Is there still space for the Filipino film critic?

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With films becoming more widely available and social networking site Letterboxd democratizing the landscape, who do we consider critics? Illustration by JL JAVIER

In the past few years, we’ve experienced a drastic change in the way we watch films. With theaters closed, streaming services and (let’s be real) illegal torrent sites have enabled audiences to enjoy cinema from the comfort of their homes. Film festivals have begun incorporating online components in their programmes. Short films are now squeezing their way into the mainstream. What was once a restricted and elite artform is now accessible to more people around the world. The future described by the late National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera — one where “accessibility ceases to be a liability” — seems to be visible in the horizon.

From casual conversations to being the centerpiece of classroom discussions, films have been woven into the fabric of the everyday lives of Filipinos. However, film criticism hasn’t enjoyed the same cultural or economic attention, in part due to its own issues with accessibility, both in platform and language. But now that there is too much to watch and too little time to watch it, audiences want to make sure that their investments in cinema are resources well-spent and they look towards film critics for not only what to watch, but also how to make sense of what they’ve watched. It is no wonder that, with cinema suddenly available to us in such a way at such a high volume, film criticism has experienced an unprecedented boom.

Like the artform it criticizes, film criticism has changed drastically over the years as well. Broadsheets and scholarly articles are no longer the sole sources of reviews and criticisms. With digital outnumbering print media, many of the discussions that would typically happen immediately outside of theaters or in closed academic settings are now happening online in front of everyone. On a platform for everyone to voice their opinions regardless of their knowledge of cinema, what counts as criticism? Who gets to be a film critic? Is there still space for the Filipino film critic?

Becoming a Letterboxd addict

In attempting to answer these questions, I have to tell you about my origin story. Every film critic has one. Bienvenido Lumbera began writing when he discovered that his classmates didn’t know anything about local cinema. Alexis Tioseco took writing seriously after he watched “Batang West Side” and interviewed Lav Diaz, feeling a deepening responsibility to share what he discovered. Mine begins with the internet. Specifically, Letterboxd.

Described as the “Goodreads of film," Letterboxd is a social networking service for films. Individuals use it to discover films, create lists, and log, rate, and write about whatever they’ve watched in a fun and low-stakes environment — regardless of whether or not they are cinephiles. On the app, masterpieces are no longer treated as static examples of artistic excellence and cult classics are given their proper due. Every film (or at least those that are available in the database) is now subject to the scrutiny of the user, each hailing from their own context in their small corner of the world.

On Letterboxd, masterpieces are no longer treated as static examples of artistic excellence and cult classics are given their proper due. Photo from LETTERBOXD

In mid-2019, I downloaded the Letterboxd app for the first time upon the recommendation of a friend and posted my first review on Ari Aster’s “Midsommar.” After an afternoon of retroactively logging all of the films I’ve seen, I was shocked (!!!) at how few Filipino films were on my list. The app was a reminder that there was still so much to discover and, luckily, it provided a map of where to go next. The more films I consumed, the more I found myself wanting to write about what I saw — an exercise dictated less by the desire to be popular in the online sphere or be taken “seriously” as a film critic, and more by a need to make sense of what I witnessed by critically examining it and approximating my experiences in writing.

It’s far from perfect: there are many Filipino titles that are absent from the catalogue and the skew of both the users and the kind of cinema registered on the database is still towards those in the Global North. Still, more Filipinos are now writing about Filipino films and in the Filipino language as well as other native languages with some consciously injecting uniquely Filipino references and humor into their short reviews. Its popularity has provided enough tailwind for a countermovement: the development of Haters of Letterboxd: Golagat Edition; a humorous riot against Western pretentiousness and formalism.

A screenshot from Haters of Letterboxd: Golagat Edition, a Facebook page that is a humorous riot against Western pretentiousness and formalism. Photo from HATERS OF LETTERBOXD: GOLAGAT EDITION/FACEBOOK

Seeking an unconventional film school

Each generation seeks a space that can welcome their stories and assuage this desire to share their experiences of cinema. For me, it was Letterboxd. In the early 2010s, it was the film blog: where now-prominent critics Richard Bolisay, Oggs Cruz, Dodo Dayao, Philbert Dy, Noel Vera, and Alexis Tioseco wrote about what they watched and what they thought and experienced. They found each other in the comments section, formed a de facto community during physical screenings and created a space where independent long-form writing could exist unregulated and unedited; one that would later inspire so many other Filipino film critics.

