On The Road To Writing About Pinoy Docus, I Gained Enlightment
by Ed delos Santos Cabagnot

Since 2005, Pinoy feature films have gained ever-increasing footholds in the international festival scene. The most obvious examples, of course, are the oeuvres of production designer turned director, Brillante Mendoza. His film Serbis (Service), on the moral decay of a family running a equally decrepit movie house, vied for the 2008 Cannes Palm D'Or. To be followed by a more daring, though controversial, coup the following year -for bagging the Best Director trophy for the uber-violent Kinatay (Butchered). Both were firsts for Philippine cinema.

The two oeuvres were shot in "real-time". The term suggests that the director is attempting, with varying degrees of success, to capture the action when/where/as it happens, and with as little editing room interjections as possible.

This style of filmmaking –characterized by dizzying handheld shots, which are also, more often than not, follow-throughs of whoever is currently dribbling the narrative ball- has become the flavour-of-the-month device among an ever-increasing number of local indie hopefuls. To some sectors, the term “Pinoy Indie” has become synonymous with this vertigo-inducing, tuhog1 type of storytelling.

The idea being, “If it works for Dante2, then...”

For cineastes of a certain age, this author included, this “exciting, new style” of making movies, ain’t new at all. Think cinema direct and/or vérité –depending on which teat you sucked on in your late 60's/early 70's film classes.

Literally “film truth”, cinema vérité, was a style of filmmaking de rigueur among French film directors in the 1960's who preferred to capture people in everyday situations using, again more quotes, “authentic” dialogue and “natural” action. Like the ill-fated Dogme of the early 2000’s, this could be seen as a reaction against factory-line, Hollywood-style movie-making.

Wiki, pardon the philistine lack of scholarship, tries to explain the difference between the two3:
Cinéma vérité (French: [sinema veʁite], "truthful cinema"; English: /ˈsɪnɨmə vɛrɨˈteɪ/) is a style of documentary filmmaking, combining naturalistic techniques with stylized cinematic devices of editing and camerawork, staged set-ups, and the use of the camera to provoke subjects. It is also known for taking a provocative stance toward its topics.

... There are subtle yet important differences among these terms. Direct Cinema is largely concerned with the recording of events in which the subject and audience become unaware of the camera's presence. Operating within what Bill Nichols, an American historian and theoretician of documentary film, calls the "observational mode," direct cinema is essentially what is now called a fly on the wall documentary. Many therefore see a paradox created by drawing attention away from the reality of the camera and simultaneously declaring the discovery of a cinematic truth.

Vive la différence!

It’s a joy to think that the “new kid on the block”—tantalizing a whole new army of Pinoy filmmakers- has been knocking around the back-alleys all these years. Half a century, in fact. And it’s interesting to note that the type of Pinoy flicks that are currently make the loudest noise abroad, owe a lot to another, though distantly related, film form, one sitting quietly on the back burners—the documentary.

This author's first brush with “fly on the wall” films happened, as with most folks, in a school setting. This was in early 70’s, the so-called FQS (First Quarter Storm) of student unrest –mostly against the Marcos regime. And the University of the Philippines was one of its hottest flashpoints. Amidst this background of general dissent, fledgling cine buffs could find sanctuary in the regular film activities organized by the then-burgeoning U.P. Film Society.

The work in question was a documentary entitled Maid In Paris by Ernesto Enriquez. And true to its cinema direct form, the filmmaker dogged his subject—as the title suggests, a Pinay domestic helper in the City of Lights- as she went through her day, pouring out her heart to the camera. No doubt the society’s flirtation with this very continental manner of telling a tale was borne from the mind of its founding director, playwright/poetess Virginia Moreno. The diminutive lady with the shrill, birdlike voice was an unabashed Francophile—one of her favoured appellations would be as Special Envoy to the UNESCO, which was based in Paris.

Barang, as she would be called by her many wards, knew her films. And the small film society eventually evolved into the U.P. Film Center in 1976. There she continued to hold court—a nurturing Stein surrounded by a court of loyal Alices. Under her wing, a host of important film personages took flight. Aside from Enriquez, one of her more distinguished wards was Amable “Tikoy” Aguiluz.

His 15-minute documentary, Mt. Banahaw, Holy Mountain won the Silver Trophy at the Iran’s Young Filmmakers of Asia Festival. The film focused on the religiose, almost arcane beliefs and practices—a strange amalgamation of Christian and pantheist ways- of devotees who regularly trek to mystical Mount Banahaw to seek favours atone for past sins.

Aguiluz made his name in 1984, with his full-length feature entitled Boatman, which essayed the plight of an ordinary boat man forced by circumstance to become a live sex performer. The film premiered at the Manila Film Center –one of fruits of Imelda Marcos’ legendary “edifice complex”- to rave reviews.

Eventually, Barang would lose her beloved brainchild to the U.P. school system, when it would be “absorbed” by the university’s School of Mass Communication in April 2005.4

Another name worth mentioning from this era has actually... two names. Despite being a U.P. alumni, Eric De Guia, better known as Kidlat Tahimik (Silent Lightning), could be said to have grown sui generis –that is, apart from the U.P. Film Center coterie.

