FILM

How a film journal is returning the lost narratives of Philippine cinema

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The 2019 volume (left) of “Pelikula: A Journal of Philippine Cinema” features the largely forgotten pioneering casting director, art director, and producer, Isabel Acuña, with her husband, Jose Nepomuceno. The 2020 cover (right) shows National Artist Lino Brocka, with filmmaker Behn Cervantes. Photos courtesy of PELIKULA A JOURNAL ON PHILIPPINE CINEMA

Manila, Philippines (CNN Philippines Life) — If cinema is the chronicle of time, then film writing and scholarship is the process of writing and rewriting history.

The digital revolution has changed so much of our daily lives and has served as a great (yet incomplete) equalizer for media production and consumption. The barriers to filmmaking have been lowered, thanks to decreased cost in production and increased efforts towards creating a vibrant film community through film festivals, etc. However, film writing and scholarship haven’t enjoyed the same radical upswing.

Though the advent of platforms such as Letterboxd have encouraged film enthusiasts to write about and critique films, the plethora of opinions aren’t always situated in the grand context of the nation’s sociopolitical and socioeconomic context. Issues of access leave stories from regional filmmakers, documentarians, short film creators and the like, at the peripheries of cinematic history — losing out the grander narratives of commercial films and even independent films.

In comes “Pelikula: A Journal of Philippine Cinema.” It was revived in 2019 on the Centennial anniversary of the release of the first Filipino feature film “Dalagang Bukid” (1919), and functions as a collective effort of returning these lost narratives to the Filipino community. Writing confers importance but also reinforces it; challenges it in the context of the contemporary world.

To give more insight into the process of and the need for reviving Pelikula, we interviewed Director of the UP Film Institute and Pelikula editor-in-chief Patrick Campos.

What pushed you and the editorial team to revamp the journal after nearly two decades?

The Philippine cinema centennial provided the occasion and the motivation for the UP Film Institute (UPFI) to relaunch "Pelikula." It happened that I began my term as Director of the UPFI during the period of the centenaries of the founding of Malayan Movies (1917), the production of Jose Nepomuceno’s first newsreel in Cebu (1918), and the premiere of "Dalagang Bukid" (1919). [On] the outset, my goal was for UPFI to mark these centenaries in a way that UPFI can do best.

Thus, just before I became Director of UPFI, we kicked off with “Sandaan: International Conference on the Centennial of Philippine Cinema” in 2017. This conference was the first commemoration of the centennial, held before any government agency began planning anything related to the celebrations. It also carried the title “Sandaan” before the term became the official name for the festivities.

One of the features in Pelikula's fifth volume. Photo from UPFI/FACEBOOK

Then we organized the yearlong “Pelikula Lektura” series. Every month throughout 2019, one of our teachers [would give] a lecture on Philippine cinema history and reflected on how this aspect connects to the future of our cinema. We covered topics from early cinema to the digital period and raised new questions for future studies.

Then we mounted the “Expe Film Fest,” which celebrated experimental cinema in the Philippines through a retrospective film festival and several seminars. We held it in September 2019, on precisely the month of the 100th anniversary of “Dalagang Bukid.” Then we convened “Interseksiyon”, also in 2019, a conference on Philippine cinema, literature, and language. It considered Filipino film in comparative lit and assessed it side-by-side with other disciplines.

I still have a couple of unrealized plans grouped with “Pelikula” in terms of intent and vision. One is a book series, originally conceived as “100 Books for 100 Years.” It was supposed to commission a group of writers to write 100 books on various topics on Philippine cinema. The other is the digital library and archive devoted solely to Philippine cinema, where anyone interested in Filipino film can research. I am still hoping these projects can someday become a reality, with the right support and the help of the right people.

“Pelikula” is part of this overall plan and vision. It is a forward-looking effort. I wanted to relaunch it because I saw it as a meaningful form of commemoration, a more permanent contribution to Philippine cinema’s study whose impact can be felt for years, even more than any one-time big event.

These are things (the journal, the would-be book series, and the library-archive) that I dream of as a Filipino film scholar. Ayan ’yong mga bagay na wala tayo na pangarap kong magkaroon tayo. There’s no one place you can go to research; it’s so hard to find materials and films. We have so few books on film for a country with such a rich cinema. That’s why we can’t remember much about Philippine cinema before the 2000s, or for some, before the 1970s. There is no repository of knowledge that’s friendly to students and accessible to many.

It is in this spirit and within these contexts that we relaunched “Pelikula.”

There’s no one place you can go to research; it’s so hard to find materials and films. We have so few books on film for a country with such a rich cinema. That’s why we can’t remember much about Philippine cinema before the 2000s, or for some, before the 1970s. There is no repository of knowledge that’s friendly to students and accessible to many.

What were the early hurdles that you encountered?

We already had a volume ready by the end of 2019, but faced some challenges putting it out. That’s why we are releasing two volumes now.

