This year is a stand-out for the Philippines, as 2018 marks 100 years of Philippine cinema. The first Filipino movie—widely acknowledged to be Dalagang Bukid (Country Maiden) by José Nepomuceno—was released a century ago. Though the film has been lost to time, Philippine cinema has continued to evolve since, achieving several milestones along the way—especially in recent times.
In 2013, Filipino-British co-production Metro Manila won the Audience Awards at the Sundance Film Festival. In 2016, Filipino arthouse director Lav Diaz won the Golden Lion award at Venice Film Festival for The Woman Who Left. This year, Filipino film The Hows of Us became the first Philippine-produced film to have crossed the P600m mark at home.
Beyond the cinema industry, Filipino media as a whole is also blazing new trails. Betrayal, touted as Philippine television’s Most Daring Series, reached the 20-point mark in national TV ratings on 20 August 2018. Game giant Bandai Namco chose Manila as the location for its very first Southeast Asia VR gaming facility, which opened its doors just a few weeks ago.
We chat with Liza Diño, actress-turned-Chairperson and CEO of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), about her views on her country’s media scene.
You have quite a list of accolades under your belt, most notably for the 2013 film In Nomine Matris (nominated Best Actress at Gawad Urian Awards, won New Wave Best Actress at Metro Manila Film Festival). What inspired you to get into cinema?
It's my love for acting. I started acting in grade school when I was asked to do a reenactment of a possessed student during a Halloween episode of a local news channel. I thought that was my big break. I invited my neighbours to watch, only to see myself for 5 seconds! But that was when I knew that it was what I wanted to do.
After that, during my high school years, I frequently auditioned for school plays and TV castings. In college I started to take it even more seriously. I became a stage actress, then eventually ventured into film and television.
Acting is my passion. I consider it an extension of myself. Immersing myself into different characters while using my own real-life experiences to give life to these characters—using my pain, my joy and all these emotions—is for me, the most awesome job one can ever have.
Which part of Filipino culture do you feel is rarely shown/hard to show in films?
It's a challenge that most of the films going around the international film festival circuit is almost exclusively centered on just one perspective of the Philippines. Yes, poverty and social issues are real, and discussion on these matters is always welcome.
But it’s also time to expand to other positive facets of the Philippines - for example, the ones that speak about the triumph of the human spirit and how the Filipino people rise above adversities, the rich, the middle class, the regions - because these are also parts of the Philippines and Manila that we know.
Much has to be done to counter the limited perception that is associated with the Philippines, so it's important for us to participate in trade events or film markets such as Asia TV Forum (ATF) to continually promote the country and our assets for ALL of what we are—the people, the culture, the natural wonders, and of course our diverse cinema.
Being in the Film Development Council of the Philippines, what would you say the media industry in the Philippines lacks right now? And what are the plans to tackle them?
I think we still lack the ambition to go global and to be seen by the world. For the last hundred years, we have been content to only cater to our domestic market.
Being globally competitive requires a different kind of mindset and aspiration to come up with high quality content. To make content for [global] consumption, we have to meet certain technical requirements, and this is where the Philippines is falling short right now. We must promote our cinema to the world.
This is the vision of FDCP now under my term—to go global and lift the quality of productions. That's why my agency has continually participated in international events such as film festivals, film markets and conferences so we can further understand how we can bring this concept to our country and to our own local media industry. In the past two years, we've brought international film industry professionals to hold workshops on film financing, creative producing, marketing and distribution and post production of content within the international context. We have also encouraged our content producers to participate in film markets, to get them exposed to global trends. Each year we host a country pavilion to house all of them just like what we are doing in ATF. Through this, slowly but surely, we can go global.
How can Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) and Singapore Media Festival (SMF) bring Filipino cinema to SEA and the rest of Asia?
International film festivals provide a platform for audiences to experience world cinema, and what's special about SGIFF is its emphasis on Asian cinema and championing Asian stories. It's important for Filipino films to be seen alongside other Southeast Asian films because this experience creates a sense of familiarity among the viewers on how similar our stories can be. Our goal right now is for Philippine cinema to find audiences beyond the Philippines—and what better way to start than with our neighbours in the region?
In this age where Asians are more exposed to Hollywood and European content than to our own stories, we must protect platforms like SGIFF and SMF because it’s one of the ways where we can find space for Asian content to be enjoyed by Asian audiences.