There is no mistaking him in a crowd—Kidlat would always be decked in Igorot5 finery, trinkets and all, with his trade-mark soup-bowl coiffure (now a ponytail, in his silver years). But the man with the native production design is also a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, with a Master in Business Administration.

Kidlat is clearly an individualist, not only in dress but, more especially, with the type of films he makes—they are, for lack of a term, highly personal, semi-autobiographical essays in documentary form.

In 1977, he disarmed the public with his Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare). The film tells the tale of a jeepney driver (played by Kidlat himself) transplanted to Paris and his life- shattering encounter with Progress and Technology. Legend has it that the work was inspired by an unexpected encounter with German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Stranded in Europe at the time, Kidlat tore at the project using expired films stock, as well as found footages.

In June 1977, the “semi-documentary” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival’s Young Filmmakers Forum. It won the nod from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI, short for Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) which conferred on it a Prix de La Critique Internationale. Somehow the film caught the interest of Francis Ford Coppolo, who helped him find worldwide distribution via his American Zoetrope.

His other seminal work, Turumba (1981), talks about the impact of commercialism on a small barrio’s crafts-people. Set against the colourful backdrop of the town’s Marian feast day celebrations, the docu centers on young boy whose family is into the creation of papier-mâché crafts and their brushes with monetary success.

Kidlat’s themes range from incisive critiques of the Filipino’s neo-colonial baggage, to ecological imperatives –but, of course, all told with disarming charm.

At this point we have a Flashback

One cannot talk about Philippine documentaries without taking a stroll down memory lane. But having said that, the walk would be a short one –since the garden is more profuse of fauna of the fiction kind. Local scholars are at odds with one another as to when Philippine Cinema began –some say 1912, others some years later. But most are in agreement that the first production was the silent film La Vida de Rizal (1913?) on the life and death of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal. It was directed by Harry Brown, an American –this was, after all, during the American occupation of the country.

But the first films about the Philippines to flicker on the screens of the teatros at the time were documentaries. The earliest known, existing piece is a 42-second clip entitled The Escalta, Manila (Mutoscope & Biograph), shot in 1903, from the archives of the Library of US Congress. It shows a busy streetscene –the avenue being Escolta, not the mispelling on the title card filled with with kalesas (horse-driven carriages), a similarly-power tram, some well-heeled pedestrians (wearing suits at noon!), and an ambulant vendor plying his wares.

(Through the wonders of modern technology, one can actually see this clip on YouTube6—aswell as other interesting archival shots of Old Manila.)

This author first saw the above in 1982, when the Thomas Jefferson Library donated 16mm copies of the clip, along with other ditties essaying various stages of the Philippine-American war, to the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (more on this later).

Aside from nostalgia, the shorts elicited in me and my co-viewers, a sense of wonder at how pioneer filmmakers of the time could have shot these subjects, especially the war scenes taken from both battlelines. For audience members more interested in archiving, the awe was in how these few titles escaped the ravages of time.

It would be a few years later when I would discover, ever socasually, that the war scenes were all staged. That means, shot somewhere in the U.S.A., with local extras of colour.

More that feeling betrayed about the “deception”, this inculcated into my then-gullible mind the need for a certain sense of detachment and discernment in the watching of films of fact, aka documentaries. And from further viewings, and often-heated discussions with fellow cineastes and filmmakers through the decades, it seems that the relation between Verity and the non-fiction film will continue to be a burning issue, indefinitely.

At this point let me make mention of two names that have figured brightly in the history of the Filipino documentary: Lamberto V. Avellana and Ben Pinga.

Avellana is mostly remembered for his finely-crafted body of narrative oeuvres, mostly done for LVN Pictures, one of the leading studios of the time. Of the fifty or more full-lengths he directed, three are considered undisputed classics of the so-called “Golden Age of Pinoy Cinema”, of the late 50’s and early 60’s—Anak Dalita (Child of Sorrow) in 1956; Badjao (The Sea Gypsies), 1957; and A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1965). In a sense, the trio are flukes. Unlike other films of the era, the generation of lucre/profit was not their main reason for being. These were envisioned to be quality projects, “art films” –our local pambatos (competition entrees) to world cinema; the Philippines’ answer Japan’s Rashomon and Seven Samurai, as well as India’s Apu trilogy.

For his efforts, Avellana was conferred the highest artistic honor of the land in 1976, the National Artist Award for Film –the first ever to be given for this art form7.

In the realm of documentary filmmaking, Avellana proved to be no slacker. In 1959, his short Espanya para sa El Legado received the Conde Foxa Award in the First International Festival of Documentary and Short Film of Bilbao, Spain. Two years later, Avellana won the same award in for his La Campana de Baler (The Bells of Baler). Then in 1969, his The Survivor grabbed the Best Documentary Award in the Cambodian Film Festival.

La Campana..., a documentary about the valiant last stand of Spanish soldiers against Filipino insurrectos (rebels), also became the basis for a full-length Spanish movie called Los Ultimos en Filipinas.

