When were movies first shown in the Philippines? What were those movies?
Today is the second day of “Sandaan: Philippine Cinema Centennial Conference” at the College of St. Benilde; the first day was held at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
Asked to deliver welcome remarks, I had to do some research on the subject. And it turns out that the first moving pictures in the Philippines were “cinematografo” introduced by a Spaniard and two Swiss businessmen, and that the first movie theater was the Salon de Pertierra. The first public showings seemed to have been on Jan. 1, 1897, just two days after Jose Rizal’s execution.
Those were turbulent times, with the Philippine Revolution and the Spanish-American War. The Americans took over the country and continued to show films, mostly imported from the United States and Europe, with a few feature-type (travel, culture) movies on the Philippines.
In 1912, two American-owned companies introduced their first full-length movies, both about Rizal. A Rizalina Film Manufacturing Co., owned by Edward Meyer Gross and Harry Brown, produced more movies like “Los Tres Martires” (about Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora), “Florante and Laura,” “Noli me Tangere,” “Enchong ang Medikong Laway,” and others.
Gross and Brown later sold their equipment to Jose Nepomuceno, who in 1917 set up Malayan Movies. This is what the conference is referring to as a centennial. The first Filipino-produced movie was premiered only two years later—“Dalagang Bukid,” about a poor girl-rich boy romance. Atang dela Rama played the lead role.
I would have loved to give more on the history of our cinema, but I refer you to Nick Deocampo, who has written several very detailed books on the more than 100 years of cinema in the Philippines, during which movies have been part of our life as a nation.
From condescension to pride
After more than a century, the upper classes still talk of “Tagalog movies” with some condescension, unaware of the many advances production- and content-wise.
Many Filipinos are unaware of a thriving Cebuano movie industry. Or of Manuel Conde’s “Juan Tamad” films, which tackled, and challenged, stereotypes about the lazy native, and entertained the man and woman in the street with a mockery of politicians and their inanities and corruption.
Movies dealt with gender issues, and we can be proud of women directors. Early on, too, through Dolphy’s films starting with “Facifica Falayfay,” Philippine cinema dared to deal with the unspoken, bringing sexuality out into a larger-than-life medium. Although the bakla often played the clown, Dolphy’s films did show the audacity and courage of the bakla, and was almost prophetic in bringing out issues involving gay relationships, even gay parenting.
The best of our movies are those that had to overcome many obstacles, from budgets to censorship, showing how cinema does not just reflect society but is in fact society writ large. We might forget that one of the first Letters of Instruction issued by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos a few days after he declared martial law was one that imposed censorship on films: It required submission of the script before a movie could even be produced. The LOI declared a ban on seven types of films; the ban was to be enforced by the Department of National Defense.
There were movies with political messages produced even during martial law, and after the fall of the dictatorship we saw many more films retelling the stories of that dark period. In fact, it seems that martial law pricked the conscience of Filipino
filmmakers, moving them into a new era of realism that dared to depict poverty in all its manifestations.
PH and Mexico
Reflecting on cinema in the Philippines, I could not help but recall an interview by Al-Jazeera’s David Frost with Mexican actor and filmmaker Gael Garcia Bernal, one of the leaders of the Nuevo Cine Mexicano (New Mexican cinema). Bernal described how Mexico had, like the Philippines, developed films early but descended, as they tried to compete with Hollywood, into mindless fare like the luchador (wrestling) and, generally, “Mexploitation” movies. By the 1980s the Mexican movie industry
had become moribund.
Fortunately, there has been a renaissance in the Nuevo Cine Mexicano, with films that depict social realities without becoming grim and determined. Some of the films have even reached the Philippines, notably the ones with Bernal: “Como agua chocolate,” “Amor perros,” and “Y tu mama tambien.”
What was most interesting in the interview was Bernal’s description of how the new generation of filmmakers had been animated by political developments in Mexico, particularly the Zapatista uprising of 1994 and, later, the brutal human trafficking of central American migrants and, of course, the drug war. He talked, with great emotion, of how Mexico became a narco state not so much because of the drug syndicates as because of the war on drugs, which, he reminded viewers, started in 1991 when US President Richard Nixon first used the term as part of American government policy.
Bernal warned that the most destructive aspect of the war on drugs was “the imaginary danger, the fear that we have, not trusting each other…. We stop listening to ourselves and cannot get out.”
The new Mexican cinema is not propagandist; it uses story lines from true stories, from families and communities. We have many of these stories from the war on drugs in our country, from our local politicians, from our diaspora, waiting to be told and to galvanize a silenced society. I am also encouraged by growing interest in our history, especially in the Philippine resistance to Spain and the United States, for movies like “Heneral Luna”—and I hear another one is being planned on Gregorio del Pilar. The film “Baler,” which looks at the plight of Spanish soldiers caught in a small town, also shows sensitivity to the way war affects all, whether friend or foe.
Digital technologies have given us many new possibilities for independent or indie productions that will play major roles in recreating Filipino cinema. In a postcolonial era, we are weaning ourselves from Hollywood and finding new sources of inspiration from our Asian neighbors, from Latin America, and from our own Filipino traditions and lifeways.
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