Filipino film industry reborn

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      Tagalog-language films from the Philippines remain relatively unknown because they’re produced primarily for the domestic market and have had only brief international attention. A new wave of Filipino filmmakers, however, are about to change things. They’re going global and determined to reach a wider audience, including the millions of Filipinos who have immigrated or found employment overseas for a better future.

      The Philippines, with more than 7,000 islands, is a country with a lot of poor people. Tagalog films serve as a form of escape to millions who are unhappy with unfulfilled dreams.

      The evolution of the industry has been marked by a variety of styles. Following the musical dramas of the ’40s, the ’50s were vintage years that saw several “prestige” productions. The ’70s and ’80s paved the way for the angry political innovators. Tagalog movies broke social barriers during the Ferdinand Marcos regime, helped by the interest of former “first lady” Imelda Marcos in promoting Manila as “the beautiful city”. During this period, directors Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Amable Aguiluz, Peque Gallaga, and Mike De Leon garnered the attention of international film festivals. These directors gave a distinctive identity and texture to Tagalog movies. The Philippine movie industry reached an artistic peak during this time.

      In the 1980s, the Philippines ranked among the top-10 film-producing countries in the world, with an annual output of more than 300 movies. Three-quarters of the way through the decade, though, it was down to only 139. The decrease continued, and there are less than 20 films made per year today.

      Unfortunately, in the late ’80s the quality of Tagalog films also deteriorated. The intelligentsia stayed away, and the brave newcomers became old-timers trapped in the old studio system.

      A sign of rebirth arose in 2002, when Gil Portes released Munting tinig, Mga (Small Voices), a subdued film about a teacher who inspires her students to follow their dreams; the movie also made suggestions to improve the country’s education system. The theme of transformation continued in Mark Meily’s 2003 comedy Crying Ladies, about three Filipinas working as professional mourners in Manila’s Chinatown but looking for other ways to make money. Also in 2003, Maryo J. de los Reyes made a buzz at various film festivals with Magnifico, a simple film with universal appeal about a boy who tries to help his family survive their hardships.

      In 2006 and 2007, Pinoy filmmakers began making digital movies. Donsol, by director Adolfo Alix Jr., made waves with his debut digital film (which included underwater cinematography) set in Donsol, a fishing town that serves as sanctuary to rare white whale sharks.

      Other talents of note include Jeffrey Jeturian, Auraeus Solito, and Brillante Mendoza’s 2007 Filipino version of Danish Dogme and Italian cinéma vérité (Slingshot). Lav Diaz is the leading figure in experimental Tagalog films. His works—including excruciatingly long epics about Filipino life (some of which run up to 10 hours)—often test the endurance of viewers.

      Harry Sutherland, president of Vancouver-based Long Tale Productions, is slated to coproduce two feature films in the Philippines. “The rebirth of Philippine cinema is a new generation of young people who grasped modern technology,” he said in an interview at a South Granville bistro. “There is definitely an active movement, but that special film has not yet arrived, but it will come. What is missing in Tagalog movies is a definite political-cultural identity that is positive, outgoing, and contributing to the world. It needs a movement and assistance from the Philippine government.”

      Sutherland also thinks Brocka (Manila, Orapronobis) changed the image of Tagalog films and made them part of the international movie scene. “He made films that captured the Filipino soul and made the world relate to it.” He added that Brocka is the only Filipino director who was able to present a consistent, tragic view of life in his country while he attempted to raise social consciousness.

      The impetus for the movement that Sutherland talked about could potentially be the film production company Panoramanila, which produced Ploning, an entry to the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and screening in Vancouver from September 12 to 18 at the Empire Granville 7 Cinemas (which also recently ran the Filipino films Caregiver and A Very Special Love). More of the latest Filipino films can be seen at the upcoming Vancouver International Film Festival (September 25 to October 10).

      Clearly, we have not seen the full potential of the Filipino film industry, which almost faded away. In fact, it seems to be a new beginning.