Crisis or Promise? New Directions in Philippine Cinema
by Bliss Cua Lim
(indieWIRE/ 8.14.00) — “Celebrating Philippine Cinema: New Directions 2000,” the second Filipino Film Festival at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, is a follow-up to the historical retrospective of Philippine films held at the same venue two years ago. The 12-day festival, which finished its run on August 8, focused for the most part on key films made in the late 1990s.
The festival screenings, most of which were made in the last three years, represent a diverse industry’s attempts to resolve the crisis of Filipino cinema: from Good Harvest Productions‘ shoestring “pito-pito” films, which despite their low budgets have been favorably received at international film festivals (not only at Lincoln Center but also at Berlin and Toronto) to huge productions by independent companies new to the scene: for example, GMA productions’ “Jose Rizal,” one of the biggest grossing films in Filipino film history, cost a princely sum: estimates range from 70 to 120 million pesos (or between U.S. $1.75 to $3 million). More impressive than the enormity of the budget is the fact that “Rizal” was able to recoup this cost domestically.
The much-debated “crisis of Philippine cinema” began in late 1995 when the steadily dropping box office returns of Filipino films, the currency devaluation brought on by the Asian economic crisis, and prohibitive government taxation (30% of a film’s profits go to the national amusement tax) caused the industry to flounder against the tickets sales of Hollywood fare. The artistic merit of some ’90s Filipino films is one reason why several industry insiders maintain that, far from breathing its last breath, Philippine cinema is alive and well, reinventing itself in the hands of new directors, working on smaller productions, who were never given a chance to work in the industry before the crisis hit.
Not surprisingly, two of the most significant films at the festival were “pito-pito” productions from 1999, Jeffrey Jeturian‘s “Fetch A Pail of Water” (“Pila Balde”) and Lav Diaz‘s festival opener, “Naked Under The Moon” (“Hubad Sa Ilalim Ng Buwan”). Literally meaning “seven-each,” “pito-pito” films take their name from the studio’s initial policy of completing each phase of pre-production, production, and post-production in seven days apiece (more recently, shooting times have lengthened and production budgets have increased). Typically outfitted with a budget of 2.5 million pesos (approximately U.S. $56,000) and no bankable stars, Good Harvest’s “pito-pitos” constitute a kind of in-house poverty-row production that the biggest film studio, Regal Films, adopted in the wake of the film industry’s declining profits. Their economizing efforts gave several new directors a start, and have distinguished themselves as promising innovators.
Winner of a gold prize at the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival and recipient of a Special Citation at the CineManila International Film Festival, “Fetch A Pail of Water” is a delightful revelation: a sharply observed portrayal of the economic and sexual entanglements between slum dwellers and their middle class neighbors. Though the ’70s Manila slum films of internationally acclaimed director Lino Brocka come to mind, Jeturian‘s “Fetch” is closer to the spirit of Filipino cinema’s other great master, Ishmael Bernal, whose films used multiple protagonists to delineate the character of the city itself. Like Bernal’s 1979 film “Aliw” (“Pleasure”), “Fetch” preserves a sense of humor even as it explores the idea that human relationships, even love affairs, increasingly play out as economic transactions. Despite its scathing social insights, the film is light and ironic, and this very levity may account for the film’s warm reception among both critics and audiences in the Philippines and festival-goers in Manhattan.
Shot in fifteen days on a meager budget and featured at the international film festivals of Berlin and Singapore, Lav Diaz’s festival opener, “Naked Under The Moon,” is a visually accomplished film about a provincial coal-maker’s family. For Diaz, the daughter who walks naked in the moonlight embodies the national allegory that underscores the film: “The film’s theme is somnambulism because we Filipinos have been sleepwalking for a long time,” Diaz told indieWIRE. “Another theme in all my films is the idea of reclaiming the Filipino soul — the loss of soul is the downfall of the central character of my film.”
Though foreign audiences have been appreciative of this work, moviegoers in the Philippines, where the film had a rather short run, were impatient with the film’s measured pace. Diaz reveals that he expected this reaction from local viewers, but was committed to challenging the dominance of formula films: “Bowing to their expectations would have been a disservice to the audiences themselves,” he says. “They’ve been stunted by their viewing diet — fifty years of Hollywood films! But I have faith that if we keep making meaningful films, the audience will eventually catch up with them.”
The top draw at the Walter Reade was Marilou Diaz-Abaya‘s 1998 film “Jose Rizal,” a historical epic on the Philippine National Hero, which broke box office records in the Philippines and, true to form, played to sold-out audiences here in New York. It is, however, Diaz-Abaya‘s “Milagros” (1997) that must be seen as the finest film at the festival, a groundbreaking work which seriously divided Filipino film critics.
Though some hail “Milagros” as one of the greatest accomplishments of Philippine cinema, others question its depiction of a young woman who becomes sexually involved with every male member of her employer’s family. A superbly directed and deeply moving film, “Milagros” characterizes its unconventional heroine with tenderness rather than condemnation. Scripted by National Artist Rolando Tinio, “Milagros” features a impressive performance by Joel Torre, who in eighteen years of film acting has worked on several of the most significant Filipino films, from big studio productions to government-financed projects to low budget productions like Diaz’s “Naked.”
Having worked on both low budget films and better-funded projects, Joel Torre stresses the need for responsible filmmakers as well as responsible audiences and producers: “Thank god for independent, bold producers willing to experiment,” Torre told indieWIRE. “But right now, there’s not enough of an audience to support all this and that’s very sad.” Torre thinks its up to the bigger producers to support smaller films. “They need to support them, to give them the same amount of publicity and promotion as they do for their big films with superstars. If they did the same for smaller films, there would be more awareness in the audience, and these films would certainly do better.”
Filmmakers and critics alike have begun to suggest that despite their exploitative and limiting conditions, “pito-pitos” are revitalizing the film industry, serving as a hotbed for new directors to forge a socially significant, internationally recognized cinema. Interestingly enough, though Jeturian and Diaz are frequently upheld as the trailblazers of “pito-pito” films, Diaz’s own remarks on the subject were deeply sobering.
Pointing out that those “pito-pitos” which manage to transcend their limitations are painfully few, Diaz concludes, “The idea that the ‘pito-pito’ is a source of promise for Philippine Cinema is a myth. The only reason Jeffrey [Jeturian] and I were able to make meaningful films within this type of production is that we fought [the studio] all the way. The ‘pito-pito’ is hell, from checks postdated to six months after the film shoot, to the lack of decent wages for the film crew — 100 to 150 pesos [about U.S. $3] a day! It’s very exploitative. Sometimes the shoot goes on for 24 hours straight, with no sleep. People collapse from exhaustion. Far from keeping Philippine cinema afloat, the “pito-pitos” will make our industry sink to the very bottom. There is no redemption to be found in “pito-pitos.”
Diaz’s characterization of an industry in crisis seems to be counterbalanced by industry observers’ insistence that a palpable sense of promise is in the air. Like Diaz and Torres’ impassioned views regarding the fate of the Filipino movie industry, the recently concluded festival attests to the vibrant, contested nature of today’s Philippine cinema. As Diaz-Abaya said in a 1998 interview, “If the old order is dying we should bury it as soon as possible. I can almost smell the new industry, prevailing and asserting itself.” Two years later, her observation still has the ring of truth.
[Bliss Cua Lim is a doctoral candidate in the Cinema Studies program at New York University who has published in “Asian Cinema” and “The Velvet Light Trap.” She has taught at the University of the Philippines, NYU, and CUNY. Her dissertation on the Fantastic in film will include several Filipino films.]