Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Lost and Found Box: Rediscovering a Cinematic Tradition

*NOTE: don’t be offended if you think some archivists are already doing the things I outline here: this is mostly me just brainstorming to myself about the ways of discovering Filipino films.

A discovery: Lamberto Avellana’s Sarjan Hassan (1955), a Malaysian film co-directed with filmmaker P. Ramlee, is available on VCD in Malaysia (with English subtitles!). (Sarjan Hassan of course is not only worthy of watching because it was made by Avellana, but also because it was co-directed by one of Malaysia’s greatest filmmakers.) Also, a number of Ramon Estrella’s films in Singapore and Malaysia are available on video as well. They were remnants of a time when Filipino filmmakers, along with Indian filmmakers, traveled all over Asia to develop the art in other countries. Apparently, many of their movies did not resonate as well with the local audience as those made by local filmmakers, possibly because they were more “Filipino” than Malaysian (although I wouldn’t really know what that means). Tinged with American influences, these films reflected a colonial past that was foreign to Malaysia, and an industry that displays affections for Western filmmaking through the numerous co-productions and exploitations that have existed between Hollywood and Philippine movie industry since its inception. I argue that because of this, it is worthy to consider and study these films as part of the Filipino film heritage despite the use of a foreign language.

Of course, finding Filipino movies in foreign places isn’t exactly big news. Many of Lino Brocka’s great works (including Bona) are stashed in Paris, where failed screenings planned for foreign festivals (many due to political reasons) stranded the reels in these archives and ironically, ensured their preservation. In Howie Severino’s search for lost Filipino movies, he documents the discovery of movies in Hong Kong (Gerardo de Leon’s Sanda Wong, in the Shaw Brothers vault I believe) and Thailand (a lost Darna movie and Gerardo de Leon’s Banga ni Zimadar, both dubbed for theatrical release in Thailand), as well as discovery of contemporary (as late as the 70s!) movies in the Anthology Film Archives in New York (I knew I should have tried to work in that damn place).

This should lead us to conceptualize new ways of looking for these films. In truth, missing films could be anywhere and everywhere: Ray Carney did find John Cassavetes’ long lost extended-version of Shadows in, of all places, a box somebody forgot at a New York subway and stashed at the New York Metro’s lost-and-found office. And if there’s any chance of ever finding all three hours of Orson Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, it would be in some dilapidated old hut in the middle of the Amazon. But in truth, the sources for Filipino movies are probably more straightforward.

Note however, that Avellana may have longer versions of this or Silos has a shorter version of that, but Filipinos really do not have the time or the energy to be preoccupied with looking for director’s versions of their films. Simply, if we use Magnificent Ambersons as a metaphor, were’ still too busy looking for the 88-minute version to be concerned with the three-hour masterpiece. We aren’t concerned with establishing the defining aspects of our auteurs (as the West is), but in having the evidence for their existence in the first place.

First, many Filipino films were shown all over the world in major film festivals. Venice has been thrown about more than a few times, as well as film festivals throughout Asia. Could films have been stashed in those cities as well? Sure, major metropolitan cities such as New York and Paris which also contain very active movie-going audiences may—and do—have Filipino movies, but smaller cities in Europe (such as Nantes), India, China, Japan, even Singapore which may have had film festivals in the past may also have archives of film stocks, dilapidated those archives may be. Tracing the origins of these films, and the way the films changed hands until they landed on the organizers of these smaller film festivals, may be as fruitful as, if not more so than, following the same trail for larger film festivals.

Second, as the Malaysian example show, Filipino films and filmmakers were largely bandied about in Asia during the country’s first cinematic Golden Age, and major studios abroad such as the Shaw Brothers were very influential in buying, dubbing, and distributing Filipino movies abroad. Although there is great preoccupation in trying to force major studios in the Philippines to open their vaults, why not divert some of the attention to foreign studios? One could assume that foreign studios may be no different, but as film preservation in Hong Kong, India, China, and Malaysia show, this may not be the case. (Of course, one could argue that the Indians are probably worse at saving their movies than we are: apparently the government’s archives only contain 4,000 films, out of the 900 or so made every year in Mumbai alone for the past 70 or 80 years. But unlike in the Philippines, the family dynasties that rule over the film industry are more than willing to preserve movies connected to their name, especially the Dutts and the Kapoors.)

