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Philippine Cinema and Society

Patrick D. Flores

To map out the connections between Philippine cinema and its social context is to locate
the grids across which cinema gains emergence and presence in Philippine society. In this task,
we identify three main areas of studies: the film text, the audience, and the industrial structure in
the context of history, society, and culture.


In analyzing the relationship between Philippine cinema and society, it is useful to draw
up a historical framework that does not merely dwell on dates and the linear progression of
events, but tackles issues and concepts.

1. The Cinematic Encounter: Beginnings and Transformations (1897-1900).

Two days after Jose Rizal was shot in Bagumbayan and as the Katipunan swept the land
with the fervor of war, the first films to come to the Philippines had begun to unreel in a small
projection house in downtown Escolta, Manila. Showing short documentaries of banal scenes
from the Gaumont Chronophotograph, the Salon Pertierra theater opened to eager audiences.
This was rather a precocious film historical event, considering that it was only three years before
that the copyright of Edison’s commercial films were awarded. Two years later, Filipino
businessman Antonio Ramos brought in Lumiere’s cinematograph, from which the word sine is
supposed to be derived, and showed films at #31 Escolta under the auspices of Swiss merchants
Leibman and Peritz.

This cinematic encounter shows that Philippine cinematic history begins with short films.
It is but unfortunate that not much space is devoted to the discussion of the Philippine short film
tradition in history. When we speak of Philippine cinema, it should not be made to refer only to
mainstream cinema.

2. Cinema as Colonial Technology (1900-1915).

In the wake of America’s victory in the Pacific, the cinema entrenched itself in the
islands as colonial technology. Ethnographic films --- from cockfights to processions, gold
mining in Paracale to the construction of the Manila Hotel --- were made about the Philippines.
These films did not so much describe the Philippines as project a sense of progress in the hands
of American rulers. In an obvious attempt at revising colonial loyalties, anti-Spanish films based
on Rizal’s life in 1912 (La Vida de Rizal from Oriental Moving Pictures Corporation and El
Fusilamiento de Rizal from Rizalina Film Manufacturing Company) were shown and produced
by American businessmen. Also, films made by Edison in the States using American actors
reenacted several revolutionary scenes like The Rout of the Filipinos, Filipinos Retreat from the
Trenches, and Advance of Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan all in 1899. It is also during this
period when three important aspects of filmmaking would take root: censorship, the imposition
of government taxes, and international distribution.
§ The Board of Cinematographic Censorship headed by the Assistant Chief of
Police of Manila was founded in 1912. Concomitantly, there was a vigorous
response from the Manila Council No. 1000 of the Knights of Columbus which
lamented the proliferation of films flagrantly dealing with “divorce, adultery,
seduction, free love, and sexual perversity.”

§ Taxes on “kinetoscopes, biographs, cinematographs, magic lanterns and similar

picture-projecting devices” were imposed in 1915.

§ In 1912, American film companies started to establish their distribution agencies

in the country; the French company Pathe Freres instituted theirs in 1915.

These three developments enmeshed Philippine cinema in the matrix of State and free
market control mechanisms. We also identify from this period the issues of foreign intervention
in the making of movies and in describing the Philippines through ethnographic films.

3. Cinema as Hollywood Industry (1916-1940).

As the public of cinema settled into place, mainly in Manila and Cebu, and watching
movies became a way of life, an industry which would cater to a new taste for film had to rise.
This industry was to be patterned after the model hatched in the minds of Hollywood’s forebears.

§ The studio was the nerve center of this production process which put in place an
assembly line of designated tasks for specific departments: Filipino Films, 1933;
Parlatone Hispano-Filipino, 1934; Excelsior Pictures, 1937; Sampaguita Pictures,
1937; LVN Pictures, 1938; X’Otic Films, 1941; and others.

§ Filipino film pioneers, mostly from the mestizo class, who ventured into
filmmaking sustained their enterprises with capital amassed from agriculture and
industry. Jose Nepomuceno put up Malayan Pictures in 1917; Vicente
Salumbides, Salumbides Corporation in 1927; and Julian Manansala, Banahaw
Pictures in 1929.