On another hand, Ben Guevara Pinga is considered by some sectors as the Father of Filipino Documentary Filmmakers. Ever the busy man, the former World War 2 veteran is also regarded as a co-founder of many a film-related institution, among them, the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) –our local version of the Oscars; and the Philippine Society of Cinematographers. But he is best remembered for the setting up of the Organization of Specialized Filmmakers, OSFILM for short –once a very active springboard for local documentary filmmakers. One of the more indelible programs of OSFILM was the Screen Education for High School Teachers trainor’s training course, held every summer at the City of Baguio.

Film-wise, he produced the “experimental documentary”, Bataan: Soul of a Fortress in 1964 and directed by Ferdie Grofe. Like Avellana, the film won a Silver Medal in the Bilbao festival. This documentary’s unique, almost poetic approach inspired a slew of similarly-styled nonfiction works.

Aside from the film, the name Ben Pinga should also be remembered. He was one of the first teachers of film subjects in the country. He taught at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM) and the De La Salle University. Pinga established the Film Institute of the Philippines under PLM, and became the faculty of PLM’s Department of Cinema and TV in 1970, the first in the country.

Indie Films Find a Home—albeit a haunted one

One of the best efforts of the government to give the local film industry a shot in the arm was the creation of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, or ECP for short. Its short-lived existence—just barely four years- would play against the backdrop of one of the most dramatic episodes of Philippine history.

It came into being on February 1982. This was the height of the Marcos regime. By that time, Ferdinand Marcos has been in power for more than 17 years –a power that became absolute when he declared Martial Law a decade previously. In about a year and half, his staunchest political opponent, the exiled Sen. Benigno Aquino, would be shot dead at the tarmac—minutes after the landing at the Manila International Airport. His death remains a mystery to this date. Aquino’s very public murder would spark a huge wave of public indignation, causing Filipinos from all walks of life to take to the streets in the subsequent months. These pubic outcries would eventually culminate in the now-legendary EDSA People Power Revolution of February 1986 –an event that would mark the end Marcos’ iron rule, with him and family being flown off to Hawaii, tail-between-legs.

ECP was envisioned by the Marcos think-tanks to be a one-stop shop at the service of a movie industry on its death throes. Housed at the then spankingly new Manila Film Center (MFC), it was made up of several arms each one having its own mission -a Film Production unit8, Film Programming9, Film Education, an Archive10, a Film Fund11, the Film Ratings Board12, and Theatre Operations.

Aside from being tasked to create a year-round programme of Alternative Cinema for the MFC, the Film Programming division was also in charge of the ECP Independent Film & Video Competition. This was a brainchild of the unit’s head, playwright-turned-screenwright Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega Jr.13 The annual competition/festival was designed to give recognition the best efforts of young Filipino filmmakers, as well as create interest in the production of independent short films –at that time, such efforts were confined to a limited number of schools, unlike today.

Awards were handed out in four categories –short feature, experimental, animation, and, of course, documentary. And as the competition’s moniker suggests, these were given out separately to film and video entries. It is interesting to note that during the three-year run of the ECP awards, there were more films than video entries –mostly 16mms, the products of workshops and/or schools.

If memory serves this writer right, the Manila Film Center was always a busy hive for film artists and cineastes alike –especially during the last week of October when the ECP short film festival and its awards night would take place. There was always something going on, film-wise, almost every week –screenings of classic and contemporary gems, both mainstream and independent, local and international- in its many, different-sized venues.14

It also helped that the Mowelfund Film Institute (MFI) was situated at the upper basement of the MFC during that era. The MFI is one of the premier film education institutions in the Philippines. What makes it special is that it is not based in a traditional academic setting (i.e. school system). It is the educational arm of the Movie Workers Welfare Foundation, Inc. (MOWELFUND) –which was founded in 1974 for the benefit of workers in the Philippine motion picture industry. Its godfather was the former action star-turned-politico, and eventually the 13th President of the Philippines15, Joseph E. Estrada. Through the decades the MFI has produced quite a stable of independent film luminaries, including Cannes-featured Mendoza and Raymond Red.16 A number of them, documentary filmmakers.

One of the more outstanding names is erstwhile MFI director, Nick Deocampo. Like most of the other indies of the time, Deocampo was an ECP Independent Film & Video Competition awardee. His documentary about a male sex-dancer, Oliver, shocked audiences and bagged top prizes of the 1983 edition of the competition.17

It’s too bad that ECP suffered, after EDSA, the fate of many institutions branded as “Marcos machineries”. Along with the Manila Film Center, it was shut down in February 1986. During the new dispensation, its holdings –lock, stock and barrel- were turned over to the Task Force for Cinema.18

In any case, the ECP Independent Film & Video Competition escaped this dire fate. Within a year or so, it was “reincarnated” as one of the key programs of a neighbouring institution—the Cultural Center of the Philippines. CCP can be considered one of the few Marcos (albeit Imelda’s) creations that managed to escape Aquino retribution.

The Sad/Happy/Strange Tale of the CCP Gawad Alternatibo

The Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP)—unlike its tragic, reputedly haunted sister19, the Manila Film Center—survived well into (and beyond!) the Corazon Aquino administration. Despite the fact that the CCP was Imelda Marcos’ brainchild, the incoming powers-that-be chose to ignore its decadent origins and allowed its existence—but not without great cost.

