Luminescences from the Philippines | Ji.hlava 26

6 November, 2022

Although the Ji.hlava Documentary Film Festival has earned its reputation as one of the most prominent and visible forums for nonfictional cinema in Central and Eastern Europe, little gets written about the directorial lines of its overall curatorship. In their rush to write about the various films premiering in the quaint cinemas and theaters of this small town in Central Czechia, critics and journalists attending the festival often end up skipping (over) the festival’s rich retrospectives and its experimental film programs, Fascinations (incidentally, Ji.hlava is a festival which welcomes not just hybrid works, but even fiction films, under certain circumstances); and precisely these were the festival’s elements that I found most exciting on both times that I had the opportunity to visit the festival.

Last year, for example, I religiously attended Ji.hlava’s complete retrospective of the legendary Susan Sontag, as well as its showcase of pre-1989 Romanian experimental cinema, featuring films by Ion Grigorescu or the kinema ikon and Sigma groups, an occasion that the festival took to arrange the digitization of a hidden gem of the Sahia documentary film studio, Alert! (1967), by Mircea Săucan. This year’s offering was once again incredible: a section devoted to the great post-WWII anti-militarist documentaries, Notes on War (a veritable chocolate box of cinematic goodies: Alain Resnais, Harun Farocki, Bruce Conner, Peter Watkins, etc.), retrospectives of auteurs that the festival calls “transparent beings” (Shirley Clarke, Lionel Rogosin, Michael Bielicky) and, last but not least, and most excitingly, a brand new section, covering a period spanning from the beginnings of cinema to the present, dedicated to one of the greatest Southeast Asian national cinemas, Translucent Landscape: Philippines. And so, I devoted a good part of my three days in the Czech Republic to this retrospective – after all, how many other opportunities are there to get in touch with a cinema so under-represented in Central and Eastern European festivals? – which brought some great contemporary filmmakers to Ji.hlava: the mammoth Lav Diaz, who also served on the Opus Bonum jury, or maverick Khavn de la Cruz. Both presented their own films at the festival but also performed an absolutely psychedelic set with their noise rock/post-rock outfit, named after the greatest filmmaker in Philippine history, The Brockas.

The central figure of this retrospective, its passeur and mediator, was filmmaker, researcher, and professor Nicolas “Nick” Deocampo. Beyond the four films that he presented in the program (Oliver, 1983; The Sex Warriors and the Samurai, 1985; Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song, 1987; Let This Film Serve as a Manifesto For a New Cinema, 1990), he is also the one who, working in various archives around the world, discovered a good number of the heritage films that presented here, many of them vital to the history of Philippine cinema, many that had been considered lost. Amongst them, we have Fury in Paradise (1937, Eduardo de Castro), the earliest film made by a Filipino filmmaker that is still preserved nowadays, discovered by Deocampo in the collection of the Library of Congress. (The copy, although restored, suffers from irreversible damage: among them, two rows of subtitles – in both English and Finnish.) It is also considered the film that laid the foundations of the Philippine film industry – and what an absolutely fascinating film it is: although most of its run consists of a fictional plotline, following the love story between a pearl hunter (cue an underwater fight with a shark and a giant mollusk! ) and the daughter of a tribal leader who is kidnapped by the chieftain of a rival settlement, its first quarter is a purely ethnographic documentary about the island civilizations of the Philippines, tracing customs and crafts, rituals and geographies. Another such film is a short newsreel fragment from the Pathe archive on the election of the second president of the Philippine Republic, Manuel Luis Quezon, which was most likely authored by José Nepomuceno, a pioneer of Philippine silent cinema.

This area of heritages film was also where the curators of Ji.hlava took their boldest risks, putting together early films made by Filipino filmmakers with the earliest images of the country (implicitly emphasizing that the map is not the territory), thus creating a dialogue, tension and contrast between the colonial and local gaze(s). This included some of the first moving images shot of the Philippines by cineastes who came in from colonial countries – pioneer Elias Burton Holmes’ Manila Colonial Scenes (1900) or James H. White’s Advance of Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan (1899). The most vexing of these films (both in terms of historical value and colonial horror) was Native Life in the Philippines, made by the politician Dean C. Worchester in 1913 (the festival’s presentation text even claims that this might be the first feature-length documentary in history). Shown at Ji.hlava in a cine-concert performed by Khavn de la Cruz, the film follows the lives of indigenous tribal peoples, directly illustrating the inner workings and logic of the colonial gaze: one that pursues the strange and exotic, extreme poverty and particular traditions, in order to create an image of the Other that is positioned as being “primitive”, “backward” (incidentally, the film was used by Worchester to argue against granting independence to the Philippines, from American occupation). The curatorial stroke of genius was the idea to couple this with a found footage film that reappropriates its images (together with some from other colonial-era films) into an intimate exploration of history: Marlon Fuentes’ Bontoc Eulogy (1995). Although Ji.hlava describes it as an auto-ethnographic film, I would add that it is also an auto-fictional film: using a mix of archival and original footage, Fuentes explores his condition as an immigrant in a country that once held colonial power over the lands in which he was born, as he (re-)imagines the story of his grandfather, an indigenous man who disappeared in the United States after being sent there as a living exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Still from Marlon Fuentes’ Bontoc Eulogy (1995).