§ The first Filipino film was shown in 1919. Nepomuceno’s Dalagang Bukid was a
sarsuwela starring National Artist Honorata “Atang” de la Rama. She would sing
the theme song, “Nabasag ang Banga,” live every screening. The earliest film
people came from sarsuwela companies; one of them, Salumbides, dabbled as
movie extra in Hollywood.

From these, we can say that the early Philippine cinema stood at the intersections of
colonial theater and Hollywood, elitist resistance and a growing film public, folk traditions and
foreign technology. In fact, after the colonial interlude and as the country rushed onwards to
embrace the birth of the post-war Republic, notions of genre and the star system would gradually
take over the industry, even as narratives in the feudal mode persisted to imbue Philippine films
with patriarchal and acquiescent values. Philippine romance, action, comedy and fantasy would
take on post-colonial dimensions as they tenuously dealt with tradition and the dislocation made
possible by capital formation.

4. Cinema as Nostalgia for Nation (1941-1960).

The Japanese Occupation made the industry realize that cinema as a social institution had
power, seen by the State as a potent medium which must be reined in through censorship and
unleashed through propaganda. The Japanese clamped down on movie production. In 1943, for
instance, only one LVN picture was released, Tia Juana. The following year, three films were
produced, two of which, Dawn of Freedom and Tatlong Maria, were funded by the Japanese.
Film production ground to a halt and entertainment shifted to stage shows; and the Japanese
drew up strict censorship guidelines.

After the war, the guerilla-garrison genre came to the fore. Revolving around Japanese
atrocities and the celebration of Yankee liberation and guerilla struggle, this type of narrative
could have only betrayed the political interest of film.

Soon, however, as the industry moved on to post-war reconstruction, it would be gripped

by nostalgia for nation, a sense of mourning for the things lost in war. Such bereavement seemed
to have sharpened the creative instincts of filmmakers. Notions of excellence were soon being
forged in the industry.

§ Born in the aftermath of the war was the so-called First Golden Age. This was the
time when the Philippines was beginning to be recognized as a film capital both in
Asian and world cinema. Remarkable names include Gerardo de Leon, Manuel
Silos, Gregorio Fernandez, Manuel Conde, and Lamberto Avellana.

§ Recognition of film achievement came by way of the Maria Clara Awards in 1950
which later transformed into the formidable FAMAS (Filipino Academy of Movie
Arts and Sciences) Awards in 1953.

§ The Visayan film industry asserted itself in films which were highly
accomplished and commercially feasible.

§ The studio continued to hold sway. The Big Three ruled the realm: LVN
(comedy-musical) of Narcisa de Leon; Sampaguita (melodramas) of Dr. Jose
Perez; and Premiere (action) of Adela Santiago. But later, as the sheen of the
Golden Age began to tarnish, the studio system, managed by kinship networks
and sustained by long-range planning, would be beset by almost insurmountable
problems: labor, rising cost of technology, and fires which gutted their

5. Cinema as Social Decadence and Dissent (1960-1986).

In the absence of a system which coordinated a program of sound film entertainment fare,
ersatz versions of film trends abroad flooded the market: spaghetti westerns, detective films, sex
flicks, kung-fu pictures, and so on.

As part of the schemes of fly-by-night producers who simply wanted to recoup

investment after exhibition, these films lost sight of the heritage of the past and exploited the
audience’s fascination with Hollywood and its Third World imitations. It was also during this
period when the bomba genre flourished.

Much, much later, Imelda Marcos’s Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and the
Manila International Film Festivals in the early 80s sowed their own seeds of mangled
ambitions. To digress, we, however, must recognize the short filmmakers working in more
imaginative formats (documentary, feature, experimental, animation, docudrama, and so on) who
have received acceptance abroad like Kidlat Tahimik and Nick Deocampo. Mainsteam directors
have likewise been invited abroad to international film festivals like Lino Brocka and Mike de
Leon (Cannes) and Ishmael Bernal (Berlin).

