By Carmen Aquino Sarmiento

AS WE celebrate the centennial of Philippine films, the UP Film Institute (UPFI) marks its 40th year of existence. Without the artistic and intellectual freedom, the institutional safe space which the UPFI provided, would we even have the likes of: Nick Deocampo, Tikoy Aguiluz, Butch Perez, Raymond Red, Lav Diaz, Khavn dela Cruz, Rox Lee, Tad Ermitano, Auraeus Solito (a.k.a. Kanakan Balintagos), the Agbayani, Alcazeren, and Hernando brothers, as well as the Dalena sisters Sari and Kiri, and a whole new generation of cinema creatives? As Deocampo, who is also a film historian, noted, the rise of Philippine experimental cinema coincided with the maverick Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal’s successfully challenging the commercial cinema juggernaut. He sees elements of the earliest Philippine Cinema which followed in the wake of the Propaganda Movement and the subversive playwrights whose sarsuela contained hidden messages, as a continuation of our unfinished revolution.

The first Philippine Experimental or “Expe” Film Festival in October, held at the UP Cine Adarna and Videotheque, gave the current generation the rare opportunity to watch such early classics as the European-made films of Kidlat Tahimik and Henry Francia’s American-made On My Way to India Consciousness I reached China (1968). Those films’ Filipino sensibility but cosmopolitan sophistication were better appreciated by Western audiences back in those halcyon hippie days.

However, the roots of Philippine experimental cinema run deeper, as far back as the early 1950s, with the Bell of St. Francis which was written, edited, and directed by Isagani Pastor. This lost five-minute film was praised then for its “symphonic structure, building up to a culminating point, then down to a normal position by controlling the tempo of both the visuals and music, and how by parallel cutting with both objective and subjective shots, a sense of the story and continuity was achieved.” Pastor and the ground-breaking film documentarian, Ben Pinga, were members of the Film Society of the Philippines, the first underground film group here. Mario Hernando and Doy Del Mundo apprenticed with Pinga. It was also then that the filmmakers Manuel Conde and Lamberto Avellana gained international recognition.

Just as pearls are produced through an oyster’s painful efforts to expel the intruding grain of sand, so might the unprecedented rise in the number of experimental filmmakers from the late 1970s through the 1980s be a manifestation of the covert resistance to the repression of Marcos’ Martial Law. The regime’s iron fist had immediately taken over the mass media, for as Ferdinand Marcos had taught Imelda: “Perception is real, the truth is not.” The First Daughter Imee Marcos understood the importance of artists in shaping a nation’s vision, and of film as a popular medium. She set up a national competition for Experimental Cinema in 1983. Deocampo’s documentary Oliver, and the enfant terrible Raymond Red’s poetically disturbing Ang Magpakailanman took the top prizes.

The Goethe Institute (GI) Manila is the baby daddy of that boomer generation of Philippine experimental filmmakers which sprung up during the post-Ninoy Aquino assassination’s rising tide of anti-Marcos sentiment. Under its auspices, alternative filmmaking seminars and workshops were conducted by various German experts from 1984 to 1997. Prof. Inge Petzke of the University of Applied Sciences-Wurzbug introduced Filipinos to gems of German alternative cinema, from Moholy Nagy of the 1920s to the late 20th century masters such as Wim Wenders. In February 1985, Prof. Petzke held the first Super-8 Filmmaking Workshop. The output included Eli Guieb’s Mga Naunsyaming Pangarap sa Isang Lipunang Bulok. Unfortunately, most of the films made during this first workshop have been lost.

