History of Philippine Cinema
The youngest of the Philippine arts, film has evolved to become the most popular of all the art forms. Introduced only in 1897, films have ranged from silent movies to talkies; black and white to color. Outpacing its predecessors by gaining public acceptance, from one end of the country to the other, its viewers come from all walks of life. Nationwide, there are more than 1000 movie theaters. Early in the 1980s, it was estimated in Metro Manila alone, there were around 2.5 million moviegoers. As an art form, it reflects the culture and the beliefs of the people it caters to and most times, is the one who shapes their consciousness.
Philippine film as discussed in this paper includes films made by Filipino people exhibited in this country and possibly in other countries from the 1930s to the 1990s. The films may be silent pictures or talkies, black and white or color. They also include films such as documentaries, animation, experimental or alternative films and other types of films.
This paper has three purposes or objectives. It intends, first of all, to provide a comprehensible background of the art of film in the Philippines. It provides insights on how the Philippine film has influenced Philippine culture and vice-versa. This is done by documenting the important events and important films in the area of film for the past ninety years. Second, it intends to explain the different trends and styles common in the Philippine film. And finally, it concludes with an analysis on how two important events in history, namely World War II and Martial Law altered the course of contemporary Philippine film.
However, this paper is limited to films only from the particular time period of the 1930s to the 1990s. It fails to give a picture of how films were like ever since it started in 1897. This paper is also severely limited due to the unavailability and the lack of materials that discuss thoroughly the history of Philippine film. Film materials for those made during the pre-WWII years are simply non-existent. Data for this paper was gathered from the essays and reviews written by the artists and the critics themselves. It goes without saying that the resources were tested to the limits.
A. Early Philippine Films
Filipinos started making movies in 1919. However, it would be important to know that the film industry in the Philippines began through the initiative of foreign entrepreneurs. Two Swiss entrepreneurs introduced film shows in Manila as early as 1897, regaling audiences with documentary films lips showing recent events and natural calamities in Europe. Not only that but the arrival of the silent films, along with American colonialism, in 1903 created a movie market. But these film clips were still novelties. They failed to hold the audiences’ attention because of their novelty and the fact that they were about foreigners. When two American entrepreneurs made a film in 1912 about Jose Rizal’s execution, the sensation they made it clear that the Filipino’s need for material close to their hearts. This heralded the making of the first Filipino film.
The credit of being
the first Filipino to make a film goes to Jose Nepumuceno, whom historians dub
as the “Father of Philippine Movies”. Nepumuceno’s first film was based on a
highly-acclaimed musical play of that day, Dalagang Bukid (Country Maiden) by
Hemogenes Ilagan and Leon Ignacio.
film producers included “wealthy Spaniards”, American businessmen and Filipino
landlords and politicians. It is not surprising that…pre-war Philippine
movies…were inhibited from expressing their views that might question the
establishment and were encouraged instead to portray the love and
reconciliation between members of different classes…
Finally, by the 1930s, a few film artists and producers dared to stray from the guidelines and commented on sociopolitical issues, using contemporary or historical matter. Director, actor, writer and producer Julian Manansala’s film Patria Amore (Beloved Country) was almost suppressed because of its anti-Spanish sentiments. This earned him the honor of being dubbed the “Father of the Nationalistic Film”.
Its own share of movie audience and acclaim for local movie stars were signs that the movie industry from 1919 to the 1930s had succeeded. Despite the competition coming from Hollywood, the film industry thrived and flourished. When the 1930s came to a close, it was clear that moviegoing had established itself in the Filipino.
