The history of Philippine cinema is more than just popular, commercial films

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"Iginuhit ng Tadhana" (1965) is a political propaganda film by Mar S. Torres, Jose de Villa, and Conrado Conde. It stars Luis Gonzales as then senatorial candidate Ferdinand E. Marcos and chronicles his life and tackles the infamous Nalundasan case. Photo courtesy of FILIPINAS HERITAGE LIBRARY

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When you think of Philippine Cinema’s centenary, the first things that will probably come to your mind are the tentpoles, box office hits, and star wattage that have graced theaters for the last 100 years — from “Himala,” Lino Brocka, the plethora of rom-coms, to the new wave of Filipino filmmakers. But, as Professor Nick Deocampo points out, there is more to this centenary than the feature films that have dominated the discourse and chronicling of our cinematic history.

These are signs of life often overlooked for something that resembles the dominant cinematic form: the full-length, commercial feature. But the history of Philippine cinema is very much the history of all forms of cinema, not just film as we (popularly) know it. And this is what professor and filmmaker Nick Deocampo aims to discuss in his exhibit, “Hidden Cinema: The Virtual Experience of the Philippine Cinema’s Centenary.”

Deocampo points out that in his research — which has produced numerous films and books on Philippine film history, such as the trilogy on Spanish, American, and Japanese-era of filmmaking — the Father of Philippine Cinema, Jose Nepomuceno, did in fact start his studio Malayan Movies in 1917 with short, educational films. It wasn’t until 1919 that produced “Dalagang Bukid,” a silent film and the first locally produced feature length film in the Philippines.

sine.jpg The exhibit is also accompanied by a screening of documentaries by Nick Deocampo chronicling various points of history in Philippine film, from its beginnings during the Spanish era to the Japanese occupation during World War II. Photo courtesy of the FILIPINAS HERITAGE LIBRARY

So why not use this centenary to spotlight the various film formats that have been ignored for the better part of our cinematic history?

While commercial cinema has a built-in hierarchy that has lasted for years — from the workers to the execs that dictate what filmgoers are supposed to watch — Deocampo suggests that the history of alternative cinema is “rhizomatic,” similar to a luya whose roots branch in many, non-hierarchical ways.

“Think of the acacia tree. It’s so huge you can’t actually see the rhizomes underneath. The grass is a rhizome, and there are hundreds, if not thousands underneath the shadow of one tree, so when you talk about plant life, are you just going to talk about the dominant tree, which is the dominant movie industry? That has been the tyrannical concept and paradigm we have,” he says.

At the center of the exhibition is an approximation of a rhizome, where various screens show a brief glimpse into alternative cinema, from short films, documentaries, and experimental films, to animation and LGBTQ+ cinema; and branching out to the walls are other genres such as music videos and educational films.

Hidden Cinema The rhizomatic paradigm of "Hidden Cinema," inspired by the concept of rhizome by two French philosophers Giles Deluze and Felix Guattari, celebrates the non-hierarchical multiplicity of cinematic forms such as short films, archipelagic films, music videos, and home videos — forms which do not conform to the usual commercialism of Philippine cinema's more dominant feature length film. Photo courtesy of AYALA MUSEUM

The exhibit gathers 100 films submitted through an open call by Deocampo on Facebook. Shown briefly in the screens include “Junkzilla” by Nonoy Dadivas, an animated educational film about a family that witnesses their trash turn into a monster; “What Do You Think of the Philippines, Mr. Janetzko,” Regiben Romana’s experimental film which mixes outtakes from an action film with hardcore music, and audio from news clips and interviews; “Si Astri Maka Si Tambulah,” Xeph Suarez’s short film about a 16-year-old transwoman Astri in a relationship with 17-year-old, Tambulah, even though Astri is fated to marry a woman she hardly knows according to Sama Bajao traditions.

Also included are other acclaimed films such as Raymond Red’s Palme d’Or winning short “Anino,” Baby Ruth Villarama’s MMFF 2016 winner “Sunday Beauty Queen” (the first documentary to win the MMFF Best Picture prize), and Kanakan-Balintagos’ music video for the Eraserheads’ “Ang Huling El Bimbo.”

Alternative cinema is not merely opposite of what “commercial” cinema is, Deocampo says, but rather a history that has been marginalized and left out of the canon of Philippine film history.

These are often films employing innovative and challenging takes on film norms, and “expanding the terrain” of what we know as cinema — from linear narratives to the values of commercialism.

Asong Simbahan dir Sari Dalena (1994).jpg A still from Sari Dalena's "Asong Simbahan" (1994), a video installation accompanying the painting of the same name by her father, Danny Dalena. Photo courtesy of FILIPINAS HERITAGE LIBRARY

“True cinema is happening in alternative films,” Deocampo says in his curatorial statement. These films give voice to the marginalized, highlighting how the struggles of indigenous and queer people have been the subject of many short films, documentaries, and other film genres.

Deocampo hopes that “Hidden Cinema” will just be the beginning, with other iterations of the exhibit highlighting other films that are not included in the first 100 samples, and the rhizome expanding to more and more branches.

“These are their voices but their own very imagination because cinema is psychoanalytically collective unconscious,” says Deocampo.

“These are the dreams, and it is not being funded by big, capitalist [institutions] to tell us [that], ‘No, you think this way’ … Let me just invoke “we the people.” This is our voice … our images … and nobody’s dictating the films that we make, [no] one central authority; they come from all corners of the archipelago, that’s why I also call this the archipelagic cinema; this is the new definition of the national cinema. It cannot [be just ‘regional cinema’] anymore … as you can very well see.”

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“Hidden Cinema: The Virtual Experience of Philippine Cinema’s Centenary” runs until Aug. 5 at the Ayala Museum (2F gallery). For other details, visit the Facebook event page of the Filipinas Heritage Library.