A Vibrant Range of Cinema – Taking a Glance at the Philippine’s Independent Film Industry

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If we take a little glimpse at the film culture of the Philippines and especially its cinema, we can face a huge heritage already developed since the early 20th century. The Philippines which is now considered as one of the oldest film industries in Asia, discovered the film genre itself as a new art medium at that time. Particularly Philippine literature as well as theatre — popular at the time — were fundamental for the films characterization. Philippine cinema has continued to evolve since then, especially due to political influences. Today, it features a range and variety of genres, from mainstream blockbusters to thought-provoking independent films.

The latter has actually existed almost as long as commercial cinema but was further marginalized. As it often referred to the realities of life within society and politics which tended to reveal social as well as political conditions.The Fifties — considered the first golden age of Philippine cinema — saw the release of many artistic films which gained wide-spread recognition. Such as Genghis Khan, directed by Manuel Conde in 1952 that is regarded as the first Asian film screened at the Cannes Film Festival as well as the Venice Film Festival

The very first Independent Film Movement emerged between the 50s and 70s during which the production of independent films increased sharply.  The 1960s in particular would come up with new and independent film productions and genres such as musicals, action and bomba (soft porn) films. 

During Martial Law 

In the 1970s the content of the films became more political due to the martial law under President Marcos, as films were often used as propaganda at the time. Due to this, the film industry was restricted and circulated by Marcos and the technocrats working for him. Due to the censorship of films, the content of many of them was controlled and the script had to be submitted and approved even before shooting the film. Despite the government’s censorship, the second golden era of Philippine cinema started in the late 70s. In the last years of martial rule, many films were also made that opposed the Marcos dictatorship by dealing with themes such as lower class realities and oppression. Lino Brocka, for example — considered one of the most influential Filipino directors at the time — often dealt with social issues and injustices within his films which drove him into open confrontation with the Marcos regime. Later Lino Brocka’s name was included in the wall of remembrance of Bantayog ng mga Bayani,which honors persons who fought against martial law in the Philippines under Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Director Lino Brocka
Image sourced from the Center for Asian American Media

The film Mababangong Bangungot by the Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik won the international critic’s prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1977. Due to this, independent cinema — by becoming more relevant and indispensable — began to separate from mainstream cinema. Young filmmakers in particular began to make independent films that dealt even more with society’s issues and driving deeper into the human being. 

After Martial Law 

It can be seen that — already quite immediately after Marcos’ escape to Hawaii — the portrayal of Philippine conditions and realities of life inherently held an opposing position against the former president. The medium of film was seen as a mirror of a society — ruled by contradictions between the ruling class and socio-political elites as well as the masses. As a result, the emphasis of independent films tended to focus on personal creativity and often referred to ideological views. 

New Wave known as the Third Golden Age of Philippine Cinema 

Then after a time, most Filipino films were mass-produced for commercial success, the 2000s saw the continuous decline of commercial films and the increasing emergence of digital, experimental and independent films within the local industry. In this period — considered the New Wave or The Third Golden Age of Independent Cinema — there was an expansion in the distribution of digital films, making film production more accessible for independent filmmakers. 

To take us on a little journey to his beginnings and work as a director, we interviewed Brillante Mendoza who is considered a representative of Philippine independent cinema. When we take a look back at the year 2005 — when he released his first feature film Masahista for which he received The Best Director award at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival — he describes this time as “the start of digital technology”. He tells us that before that they would use 35mm to make films which was very expensive to shoot on as well as not accessible. “So the digital technology somehow democratized the industry, especially the independent filmmakers being able to create their own films.” When it comes to the beginning of digital filmmaking, Mendoza mentions that in the past he completely would came from nowhere. “I worked in the industry but not as a director, I worked behind the scenes. So I think this time somehow gave inspiration to a lot of filmmakers, especially the young ones and new ones because they believed that they can also create a name of their own. So that’s how it started in 2005.” 

Brillante Mendoza working on his film Lola (2009)
Image sourced from L’express

Audience in the Philippines 

Describing the relation of independent cinema in the Philippines and Hollywood and how the audience perceives independent films, Mendoza points out that “there is a division between independent cinema and mainstream cinema. In the Philippines we are exposed to Hollywood. Hollywood mainstream is how we define cinema actually. For a lot of artists it is quite difficult.  They struggle with the audience and with their stories and films. But I think this one thing nice about the Philippine artists, is that they manage somehow to adapt to whatever situation we are in. Wether it is political, economic or whatever. We try to adapt where we can, we try to survive and create films.”

Referring to finding audiences, Mendoza mentions the relevance of encouraging the audience to go back to the cinema due to the influence of streaming platforms which “somehow make it comfortable and accessible for anybody to watch films.”

Independent Cinema as a Political Space 

In the past — especially in the last years of the dictatorship under Marcos as well as in the following period — Philippine independent cinema provided many opportunities for young filmmakers to express their political views as well as social and economic conditions throughout provoking films. Mentioning the films of Filipino director Lav Diaz (considered as very political), Mendoza points out that his own films would be political because they would always dwell on social issues. Regarding political films he tells us that in the Philippines, people would be hard on television but not on films, because television would be accessible to everyone, including children. “In the Philippines when you make a political film, there is always a venue where you can show it. Artists can always find a venue to show it, whether it is a screening or even in university.”

Filipino cinema 
Image sourced  from San Diego Filipino Cinema 

Film Festivals as Relevant Platform 

The development of independent cinema contributed to a wide variety of films from the Philippines. Independent filmmakers have found platforms to showcase their work through various film festivals such as the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival that has been instrumental in promoting independent film. It awards grants to filmmakers to nurture their talents and support the creation of groundbreaking films which often address socio-political issues, personal stories and unique cultural perspectives. In addition to how festivals can provide a platform and opportunity for filmmakers, Brillante Mendoza emphasizes that he would believe that the product itself is the most important thing, regardless of a film festival.

“There are lot of opportunities, a lot of platforms whether for streaming or festivals. But in the end of the day it is the product, so the film will find the right audience I think. If you work so hard on the material, the film will find its audience” — Brillante Mendoza 

Building on this idea, he shares an experience about submitting his films to the Cannes Film Festival. ‘The two times I submitted a film to Cannes, they were both not finished because I lacked money for my postproduction. I remember submitting Kinatay — when I won the Best Director — the programer was telling me “we can not see your film because everything is pixelated”. I said “why?”, “Because you sent a very low quality. You could only hear the sound and reading the subtitles. But it was so powerful so we took it.”‘

Experiences like these make it clear once again that it is particularly a matter of which stories  filmmakers tell — and how they tell them. No matter if the film is a big budget production and  uses innovative technology. But as mentioned above, film festivals can provide platforms to empower young filmmakers, support them and gain valuable experiences. They inherently hold possibilities for filmmakers when it comes to networking, educational opportunities or showing their story to the world. 

As we catch an insight into the world of Philippine cinema, its diverse and thriving landscape — that encompasses a wide range of narrative styles and themes — becomes apparent. While mainstream cinema continues to captivate audiences, it is  independent films in particular — continuously developing due to historical, social and political influences — which truly capture the essence of Filipino culture, identity and creativity. 

Besides the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Festival, you should also not miss out on the All Asian Independent Film Festival which is running on the 6th, 7th and 8th of October in Manila this year. Showing 35 films from 18 countries, this festival is giving a space to various independent filmmakers and by that to their untold stories as well.

Tickets for the All Asian Independent Film Festival available here 

Written by Ida Hensel

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