The Museum of Modern Art’s A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema (June 1 – 25) sets out to offer a vision of what post-2000 Philippine cinema looks like. Presenting work by the nation’s current crop of cinematic luminaries, the retrospective simultaneously showcases the great strides the form is making in the Philippines, while unwittingly continuing the promotion of a homogeneous, Manila-centric vision of a Philippine national cinema. For many outside the Philippines, this country’s national cinema is understood largely in terms of these Tagalog and Manila-based productions. The most recognized names for an international movie going public are likely to be Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza, Erik Matti, Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, or more recent art house exports like Raya Martin. Without attempting to reduce the force and importance of such work, it is worth noting from the outset that there are very specific historical, cultural, economic and linguistic reasons for this hegemony.
The rich history of cinema in the Philippines has been both blessed and cursed with a long series of significant but contentious debates. Though not always framed as such, much of the disagreement is a result of the nation’s historical battles with colonialism and how those experiences have problematized the concept of an easily definable national cinema. One of the earliest and most prescient questions that served to challenge a coherent narrative about Philippine cinema was the question of language. Where the use of Spanish in the Philippines may have served to undermine the American imperialism of the early 20th century, it was also a dismissal of the over 175 local Filipino languages and dialects. When films began to employ Tagalog titles and eventually, with the coming of sound, spoken Tagalog, it seemed to some that Philippine cinema had finally come into its own, at last constituting a well-defined national cinema. However, Tagalog was and remains the language of the capital, a language much of the archipelago’s inhabitants felt (and continue to feel) was imposed upon them from above. What, then, was this national cinema that only spoke from the vantage point of political and economic power? And could a Filipino cinema ever claim the title of a proper national cinema if it only recounted capital narratives in the capital language?
Historically, there was one challenger to Tagalog language cinema, and that was the cinema of Cebu, a provincial vernacular Philippine cinema, which until the 21st century served as the only local cinematic alternative to the film industry in Manila. In the contemporary discussion of Philippine cinema, Cebuano cinema figures within the larger concept of “regional cinema,” a concept that currently finds its annual celebration in (among others) the Cinema Rehiyon (traveling), Binisaya (Cebu), Salamindanaw (General Santos City) and Bacollywood (Bacolod) film festivals. The conditions for the emergence of these regional cinemas were largely technological. Prior to video and ultimately digital film technology, film production, post-production and distribution were all centralized in Manila, with some exception and some experimentation. For example, Cebu produced at least two “golden ages” of its own cinema. In the 1950s and then the 1970s, Cebu saw the proliferation of Cebuano-language films created largely within the region (the technical designation of region in the Philippines wouldn’t emerge until the early 1970s under the Marcos presidency.) There is much to suggest, however, that the downfall of this early vernacular cinema was due in large part precisely to the issue of the capital-centric industry. Something as simple as processing film stock had producers and technicians flying back and forth between Manila and Cebu just to accomplish the most basic tasks of film production. Add to that the issue of predominantly centralized distribution, plus a cinema speaking a provincial (though widely spoken) language, and one can see how the odds were stacked against this nascent regional cinema.
The introduction of digital technologies finally offered the possibility of actualized regional cinemas. For the first time films were being produced in major and minor Filipino languages. Cebuano cinema saw a resurgence of film production, creating important and innovative films on par with anything being produced in Manila, probably the most renowned being Remton Zuasola’s Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria (2010). More recently films by Keith Deligero, Ara Chawdhury, and Christian Linaban have all attested to the consistent quality of Cebuano-language cinemas.
Further south in Davao, on the island of Mindanao, there had also been early attempts at creating a local film industry, but recently it has produced some of the most celebrated work produced in the Philippines. Films by Sherad Anthony Sanchez, Teng Mangansakan and more recently Bagane Fiola have had substantial success on the festival circuit. In Pampanga on the island of Luzon, where there is a regional language despite its proximity to Manila, Kapampangan filmmakers like Petersen Vargas, Bor Ocampo, and Jason Paul Laxamana have created what is one of the most thriving regional cinema scenes currently in the Philippines. In languages such as Hiligaynon, Waray Waray, Chavacano, and even Kinaray-a, cinemas are being made and in turn offering a more heterogeneous image of what a Philippine national cinema can look and sound like.
But while these advances are major for the regions, it doesn’t mean that the industrial hegemony of Manila has evaporated or gladly made room for these emerging (or perhaps now it is fair to say “emerged”) cinemas (with the noted exception of Cinema One Originals, which is a Manila-based subsidiary of the major media corporation ABS-CBN.) The MoMA’s selection of films is a perfect articulation of this dominance being upheld from within and without. However, one U.S. programmer who has taken note of the importance and quality of these regional cinemas is Yerba Buena Center for the Arts film curator Joel Shepard, whose “New Filipino Cinema” series consistently features a wide range of vernacular regional films. What this latter, heterodox approach to film curating illustrates is the complex task of articulating a nation, and this complexity becomes symbolic in that it describes the difficulties of the notion of a discrete nation, while at the same time demonstrating the need for many voices to help narrate, and in effect, construct a nation’s various identities: cultural, political, territorial and aesthetic. In this way, a Philippine national cinema supported by the multilingual regions is no longer (contrary to its popular articulation) merely reflective of the expressive cultural elements of a given territory, but rather, is itself a necessary condition for the construction of the hyper-malleable concept of a nation.