From Revolution to Revolution

The Documentary Movement in the Philippines

Nick Deocampo

The ninety year history of documentary film in the Philippines may be encapsulated in two revolutions.

At the turn of the century, when a revolution was waged by Filipinos against Spain, the death of Jose Rizal became a symbol in the fight against colonial oppression. A few days after the country's foremost intellectual was shot, Filipinos had their first glimpse of the movies. With the arrival of the Americans to colonize the country after Spain, the cinematic apparatus became entrenched in the country's cultural production as a major source of entertainment. Hollywood's rise as a global monopoly coincided with the colonization of the Philippine Islands.

Ninety years later, another man was shot and another revolution was sparked - this time to oust a dictator. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr. became the symbol of a people wanting to free themselves from Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorial regime. The image medium captured the people's struggle for freedom by covering the four-day event with the vigilant presence of video technology.

In the Philippines, Cinema and Revolution are born alongside each other.

From Gunshot to Gunshot

It has been a long and bitter struggle.

As history arrives in full circle - from gunshot to gunshot, from revolution to revolution - the history of Philippine documentary can be charted as a witness to events occurring in society.

Early accounts of its history reveal its complete dependence on foreign filmmakers filming the country and its people. Professor Eric Barnouw's book, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, contains accounts of the early films on the Philippine-American War made by the studio of Thomas Alva Edison. Shot at West Orange, New Jersey, the films depicted Filipinos, played by blacks, waging war against American soldiers. Other American and foreign filmmakers made "actuality films" to feed their cinema audiences back home. Exploiting the propitious moment of the revolution, American cinemas cashed in through the war films - also known as "visual newspapers" - which played in numerous vaudeville houses.

One wonders, however, what images those early filmmakers made out of the native Filipinos and their country in the early silent films? Watching the footage made by Edison's studio, which were actually "re-constitutions," or scenes faked for the camera and not shot at the actual places the events really happened, one realizes how the cinematic apparatus was used to advance the colonial interests of America. The titles of these films alone suggest the supremacy of the white colonizers over their colonialized subjects: Rout of the Filipinos, Filipinos Retreat From Trenches, Capture of Trenches in Candaba, and Advances of Kansas Volunteers at Calcoocan. The films spoke of defeat, of the capture of Filipino soldiers - in short, of America's triumph over the Filipinos. These films, in the words of Barnouw, "fanned the imperialistic emotions of the hour."

Filipinos started making documentaries in the early 1920s when they acquired the technical means of production. Jose and Jesus Nepomuceno were commissioned by the U. S. government to make documentaries on the country's native industries. They also became correspondents for foreign producers like Pathé and Paramount. Several local film studios in the 1930s and 1940s managed to shoot films of timely subjects like disasters, calamities, special events and travelogues. Some of these were shown as added attractions to feature-length films shown in movie houses. These documentaries, however, were no match in terms of popularity to the avidly patronized fiction films.

When World War II broke out, the country's film production came to a halt. Worse, many of the earlier documentaries were either damaged or lost in the war. During their four-year occupation of the country, the Japanese produced propaganda films consisting of self-serving images showing the mighty-strength of the Japanese army over American forces, the political benefits for Filipino collaborators, the surface changes in people's lives, and other similar propaganda subjects.

The liberation of the Philippines commenced a period of reconstruction. For the movie industry to stand on its own, it needed to produce films that would be box-office hits. Documentary was obviously not box-office material, so the sad thing was that nobody even tried to practice the genre when the occasion called for it after the war. It was once more left to the Americans, through the United States Information Service (USIS), to produce films about post-war conditions. The role played by communications media after the war was instrumental in disseminating new advances in technology, social welfare, and agriculture. Given its budget and technical resources, the USIS attracted many established directors from the movie industry to make American-sponsored films. These documentary films dealt with the lives of the Filipinos but without any critical analysis of their neo-colonial condition. Several forms of documentary film were made, some employing various characteristics of dramatic fiction film, such as the development of storylines and the use of screen actors. Other works were travelogues, training films, and those featuring the country's cultural facets. It was not long until one man tried to transform this moribund practice into a movement.