The main challenge is always funding. The first iteration of “Pelikula” (1999-2001) folded because of a lack of funding. Many other initiatives of this sort were discontinued because of a lack of funding. We originally planned to print a magazine-format journal, which will explain the current layout and design of the volumes, but we don’t have the means to print them right now. You can easily find funders to produce films or mount film festivals, but very few support film publications and scholarships. So we have so many films and so short a memory.

At the same time, editorial independence is paramount. We cannot enter into any deal with a potential benefactor who will have a significant say on what we can and cannot publish. Any such agreement will be contrary to what “Pelikula” stands for.

Practically all of us who contributed to and did editorial work on “Pelikula” labored out of love. But we pursued the making of the volumes, first, because there’s been enormous support and encouragement from like-minded people; and second, because now there's the option to go digital. In the journal’s first iteration, going digital was not a straightforward option yet, but now it is. Going digital appears to be the best option not only because it is cheaper, but more importantly because it means we can make knowledge available to more people at no immediate cost to them.

We’ve already begun work on the third volume, even though we have no funding support yet. We are contemplating seeking crowdfunding if there’s enough keen interest to support the work. We’ll see.

A feature on the contemporary film scene in Mindanao can be found on the fourth volume (2019) of "Pelikula: A Journal on Philippine Cinema." Photo from UPFI/FACEBOOK

In your editor’s note for the fourth volume, you touched on how “knowledge production in Filipino film studies hasn’t kept pace.” How does “Pelikula” aim to address this gap?

The situation now is: there are many people web publishing their film reviews but very few people publishing film scholarship. So we have a glut of opinions on certain films but scarce materials to grasp the bigger picture of our cinema, its social, economic, and political contexts. It’s hard to historicize. Something happens once, and a few years later, we have no memory of it because what happened has gone unremarked, undocumented, and unanalyzed. Every achievement is a new achievement; every problem, a perennial problem.

“Pelikula” wants to document the developments in Philippine cinema. It intends to chronicle the complexities of its history so that current and later scholars will have something to build on.

One of “Pelikula’s” goals is to publish new writing and new writers. I know that many scholars, cinephiles, organizers, and practitioners can engage in some form of knowledge production or another. We aim to be an outlet for this kind of impulse. The goal is to raise more researchers and writers (and readers!) with a genuine interest in film scholarship. There’s so much to write about, so much we don’t know or have forgotten. At the same time, I find deep pleasure in opening the pages of “Pelikula” to seasoned writers who wish to put forward new ideas.

Hopefully, if we can continue publishing “Pelikula,” we can fill in significant knowledge gaps. But for now, I feel that our initial volumes can activate the interest of a wider public. Perchance [it] can encourage some people to read and write more about Philippine cinema, the way film festivals motivate others to make films.

What did you change about the initial structure of “Pelikula”? How did you select the writers and the topics that will be included in the volumes?

“Pelikula” is very different now from its earlier iteration. Our cinema itself has changed much. Imagine, we were only dreaming about digital cinema then. Now we hold film festivals online! But “Pelikula” is still “Pelikula” in that, as before, it aspires to be a journal of ideas.

For the initial volumes, I functioned like a curator or a programmer. I assessed [the] current landscape and surveyed various networks (schools, institutions, the regions) to gain insight on what young and veteran scholars are currently doing. I invited people to pitch ideas and abstracts. And then, my associate editors, Tito Quiling and Louise Jashil Sonido, and I shepherded the writing, review, and revision of the articles. Some prospective contributors dropped out in the process, and we invited new authors as the volumes were shaping up.

I imagine that a portion of the succeeding volumes will be put together in this manner, although we plan to open “Pelikula” for unsolicited submissions eventually.

I was reminded that one of Philippine cinema’s greatest legacies is that many of our film artists and workers were conscientious, socially engaged, and politically active. It didn’t take much effort to see that this legacy, this tradition of activism, remains alive and well today.

How did you go about chronicling such a precarious time that has inevitably changed the film industry forever — for better or worse?

The tail-end of the work on the 2020 volume of Pelikula happened during the pandemic. Locked down in our homes, we witnessed the closure of ABS-CBN, the conviction of Maria Ressa, the passing of the Anti-Terror Bill, the relentless extrajudicial killings of activists and peasant leaders, and the red-tagging of dissenters. I was asking myself what the value of “Pelikula” will and should be in these dark times.

In the two new volumes, we chronicled the development of political filmmaking from Marcos’s time to the present. I was re-reading these articles during the layout phase. I was reminded that one of Philippine cinema’s greatest legacies is that many of our film artists and workers were conscientious, socially engaged, and politically active. It didn’t take much effort to see that this legacy, this tradition of activism, remains alive and well today.

UPFI, one way or another, was partnering with different groups and supporting various initiatives that were directly responding to pressing issues. This position gave us a particular vantage point. I was fortunate to be a witness to the courage and daring of film people. We wanted “Pelikula” to serve as a witness, too.

So I invited a few more contributors to bring the journal up to date with what was happening. And I asked cinematographer Neil Daza and director Mike de Leon if we could use their photographs to create visual-archival essays to mark the historical moment. They were all gracious to say yes at the last minute.