Originally, the CCP was envisioned by Imelda to be the penultimate venue for world-class performances in Manila. Only the crème de la crème of internationally renowned artists were invited to perform on its stage—to name a few, Van Cliburn, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev. This was a part of the First Lady’s bid to sell the Philippines as the arts and culture Mecca on this side of the planet. In same breadth, her opulent Manila International Film Festival, which ran from 1978 until the founding of the ECP, was being drummed up as the “Cannes of Asia”. One must say, the woman didn’t lack for ambition.

But the new managers of the Center thought otherwise. Two of the criticisms hurled at the Marcos regime, particularly in Imelda’s direction, were: 1) that the arts being promoted and performed on the CCP stages were only for the elite (certainly not the teeming masses); and 2) culture was primarily utilized as a weapon, albeit polished, for political ends. The new CCP heads then went about a 180-degree transmutation of the Center, including its vision/mission, and especially so, its programmes. These activities now ran alongside the taglines of Cory—namely, “decentralization, democratisation, and Philippine-nization”.

Thus from being a Performance Venue for elitist, exclusive Art, the CCP was now running on Coordinating Center mode for all the now-seven art-forms –previously it was only Dance, Theatre and Music, now it also serviced the Visual Arts/Architecture, Literature, and, of course, the Film and Broadcast sectors.

And so, the newly-formed CCP Coordinating Center for Film took over the vacuum left by the closure of the ECP—including its much-lauded short film festival found. This was revived as the Gawad CCP Para Sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Video (The CCP Independent Film & Video Competition). All this was through the efforts of its then-director, film critic and scholar, Agustin “Hammy” Sotto. Patterned almost exactly from the mold of its predecessor, the CCP Gawad Alternatibo would give out awards in four categories (short feature, experimental, animation, and documentary); and for two separate media (film and video)—even the entry rules, regulations and mechinics were “borrowed” to the letter. The only obvious differences, aside from the venue, were the scaled-down cash prizes. Kindly note, that this scaling-down of government was to be experienced “across the board”, meaning by all its agencies. Almost invariably the blame would be heaped on the almost zero coffers left by the previous regime.

Established in 1987, the CCP Gawad Alternatibo claims to be the longest-running indie competition, not just in the Philippines, nor in Southeast Asia, but in the whole of Asia. Next year, it celebrates a milestone—its 25th anniversary20. And if you add the three years of ECP’s existence, that would be a total of 28 years.

On its first run, the competition attracted a total of 70 entries. Today, yearly submissions run to almost double the amount. It’s sad to note that, except for a slight increase on its 11th year (1997), the cash prizes remain the same21.

It is also interesting to note that, despite the festival’s name, there have been no film entries in any of the categories since 2003, its 16th edition. More and more people are turning digital. Forcing one old indie hand, Raymond Red, to wail, “Some of the new filmmakers have never ever shot or edited in film.”

But nobody’s to blame. The relentless forward movement of digital technology is the culprit. On one end it has democratized the way films are being made –digital cameras are getting smaller and cheaper, and almost anyone can afford a home editing unit, laptop or desktop based. Compare this to the expenses of “indies of yore” –film stock had to be acquired, and then processed, edited, and finally mastered (if you’re lucky to have rich parents/sweetheart, you can also make copies). Difficult if you’re an ordinary student with the corresponding wee budget.

On the downside, this preference for digital has forced film companies to shut down. Which is really a tragic thing—purists would claim nothing can replace the experience of film.22

In turn, this accessibility, have also reconfigured two things: 1) the type of stories being told—with handhelds you could literally go anywhere; and 2) its delivery to audiences—viewing has been freed from its theatrical shackles, now you can watch movies on your PC, laptop, touchpads, and even your mobiles (aside from downloading content, but that’s another prickly matter).

But having said the above, it doesn’t seem to affect the number of documentaries being submitted each year. Some years are just plain lean, some, a bumper crop. And that goes for all the other three categories.

If you’re into numbers, here are some statistical highlights:
  • Year(s) with the most Documentary entries

7th Edition1993
34 entries
33 video
1 film

16th Edition200328 entries
28 video
no film

17th Edition200433 entries
33 video
no film

20th Edition200830 entries
30 video
no film

  • Year(s) with the least Documentary entries

11th Edition1997
8 entries
33 video
1 film

The above suggests that, on good years, the CCP Gawad Alternatibo can expect more than thirty submissions. Kindly note that, of all the categories, documentary total running times could run to absurd lengths –during one such year, our docu judges had to sit through 38 hours of documentary films.23

If one does the math, you will note that a significant number of Pinoy filmmakers have participated in the Gawad Alternibo through its 24-year existence.

Let us attempt to present some of the more noteworthy entries and their makers.

Ditsi Carolino is one of the most successful female documentary filmmakers in the country. Her films have won here acclaim both here and abroad. She has been a Gawad Alternatibo winner many times over. But her most memorable win happened in 1996, the 10th Edition of the competition.

In that particular year, she submitted two entries: Minsan Lang Silang Bata (They’re Only Children Once) and No Time for Play. From the titles alone you can tell that her main advocacy would be child-centric.

