The biggest cause for celebration in the Philippine film industry this year is not the yearend Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) and its slew of unabashedly commercial, unabashedly illiterate entries, but the establishment of the National Film Archives of the Philippines. The NFAP got its inaugural last September when the digitally restored copy of Manuel Conde’s 1950 classic “Genghis Khan” was shown. During the occasion, President Aquino witnessed the formal turnover to the Philippines of the original prints of Conde’s movie from the Venice Film Festival archives.
It was in 1952 when Conde’s movie was shown in competition in Venice where it earned acclaim and offers for worldwide distribution, including one from the old United Artists, the Hollywood studio established by Charlie Chaplin, Lilian Gish and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Since the movie was the first Filipino feature to compete in a major international film festival, it is only fitting that its digital restoration via prints retrieved from the vaults of the world’s oldest international film festival should herald the NFAP six decades later.
The NFAP has been a long time coming. Between the 60 years when Conde’s movie became the toast of world cinema and the NFAP’s foundation, Philippine cinema has had two golden ages (1950s-1965 and mid-1970s to early 1980s), produced a world master (National Artist Gerardo de Leon Jr.), an Asian neorealist (Lino Brocka) and a Cannes best director (Brillante Mendoza), while witnessing the rise and decline of one of the top five industries in the world (along with Hong Kong-Taipei, Bollywood, Hollywood, and Europe).
Now that that commercial industry is in intensive care and, as the asinine MMFF entries show year in and year out, in protracted artistic coma, it is with some irony that the movement for film conservation should show signs of health. But the development is not surprising since it is usually in troubled times that people long for nostalgia. Philippine cineastes and denizens of the bankrupt film industry hark back to glory days. And Conde’s “Genghis Khan” should be one of the high points of those days. To make the glory linger, to make it perhaps permanent—that may be the task of the NFAP.
Conde is described by film scholar Nicanor Tiongson as the father of Philippine indie filmmaking for being the first to successfully produce his own movies outside of the studio mainstream. He wrote and directed the movies he produced, acted in them, even doing the menial jobs of a production assistant, the first instance in Philippine film history of multitasking. He could have also done archiving himself except that there was no prevalent consciousness yet during his time on cultural heritage in celluloid.
Film conservation in the Philippines has largely been a private initiative. An example would be the late Fernando Poe Jr.’s forward-looking vision of archiving and preserving the movies that his independent outfit had produced, providing an example for practical, cheap methods of film conservation for others to emulate. Other early initiatives to preserve the nation’s film heritage were the establishment of the Society of Film Archivists (Sofa) in 1993, with the late critic Hammy Sotto as moving spirit, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines starting its own video library through the efforts of Vicky Belarmino, a Sofa member.
Before the digital restoration of “Genghis Khan,” the ABS-CBN Archives, which may be the largest in the Philippines, had teamed up with Central Digital Lab to restore Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” and Peque Gallaga’s “Oro, Plata, Mata.” Even private groups abroad are helping save and restore Philippine cinematic gems. “Genghis Khan” itself was digitally restored at the world-renowned laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy. And Italian-American cinematic master Martin Scorsese’s World Film Foundation has pledged to restore Brocka’s “Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag.”
Government should have done it long ago, but alas, as the very surprising presence of Aquino during the “Genghis Khan” turnover should show—it was his first attendance at a cultural gathering as President, after having been in office for already a third of his term—the state has historically neglected anything remotely connected with the arts and culture. But better late than never. Through the efforts of Briccio Santos of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, the President has signed Administrative Order No. 26 which enjoins all agencies, departments and offices under the executive branch (including government-owned and-controlled corporations) to transfer their collections to the NFAP, which will now serve as the country’s official repository of audio-visual material. Now the nation has an institution to preserve its cinematic patrimony systematically.