Cinema, nation, history

Ang Daigdig ng mga Api (1965, Cinemaster Inc.)
Photograph by Dick Baldovino/ Courtesy of Dick Baldovino

Cinema, nation, history
By Nick Deocampo


In recalling the history of cinema in the Philippines, several issues must be confronted: When does one start the history of a national cinema? Must film history always be seen as “national”? How did a foreign medium like film become “native”? In the age of globalism, is the concept of “national cinema” still tenuous? These and other questions need to be asked to understand cinema’s role in defining contemporary Filipino identity, society, and culture and the future they hold for cinema.

In declaring that Philippine cinema’s centenary year is 2017, two assumptions are made: that this cinema has a “Filipino” identity, and it started in 1917. The claim that Philippine cinema started in 1917 is based on the pronouncements made by Jose Nepomuceno that Philippine cinema started when his company, Malayan Movies, was founded that year. While there are facts that can be cited to validate this claim, historical investigations reveal that Philippine cinema did not start this way. As related in detail in my books Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines (2003) and Film: American Influences on Philippine Cinema (2011), cinema in the Philippines (long before it became “national”) began a good 20 years earlier. This essay summarizes how the beginning years can be accounted for and what identity was initially assumed by Philippine cinema.

The colonial cycle                                                                 

Film arrived in the country in late 1896 and its maiden exhibition was on January 1, 1897, inside an accesoria at no. 12 Escolta, Manila. This signals the start of the colonial cycle. During that period, the Philippines was under two colonial powers, Spain and USA, which fought each other to possess the islands. After the war, the victorious Americans took over the archipelago.

The overlapping dominance cast by the two colonizers ushered in cultural and cinematic influences on the colony’s infant motion pictures. With Spain, it was through pioneering figures like Spanish businessmen Francisco Pertierra and Antonio Ramos who imported and introduced moving pictures to show to local audiences. The Americans advanced the development of local cinema by also engaging in film business. Not indigenous to the country, the early films that were shown contained views alien to homegrown audiences. While there were accounts of an acceptance of moving pictures in urban centers like Manila, Cebu, and Iloilo, they had also been met with temerity and fear but with a civilizing effect among Igorots in the Mountain Province.

The conundrum brought about by the initial encounter between native audiences and the Western-made motion pictures was the beginning of a series of contradictions and cultural accommodations that would leave lasting marks on a cinema that could only assume its national identity in later years. Among the legacies bequeathed were those in language, technology, material culture, aesthetics, reception, and ideology. The colonial cycle in Philippine cinema resulted in the indigenization of Spanish words used to refer to aspects of film experience like sine, telon, takilya, awdisyon, kritiko, kontrabida, and many other words related to film.

Aesthetically and ideologically, Spanish influences sunk deep into the visual moving picture culture such as those to be found in the iconography and themes of films like Lamberto Avellana’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino and Lino Brocka’s  Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang.

America’s major influence could be found in technology. Hollywood dominated the country’s film market by flooding it with imported equipment and celluloid goods. Its classical narrative film language and industrial mode of production became templates for the local movie industry to emulate. The formation of a national cinema “officially” began soon after World War II.  It came when the US granted independence to the country. As the Philippines became a sovereign nation-state, local cinema could not but become national, though foreign influences continued to linger.

America’s cultural influence, particularly through cinema, was so strong that when the Japanese Imperial Army occupied the country, movies became the target of criticism by Japanese propagandists. As I recounted in Eiga: Cinema in the Philippines during World War II (2016), the Japanese propaganda corps turned cinema into a tool for “nationalism,” seeking in it a site for the construction of a “national identity.” Laudable as this act was, Japanese efforts were tainted by their own ideological dogmas as they supplanted American colonial policies with their own. This came out visibly in wartime movies like Dawn of Freedom. The Japanese Occupation became the last in the colonial cycle to directly shape, albeit briefly, local cinema.

The colonial cycle took on a trialectical paradigm which explains how foreign influences shaped locally made movies or their resistance toward them. The concept refers to an interplay of three cultural forces and ideologies shaping local cinema. Referring to the formative decades of colonial cinema before the war’s outbreak, the two hegemonic cultural forces contained in Hispanismo (the persistence of Spanish cultural influences embodied in the Spanish language) and Anglo-sajonismo (the influences, particularly in the use of the English language, that were brought about by the U.S. colonization of the Philippines) battled each other for dominance. A third force, Filipinismo—the assertion of Filipino identity in the native Philippine society heavily influenced by Spanish and American colonial culture, particularly in language—got  thrown into the fray.