What do you envision will happen within the next few years for Philippine cinema?
The cinema landscape of the Philippines has drastically changed in the last two years. For me, it's important to discuss Philippine cinema within two contexts that must coexist harmoniously.
The first is film culture. We have a strong film culture in the Philippines that provides the opportunity to present diverse stories from different regions of the Philippines and as well as cinematic forms that explore different narratives.
I'm proud to say that regional films are finally finding their rightful place in our landscape. For the most part of cinema history, our films have been Manila-centric. But we are a country of 7,641 islands, 18 regions, and 52 provinces, all with stories to tell.
Documentaries are also finding a stronger voice as opposed to the more popular feature length narrative form. More documentary filmmakers are participating in international film festivals, [showing that] perspective is changing.
The second context is the film industry. The global film industry landscape has changed, especially with Netflix, Amazon, and other new platforms changing how viewers consume content. With all these global trends affecting the film industry, we must be prepared locally to keep up with these changes.
For the better part of the last one hundred years, we have been catering exclusively to our domestic market. The local audience would embrace our films because of our unique stories even if they’re not technically on par with the Hollywood or foreign films dominating our theatres.
But times are changing and borders are shifting, and what used to work before may no longer work. So I'm happy that in the last two years, the local film industry is opening up. Our participation in international film markets in recent years has significantly increased. Last year at HK Filmart, we started with 14 production companies—this year, we were able to bring 25 film companies. And at this year's ATF, we have 30 film companies participating, from content producers to sales and distribution companies, as well as service providers in the country.
We are also starting to make films that we can sell in the market for global distribution. With Erik Matti's BuyBust this year, and Eerie directed by Mikhail Red, which will have its world premiere in Singapore, there are more producers venturing internationally.
Speaking of Eerie, the 2018 horror movie marks the first collaboration between ABS-CBN, Philippines’ largest entertainment and media conglomerate, and Singapore’s Aurora Media. And offering a local view on the Filipino scene and his experience during the production of Eerie, is none other than Chan Gin Kai, Executive Producer of Silver Media Group and Chairman of the Southeast Asian Audio-Visual Association (SAAVA).
What was it like working on Eerie, especially in terms of Filipino culture and cinema?
Having done numerous co-productions with several countries across Asia, Europe and North America, I would say Eerie has been one of the easiest and most fruitful projects. It is always an enjoyable process when we can work with like-minded people, where egos can be put aside and what’s good for the team takes priority over our individual interests.
Like the cinemas in a lot of countries across Asia, Philippines cinema is saturated with fluffy romance and slapstick comedy. But there are also strong filmmakers who dare to challenge themselves. Eerie is one of those rare stories that explore deeper issues through a popular genre such as horror.
The story takes place in a convent, where draconian rules and stubborn pride negatively affect the girls that the convent is supposed to help and protect. It is a reflection on the country’s religious establishment, society and politics, but its message is universal.
What do you think the future of Asian cinema is?
Entertainment always closely follows the demography and the economy.
Asia is home to half the world’s population, fast-growing economies, and a young savvy demography that is demanding and able to afford entertainment. Sheer market forces alone will be enough to push Asian cinema onto an optimistic run for the years to come.
Add to that the openness of global audiences to more diverse tastes and the growing maturity of Asian filmmakers, and we see an even brighter future. For decades now, good films from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea have travelled well. In recent years, Chinese and Indian films have achieved the same success too. I believe the next few years will be the decade for Southeast Asia, led by the most populous countries, Indonesia and Philippines.
What is a unique aspect about PH cinema that is not seen in other countries/Asian countries?
A unique aspect about Philippines cinema that I only got to learn about recently is that it has been led by women, for decades. The majority of their most prolific producers, and heads of production and distribution companies are women. They hold tremendous influence in shaping the industry. This is very different from most Asian countries where the film industry is male-dominated, and glass ceilings still stifle women.
How can the Southeast Asian Film Financing (SAFF) Project Market and SMF bring Filipino content to SEA and the rest of Asia?
As the country of focus at the SMF this year, we have selected five Filipino projects to be showcased at the SAFF Project Market. Our conference also shows the path to the possibilities in Philippines by putting the spotlight on the country’s media industry.
Philippines has the ability, and the filmmakers are eager.