A SOJOURNER’S VIEWS: A nascent Mindanawon film industry

ILIGAN CITY (23 May) — The average Filipinos on the street – referred to by the renowned Filipino filmmaker Lamberto V. Avellana during the first golden age of Filipino movies as the “bakya crowd” – would ordinarily think that all Filipino movies today are produced only in Metro Manila.  This is understandable since the movies that the masa would patronize – both by buying tickets at the box-office of cineplexes or DVD pirated tapes available in the streets – are the action or horror films produced by Regal and Viva or those glossy romantic-comedies of Star Cinema.

However, a growing number of Filipino cineastes – especially those who are not drawn to escapist films but would rather see movies that mirror life’s complex realities that oftentimes contradict the myth of “and-they-live-happily-ever-after” – are well aware that Manila may soon cease to be the imperialist center of the film industry.  Owing to the rise of the independent films in the past decade, there has now arisen a truly national film industry involving not only Manila-based filmmakers but those of the nation beyond Manila.  This is unfolding as Filipino movies are now entering another golden age following the one of the 1970s-80s with the films of Brocka, Bernal, de Leon, Castillo, Romero, Aquiluz, Guillen, Abaya et al who were all Manila-based.

This phenomenon was very clearly highlighted during the 34th Urian Awards ceremony held last 17 May 2011 at the Mariott Hotel in Pasay City.  All movies nominated for Best Picture of 2010 were indie films and even those judged to be the Best Films of the past decade (2000-2010) were mostly produced outside the mainstream film studios. In his opening speech, Roland Tolentino, the chair of the oldest critics’ group the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, lauded the bountiful harvest of diverse indie films from the regions.

Of the films vying for Best Picture, the majority were no longer reflections of life in Metro Manila but in various parts of the country including Ang Damgo  ni Eleuteria filmed in Cebu and Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Yelo made by a filmmaker from Nueva Ecija. Of special interest to Mindanawons is that three were those of Mindanao-based filmmakers including Sheika (by Arnel Mardoquio of Davao), Limbunan  (by Gutierrez “Teng”  Mangansakan II of Maguindanao) and Halaw (by Sheron Dayoc of Zamboanga). These three films were nominated in almost all other categories from acting to production design, from directing to music. When the awards were handed, Sheika won in three categories (Best Actress for Fe Ginging Hyde, Best Screenplay for Mardoquio and Best Editing for Willie Apa Jr. and Arthur Ian Garcia). Limbunan won Best Sound (for Dempster Samarista).  The other indie film that made a lot of waves at the Urian awards was Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, directed by Cebu-based Remton Siega Zuasola.  It won Best Music, Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Film.  As the film is in Bisaya-Cebuano, most of Mindanawons could easily relate to the film.

Bienvenido Lumbera, a member of the Manunuri and National Artist for Literature provided the reason for the sweep of awards: “Indie filmmakers are making more interesting and meaningful movies and their mainstream counterparts have not unlearned their tired formulas for supposedly crowd-pleasing entertainment.”

Thus, the 2011 Urian awards served very important notices.  Metro Manila is no longer the center of the future Filipino film industry even as this industry will remain a fledgling one given the limitations of independent films especially in terms of marketing and making it available to the masses. Owing to the possibilities that came with digital filmmaking, there has truly arisen a national film industry constituted by films coming from a number of regions from the north to the south. A nascent film movement in the deep south of the Republic is claiming its place in this new chapter of Filipino film history.

Compared to the fields of theatre and music-songwriting, Mindanao films have a long way to go before it can establish its own identity.  The Mindanawon theatre movement that arose since the 1960s and has sustained its productive capacity until today — although it has lost a bit of its dynamism in the past decade – can claim to have produced enough works to establish its niche in Filipino dramaturgy. The works of playwrights and directors through the years (Galenzoga, Rivera, Horfilla, Garitoy, Remotigue, Pagusara, Noel, Fernandez, Narvaez, Belar et al) and performed by the Kolambugan Maranatha Drama Group, the Magdudulang Mayukmok,  the Sining Kambayoka Ensemble, the Sining Malay Ensemble, the  Kaliwat Theatre Collective, the EDCADS theatre group, the Iligan Performing Arts Group, the Sining Kapapagariya et al) have collectively projected a profile of a rich Mindanawon theatre practice that are these artists’ and cultural workers’ legacy to the next generations.

