Saving Philippine cinema

Bembol Roco in Manila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag
Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975, Cinema Artists Philippines)
Photo courtesy of Mike de Leon

How the advent of film restoration is helping save Philippine cinema one frame at a time
By Ramon C. Nocon

 

In the 1990s, with funding support from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA) initiated the “restoration” of a number of Tagalog films. A non-profit organization led by Agustin “Hammy” Sotto, SOFIA was dedicated to the establishment of a National Film Archive and the preservation of our rich audiovisual heritage.

Back then, “restoration” merely meant the striking of new film prints. Nevertheless, it led to the production of  “new” copies of such classics as Tunay na Ina (1939), Sanda Wong (1955), Maalaala Mo Kaya (1954), Dalagang Ilokana (1954), and Giliw Ko (1939), among others. The last was restored with the help of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) of Australia. In 1990, Gerardo de Leon’s Noli Me Tangere (1961) was also restored, this time with the backing of the German government.

The ABS-CBN film archives

In 1994, the radio-television-film network ABS-CBN set up its own film archive boasting temperature-controlled vaults, among other things. Leo Katigbak, head of ABS-CBN Restoration, and SOFIA’s Jo Atienza and Ferdie Manalili composed the archive’s pioneering staff. They reported to Charo Santos-Concio who would later become the chief executive officer of the media giant.

Ostensibly, the ABS-CBN Film Archives was organized to serve as the repository of (1) film materials that ABS-CBN, through its film production arm Star Cinema, would produce, and (2) movie titles that the company was acquiring from movie outfits like Seiko, Regal, OctoArts, and RVQ, for its movie channel at the time, the precursor of what is now Cinema One.

At that point, ABS-CBN was also starting to explore the possibilities of film restoration before the digital era. This was inspired perhaps by the earlier efforts of CNN mogul Ted Turner when he took possession of the extensive MGM library. ABS-CBN identified Peque Gallaga’s Oro Plata Mata, which Charo had produced in 1982 in behalf of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), as the test material. But exorbitant costs and technological limitations led them to put the project in the back burner. “The initial [cost] estimate was in the area of 25 million pesos,” Katigbak recounted. “And it wouldn’t address many of the film problems [present in the copy of Oro Plata Mata].”

ABS-CBN executives, on the other hand, felt they should, and could, take their time and be more patient until such time that restoration could be more viable. SOFIA, meanwhile, continued to do archiving workshops and intermittently curated film screenings.

In 2009 the ABS-CBN engineering department would again float the idea of film restoration after the advent of digital software that could address the many problems they had faced earlier with Oro Plata Mata and the older films in their collection. A lot of these films already exhibited the vinegar syndrome: molds, scratches, warping, video jerking, torn images, discoloration.

True digital film restoration in high definition, 2K  and 4K resolution could at last be achieved, at more realistic costs locally with the formation of the Central Digital Lab, a shop headed by acclaimed film editor Manet Dayrit and Rick Hawthorne. Thus, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982) and Gallaga’s Oro Plata Mata were finally restored and subsequently screened, heralding the auspicious start of ABS-CBN’s film restoration efforts. As of December 2017, the network’s film restoration project, now on its fifth year, has restored around 150 films.

Other initiatives

Other film restoration efforts by other entities soon followed suit. The Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), the government body under the Office of the President that is mandated to “ensure the establishment of a national film archive,” began the repatriation and restoration of Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan (1950), which was screened at the Venice Film Festival in 1952, the first Filipino movie to achieve that feat. Soon after, the FDCP partnered with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project, which preserves and restores neglected films from around the world, by restoring Lino Brocka’s Maynila Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975) and Insiang (1976).

For Lamberto Avellana’s Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1965), the FDCP partnered with master filmmaker Mike de Leon, whose father Manuel, son of LVN Pictures matriarch Doña Sisang, produced Portrait. The restoration of all three films, plus a handful of those restored by ABS-CBN, was undertaken by the Italian laboratory L’Imaggine Ritrovatta. Since setting up office in Hong Kong, the laboratory has been enjoying brisk business in the region.

FPJ Productions of the late Fernando Poe Jr., perhaps the only local movie star who had the foresight to archive the films he produced and directed, has also been busy restoring films in their collection after acquiring a state-of-the-art ARRI film scanner in 2011. Recently, they premiered the restored Asedillo (1971), directed by Celso Ad Castillo.

The Singapore-based Asian Film Archive, whose mission is to save, explore and share the art of Asian cinema and where Mike de Leon has his films and a few others kept for safekeeping, sponsored the restoration of the De Leon-helmed Batch ’81.

Audiovisual heritage

For those involved in the daunting and at times admittedly frustrating cause of film archiving in country, one would never have imagined that film restoration would become a reality, especially considering the deplorable state of film archiving here. Only 3,000 out of the 8,000 or so films produced by the local film industry are still extant. Countless more are in various states of decay.

For others, this question is often asked: Why preserve and restore films at all? Aren’t there more important things to address in a developing country such as ours? Indeed, film restoration entails substantial investments of both money and time, but its value cannot be downplayed by simply invoking financial considerations.

“The Philippines has always had a rich film history,” Katigbak said, “but there has been a disconnect with the last generation that has led to many films being lost and forgotten. Film students often say that it was difficult to study film history because few copies have survived. What did survive are bad reproductions. With our restoration projects and Sagip Pelikula, we hope to ensure that more cinematic gems survive, that their creators and the honors they brought to the country are remembered and that the new generation of filmmakers learn from the greats of the past.”

For SOFIA, the work that it does is guided by this mission: to help Filipinos learn more about themselves through their audiovisual heritage. SOFIA hopes to gather more support to carry on its initiatives and projects as it celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2018.

Ramon C. Nocon is active in the cause of film preservation through the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA). A writer and public relations practitioner, he was a former member of the NCCA Committee on Cinema for two terms. (ramoncn@gmail.com)

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