But let’s go back to Deocampo – an assertive queer documentarian, with films heavily influenced by the essayistic format (especially Revolutions...), he directed his first medium-length films during the late years of the Marcos dictatorship, releasing them under his nom-de-plume, “Rosa ng Manilla”. In these early films, he interweaves his queer sensibilities with portraits of sex workers who live in the capital of the Philippines (Oliver, a revolutionary film at the time of its release, and The Sex Warriors and the Samurai). While some aspects of the films are perhaps a little dated in the present (in terms of their perspective on trans people and certain aspects regarding sex work), others are still extremely timely: Deocampo gingerly follows the lives of his protagonists, looking closely at their skills as entertainers (Liza Minelli-inspired drag shows, dance routines, even an impressive moment in which Oliver performs as a sort of spider-man), while also scathingly criticizing of the extremely precarious economic conditions that push these men towards sexual self-exploitation, which brings to mind the fictional depiction of the phenomenon in Manila in the Claws of Light (1975, r. Lino Brocka), here all the more striking due to its documentary nature. But Deocampo was – and is – an artist concerned not only with social criticism but also with the act of gazing self-reflexively at cinema. In his impressive essay-film Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song, he combines footage he shot during the Revolution of 1986 and its immediate aftermath with fragments from his other films and personal footage over a frenzied text, driven by the enormous contrasting emotions (despair, but also exaltation) prompted by witnessing such an immense historical moment. Here, Deocampo expresses a profound desire for change while also becoming aware of the post-revolutionary opening of the Philippines toward the wider world, seen here both at a social and cinematic level.

Simultaneously with Deocampo, artist Roxlee (himself present at the festival to introduce his films, along with performing a Baz-from-the-Happy-Mondays-esque persona at the concert of The Brockas) was working on a suite of animations and video artworks that, as different as they may be to Deocampo’s style, are also enlightening in terms of illustrating the frisson and frenzy of independent Filipino cinema during the end-years of the Marcos era. Roxlee’s films are essentially, fundamentally punk: underground, artisanal in the truest sense of the word – assemblages of photographs combined with hand-drawn notebook pages in a pop/new-wave aesthetic, banking on black humor and politically subversive messages, connected both to local realities and to the broader, global sensibilities of the late Cold War (notably, the atomic specter, in The Great Smoke, 1984). His 1985 ABCD functions as a sum-film of all these sensibilities and principles. Both ars poetica and playful radiograph of the moment, the short film goes through the alphabet (the Western one – implicitly critiquing the violent nature of the social model imposed by colonialism) by association: D as in Dictator, E as in Evil, M as in Militarization, Q as in Question: Why is the Philippines in debt when we are rich in natural resources?.

In the end, I am left with the memory of a small poetic short film, whose playful and timeless character offered a beautiful book-end to a retrospective that was strongly political, but also innovative: Suring and the Kuk-ok, by Auraeus Solito. Over its nine minutes, which combine conventional filming with gorgeous stop-motion fragments, we meet Suring, a girl who has fled her cloistered community to commune with nature, with the universe, to seek a deeper meaning to her existence away from society’s mores and rules – and her encounter with the demigod Kuk-ok, who capable of chameleonically changing its appearance, is her opportunity for transcendence. A small masterpiece, the film discreetly sublimates all the post-colonial, post-dictatorial tensions of society and pleads for returning to the roots, its ingenious yet very natural formality – a subtle summing up of the retrospective’s stakes.

The Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival took place last month, from the 25th to the 30th of October. The full selection of the “Transparent Landscape: Philippines” retrospective can be found here, and part of it can be viewed online, on the festival’s website.

Main image: Still from “The Great Smoke” (1985), by Roxlee.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.