Subsidized by the Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs, Minsan... focuses on the plight of child workers Tikboy, Delena, Cito, Bobbi, Oklo and Miting. Her blurb continues, “Only some of the millions of child labourers (in the Philippines).” The film is a tearjerker –audiences just can’t help empathize with this brave lot, who, despite their straits, still manage to retain their childlike innocence and resilience. A memorable moment is when one of the boys talks about his hopes for the future, while a cockroach rests contentedly on his forehead –during the whole spiel.

Noted journalist, Michele T. Logarta, in her article “When Was The Last Time You Watched A Documentary?”24, had this to share about the 50-minuter shot in Hi-8:

Today, I watched for the second time Ditsi Carolino’s award-winning Minsan Lang Sila Bata. Again, it touched a nerve and perhaps caused a twitch that would hopefully graduate to a calculated and reasonable action—to do something to help children like the children whose stories she told. ...

Ditsi asks: Is this situation right? That children working is acceptable in our country just because ours is a poor country. Don’t our children have the right to play, study, and be cared for? These are hard-hitting questions, questions that ram straight at the solar plexus...

Similarly, No Time for Play talks about the three to five million Filipino children who are forced to work because of poverty, landlessness and war.

“They are everywhere,” Ditsi claims, “in the cities, as well as far-flung villages, labouring in factories, sugar case plantations, even the depths of wine tunnels.”

Co-sponsored by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and the International Labour Organization, the documentary asks us to look into the lives of Filipino working children, and the ways we can jump in and help alleviate their situation.

Little does the public know that in 1996, the Gawad Alternatibo was close to being shut down. Again the reason was the dwindling funds of the CCP—which, in turn, depended on the National Budget. It’s a sad fact that, for most third world economies (the Philippines included), the first items to be slashed belong to the “non-essential/non-performing” sectors (arts and culture, for one). The life-line came in the form of a P100,000 grant from the Cultural Section of the French Embassy25. This naturally shamed the then-managers of the Center—the sentiment being, “If other folks see the importance of keeping the Gawad Alternatibo alive, why can’t its administrators?” Eventually, the CCP found ways to raise the cash. To the point that, in two years time, it did not need external buffering26.

Another documentary of interest, How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place? by Lawrence Cordero, won in the 2002 edition. Sponsored by the Jesuit Communications, the work was filmed in the garbage-dump-turned-colony of Payatas. However, instead of focusing on the obvious misery of its inhabitants, the MTV-style docu paid tribute to happy, smiling faces of the children from the area –the subtext being that God’s true dwelling place can be found in the hearts of men. Poverty porn, this sure was not.

2003 saw the political documentary Alingawngaw ng mga Punglo (The Din of Guns) taking top honors. Directed by activist filmmakers Kiri Dalena and King Catoy, and sponsored by the Southern Tagalog Collective, this 48-minute work exposed the “967 cases of human rights violation in the Southern Tagalog region” perpetrated by the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, just 22 months after snatching the reigns from Estrada. According to the filmmaker, “it seeks to let the voices of the victims be heard: their anguished cries for justice and call for lasting peace.”

The above titles are just a sampling of the wealth of documentary themes and filmmaking styles that have passed through the screening rooms of the CCP Gawad Alternatibo para sa Pelikula at Video.

Before we end this section, here’s some depressing bit of news. Last year, the CCP’s financial situation was at its nadir. It was so bad, that the organizers of the competition were forced not to come out with the traditional souvenir programme.

If this trend continues, and should no life-line make its presence felt, then this could spell the end of Asia’s longest-running indie competition.

Despite the above, it is never all doom and gloom. As the cliché goes, for every door shut, there’s...

One example of a praise-worthy indie program is Cinema Rehiyon. Going on its third year, this National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) – Cinema Committee-initiated project has at its sights the blossoming of a thousand regional flowers in terms of vibrant filmmaking –as one of its officers (Teddy Co) calls, “the forging of Philippine Cine-diversity.”

To show that it means business, it held its last edition in Davao City, Southern Philippines. And for five festival days, it screened documentaries, features, and animation from regional filmmakers representing 23 towns and cities from all over the nation.

On a grander scale, another government agency, the Film Development Council of the Philippines will be holding, in the same city of Davao, the 1st National Film Competition. Previously, they awarded grants to filmmakers from across the country –and not only for features, but also for documentaries and animation.

Come June, the fruits of the these filmmakers will be presented in the festival.

This year’s documentary grantees are: from Luzon - Jingle Lang ang Pahina by Dominador Escasa Jr. (Tagaytay), Illustrated by by Levi “Pepper” Marcelo (Manila), and Martial Law Stories by Jose Lorenzo Diokno (Manila); from the Visayas - Walay Tumo’y ng Punterya (No End in Sight) by Cierlito Espejo Tabay (Cebu), and Bulig (Binubuhay ng Pagtulong) by Lester G. Babiera (Aklan); from Mindanao - Tagurih: The Kites of Sulu by Dempster P. Samarista (Sulu); and an untitled work by Sheron Dayoc (Zamboanga).

Each of these titles received P600,000 each.

Now that’s ending on a high note.

Cinemalaya: Quo Vadis?