These three forces “collided” with each other and formed a synthesis to provide cinema the cultural framework to help define the medium and its social use. One sees the effects of this cultural combination in the hybridity of domestic films, where they contained Spanish influences in their iconography and content while using Hollywood genre, star system and studio-made productions to guide homegrown talents in making films for domestic consumption.

The encounter between the “foreign” and the “domestic” which resulted in “national” films getting produced proved popular to large swathes of the population. This helped an otherwise fragmented society to imagine itself as one nation with one cinema—the Filipino cinema. The trialectical perspective facilitates an understanding of the complex nature of Philippine cinema. Developing in the years ahead, the polysemic nature of this cinema could be further viewed through a “multilectical” view as one sees more powers in society impinging on the development of the country’s cinema, particularly in the age of 21st century globalism.

Forming Philippine cinema

The interaction between foreign technology and its cultural influences produced a “Filipino” cinema that, though called “native,” contained cultural elements derived from the country’s former colonial masters. For this emergent cinema to survive in a capitalist economy, it had to churn out imitations of Hollywood genre films and replicate American cinema’s political economy—the most dominant globally—for its domestic movie industry.

Despite overwhelming dependence on Hollywood, domestic cinema asserted its presence when native elite capitalists (e.g., Jose and Pedro Vera of Sampaguita Pictures and Doña Narcisa de Leon of LVN) put up movie theaters and embarked on local film production. Their popular films became the local brand of film entertainment, attracting hordes of mass viewers. The time when this elite class took over the infant movie industry was the time when cinema found its “native” form and expression.

With local elite at filmdom’s helm, it did not take long for them to use film to boost their capitalist interests. In its bid to be popular, cinema became an instrument to exploit and even demean other Filipinos, particularly non-Tagalogs. The islands and the regions became merely a market to exploit, with little representation of regional lives on screen. The Tagalog cinema, which became synonymous with Philippine cinema, embodied Western film forms and iconic images as they represented native life on screen. As an industrial cultural institution, it became a mirror of the colonial social structures and ideologies inherited from centuries of Western colonization.

The internalized effects of foreign imitations showed in popular movie forms like the musical (Bang Shang a-lang), comedy (Dr. Yes), and cowboy film (Leon Guerrero), among others. Hollywood box office hits were instantly copied for their narratives with very little connection to local realities. Reacting against the blatant imitation of foreign movies (including Hong Kong martial arts and Italian spaghetti westerns), some local filmmakers seriously tried to define a well-meaning national cinema. This came about in the 1950s. Subsequently, conscientious directors began to produce nationalist or socially relevant films. These directors included Lamberto Avellana, Gerardo de Leon, Manuel Conde, and later, Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Marilou Diaz Abaya, and others. Although catering to commercial audiences, their films showed a path toward serious filmmaking, even if they failed to attract the mass of movie-goers.

In a separate development, cinema also developed outside the commercial film industry. Produced in alternative cinematic mode were short films, documentaries, experimental films, animations, propaganda, and other non-mainstream genres. These films have been produced outside the industrial type of filmmaking which typifies popular cinema. In the digital age, independent films, or indies, have gained a following among young audiences. These films are produced by individuals, schools, collectives, regional communities, even by government. Throughout one hundred years of motion picture history, these forms remained resilient as they get produced outside the confines of mainstream,commercial cinema. This shows that Philippine cinema cannot only be defined singularly by the movie industry as it has a rhizomatic nature in the tenacious growth of alternative films.

In recalling 100 years of Philippine film history, it pays to remember how Philippine cinema evolved from its colonial past to become the national cinema that it is today. The century-old history of Philippine cinema parallels a century of Philippine nationhood. The narrative of cinema’s history is overlaid with the country’s national history.

Nick Deocampo is Associate Professor at the University of the Philippines Film Institute. He has written award-winning books on Philippine cinema and his prizewinning documentaries serve as film chronicles of historical subjects covering both the history of the Filipino nation and its cinema. (

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