After Kodak stopped developing Super-8 in the Philippines, GI Manila held 16 mm filmmaking workshops with Christoph Janetzko, an icon of German experimental filmmaking, whose name, along with Petzke’s, appears in the end credits of most of the films from what may be termed the GI Manila period. Janetzko was so deeply committed to nurturing the new breed of Filipino alternative filmmakers that he would stay on at his own expense after the official workshops had ended, waiting until the last film had been edited and handed over to the laboratory for processing. It was Janetzko who first brought Filipino “Expe” to the Berlinale in 1989 where a section called “Kino in the Philippines” featured the works of Melchor Bacani, Yeye Calderon, Cesar Hernando, Deo Noveno, Patrick Purugganan, Raymond Red, and Ian Victoriano. On his own, Janetzko even brought over 16 mm cameras and other filmmaking equipment, paying out of pocket the excess baggage fees for these, for the use of the community of Mowelfund (Movie Workers Welfare Fund) filmmakers, then led by Nick Deocampo. Lav Diaz recalls Mowelfund in those days as “this hole where we could hang out together: smoke, watch, and talk about films, drink and play music — a good place to jam.” After the EDSA 1986 People Power event, the Cultural Center of the Philippines established what is now the country’s longest running alternative film festival.

A quarter century after conducting his last filmmaking workshop here, Prof. Petzke returned this 2019, to mentor a new batch of 18 experimental filmmakers, i.e., J.P. Bonoan, Ace Castillo, Jaimie Chi, David Corpuz, Jordan Jose Dela Cruz, Kiri Dalena, Mao Factolerin, Lem Garcellano, Joscephine Gomez, Bea Mariano, Juan Martin, Mark Mirabuenos, Monique Mangente, Jose Olarte, Lloyd Reyes, Vic Teano, Arnel Telesforo, and Chino de Vera. Their finished works were premiered during this First Filipino “Expe” Film Fest.

The technological breakthrough of digital filmmaking in this millennium democratized filmmaking as an art form. Using home video cameras or even just cellphones, digital filmmaking is now part of the SPA (Special Program for the Arts) syllabus in many public high schools. However, Prof. Petzke reminded his latest batch of mentees that it’s a cop-out to claim a film is experimental just because it fails to communicate or to achieve its director’s intentions.

For example, we may just have to take the multi-media artist Rox Lee’s word for it that the out-of-focus man repeatedly hurling himself against a wall while a butiki (gecko) looks on impassively was a retroactive metaphor for the resistance to Marcos Martial Law in Lizard or How to Act in Front of a Reptile (1987). For the festival, Lee performed a shamanistic dance with his face and body covered in cardboard and old film spools. “Expe” is not easy to take. It may be an acquired taste. Much is deeply personal and may require more effort at patience and understanding from its audience, than the usual populist binge-and-chill approach towards live-streamed TV shows and movies which most of us are used to. “Expe” cinema is a purposeful experience, closer to fine art. The presence of works of film in many gallery exhibitions attests to this. As in “expe,” the film itself may be painted on, scratched, reused, played at an altered speed, collaged.

If one must be a kind of initiate in order to get what an experimental film is about, then the film historian and documentarian Nick Deocampo is this rarefied art form’s high priest or babaylan, an evangelist who has assiduously researched and recorded Philippine cinema’s 100-year history. Deocampo’s is an important, if little appreciated vocation, for although film as a record of our own nation’s history gets it down both visually and aurally, the material itself was unstable and fragile. Old film negatives have been turned into New Year’s Eve torotot (horns), or simply destroyed and lost. Thus often, the written notation that such a film was really made and once existed may be all that is left. The word still rules.

Admittedly, many “expe” films may not meet conventional aesthetic standards. But so long as these do not qualify as hate speech or have resulted in actual harm, such as with child pornography, snuff films, or crush videos (where small, helpless animals are tortured to death), it would be as wrong to censor, to destroy, or to criminalize these, as it would be to terminate the lives of those who think or speak or act differently from the herd, even the so-called differently abled or special persons, who may not meet the ideal and conventional criteria of optimum human existence. Each has its own reason for being. Meanwhile, let a thousand flowers bloom and more visions and voices be seen and heard. “Expe” film is alive and thriving in the Philippines. This first film festival was a celebration.