At the time of this writing (May 2012), plans for the eighth edition of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival are in full swing.27 Cinemalaya is considered to be one of the country’s most successful film festivals. Through the years, its audiences (mostly students and cineastes) and corresponding ticket sales have grown exponentially. On its first salvo in 2005, it attracted a total of 8,000 viewers –last year the ten-day festival drew in 48,000 strong. But its best gauges of success are the Cinemalaya-produced films themselves –Cinemalaya is not only a festival with a competition, it also gives yearly grants for the production of fifteen full-length digital features28.

Over the past seven years, the best of each year’s crop have been consistently invited to29 –and have garnered top prizes in30- the finest of international film events. Though the festival’s primary focus is on narrative features, it has included a burgeoning documentary module since 2009.

But as early as its first edition, the festival gave the nonfiction film a nod by including, in its almost completely fiction film programming, two titles by ace documentarist, Ditsi Carolino. These included one of her past Gawad CCP Alternatibo winning entries, Riles (Railways), and her globally-lauded Bunso (The Youngest). Bunso follows the plight of three street-smart boys -11-year-olds Bunso and Diosel, plus Tony, aged 13- who are sent to jail to atone for petty crimes. However the supreme irony is that these kids are left to languish in the crowded city jails of Cebu31, alongside adult criminals convicted of murder, rape and drug-pushing. The film won for Carolino, and her cinematographer-collaborator Nana Buxani, a slew of international citations32

During its screening at Cinemalaya, there wasn’t a dry eye at the MKP Hall venue when the lights went on. The audience was also aghast to find out that two of her subjects have gone the way of the child protagonist of Hector Babenco’s Pixote, a 1981 feature film on the hellish existence of Brazil’s street urchins. Both boys lost their lives in some crime-related incident shortly after filming.

But on the upside, Bunso was instrumental in the passing of the Juvenile Justice Bill –a major victory for its child rights proponents. Now under-aged delinquents have to be detained separately from their adult counterparts.

In last year’s festival, a total of 17 documentaries –two full-lengths and fifteen shorts- were featured in six screening slots, a record number for the nonfiction film in Cinemalaya. It is interesting to note where the featured titles came from –as their origins somehow present a snapshot of where contemporary Philippine documentaries spring from.

Six of the titles33 were products of the Goethe Institut’s Documentary Workshop. Going on its third year, the now-annual workshop, is held in cooperation with De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde and the Independent Filmmakers Multipurpose Cooperative (IFC). For certain, this year’s programme will include works from the latest batch.

As for the others, five came from film schools around the Metro Manila34. The rest were either independently-produced –Undo (Drugs, Art And Fate: An Artist’s Confession) by Cierlito Tabay and Moreno Benigno, and Dumaguete: An Artist's Haven by Carmen del Prado; or institutionally-subsidized -Agusan Marsh Diaries by Jerrold Tarog, Product of the Philippines by Jullian Ablaza, and Kano by Monster Jimenez.

Without a doubt, Kano was last year’s docu centrepiece. The film won for Jimenez, and her partner Mario Cornejo, three awards –one from the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, another from the Cinemanila International Film Festival, and lastly, the first Urian (local critics award) to be bestowed upon a nonfiction work.

In previous Cinemalaya editions two other documentaries stood out.

One was Ramona Diaz’ stunning study of former First Lady, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, simply titled Imelda. Audiences agree that the best thing in the film was the subject herself –raising queries such as “does she really believe the b.s. she’s been spouting?” Produced in 2003, the work won for Diaz the Best Cinematography and Documentary awards at the Sundace Festival. It soon became an art-house hit in the States.

On the other hand, Eskrimadors (Duelists), by Cebu-based filmmaker Kerwin Go, centers on the history and development of the martial arts of eskrima, tracing its origins from tribal warfares prevalent in pre-colonial Philippines, up to its practice among international martial artists. One of the best things about this documentary is its Sergio Leone-approach in presenting re- enactments.

Even as the programming for Cinemalaya 8 is still taking shape, two full-length documentary submissions, both from ex-pat Pinoys, show much promise: Marty Syjuco’s Give Up Tomorrow and Lyca Benitez Browne’s Dance of My Life. The two films could not be more further from each other, in both content and style.

Based on one of the most infamous criminal cases in recent Philippine history, Syjuco’s work centers on the trial of Paco Larrañaga, a young mestizo (Pinoy of Spanish descent) accused of killing two Chinese-Filipino sisters in the province of Cebu, July 1997. The young girls disappear without a trace after shopping in a local mall. The work is a jab at the Philippine justice system, as well as the media –here depicted as purveyors of class hatred and prejudice.

On the other end of the docu spectrum, Browne’s 75-minute documentary is an unapologetic, light-hearted romp into the psyche of fashion model/socialite/mother/cancer survivor/indie film producer, Bessie Badilla, and how she manage to “infiltrate” the world-famous Brazilian event and become its first-ever Pinay Carnaval Queen. The film was invited to participate in last year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Market in Greece.

The End as a Springboard

From the above we’ve seen the roller-coaster ride that is the history of the Philippine documentary. We’ve also been given a glimpse of its many self-reinventions, both content- wise, as well as in technique and style. As to its future, all we can predict is, as sure as digital technology continues to drive the medium relentlessly forward, we shall be in for more bumpy, though hopefully exhilarating, rides.