At the dark heart of such decadence was Marcos’s Martial Law which plunged the
Philippines into the terror of dictatorship. Against such repression, however, arose both
contradictions and continuities: Nora Aunor, the industry’s biggest star and greatest performer,
practically roused mass hysteria with her rags-to-riches myth, teenybopper quickies, and
immense talent. At the height of her superstardom, though, she would shift gears, starring in
movies by filmmakers who espoused social realist aesthetics as well as certain New Wave
technical innovations.

In this period, we tease out moments of decadence and dissent through:

§ An active local film industry managed by independent producers who wanted to

recover capital fast through surefire formula films with a tinge of Hollywood.

§ The rise of a star who straddled commercial and activist concerns.

§ The emergence of the Philippine New Wave which broke away from conventional
modes of studio storytelling, importing foreign aesthetic modes but locating them
in the context of local needs and traditions.

§ State intervention in the form of an international film festival and a program of

almost pornographic films free from censorship.

6. Cinema after Marcos and Beyond Cory (1987-present).

The complex social situation which presented itself after EDSA threw the more
progressive filmmakers of the previous decade off track. The conditions were now different and
a new Philippine film aesthetics had to be ushered in. Nothing of such sort has been intimated
even as we speak.
§ The decade of the 80s saw the consolidation of industry norms.

§ The primacy of star, movie queen, and love team: Sharon Cuneta, Maricel
Soriano, Regal Babies.

§ The reign of studios like Regal and Viva and the prolific manufacture of films
based on stars and formula.

§ The dominance of trends contingent on stable genres like action, melodrama,

sex, comedy, and so on.


Film transforms reality in very specific ways. To understand this specificity is to reflect
on the relationship between reality and cinematic discourse. How does film represent reality on
screen? We have to realize that reality as we know it does not happen or we do not perceive it to
happen randomly, but rather it is in itself structured by codes: a certain rhythm, a pace, schemes
of social relations, for instance. Cinema, on the other hand, in order to signify meaning, has to
resort to its system of codes. This process, therefore, involves transcoding among various codes
--- sometimes competing, sometimes coalescing --- which circulate in society.

Film relates with other codes which also reinvent reality in very particular ways. While
film has a distinct manner of reinventing reality, it is not invulnerable to the pressures exerted by
other codes. Film interacts with other ways of representing and signifying reality.

1. Action

At the heart of the action film is the aspiration for justice. This quest is fleshed out in
various forms and ensues from multiple causes. Staple scenario is vendetta, which stems from
situations which put the action hero under siege and breathlessly in clear and present danger: a
sister is raped, land is grabbed, family is evicted from domicile, the child who is the father of the
man is bullied around.

That the root of all mayhem is personal makes the action movie political, with the
energies exerted and transformed spilling into the streets and engulfing greedy government
officials, corrupts merchants and authorities, drug lords, and mafia bosses, and even military and
paramilitary units in warlord territories.

Pumping pressure into the narrative are violence and its disseminations across a social
formation wracked by the struggle to reorganize itself along radical lines. As the action hero
performs the role of an agent of the arms culture, he decisively wields the power to prefigure
substantial changes in either the transformation or the affirmation of the very society which had
made his character and practice possible in the first place. From the true-to-life biofilms of
notorious criminals to historical epics and finally to massacre movies of recent memory, the
action movie invokes justice in the name of self, family, community, or nation and speaks of it
from specific assumptions about society, whose fate is oftentimes coterminous with either the
valiant exploits of the hero or the sordid trail of blood he leaves in the wake of carnage.