Third, with the political content of our films, is it possible that they might have been sent to Latin America, especially with the rise of the influence of ICAIC in the region during the 70s? If the newly aroused political consciousness of European critics led to the “discovery” of the likes of Pasolini, Nelson Pereira dos Santos and Lino Brocka and their films, couldn’t some of the filmmakers and critics who attended the European film festivals that showcased the movies by these auteurs brought back copies to their respective countries? Latin America was (and is) a hotbed of international leftist and Third World defiance as represented in film. Especially for the Cubans, film took centrality in the new political revolutions taking place all over the continent. Have anybody checked the ICAIC archives? The Mexican archives? And to that extent, have anybody checked the former Soviet archives? If Soy Cuba (1964) was unearthed from the depths of Russian archives despite being long buried in memory, can we possibly do the same for such films as Moises Padilla Story (1961) or even Daigdig ng Mga Api (1965)?

The other extreme of Philippine cinema could be of help as well. On the one hand there’s the political consciousness of the films of the 60s through the 80s. On the other there’s the exploitation films not only of the 70s and the 80s where Cleopatra Wong and Weng Weng reigned, or the 60s where Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero slummed it with Roger Corman’s exploitation film outfits, but also the “Golden Age of Exploitation,” the 30s and the 40s when films from other countries, especially the “Orient,” were brought to American shores, cut, re-cut, scenes added, even multiple movies merged, and shown in seedy theatres as shocking views of an alien world.

One particular character is Lloyd Friedgen. As an enterprising producer, he traveled to Asia’s more active filmmaking industries—that is, the studios of the Philippines and India—to take films that could possibly attract an audience in the US. Two films he “discovered” that are now known amongst cult film enthusiasts are Forbidden Women (1948) by Eduardo Castro, the mind behind Zamboanga (1937; the print was discovered of all places in Finland) and Outrages of the Orient (1948) by Carlos Vander Tolosa, the man who made Bilanggong Birhen (1960) and Giliw Ko (1939). Of course, these movies were manhandled by Friedgen, cutting dialogue and action continuity and flow, reinserting scenes from other movies or scenes newly filmed by Friedgen to “spice-up” the story. If anything, if not re-done and re-transformed to at least remove scenes that are known to be Friedgen’s and not Castro’s/Tolosa’s, these movies are great windows to what would otherwise remain lost, hidden, and forgotten. Tracking Friedgen’s history, his dealings with other producers like him (especially another producer, Ray Friedgen, although I’m thinking they are the same person or possibly he is Lloyd’s father), and possibly any existing archive of his movies could uncover an interesting goldmine of unseen—but unfortunately molested—Filipino films.

Finally, for a people so defined by emigration as the Filipinos (it is important to note that OCWs, or Overseas Contract Workers, drive the country’s economy, Filipinos are fast becoming the largest Asian group in the US, and the Filipino immigration to Australia is one of the country’s largest), it could be possible that films followed Filipinos wherever there was a large concentration of them. Bollywood for example spread throughout much of Africa and Asia not simply because their simplicity and mindlessness (two elements which are not present in many a good Bollywood film) appealed universally, but because Indians brought their films with them to wherever they went. It’s no surprise that Bollywood is perpetually popular in African countries when one also points out that South Asians—called simply Asians in some countries—migrated in large numbers to the continent, especially during the era of European domination during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and established communities that retained contact with the motherland until today.

For Filipinos, for film, one area that might be worth studying is Hawaii (since I know more about Filipino immigration to the US than anywhere else, I’m going to talk about that). Unlike early Chinese migration to the mainland, early Filipino communities in continental US, especially in the West, were defined by their impermanence. Like the displaced Midwestern poor and the Mexican workers of the teens and 20s, Filipinos were by and large migrant workers, and they moved along with the crops and the available farm jobs. Wherever Filipinos rested, there was a community. This is far from being an ideal situation for establishing a cinema. (More permanent Filipino communities in places such as Stockton near san Francisco, and Southern California did not come about until the late 50s. And even then, it was still under the control of the constantly changing California cityscape. Philippinetown in Downtown Los Angeles for example is not really the historic home of the Filipino community in Los Angeles. The original Philippinetown was first located around Bunker Hill, which was displaced by the development of the Financial District, then later around Union Station, which was later displaced by the construction of the station. In San Francisco, the tenuous nature of the Filipino community is of course most prominently symbolized by the I-Hotel, a building that housed a significant Filipino community until the city government decided to demolish it to make way for urban development.)

