Resuscitating Philippine Cinema: Digital Cinema in the Philippines 1999-2009

The steady multi-causal decline of film production in the country during the early 1990’s, and the seemingly formulaic, thus degrading, quality of these films, pointed out by filmmaker Pepe Diokno, are symptomatic of the consequent death of Philippine cinema. Playing a hero(ine) figure, advancements in cinematic apparatuses, specifically the emergence of digital filmmaking in the country during the latter part of the millennium, resuscitated the field from its eventual demise. It is this saving technology that art historian and educator Eloisa May Hernandez tackled in her book Digital Cinema in the Philippines 1999-2009, which is a product derived from her dissertation for her doctorate degree in Philippine Studies.

Throughout the discussion of Philippine digital cinema in the book, Hernandez employed the framework of technological film history, adapted from Robert Allen and Douglas Gomery’s film historiography book Film History: Theory and Practice, using the lens of political economy, widely studied by Vincent Mosco in his book The Political Economy of Communication: Rethinking and Renewal. (It is notable that the term ‘film’ here is loosely used not only to refer to moving images shot through celluloid film, but through digital means as well.) It is with these paradigms in mind that Hernandez outlined the book. The first chapter is organized in chronological fashion: a historical survey of the development of Philippine digital cinema. The second chapter is arranged in a process-oriented manner: the various modes of production, distribution and exhibition of digital films during the period specified. In both chapters, the technological, the political, and the economic are explicated by the author.

Allen and Gomery admit that “film is a multifaceted phenomenon: art form, economic institution, cultural product, and technology … Film is simultaneously all these things”. In the same way that it is a vehicle of aesthetic value, it is also a creation situated in a context that costs and gains economic value, and whose potentialities revolve around what technological advancement is available. This definition of film is in congruence with the two authors’ definition of film history – that film history grasps film from its origin to its present state in its physical or “temporal dimension”. Thus, Hernandez charts the historical narrative of her subject not in a theoretical cerebral approach, but in material and tangible means.

Through hard numbers from her interviews with the filmmakers and involved individuals and groups, Hernandez emphasized on how the economic viability of producing digital films as a cheaper alternative to celluloid filmmaking paved the way to the democratization of the industry from the commercial machinery. Filmmaker Crisaldo Pablo shared, “movies need not be expensive … digital video moviemaking is for everyone who has a message to communicate, a desire for self-expression and a passion for the art”. Digital video opened the door for experimentation on the subject matter and style of the moving image, expanding the possibilities for the filmmakers. Examples of stylistic experimentations include the still-camera effect in Still Lives by Jon Red, the non-dialogue in Greaseman by Khavn De La Cruz, and the lengthy duration of the post-mainstream films of Lav Diaz. Examples of subjects not previously tackled by mainstream celluloid films are the topics on the issues and politics of homosexuality such as Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros by Auraeus Solito, and concerns around the regions such as Balay Daku by JP Carpio, and Dagyang: An Ilonggo Story by Joenar Pueblo. Hernandez included the details on the expenses of these digital films (mostly spent on the honoraria of actors, and logistical needs only), which showed the stark difference from the expenses incurred by productions using celluloid films.

Amongst the different fields of film history Allen and Gomery identified: aesthetic, technological, economic and social, Hernandez opted to posit the study centrally at the technological aspect of film, given that it is the advancement in the technology of the cinematic apparatus which served as the impetus for the revolutionary shift from film production using celluloid film to digital video. Technological film history, according to Allen and Gomery, dwells on how and why the technology facilitating cinema emerged and developed at some specific points in history, and how these changes shaped the possibilities for cinema. As it focuses on the technological aspect of film, the exclusion of other factors, such as the other fields of film history mentioned, is necessitated in the studies employing this framework.

Allen and Gomery relates technological film history with the three stages in introducing new products in the field of industrial economics: the development of the invention, its subsequent turn into an innovation, and the process of diffusion. Invention is marked by the emergence of a new way of doing things. If the invention proved to be beneficial or profitable, firms adopt and develop it into an innovation. Then, diffusion is the point when the product reached a point where it is widely-used within the industry. During the writing of her dissertation, Hernandez claimed that her study may not encompass these fully, specifically the stages of invention and diffusion, because the cinematic devices are not developed in the country, and digital film during the period being studied hasn’t received much traction yet in the industry. It is because of this reason that in the narration of the history of digital cinema, Hernandez divided the content between the introduction (not invention), and the innovation of digital filmmaking technology in the country.

On his review of the Allen and Gomery’s book, film professor John Fell commended the effort of the authors to “[draw] away [the writing of film history] from an urge to ‘understand’ or ‘appreciate’ movies” in pure aesthetic sense alone. This formalism has been the tendency of the previous film historians before them, who as per writer Jeanne Thomas-Allen, has not undertaken the “challenge of quantitative social science to traditional historical method,” which deals with “factual data”.

This preoccupation and fixation on the aesthetics of film was avoided by Hernandez, as she contextualizes the films as historical objects within the political and economic environment that they were in. Included in the written history are the involvement of private institutions and government agencies which assist the filmmakers in the financing and exhibition of their works, such as the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and the Film Development Council of the Philippines, and the imposed government regulations employed relating to the industry, such as censorships, motions to improve the Internet connection speed, and bureaucracy in the release of grant money and funding. In addition, exhibition regulations, and commission percentages of the large cinema house chains were also mentioned.

It is in this interplay between economics, political science, and technology that the political economy paradigm enters into the picture. According to Vincent Mosco, political economy is “the study of the social relations, particularly power relations that mutually constitute the production, distribution, and consumption of resources”. In the case of digital cinema, the primary resources would be the actual films that were produced, distributed and exhibited using digital means. Political economy then looks into how individuals and groups produce a film, how they transact with the (powerful) producers who distribute and market them (if they aren’t the producers themselves – in that case, how they distribute and market their own film), and how these films are exhibited to be consumed by the target audience. This is exactly the reason why the second chapter has been organized in a process-oriented manner, exhausting all the modes and ways on how digital films were then produced, distributed and exhibited.

However, the political economy standpoint also recognizes that these social and power relations are not static – they are “shifting forms of control along the circuit of production, distribution, and consumption”. To emphasize on this, Eileen R. Meehan et al. state that “political economy has consistently focused on the process of social change”. One major example, which is one of the main arguments of Hernandez, is the emergence of self-productions, artist-run production companies, and independents due to the introduction of the digital filmmaking technology. Social and political change in Philippine cinema is marked by the epoch of digital cinema as it shifted the arena from oligarchic production machinery to a more democratized one.  As Lav Diaz said, “Digital is so liberating … No producer or studio tell you ‘hey, you can only shoot five rolls today’, or ‘our film should be two hours long.’ Cinema is liberated with digital, you don’t have to deal with middlemen and businessmen talking about marketing and obscuring the vision of art.”

Ending the book with a discussion on the definitions of the term “independent,” which breaks free from the conventional definitions previously made to hold it, exposes the continuous evolution of the industry, opening an opportunity for other scholars to perform a definitive study on this aspect of digital cinema, specifically in the more recent decade. One interesting topic is the recent proliferation of digital pseudo-romantic films banking on the millenial hugot culture, backed up with some sort of travel into one of the beautiful corners of the country, with rustic indie soundtrack to complete the picture. The content of these films, although labelled as “independent,” has been used too often that they may as well be considered “mainstream”. Again, the usage of these terminologies remain conflicted, and are still open for further scholastic research. 

Digital Cinema in the Philippines 1999-2009 is available in National Bookstore, Powerbooks, and FullyBooked branches nationwide, and in the University of the Philippines Press.

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