The field of Mindanawon music and song-writing has also asserted its own identity distinct from that of other regions.  Because the main proponents of this movement (Asin, Granada, Ayala, Landero, Barrios, Nono, Yano) have been able to penetrate Metro Manila with their unique sound – resulting from a fusion of indigenous music, ethnic rhythms and lyrics grounded on the socio-ecological contexts of the “tri-people” of Mindanao – and have sustained people’s interest in this kind of music and songs, there is no doubt that Mindanawon’s contribution to music and songs is acknowledged and highly regarded.

But this has not yet been true of Mindanao’s nascent film movement. In the 1950s-60s, there was a vibrant film industry based in Cebu and its market extended beyond the Visayas to Mindanao as the migrant settlers could understand and speak Bisaya-Cebuano. But while there were films about peoples in Mindanao, there was no Mindanawon with the capacity to make films considering the high costs of producing a movie in the pre-digital age.

When the “betamax” technology reached Mindanao in the mid-70s – and the digital camera using betamax tape was now affordable and became the machinery to document weddings and graduation rites – a few of those fascinated by the technology’s possibilities explored its potentials. One was Neil Frazer, a former Columban missionary based in Ozamis City who was already doing a lot of photography work and wanted to shift from stills to moving images. Working with other Columbans, he came up with some of the first independent documentaries that were truly Mindanawon. There subjects were about realities in Mindanao, the locations were in Mindanao and those involved in the whole filmmaking process were all based in Mindanao. The best known of these documentaries was about the T’bolis in Lake Sebu.

From documentaries, Frazer shifted to feature films still using the betamax technology. He was able to produce a number of these films which used Cebuano as its medium. The actors hired to play roles in the film were those who were already active in the theatre movement or newly discovered talents. The main conduits for marketing these films were church circles and legal institutions that arose during the martial law years.  Unfortunately, even then marketing was a problem of Frazer’s indie films.  With limitations in finding an audience who would pay for viewing his films and producers who could finance these, Frazer’s dream of producing more films had to be abandoned.

It would take years before serious filmmakers would arise in this landscape. Some local groups attached to schools and art circles in Davao, Cagayan de Oro, Iligan, Butuan and Zamboanga experimented with the film medium and came up with short films. The Guerrilla Filmmaking group in Davao City mobilized resources to finance a film festival of short films at the Gaisano Mall in the last few years. As colleges and universities in Mindanao’s key cities – with courses that promoted amateur filmmaking like Communication Arts, MasCom, etc.  –  encouraged their students to get into short film production, a growing number of young filmmakers explored the terrain and came up with very promising short films.

From out of this landscape arose the likes of Mardoquio, Mangansakan and Dayoc who have come up with a growing number of distinguished indie films winning awards and being exhibited in film festivals abroad.  And the rest is history… or at least the beginnings of a history of Mindanawon films!

However, there is a shadow hanging over this nascent Mindanawon film industry, which is shared with the rest of the country.  While digital technology has leveled the playing field of filmmaking as the costs of making a movie has been drastically cut down, most producers of indie films do not have the money required to publicize, market and show the films to a paying public. As they tackle serious content and do not have movie celebrities in the cast  – who are box-office kings and queens – they also are not able to attract a good number of viewers.  There is also a problem of releasing the films in DVD format as these could then be easily pirated and the poor producer will never be able to recoup his investments.

The future of the Mindanawon film industry will not depend only on the guts, gifts and gumption of our very promising breed of young filmmakers – following in the footsteps of Mardoquio, Mangansakan and Dayoc are a growing list of even younger filmmakers currently doing short films – but also on how they can find producers or production units who would be able to provide the marketing of their film output.  Unfortunately, our government provides a very meager support to the independent film industry and corporate support has been few and far between.

If this nascent Mindanawon film industry is to progress towards a level where it will find an audience that will help sustain it financially while attracting more favorable reviews and winning awards here and abroad, all Mindanawons who love films will have to do their share of promoting and patronizing these films. There is a market out there – among students in our hundreds of schools, the civil society circles, the professionals who long for good local films and even some of those in the bakya-crowd (or more appropriately the tsinelas-crowd) – and these could be tapped.  It would be such a pity if this nascent industry that has now attracted the attention of cineastes would end up like the Visayan films in the 1950s-60s.

For now, we salute our Mindanawon filmmakers and wish them more productive years ahead! (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)