B. Wartime Films and the Effect on Philippine Films
The Japanese Occupation introduced a new player to the film industry – the Japanese; and a new role for film – propaganda :
war years during the first half of the Forties virtually halted filmmaking
activities save for propaganda work that extolled Filipino-Japanese friendship,
such as The Dawn of Freedom made by director Abe Yutaka and associate director
Gerardo de Leon…Less propagandistic was Tatlong Maria (Three Marias), directed
in 1944, by Gerardo de Leon and written for the screen by Tsutomu Sawamura from
Jose Esperanza Cruz’s novel…Despite the destruction and hardships of the war,
the people…found time for entertainment; and when movies were not being made or
imported…they turned to live theater…which provided alternative jobs for
displaced movie folk. The war years may have been the darkest in film history…”
1945…the film industry was already staggering to its feet. The entire nation
had gone through hell and there were many stories to tell about heroic deeds
and dastardly crimes during the 3 years of Japanese occupation. A Philippine
version of the war movie had emerged as a genre in which were recreated
narratives of horror and heroism with soldiers and guerillas as
protagonists…audiences still hungry for new movies and still fired up by the
patriotism and hatred for foreign enemies did not seem to tire of recalling their
experiences of war.
A. The Golden Age of Philippine Films
The 1950s were considered a time of “rebuilding and growth”. But remnants from the preceding decade of the 40s remained in the form of war-induced reality. This is seen is Lamberto Avellana’s Anak Dalita (The Ruins, 1956), the stark tragedy of post-WWII survival set in Intramuros. The decade saw frenetic activity in the film industry which yielded what might be regarded as the first harvest of distinguished films by Filipinos. Two studios before the war, namely Sampaguita Pictures and LVN, reestablished themselves. Bouncing back quickly, they churned out movie after movie to make up for the drought of films caused by the war. Another studio, Premiere Productions, was earning a reputation for “the vigor and the freshness” of some of its films. This was the period of the “Big Four” when the industry operated under the studio system. Each studio (Sampaguita, LVN, Premiere and Lebran) had its own set of stars, technicians and directors, all lined up for a sequence of movie after movie every year therefore maintaining a monopoly of the industry. The system assured moviegoers a variety of fare for a whole year and allowed stars and directors to improve their skills.
now clarify that the 50s may be considered one “Golden Age” for the Filipino
film not because film content had improved but because cinematic techniques
achieved an artistic breakthrough in that decade. This new consciousness was
further developed by local and international awards that were established in
B. The Decline of Philippine Film
If the 1950s were an ubiquitous period for film, the decade that followed was a time of decline. There was “rampant commercialism and artistic decline” as portrayed on the following:
The studio systems came under siege from the growing labor movement which resulted in labor-management conflicts. The first studio to close was Lebran followed by Premiere Productions. Next came Sampaguita and LVN. The “Big Four” studios were replaced by new and independent producers who soon made up the rest of the film industry.
The decade also saw the emergence of the youth revolt best represented by the Beatles and the rock and roll revolution. They embodied the wanting to rebel against adult institutions and establishments. Certain new film genres were conceived just to cater to this “revolt”. Fan movies such as those of the “Tita and Pancho” and “Nida and Nestor” romantic pairings of the 50s were the forerunners of a new kind of revolution – the “teen love team” revolution. “Nora Aunor and Vilma Santos, along with Tirso Cruz III and Eddie Mortiz as their respective screen sweethearts, were callow performers during the heyday of fan movies. Young audiences made up of vociferous partisans for ‘Guy and Pip’ or ‘Vi and Bot’ were in search of role models who could take the place of elders the youth revolt had taught them to distrust”
Another kind of youth revolt came in the form of the child star. Roberta (1951) of Sampaguita Pictures was the phenomenal example of the drawing power of movies featuring [these] child stars. In the 60s this seemed to imply rejection of “adult corruption” as exposed by childhood innocence.
The film genres of the time were direct reflections of the “disaffection with the status quo” at the time. Action movies with Pinoy cowboys and secret agents as the movers of the plots depicted a “society ravaged by criminality and corruption” . Movies being make-believe worlds at times connect that make-believe with the social realities. These movies suggest a search for heroes capable of delivering us from hated bureaucrats, warlords and villains of our society. The action films of the 1960s brought into the industry “ a new savage rhythm that made earlier action films seem polite and stage managed.” The pacing of the new action films were fast as the narrative had been pared down to the very minimum of dialogues. And in keeping up with the Hollywood tradition, the action sequences were even more realistic.