Benedicto G. Pinga, an army officer who studied filmmaking in New York in the early 1950s, came home to concentrate his efforts in the production and promotion of the documentary medium. Having studied the films of Robert Flaherty, John Grierson, and other foreign documentarists, he encouraged the making and appreciation of local documentaries through the film festivals, film schools, and societies he established, through publications and, most importantly, through participation in foreign film festivals. By winning awards in various international competitions, the Philippines came to be one of the leading Asian countries in documentary production. All this happened in the sixties, a period I would consider to be that of the First Documentary Movement.

Among the few remarkable documentaries were Pinga's Soul of a Fortress (1964), an anti-war experimental documentary he produced about battle-scarred Corregidor Island, where U.S. and Filipino soldiers engaged in intense struggle against the Japanese. Other notable works include Lamberto Avellana's prizewinning historical documentaries on Filipino-Spanish relations, El Legado and La Campana de Baler, and several other films on Filipino folkways.

But despite the tireless efforts of Pinga to raise documentary film consciousness, in retrospect, many of these films did not present a high quality and integrity of vision (not to mention cinematic integrity); many of them were either works of government propaganda, sponsored films which boosted the corporate image of business establishments and foreign multi-nationals, or specialized films that focused on the achievements or qualities of an organization, person, or facet of Filipino culture. Rare were documentaries which dealt truthfully with the social realities of the country such as peasant unrest, poverty, and corruption.

Political changes ultimately caught up with the documentary which would transform it from a medium of innocence and naivete into one steeped with propaganda. The turbulent seventies shutoff the budding movement with the imposition of martial law by Ferdinand Marcos. When Marcos declared marital law on September 21, 1972, all forms of communication were suppressed and put under military control. All forms of dissent were strictly curtailed and the documentary was not spared. By taking control of the media - cinema, television, radio, and print - the dictatorship could conveniently produce propaganda materials to enhance its image among the people. In no time, the National Media Production Center became a state monopoly for handling government propaganda. Produced were films hailing the "New Society," the dictator's ideological whims, the First Lady Imelda Marcos' globe-trotting tours, and the fascist strength of the military.

It took the academy - the volatile ground for student activism - to revive the sagging morale of the documentary medium. In the eighties, it was the young documentary filmmakers working underground who dared to brave the threats of the regime and capture on celluloid the images forbidden under a tyrannical regime. Through workshops and film courses, seminars and lectures, plus the screening of important documentaries from world cinema, the documentary became more and more the medium for recording the growing disenchantment of the Filipino people towards their government.

The documentary made a marginal, if underground, resurgence. Living testimonies were soon made on mass poverty, political dissent, the oppression of women and children, abuse of ethnic minorities, exploitation of the urban and rural poor, prostitution, and on other significant subjects which were otherwise suppressed in the mainstream media. By creating an underground cinema, a young generation of filmmakers has begun a protracted struggle to attain a new cinema. They have ushered in the coming of a "golden age of Philippine independent cinema" by introducing a plurality of cinematic forms like documentary, experimental film, and animation. This is the period of the Second Documentary Movement.

This new movement is more advanced in terms of film consciousness, cinematic style, and social function. The filmmakers are politically conscious and socially motivated, as well as more informed of advances in cinematic art than their earlier predecessors in the sixties. The young filmmakers have brought Philippine cinema back to its origins in the short and "actuality" films. These are films that courageously tackle social realities; indeed, a new cinema can be found in amateur documentaries and in personal, experimental films and not in the majority of professional, feature-length movies engulfed in commercialism.

Under the Shadows of Commercial Cinema

Providing a backdrop to the development of Philippine documentary is the dominant presence of an industrial cinema which churns out one of the world's highest number of commercial films. Close to one hundred fifty commercial films are produced annually. It is under the shadows of this monolithic commercial movie industry that one can locate the sporadic growth of documentary cinema. For the few works that are extant, it is obvious that they have remained the conscience of society as they bear witness to historical events which could not be accommodated in commercial cinema.

Produced outside the confines of industrial cinema, the documentary stands very little chance of getting steadily produced or of finding patronage among regular movie audiences. This was the crisis I saw when I first embarked on my investigation of the forms of cinema that were repressed by the dominance of only one form, popular cinema. Critics and scholars were of no help because very few of them dealt in their writings with the presence of documentary or with other forms such as experimental, animated, instructional, or propaganda film. They merely charted the developments made by industrial cinema.