Discourses: patriarchy, feudalism, capitalism, crime, traditional politics, militarization,

machismo, social justice, agrarian unrest, class conflict, milieu, individual and collective

2. Drama

Central to the drama film are relationships imperiled by rivalry, disloyalties, the
revelations of secrets, clashes brought about by discrepant desires and commitments. The ties
and tensions that bind people to this kind of social predicament and personal perturbation enable
the genre to initiate its audiences to the inner sanctum of the human heart, and its highly dramatic

The locus of conflict is the home and the source of its problem is the threat to the
cohesion which sustains the domestic universe. This impels the narrative to move, terracing into
a plane of intense encounters --- wives confronting mistresses, daughters eloping, sons rebelling
against authority --- and finally settling down into some facile resolution, which happily and
hysterically emerges against a terrain of komiks-mode or radio serial-based plot developments.

Still, the genre is able to imbibe social contradictions: prostitutes sending relatives to
school, sisters vying for the father’s attention, young people caught up in and spinning the web
of big-city malaise.

Insofar that the drama is close to home, it realizes emotions dealing with the struggle of
people against social structures which try to subdue them. Keeping the danger in abeyance forms
the process of drama.

Discourses: identity, social institutions, affirmation of self, kinship, family, moral norms, sexual
mores, religion.

3. Comedy-Musical

In comedy, all’s well that ends well. Whether in slapstick or sitcom-style, the genre
zeroes in on situations deemed fun and funny. Humor is derived by bringing into focus physical
deformities, the extreme flamboyance of “deviants,” ethnic idiosyncrasies, to name only the most
well known of techniques. Things take a more drastic turn when the film resorts to the crudest of
devices: faces mired in mud, eggs crushed on heads, the differently abled being disabled some

Contemporary examples reveal that comedy can go beyond slapstick, but still retain its
vaudeville sensibility. For while teeners may frolic on the beach and detectives may continue to
fumble, the genre still packs its laughs by way of contortions and grotesque gesticulations.
Which is all sad because there have been comedy films which explore satire and social
commentary even within the limits of the genre. Still, the name of the game is comedy of errors
and manners, and all the toilet tales thrown in-between for, well, comic relief.

Discourses: humor, vulgarity, social criticism and commentary, parody and mimicry.

4. Horror/Fantasy

To say that the genre is peopled by elementals is to be waylaid into the gardens and
thickets of the territory. In this kind of film, people --- in distress, to be sure --- are either haunted
by or saved from evil forces. Intermingling pre-colonial myths and epics with Hollywood ghosts
and superheroes, the local interpretation of horror and fantasy assumes interesting dimensions.

Such a hybrid character is able to scan the textures of both rural and urban sensibilities:
as vampires stalk a remote town, a Wonderwoman-clone routs criminals in the city
singlehandedly. In both cases, the people could only watch in awe.

There is a lot of action and drama in the genre. And most of all the suspension of the
disbelief that a very high-technology medium like the cinema could actually live with the
magical light of fantasy and the dark night of wayward bodies.

Discourses: mythology, magic, sorcery, folklore, superheroism, disease and healing,

tradition, technology, spiritual belief.

It is to be noted that there have been hybrid forms of late, proving that there can be no
such category as pure genre. The massacre film, for instance, is action, drama and sex. The OCW
film is drama and action. The AIDS film is sex and drama.


How are movies produced today?

In discussing Philippine cinema and society, it is important to identify certain modes of


1. Market:

The current domestic film market is busy and bustling. Although in a slump, it still ranks
as the fourth largest film-producing industry in the world, next only to India, Hollywood, and the
three Chinas (Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland). Among the three, only Hollywood has a
viable international market.

What are the features of the Philippine domestic film market?

§ The modes of dissemination have been considerably broadened, with films not
only being produced for theater exhibition, which has declined significantly
(especially in the lahar belt and due to the easy access to video rentals), but also
for television, cable, and analogue technologies. The three other ancillary markets
prove to be very lucrative. A pito-pito movie (seven days production, seven days
post-production) worth P2M, for instance, can be sold to television for the same
price. The producer’s capital is practically recovered from this transaction. Factor
still into the equation profits to be amassed from theater, video, and cable

§ The industry, which is based in Manila, continues to come up with a steady output
of at least two pictures a week all year round, except Holy Week. There are two
festivals (June and December), which feature six films in the program. Because
film is a capital-intensive industry, there is no vernacular film industry like the
one which flourished in Cebu in the 50s and 70s. Among all forms of popular
culture, it is only film, therefore, that can lay claim to a national audience
inasmuch as radio, print, and television all have vernacular versions.