Today, the closest equivalent of these blogs are social media platforms and it is no surprise that many critics — both here and abroad — have migrated onto these, cultivating publics and taking their criticism where audiences are. For Princess Kinoc, editor-in-chief of Film Police Reviews, blogs were where she initially practiced her writing but Facebook groups like Cinephiles! were where she found a community.

“It is by far the best experience I’ve had as a film lover in the Philippines,” says Kinoc, who was introduced to the group through film programmer Chris Fajardo. In a way, Cinephiles! was her induction to an informal film school and her classmates were a mixture of casual moviegoers, industry insiders, and, you guessed it, cinephiles ready to discuss recent developments in Filipino film and global cinema. It was here that she met future collaborators that she’d end up working with at Film Police Reviews and Third World Cinema Club. “Everyone had diverse interests in the craft, discussions were heavy, and everyone felt like family.”

Outside of these recommendation groups, Facebook also provided an avenue for filmmakers to engage in dialogue with their audiences, enlightening them on the production process through initiatives such as Cine Sundays, film club sessions by Cine Critico Filipino, and the spotlight sessions by Sinepanghalina. Twitter was home to immediate reactions, hot takes, and open discussions (really, they’re fights) about films through microblogging, review threads, and live audio conversations such as #CineSpaces that mimic the pre- and post-screening chaos. Instagram accounts such as Film Circle Reject and Film Lokal create visual reviews and snippets while Tiktok became home to quick movie soundbites, which doubled as a form of entertainment.

With this growth in the circles comes experimentations with not only the substance of the criticism but also the form. Independent film magazines such as Kino Punch and New Durian Cinema are being written, edited, and published by younger critics, but recently video essays such as bed under the red, Cinetactic, and cinemil have gained popularity, each dissecting Filipino films for educational purposes. Podcasts such as Third World Cinema Club and Endslate have also hosted hour-long discussions with industry insiders to deglamorize the production process.

In the absence of formal structures to support them, people have created their pockets wherein they can cultivate their own voice and develop their own audience. While Kinoc concedes that these communities and the criticism that flows from them may be different from the academe, she sees these not as bastardizations of film criticism, but rather expansions towards enriching the landscape of discourse. “Long-form writing will always stay and will always find its proper audience,” says Kinoc. While the tendency is to look for a singular voice that cuts through, Kinoc is hesitant to dismiss critics who are still building momentum. “Gone are the days when the academic perspective is the only perspective there is. We are all critics.”

Avoiding an Olympics of taste

Social media has provided opportunities for those who have historically been in the fringes of these cultural conversations to be discovered and for other voices to gain traction on the basis of insight, distinctness of style, and commitment — challenging the paradigms of critical writing that have long benefitted academics, cis male critics, and those living in Metro Manila who have access to a bulk of the opportunity and attention.

But still, social media runs on algorithms and these inadvertently encourage the gamification of any endeavor. Herein lies the danger of film criticism when it crosses over to the mainstream: there becomes a competition between artforms. People have marathons of who can watch the most movies in the shortest amount of time, races of whose best actress should have won the coveted award, and competitions on whose constructed canon is better through an endless amount of lists. There is little regard for how these practices do more harm than good — encouraging "content" gluttony and passive viewership, reinforcing the status quo, affirming shameless displays of cultural capital, and dividing the population based on their privileges.

In the absence of formal structures to support them, people have created their pockets wherein they can cultivate their own voice and develop their own audience.

Individual critics aren’t the only ones guilty of these mistakes. Even academic institutions and film critics societies such as the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP), the Young Critics Circle (YCC), and more recently, the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers (SFFR, of which I am a part of) are also culpable of creating these in and out groups, intentionally or not.

“The most apparent goal of film societies is to advertise Philippine cinema,” says Cruz. While critics circles can promote cinema through film screenings, talks, and releasing their own books and reviews, Cruz argues that their most important function, at least in the eyes of the public, is conferring awards. “They bring together voices in the hopes of multiplying their anointing power.”

These practices and organizations are part of larger systems that attempt to pursue some form of objectivity in film criticism; to arrive at a penultimate "best." Aggregate sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and even Pinoy Rebyu have created efforts to make a science out of it (i.e. numbered ratings), converting insights into statistics. But these only give the illusion of objectivity, due to an overrepresentation of critics from the Global North, or of cis male critics. When we limit ourselves to binaries or scales, we undermine the complexity of cinema and it narrows down the kinds of films we open ourselves up to. “Filipinos are prone to groupthink,” says film critic and lawyer Oggs Cruz. “It stops you from discovering films outside of the consensus.”