Another film genre that is perhaps also a embodiment of the revolt of the time is the bomba genre. Probably the most notorious of all, this genre appeared at the close of the decade. Interestingly, it came at a time when social movement became acknowledged beyond the walls of campuses and of Manila.
rallies, demonstrations and other forms of mass action, the national democratic
movement presented its analysis of the problems of Philippine society and
posited that only a social revolution could bring genuine change. The
bomba film was a direct challenge to the conventions and the norms of
conduct of status quo, a rejection of authority of institutions in regulating
the “life urge” seen as natural and its free expression “honest” and
Even in the period of decline, genius has a way of showing itself. Several Philippine films that stood out in this particular era were Gerardo de Leon’s Noli Me Tangere (Touch me Not, 1961) and El Filibusterismo (Subversion, 1962). Two other films by Gerardo de Leon made during this period is worth mentioning – Huwag mo Akong Limutin (Never Forget Me , 1960) and Kadenang Putik (Chain of Mud, 1960), both tales of marital infidelity but told with insight and cinematic import.
C. Films during Martial Law
In the 60s, the youth clamored for change in the status quo. Being in power, Ferdinand Marcos answered the youth by placing the nation under martial rule.
In 1972, he sought
to contain growing unrest which the youth revolt of the 1960s fueled. Claiming
that all he wanted was to “save the Republic”, Marcos retooled the
liberal-democratic political system into an authoritarian government which
concentrated power in a dictators hand. To win the population over, mass media
was enlisted in the service of the New Society. Film was a key component
of a society wracked with contradictions within the ruling class and between
the sociopolitical elite and the masses.
…Marcos and his technocrats sought to
regulate filmmaking. The first step was to control the content of movies by
insisting on some form of censorship. One of the first rules promulgated by the
Board of Censors for Motion Pictures (BCMP) stipulated submission of a finished
script prior to the start of filming. When the annual film festival was
revived, the censors blatantly insisted that the “ideology” of the New Society
be incorporated into the content of the entries.
Law declared in 1972 clamped down on bomba films as well as political movies
critical of the Marcos administration. But the audience’s taste for sex and
nudity had already been whetted. Producers cashed in on the new type of bomba,
which showed female stars swimming in their underwear, taking a bath in their
camison (chemise), or being chased and raped in a river, sea, or under a
waterfall. Such movies were called the wet look…
However, the less-than-encouraging environment of the 70s gave way to “the ascendancy of young directors who entered the industry in the late years of the previous decade…” Directors such as Lino Brocka, best remembered for his Maynila, Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila, In the Claws of Neon Lights, 1975), Ishmael Bernal, director of the Nora Aunor film Himala (Miracle, 1982) and Celso Ad. Castillo, whose daring works portrayed revolt, labor unionism, social ostracism and class division, produced works that left no doubt about their talent in weaving a tale behind the camera.
Another welcomed result that came from martial rule was the requirement of a script prior to filming. This was an innovation to a film industry that made a tradition out of improvising a screenplay. Although compliance with the requirement necessarily meant curtailment of the right of free expression, the BCMP, in effect caused the film industry to pay attention to the content of a projected film production in so far as such is printed in a finished screenplay. In doing so, talents in literature found their way into filmmaking and continue to do so now.
A. Philippine Films after Marcos
It can be justified that immediately after Marcos escaped to Hawaii, films portraying the Philippine setting have had a serious bias against the former dictator. And even while he was in power, the militancy of filmmakers opposing the Martial Law government especially after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983, accounts for the defiant stance of a number of films made in the closing years of the Marcos rule.
Films such as Lino Brocka’s Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (My Country: Gripping the Knife’s Edge, 1985) were defiant, not in the sense of it being openly stated by in the images of torture, incarceration, struggle and oppression. Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Karnal (1984) depicts this in a different way in the film’s plot wherein patricide ends a tyrannical father’s domination. Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L. (1984), was a typical de Leon treatment of the theme of oppression and tyranny.