§ Hollywood competition is stronger than ever with the distribution system

(Columbia, United) becoming more aggressive. International films are cheaper to
distribute, more appealing in terms of production values, and are released almost
contemporaneously with Hollywood and other film capitals like Tokyo and

§ The shift of capital formation from the studio to the conglomerate which secures
interlocking interests in the fields of recording, television, and cable. ABS-CBN’s
Star Cinema is linked to Star Records, ABS-CBN Channel 2, DWRR and
DZMM, and Sky Cable. The success of Judy Ann Santos can be attributed to this
conglomerate structure: She had a television show in Channel 2 which was
released as a movie through Star Cinema and extensively promoted in the TV
shows of her network; if the movie had a soundtrack, it would have been released
through Star Records, with ample playing time to be provided by DWRR and
DZMM. Lily Monteverde of Regal Films has invested money with Star Cinema.
This demonstrates that upstream and downstream, the conglomerate, which is a
cartel really, is there for both raw material and product. The situation is also true
for Viva Films which has strong tie-ups with Channel 7, DWLS and DZBB, Viva
Video City, Viva International, and Viva Channel. Alongside the conglomerates
are the fly-by-night producers who make quickies and recover capital quickly.
The TF (Titillating Film) is the cheapest film to produce. With minimal
production design, non-stars (former nightclub entertainers on their way to Japan)
who can be paid on a daily basis, and artistic considerations very negligible, a
typical TF movie budget does not reach the standard P12M, but it takes in the
cash. In this scenario the theater owners have also staked a claim for profits and
have invested in movie production. It is said that Henry Sy, owner of SM
Cinemas, has plans to go into movie production; after all, he already has the
booking circuit cornered from the outset. It is a known fact that the booking
mechanisms are also under the control of the film cartel, the reason some
independent producers with noble intentions fail to market their products
effectively. On the whole, the output of the industry is formula-based and
thoroughly mediocre; even conglomerates, which are now losing money, have
been boxed into a reactive corner, simply waiting for how the current trends play

§ International aspirations. In spite of the glaring truth that we cannot compete with
Hollywood in terms of technology, filmmakers and producers still hanker for
international breakthroughs. The importation of state-of-the-art film technology in
the form of digital editing and live sound cannot, however, compensate for the
lack of intelligent vision for local materials. Moreover, we have to be wary of
pleasing the tastes of international film programmers who represent the
Philippines abroad in the way they choose which films best represent the
Philippines in international film festivals. Our needs might not coincide with

2. State:

The intervention of the State comes in the form of:

§ Censorship through the Movie Television Review and Classification Board

(MTRCB) which has substantially interfered with artistic freedoms and industry

§ Taxes exacted from films. Film is one of the most heavily taxed industries,
yielding money for flood control, amusement, among others.

§ Subsidy through the Film Development Foundation which until now has not
made a movie on the centennial which it had trumpeted on its establishment

3. Third Sector:

In the face of the failure of the Market and the State in providing a healthier diet of
cinema in the Philippines, it is best to explore the possibilities of a third sector in the form of film
cooperatives put up by film workers and other concerned sectors. Film cooperatives could make
movies outside the reach of the Market and the State.

In the context of these modes of production, let us now identify the problems of
Philippine cinema?


1. There are too many films, but not much quality from an industry that is largely
inefficient and mediocre.

2. Hollywood ties are very tenacious and take root in formulas and competition. Local
sources are also slave to viable trends and capitalize on sex, youth, and violence. This is
practically the legacy of tabloid culture which through its sensationalist rhetoric, graphic pictures
and language, and gossip orientation has set the agenda of entertainment: sex + violence +
controversy = box-office success.