What little accounts there were, and what little remains of the documentary films that have been preserved, have become the starting point of my investigation. This ultimately made me realize how various social, political, and economic determinations have helped efface one form of image-production in favor of another. The entertainment film has become so powerful as to be tyrannical in its shaping of people's imaginations; even if society demanded new forms of cinematic expression to respond to various forms of social crisis, such works are not made. Documentaries, which are so important in preserving historical moments when they happen, or in advocating change when it is called for, are put aside in favor of fiction films which are mass produced with little regard to their relation to social realities. As a result, there has been a homogenizing effect in this preference for fiction films. Even if a revolt happens, or massacres are committed, producers and viewers tend to look at these violent events as mere entertainment materials to be exploited for the screen. Profit, not social conscience, is the motive for production.

Against this context, we can appreciate the efforts of a small tribe of filmmakers to keep the documentary spirit alive. I have found myself in this position of producing images which I thought were being repressed by the illusions beclouding cinema's capacity to reflect social realities. In addition, I have found myself organizing workshops, hoping to develop a steady supply of documentaries. Writing and researching have all become part of the job of advocating the documentary's legitimate claim to its own space within the greater sphere of the country's cinematic production.

It is indeed sad that documentaries have a meager life in Philippine cinema. Television, ironically, plays a much better role in producing video documentaries patterned for broadcast, public affairs shows, news reportage, and dramatic reenactments of actual events, particularly crimes. If not for student video productions in schools, documentary would become nearly extinct.

Private Vision Public Cinema

The efforts to arrive at a new documentary movement was a response to the volatile political situation fermenting at the time of the dictatorship, one which led all the way to the People Power Revolution in 1986 and the overthrow of the Marcos regime.

Among the significant films produced were those made in training workshops, cause-oriented collectives, as well as ones shot by individual filmmakers. These include A Spark of Courage, by a group of students participating in a workshop conducted by the Goethe Institute and the Communication Foundation for Asia; Asia Vision's No Time for Crying; as well as my trilogy on the themes of poverty, prostitution, and social change - Oliver, Children of the Regime, and Revolutions Happen Like a Refrain in a Song, which won the Grand Prix at Belgium in 1987. A treasure trove of prizewinning documentaries exists at the De La Salle University, the undisputed leader among film training centers in Manila in video documentary production. Occasionally, the Mowelfund Film Institute has also been organizing workshops which produce documentaries in the 16mm format.

A fiercely independent figure in independent cinema, Kidlat Tahimik, has made a playful yet serious form of personal documentary with his Why is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow? A record of his three sons growing up turns into a reflection on the politics and events which have shaped the society they are living in. The 1991 version of this film was premiered at Japan's Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival '91, together with my full-length documentary on the struggle of women, Ynang Bayan: To Be a Woman is to Live in a Time of War.

Notable among these recent documentaries is the presence of an engaged filmmaker expressing a personal vision of a certain issue in society. This is very much apparent in the works of Tahimik and myself, where one can see cinema engaging in a dialogue with history: the personal as the site for the political.

The humanizing effort of recent documentaries has given a face and a voice to events that otherwise would just have been documented "objectively" by television and the mass media. Personal documentaries have a way of giving a subjective position on matters of collective concern, which helps articulate issues that otherwise would be repressed by the media.

Finding the personal in the political has been one strategy of examining a life subjected to mass terrorism and anonymity in suffering, especially during the martial law years. With their self-affirming note, these films give hope to a society that oftentimes sacrifices the individual in favor of the collective. More important to the documentary movement, these films also acquire a social and historical value as they become the repository of the hopes and sentiments of those people who have lived and expressed themselves through the medium of cinema.


Nick Deocampo

Born in 1959, Deocampo is a leading figure in Philippine independent cinema. His documentaries and short films have been shown at numerous festivals and won various international awards. Not merely a filmmaker, he is also an author, film programmer and lecturer. He is presently the director of the Mowelfund Film Institute, the leading center for independent production in the Philippines.