But despite all its present and promised advances, it seems like Pinoy nonfiction film, like its global counterparts, may have to remain content sitting on the backburners. Audiences worldwide will continue to line up for and buy tickets to the more “entertaining” fare of narrative features. And the rule of “the more escapist the dish, the more boffo receipts” will continue to prevail -indefinitely.

By now we know it has nothing to do with quality –as we continue to witness the seemingly endless parade of hugely expensive, yet inane blockbusters. It’s simply a human coping thing. To most folks on the planet, cinema will always be a Technicolour, sense-surround oasis (in 3D!), away from the drudgery of one’s day-to-day existence. And everybody, film critics and festival programmers included, needs a break. Once in a while.

Fiction will always be the preferred main dish over fact. On one side, it’s a healthy thing. Can you imagine a world without movies? For sure it won’t be a pretty sight –what with all the personal bombs exploding at the slightest perceived provocation. So, in a way, Hollywood –and all similar Dream Factories- deserve a hooray or two.

BUT it is nice to know... that when you get to the point when you’ve had too much fantasy/escape that there ARE fare that can lead you back to the state of things –as they are. Unadorned. Un-production-designed. Un-Photoshopped. Films that re-situate one back into the Here/Now. Films that reaffirm your place as a true Being-in-the-World. And this is a part of the dharma of documentary films.

So at the end, the only magic that counts is the magic of returning to Kansas après Oz. And deciding what to do to make it a better place.

-The End-
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1 A Filipino term referring to extended sequences, with little or no cut-to’s –not unlike meaty morsels strung together on a kebab stick.
2 Mendoza’s nickname.