3. Film workers in the industry have not been professionalized through time. There is a
shallow pool of talents and practically no film education program to professionalize the industry
to speak of. Almost everything is done through improvisation: films are shot with sketchy
scripts, performers cannot act, and the director was a former stuntman.

4. Recruitment is heavy from television, which is bad because it saturates audience

attention with the same images and scenarios.

5. The entertainment media is almost thoroughly corrupt. The public’s knowledge of the
industry is mediated by a media establishment whose members are in the payroll of producers.
And so, we have the perverse situation in which publicists pass off their publicity materials as
reviews, movie scribes giving out awards, and broadsheet columnists receiving retainer fees and
fat envelopes during press conferences. Entertainment reportage is also gossip-oriented. No
substantial discourse emerges from gossip, only scandal and loose talk. Gossip has become so
pervasive that primetime television, FM radio, and broadsheet lifestyle pages indulge in it.

6. Industry leaders do not subscribe to canons of delicadeza and prop themselves up as

leading lights when they are as dubious as everyone else. The committee which sends films
abroad for festivals is run by filmmakers and film producers who choose their own films for
international exhibition.


1. Film education in media and academe must be vigorously pursued through active
criticism and curricular reform in the field of popular culture.

2. The domestic industry must be scaled down but effectively marketed abroad through
overseas contract workers and international film festivals.

3. The human resources of the industry must be honed through workshops and exposure
to other film traditions.

4. There must be a clear recognition that Hollywood is not the only model for a film
industry and film aesthetics.

5. New people must come in to replace dying blood. Universities offering courses in film
should stop producing production assistants and start nurturing the talents of future filmmakers.
Some short filmmakers have crossed over to the mainstream. Foremost examples are film
director Raymond Red and cinematographer Yam Laranas. But on the main, new directors in the
industry come from theater and television and betray a lack of grasp of the film language.
Many say that the reality we are experiencing today is just part of a cycle. The question
we must ask and answer as we celebrate more than a hundred years of watching movies is this:
How do we break the cycle?


De Pedro, Ernie. 1994. “The First Movies in the Philippines” Philippine Cinema Diamond Anniversary Brochure.
Manila: Movie Workers Welfare Foundation, 1994.

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding” Culture, Media, Language. Eds. Stuart Hall, et al. London: Routledge, 1992.

Heath, Stephen. “Jaws, Ideology, and Film Theory” Movies and Methods II. Ed. Bill Nichols. Berkeley; University
of California Press, 1995.


1. According to Flores, what are the three main areas of studies that need attention in the critical
analysis of Philippine cinema? In the industrial structure, what are the three contextual
frameworks that require consideration for a better understanding of Philippine film production?

2. What are the six noteworthy periods of Philippine cinema? Describe the distinguishing
characteristics of each historical period in terms of ideological and social significance.

3. According to Flores’s discursive typology, what are the four most prevalent film genres of
Philippine cinema? How does the stereotypical narrative of each film genre unfold? What are the
underpinning ideas and concepts which serve as material support to these otherwise flimsy
narrative films?

4. In the current scene, how are Filipino movies created? Describe the conditions of the modes of
production in relation to the market forces, state intervention and film cooperatives? Enumerate
the problems and prospects facing contemporary Philippine cinema.

Pre-Lesson Activity:

A meeting before the discussion of Patrick D. Flores’s “Philippine Cinema and Society”, ask
each student to come up with a list of his or her favorite Filipino films. Ask 5 to 8 student-
volunteers to explain their choices one after the other. (Make sure to give extra recitation points
to these students.) Note the reasons for their preferences. Discuss to the whole class whether the
rationales given are well thought out and critically sound, or mindless and ideologically bereft.

Post-Lesson Activity:

Ask the students to watch the current Filipino blockbuster the weekend after discussing the essay
of Patrick D. Flores. Make them write a critical analysis of the film using some of the ideas and
concepts they have learned in class about cinema and its relation to society.