. . . . Abandon aesthetics. . . . Negate techniques, for film, like America, has not been discovered yet, and mechanization, in the deepest possible sense of the word, traps both beyond measuring even chances. . . . Let film be. It is something . . . becoming."
It is in this spirit that the New Philippine Cinema, impregnated in 2004, birthed in 2005, and now beginning to mature in 2006, is being forged. While it is does encompass this false new independence (one of the best films of 2005, the Dennis Marasigan adaptation of Tony Perez's Sa North Diversion Road [On the North Diversion Road], reviewed elsewhere in these pages, was made from the seed money given by Cinema One Originals), most of its best and brightest moments have been strong reactions against it: Raya Martin's Ang Maicling Pelicula nang Ysang Indio Nacional (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional), John Torres four shorts films and first-feature Todo Todo Teros. and Lav's Diaz's 11-hour Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family) and Heremias. All produced at the makers own expense, all radical in form and content.
To speak of ambition in regard to Raya Martin's Maicling Pelicula would be to speak of the obvious—a 21-year old college senior undertaking to make a feature film, silent with title cards, shot on 35mm, in black and white, set in the 1890's Spanish-era Philippines. And then adding a frustratingly slow 22-minute piece at the film's start, shot in color, DV, with sound, that is devoid of action for its first 17 minutes (before settling into a moving tale of nationalism). Martin's Maicling Pelicula is an intensely personal film projecting the young director's emotional impressions of the era bygone into actualities of the beginnings of the uprising, the stirrings of Philippine nationalism. Is Martin's film accurate in its depiction? Does it represent a work that evinces deep historical research that may be used as a text for young students to study in order to know more about the era? No—and that is both its strength and its weakness. Maicling Pelicula focuses on minor and intimate moments, creating images that would otherwise be left out of major historical films (and that were left out of the films shot at the time by the colonizers). How relevant is the film in the cultural geography of the Philippines? I dare say that it is a very, very important work, one that will be looked at with an equal measure of perplexity now as it will be looked at with admiration in the future. But the reasons for its importance, for its significance, will be for a) its audacity, b) its aesthetic, and c) the emotional impact it will have, maybe not on an entire generation of average viewers, but at the very least, this generation of filmmakers. Maicling Pelicula throws down the gauntlet—and with rude authority—for the heights of sophistication and beauty that the Filipino aesthetic may reach.
While pondering this piece, I was listening to a performance of Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl", recorded sometime later in his life at a university. His reading of his landmark work was both riveting and sleep-inducing; it lacked the force of one in his prime and I droned in and out of consciousness over the course of its duration, but it still left me charged with an energy, and inspired by the passion contained in his poetry and his reading of it. Watching Martin's Maicling Pelicula imparts the same feeling: his control over pace, narrative momentum and actors' performances reveal one not in his prime, not in full control of his aesthetic power. Like listening to that Ginsberg recording, it can at times be sleep-inducing. But the power contained in the poetry of his images, of the feeling imparted by those moments that you receive it at full consciousness speak—and they speak with such love: for country, for countrymen, for history, that one cannot help but be moved, be inspired. The difference between the Ginsberg that read "Howl" and the Martin that made Maicling Pelicula? Ginsberg was past the time of his ultimate power, and control, past his prime at the time of the reading; Martin is just working his way toward it. We will see a lot from this young man in the future.
John Torres is as personal a filmmaker as you can possibly meet. His films—four shorts and one feature, all made for not more than the cost of a few mini-DV tapes and the opportunity cost of accepting other work (he runs a small editing house)—are heartbreaking works. They combine found and organized footage with text in a way that hasn't been seen before in Philippine cinema. The images, voiceover, and on-screen text all compliment each other, creating in their interaction meaning not contained in any one of them alone. I go to John Torres' films for what I can learn from them. But I learn nothing that a proper academic setting would find valuable, nothing of history, politics, and economics; not even anything about contemporary Philippine cinema. I learn something much, much more valuable to me in my life: I learn about the inner working of the heart. John's films, the ideas behind them, the struggle to make them, teach me something I need to learn: humility, benevolence. They illustrate the beauty found in self-effacement, in touching your pain, admitting your faults, and at the same time learning to sacrifice face in the name of trust, in the name of solidarity with humanity, and sharing everything that is close to you with the world, in the hope that it will understand and sympathize with you as much as you are trying your hardest to understand and sympathize with it. Ultimately, they are tone poems, films that both espouse and offer compassion.
Lav Diaz's works stand so off-tangent that Ebolusyon has had only 6 screenings in the Philippines (UP, NCCA, CCP, Cebu, Tarlac, UA&P), and altogether drawn no more than a total audience of 200-250 (but a 200-250 whose collective worth is far greater than 30-40 fully-packed commercial cinemas). His Heremias, a labor of love and the first half of the last part of his Philippine trilogy that includes Ebolusyon and Batang West Side, was made entirely with money accrued from foreign grant-giving organizations and was written, directed, produced and edited by Diaz himself. The astonishing thing about Diaz's Philippine trilogy is how, while all radical in themsleves, they're also all so different from each other—in time, space, and aesthetic. The 5-hour West Side, about the Filipino experience abroad, is a 35mm color work, shot and set in contemporary New Jersey. The 11-hour Ebolusyon, a mix of 16mm and various forms of digital, is in black and white, set just before, during, and after the Martial Law period in the Philippines. Mixing scenes of urban and rural life, it is astonishingly sophisticated in its use of both mise-en-scene and (intellectual) montage, a remarkable feat given its duration. The 9-hour Heremias, shot entirely on digital, is set in present-day rural Philippines. It is the only one among the trilogy whose story is told linear, and that focuses on a single character. This trilogy, when completed, stands to tower over contemporary Philippine cinema, over aspiring independent filmmakers, as a paradigm of what it means to be uncompromising.
The new Philippine filmmaker does not fear experimentation but embraces it, knowing that as Brakhage declared, film, or perhaps better put, cinema is still something. becoming. While above ground the death of Philippine Cinema (or the industry) is proclaimed, in the deep underground lie the real artists, replenishing the soil with seeds of a new cinema.
* (Article title lifted from the title of a documentary about the 1986 People Power revolution by Nick Deocampo. The author has not seen the film but finds the title very beautiful.)
 Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals were scriptwriting contests organized in late 2004, months apart with very similar rules, by two major broadcasting companies in the Philippines: Dream Broadcasting Systems, and Cinema One, a subsidiary of ABS-CBN. They each granted winning scripts (10 for Cinemalaya, 8 for Cinema One Originals) seed money to make a feature film: 500,000 pesos for Cinemalaya, 600,000 for Cinema One Originals. The products of the competitions were screened in self-organized festivals in July/August of last year. Both competitions are now on their second year.