Hawaii, on the other hand, had a much more stationary Filipino community. When immigration began in the 20s, Filipinos moved to Hawaii not only to work then move back to the Philippines (like the migrant workers in California then and the OCWs now), but rather to really establish a life in Hawaii. Although the bulk of the Filipino immigration to the US later drifted further east to the US mainland, and the Filipino immigration to Hawaii was not as significant as the second wave of immigration to places such as California and Virginia that took place in the 80s (only a few thousands, compared to hundreds of thousands), their rootedness and permanence nevertheless gives rise to speculation that cinemas catering to a Tagalog-speaking clientele may have existed in Hawaii. Although these films may have been destroyed and disposed as easily as they were back in Manila, it might still be worth seeking Hawaii’s archives to see if Filipino entrepreneurs did indeed bring their films to people who craved a taste of home, and if they did if those films survived at all.

Although the conditions of early migration to California discounts the possibility of films from the era to exist here (outside of private collections, that is), the conditions of the great wave of migration of the 80s did however made possible the spread of film in another format: through video. Whereas film depended on expensive and immobile equipment, video encased the film in a portable plastic box that could be played using another, but only slightly larger, box. Video diminished the quality of the image it displays, but it nevertheless allowed that image to be easily transferred out of the country, viewed thousands of miles away, and keep in a small compartment all the subtle mannerisms and idioms that define the culture where it came from, the culture which the displaced immigrant understands. It allowed the immigrant to keep contact with the land she left, something that is very important for the uber-patriotic Filipino. This is probably why the establishment of a Filipino video store, alongside a glorified sari-sari stores (stores that sold pretty much everything under the sun) and a turo-turo (literally “point-point,” cheap Filipino food a la carte), is enough to announce the establishment of a Filipino community.

The Filipinos who became Americans in the 80s didn’t stay in the Filipino epicenters of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hawaii. They moved to Virginia, Florida, Washington DC, New York, New Jersey, Las Vegas, Chicago, and even New Orleans, like their 18th century predecessors. And with them came the video collections culled from back home, by the then classic and contemporary masters: Avellana, de Leon, Romero, Bernal, and Brocka. Not only this, film companies from the Philippines followed them too and catered to the community. Regal and Video films transferred many films to video and sold them to individual collectors and video stores. The irony is that since the conditions in the states were more conducive to preservation than back home (where the constant humidity and heat hastened the deterioration of both electronic and film sources), many videos that are scarce in the Philippines outside of Video 48 in Manila are common in more established Filipino communities (Oro, Plata, Mata for example, a film that is scarce in the Philippines, is available in all four of the video stores I frequent in Southern California. But that’s a subject for another post).

The end result of having such an active video scene within the immigrant community is the availability of films that would otherwise be absent. As already mentioned, video stores stock some titles that are rare anywhere else. In other times, the end result could even be the discovery of a film that exists in no other form: Brocka’s Tubog sa Ginto, for example, could now only be viewed because a beta tape was discovered in New York. Of course, I’m sure, like any video, the image quality is far behind of the image that could have been viewed if the actual film stock existed. But as I’ve said before, you take what you can. It’s better to have it in deteriorated state than not have it at all. This beta tape at least proves to us that there is indeed a film called Tubog sa Ginto, and that indeed we can view it for ourselves.


Jojo Devera said...

great article John!

i'm surprised that some of those collaborations are available on VCD. i wonder how we can purchase copies? i would love to see Avellana & Estrella's Malaysian movies. a friend of mine who's a professor at the University Of Chicago went to Video 48 and bought DVD copies of films such as Oro, Plata, Mata and Aguila to name a few. he mentioned that they were surprisigly good most especially Aguila. regarding Tubog, i found the VHS in the back of Video Internationale in Chicago a few years back. it was stacked at the bottom of movies like Aliping Saguigilid and Ano Ang Ginawa Ng Babae Sa Ibon. it was dusty and i cannot even read the title. it's in bad shape so i tried to transfer it onto DVD as soon as i got back home. it's the copy we showed last year here in NY as part of the Brocka retrospective at the Imaginasian Cinema. it's a shame that even the artists themselves don't have copies of their own films. i gave Ricky Davao DVD's of White Slavery, the complete version of Minsan, May Isang Ina, Alyas Boy Life and Huwag Mong Itanong Kung Bakit since he caanot find any existing copies. it's really sad that even the producers themselves don't have prints of their own movies...

Jojo Devera said...

hello po kuya john,

bumalik po sa akin si La Paloma... mali daw ang address pero kinopya ko lang po ito sa return address na niligay mo sa pinadala mo sa akin. ibabalik ko uli paki e-mail nga po ang address ninyo... salamat po!