4 Today, the building that Moreno helped establish is now known as the Cine Adarna –a 2,000 seater of an auditorium which holds weekly film events. The name is taken from one of the classic films of Philippine Cinema, Ibong Adarna, a 1941 film directed by Vicente Salumbides about a magical bird that holds the key to life and death. One of the work’s claim to fame is that it featured a few minutes of colored footage (of the bird, of course) in the largely B/W film –hand-painted, that is.
5 The proud indigenous people of the Mountain Province, in whose capitol, Baguio City, Kidlat grew up in.
7 Other National Artists for Film are directors Gerardo “Gerry” De Leon (conferred 1982), Lino Brocka (1997), Ishmael Bernal (2001), Eddie Romero (2003) and actor Fernando Poe Jr. (2006). In 2009, another name was added to the list but under highly controversial, much-contested circumstances.
8 ECP Film Production was responsible for four undisputed classics of Pinoy Cinema from that period: Peque Gallaga’s Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death); National Artist for Cinema Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Miracle); and to a lesser extent, Pio de Castro’s Soltero (Bachelor) and Abbo dela Cruz’ Misteryo Sa Tuwa (The Joyful Mysteries). All four were produced between the years 1982 and 1984.
9 This unit was responsible for the almost back-to-back, year-round screenings at the MFC. Programming was done in three broadstrokes: Classics of Philippine Cinema, Pinoy Indies, and the Best of World Cinema. This writer had the good(?) fortune of working in this department as a film programmer of the latter module.
10 This was a fully-functional archives, complete with dehumidified storerooms, processing areas, and a library to boot.
11 The Film Fund provided multi-tiered financing to film production projects deemed worthy of support.
12 This was the forerunner of similar incentive schemes existing today. The ECP Film Ratings Board (FRB) would
give tax rebates to outstanding films, in two categories –films cited as “A” would, of course, receive a bigger rebate,
13 At the same time, the multi-talented man was also a vice-president of the Philippine National Bank.
14 The biggest and grandest venue was the MFC Main Theatre which has seats 1,200. Two levels above are two Mini Theatres –Theatre A with 450 seats, and B, 350 (and a proscenium for theatrical happenings, like the ECP awards). And on its highest floor are the nine Screening Rooms –the biggest can accommodate 250 pax; the rest between 80 to a 100.
15 Estrada took the oath on 30 June 1998. But after a highly-publicized trial for massive corruption charges, he was deposed from office in 20 January 2001 –via EDSA 2, again with millions of angry Filipinos taking to the streets.
16 Other alumni of note include Nick Deocampo, Lav Diaz, Yam Laranas, Mark Meily, Joey Agbayani, Armando “Bing” Lao, Jon Red, Rox Lee, Topel Lee, Neil Daza, Robert Quebral, Mel Bacani, Ellen Ramos, Paolo Villaluna, Ricky Orellana, Auraeus Solito, Cesar Hernando, Larry Manda, Odyssey Flores, Sari Dalena, Kiri Dalena, Ogie Sugatan, Mike Alcazaren, Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, Ditsi Carolino, Jo Atienza, Regiben Romana, Albert Banzon, Shane Sarte and Rica Arevalo.
17 Though Deocampo still continues to make documentaries today, his passion now lies in the field of film history, as well as mass-based film education.
18 This agency eventually became the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines, which in turn is now the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP).
19 Just three months before the 1982 MIFF, a terrible construction accident claimed the lives of a number –still contestable- of workers rushing to finishe Imelda’s “Parthenon”, the Manila Film Center. It is rumoured that, to meet the January deadline of the festival, some of the bodies were not removed from the quick-drying cement. Thus cementing on its own, urban legends about ghostly construction workers still prowling the site.
20 If you do the math, you’ll note there’s an unaccounted for year. This was 2005, when the then powers-that-be of Cultural Center of the Philippines decided to forgo the event in favour of the launching of a new festival named Cinemalaya.
21 First prizes in each category receive a cash prize of P25,000. Second prizes get P20,000. Third, P15,000. Sometimes, a occasional Honorable Mentions are handed out, along with a P5,000 checque.
22 To which digital filmmakers would respond by stating that the quality of digital projection today –with units that can throw off 16,000 to 24,000 lumens or more- approximate filmic quality.
23 There is a maximum running time per entry, that is 60 minutes –anything more would be treading full-length territory, and the CCP Gawad Alternatibo is mainly for short films.
24 Published in the 9th CCP Gawad Alternatibo souvenir programme.
25 Special thanks should go to the then Cultural/Scientific/Technical Cooperation Counsellor, Marcel Jouve and Audiovisual Attache, Christophe Jan.
26 If one does the math, you’ll note that the Gawad Alternatibo did miss a year -2005. This was because the then- president of the CCP (Nestor Jardin), wanted the staff to pour out all its effort in support of the 1st edition of Cinemalaya. A fact that most insiders rue to this date. “Don’t they know that the Gawad Alternatibo paved the way so that a Cinemalaya can happen?” summed up the prevailing feeling.
27 This year Cinemalaya has been saddled by more than its share of woes, both internally and otherwise –and this accounts for the late programming/planning. There is a massive organizational shake-up going on –with founding members unduly “dismissed” and key officials resigning. But more importantly, one of its major institutional supports, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, is currently reviewing its relationship with the festival. This is because, as one CCP head put it, “a growing drift between the vision/mission of the two institutions”. At the center of the maelstrom is the controversial kicking out of one of the year’s production grantees (filmmaker Emerson Reyes and his full-length project MNL 143), based on the demands by certain Cinemalaya heads for the filmmaker to revise his major casting. This, of course, caused a much-publicized furor in the local indie scene, as well as the greater Pinoy arts/culture sector. Cries of foulplay based on the issue of artistic freedom continue to be hurled at the festival managers. Personally, the best thing about the ado is that it has forced the successful Cinemalaya to reevaluate its reason for being, as well as its future direction.
28 Ten are given to relatively fresh names –filmmakers who have no more than three full-lengths under their belts- under the New Breed banner. Five to more established directors, the Directors Showcase. By the end of the festival (circa end of July), a call for entries for the next edition is made. Submissions are in the form of a synopsis and a short treatment. From these entries (around 150 yearly), around 25 are short-listed. These semi-finalists are then requested to come out with a full shooting script. And from these scripts, the fifteen are chosen. Each grantee receives P.5M (around $10,000) to produce the film –of course, mostly with their own counterpart funds.
29 The festival’s “lucky roll” began on its first year (2005) when one of its grantees, Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) by Auraeus Solito made the festival rounds. Its coup was bagging both the Generations and the Teddy Awards in the 2006 Berlinale. A benchmark for Cinemalaya films happened in 2009, its Engkwentro (Encounter) by 22-year-old Pepe Diokno stole two major prizes in the 66th Venice International Film Festival –the Orizzonti Prize and the Lion of the Future – “Luigi De Laurentiis” Venice Award.
30 In the last quarter of 2011, three of its latest grantees grabbed top prizes in major film events –Loy Arcenas’ Nino took home the New Currents Award in the 16th Busan International Film Festival; Jeffrey Jeturian’s Bisperas (Trespassers), the Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film Award in 24th Tokyo International Film Festival; and, again, Solito’s Busong (Fate), the Emile Cantillon for Tomorrow's Cinema Award in the recent 38th Brussels International Film Festival. The latter film also had the distinction to be the first Cinemalaya film invited to the prestigious Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.
31 The second-largest populated city in the country, located in the province of the same name in the Visayan islands.
32 Awards include Best Director, One World Film Festival (Prague); Grand Prix, EBS International Documentary Festival (Seoul); Youth Jury Prize, Perspektive - Filmfestival der Menschenrechte (Nuremberg); and in the Philippines, Best Short Film, at the Gawad Urian.
33 The titles include The Golden School by Raymund Cruz, Entablado (Stage) by EJ Mijares, As Told by the Butterflies by Nawruz Paguidopon, Neo-Rebolusyon by Emerson Reyes, Galaw Ng Araw (Movement of the Sun) by Miles Quero-Asa, and Tundong Magiliw (Tondo, Beloved) by Jewel Maranan.
34 School-wise, there was an entry each from the University of the Philippines (Aki Ning Maisug/The Maisug Child by Bing Pimentel) and Ateneo de Manila University (Si Erin at si Marvey by Din Reyes). De La Salle University gave four titles: Batang Ina by Steffie Melene Amoranto & Alexandra Jeanne B. Salcedo; Ilanlang by Andrew Gerard C. Dacay, Cyd Xyrene G. Tribiana and Monica F. Villarica; Batang Gangster by Alberto B. Baruelo and Ms. Clarissa A. Quirante.

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