While awards can provide artistic and economic affirmation in the industry (especially to newer filmmakers), these do not necessarily illuminate the audiences as to why these films are of cultural or artistic importance. Cruz emphasizes that these divisions may be counterproductive to the goals of the organizations and of film criticism itself. The past efforts of critical societies such as these — at least the ones available for perusal online — have catered primarily to the art form and the industry, supporting existing hegemonies without directly contributing to audience development nor creating opportunities to address these inequalities.

It is unfortunate that these film critics societies in the Philippines do not have more consistent output and whatever publications and print media developed in the past are too expensive and difficult to come by — making their important contributions to cinematic history unknown to those who will benefit from it the most. Recent efforts such as the YCC podcast and the revival and online distribution of UP Film Institute’s Pelikula Journal have been attempts at correcting these past faults, conscious that knowledge should be shared outside of closed circuits.

Pricing plurality

In the process of becoming a film critic, it is important to have (at least) a general idea of how films are made and distributed to decipher what each film’s message is, how these messages are delivered, and how they find their audiences. But outside of academia, there are few avenues for audiences to develop film literacy. Film education requires money and time and opportunities for career development as a critic are limited to those abroad such as those in Rotterdam, Locarno, or Berlin. In the absence of such capital, beginners like myself rely on free media to deepen our understanding of the craft.

“When there are few writers, you rely on them so much that the perspectives get too narrow,” says Richard Bolisay, a film critic, book author, and assistant professor at the UPFI. “When there are more of them, you get to compare what they write, and you get to see faults.” Bolisay believes that the co-existence of these various publics is not only possible, but necessary. And for these to flourish and last, even outside of the mainstream, it must be supported by environments that shoulder the opportunity cost.

The lack of varied perspectives in Filipino film criticism exists not because there are few people engaged in film criticism but because there are few spaces and opportunities for both the development of film criticism and the practice of film writing itself.

The lack of varied perspectives in Filipino film criticism exists not because there are few people engaged in film criticism but because there are few spaces and opportunities for both the development of film criticism and the practice of film writing itself. Film programs in various Philippine institutions train students in filmmaking and production, not necessarily in criticism and writing. This is unsurprising considering that there are few local publications that take in film criticism and the few that do have limited positions for compensated work. While there exists local independent efforts from the likes of Cinema Centenario, these are few and far between.

Though the Film Development Council of the Philippines has begun investing more in the local industry through local and international co-production grants, little financial support goes to the improvement of film criticism in the country, further emphasizing structural disinterest in the field. Even in recent years, film criticism, programming, and curation are largely absent in the discussion, even as these are increasingly valuable to the film’s artistry and economics, and to the public’s appreciation of the final product.

“There should be opportunities for people — not just men, but also women, LGBT+ communities — to have a career in something,” says Bolisay, who encourages those who want to be film critics to write, do their research, develop their tastes, seek out opportunities, and learn through the channels available to them, reminding aspiring critics that it is a process not an end result. “We won’t be able to be good critics without starting out, figuring things out, and writing some ‘bad’ pieces that will teach us the right ways to do it. Ang problem kasi is that when you commit a mistake, you get shut out, lose your drive, or lose opportunities.”

These problems and limits to film criticism are not a purely Filipino experience. Many countries struggle to grow and diversify because there is little public and private investment in these endeavors. Countries with bustling landscapes such as Singapore, Berlin, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy, England, Belgium, and Indonesia have recognized these problems earlier and have turned to their festivals and governments to fund opportunities like film criticism workshops to develop local and international critics.

Locating the Filipino film critic

Criticism, at its best, empowers the audiences to become active viewers and discover films on their own, while also challenging the art form, conscious of its power as an ideological state apparatus. Luminaries such as Hammy Sotto, Bienvenido Lumbera, Nicanor Tiongson, and their contemporaries have long paved the way for the development of cinema and the Great Filipino audience by encouraging critical thinking and artistic clarity.

The more I have written about film criticism, the more I realize that it is informed by what I have seen before and my social reality — my identity, class, politics, position in the world, values, and even my understanding of what cinema is, can do, and should be. In analyzing film itself, we put in our perspective of the world. And if film is to be as expansive and diverse as we hope it could be, then film criticism should reflect those same qualities. To define what counts as criticism and who gets to be a film critic seems reductive because these questions are supposed to be difficult to answer. No one has a monopoly on insight, nor the power to create singular definitions for such a collaborative art form.