In 1977, an unknown Filipino filmmaker going by the name of Kidlat Tahimik made a film called Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare). The film won the International Critic’s Prize in the Berlin Film Festival that same year. Kidlat Tahimik’s rise to fame defined the distance between mainstream cinema and what is now known as independent cinema. Beginning with Tahimik, independent cinema and films became an accomplished part of Philippine film.
of short film festivals sponsored by the University of the Philippines Film
Center and by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, young filmmakers have
joined Kidlat Tahimik in the production of movies that, by their refusal to
kowtow to the traditions and conventions of mainstream filmmaking, signify
faith in works that try to probe deeper into the human being and into society.
Nick Deocampo’s Oliver (1983) and Raymond Red’s Ang Magpakailanman (The
Eternal, 1983) have received attention in festivals abroad.
B. Contemporary Philippine Film
Despite our completion of 100 years of cinema in the Philippines, the same problems plague us now just as it had when film was still a relatively new art form. The phrase “poorly made” is fitting to describe the quality of films being churned out by the film industry year by year. There have been few exceptions to the rule.
Presently, films are primarily made for profit, lacking any qualities to redeem itself. Studies show that Hollywood films, with its high technology and subject matter, are being preferred over local films. It is no wonder – for films now are “too profit-oriented…[with] corrupting morals and…dubious values…sticking with formulaic films”
Genres that have been present for the past few decades are being recycled over and over again with the same stories. The teen love teams of the fan movie are still present with incarnations of love teams of yesteryears. Now instead of “Guy and Pip” are “Judy and Wowie”. The bomba film is still present, now having grown more pornographic and taboo. The film Tatlo (1998) comes to mind with its subject matter of threesomes. In Filipino slapstick or komedya, Dolphy has been replaced by younger stars.
But even if the films of today have not been quite up to par, “Filipino movies…wields an influence over the national imagination far more intense that all the others combined.”
The early years of Philippine film, starting from the 1930s, were a time of discovering film as it was at that time still a new art form. Stories for films came from the theater and popular literature being, as they were, “safe”, with the filmmaker being assured of its appeal. Nationalistic films were also in vogue despite early restrictions on films being too subversive.
The 1940s and the war brought to Philippine film the consciousness of reality which was not present in the preceding films. Filmmakers dared to venture into the genre of the war movie. This was also a ready market especially after the war.
The 1950s were the Golden Years, a time when films matured and became more “artistic”. The studio system, though producing film after film and venturing into every known genre, made the film industry into a monopoly that prevented the development of independent cinema.
The 1960s, though a time of positive changes, brought about an artistic decline in films. The notorious genre of bomba was introduced and from that day forward has been present in the Philippine film scene ever since.
The 1970s and 1980s were turbulent years, bringing positive and negative changes. From the decline in the 60s, films in this period now dealt with more serious topics following the chaos of the Marcos regime. Also, action and sex films developed further introducing more explicit pictures. These years also brought the arrival of alternative cinema in the Philippines.
Presently, in the 1990s, we are seemingly engaged in a vicious cycle – of genres, plots, characterization and cinematic styles. We are unconsciously, or rather consciously, imitating, copying from the much more popular American films. And when we are not copying, we are reverting back to the same old styles. From the massacre movies of late, the teen-oriented romantic-comedies and the anatomy-baring sex flicks which are currently so popular, it seems Philippine cinema is on a down spiral. Still, some films been successes and not only financially. Diaz-Abaya’s Rizal (1998), as an example, was a success both commercially and critically. Hopefully, Philippine cinema in the new millennium would produce films as good and better than the ones before it.
As a conclusion, here is what Patronilo BN. Daroy had to say about the Philippine film industry:
See also: Philippine National Commission for Culture and the Arts, "History of Philippine Cinema"