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The Artist Abroad

A bountiful harvest


NEW YORK—While October is Filipino-American Heritage Month, it may have been simply a happy coincidence that three organizations independent of each other screened Philippine films: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), and the Anthology Film Archives (AFA). Interestingly, the screenings followed some sort of timeline, with MoMA screening a 1950 Manuel Conde film; the AFA, Kidlat Tahimik’s films from the 1970s to the 1980s; and MoMI programming the films of 28-year-old Raya Martin.

MoMA showed an abridged version of Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan (with Conde in the titular role), the story of whose making and distribution is in many ways just as fascinating as the movie itself. A hit at the Venice Film Festival in 1952 (Robert Bresson was said to have loved it), with distribution rights purchased by United Artists, the film had been cut to 90 minutes, from its original two hours. In addition, it now had an English narration overlaying the Tagalog soundtrack, written by James Agee, the great film critic and author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, about sharecroppers during the Great Depression, and the autobiographical, Pulitzer-winning novel A Death in the Family. Agee also wrote the screenplays for two classic 1950s films: The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter. Agee’s version of the Conde film became a staple of late-night TV offerings in the US for a period after its Venice triumph.

Conde had won a prize that included a trip to Hollywood, where he showed the film to a select audience, including Agee. Agee liked what he saw and suggested to Conde that he enter it at the Venice Film Festival. He also volunteered to work with Conde to edit it down to an hour and a half, for American audiences. But Conde couldn’t afford to pay Agee his usual fee. To maintain his professionalism, Agee said all Conde had to do was pay him a dollar. Interestingly, the screen credits list Lou Salvador as being the director but, according to Benedict Olgado, head of the National Film Archives of the Philippines (NFAP)—the agency behind the film’s restoration—Conde did this to capitalize on Salvador’s celebrity status as a former star basketball player. (Salvador also acts in the film.)

If it weren’t for Agee’s intervention, perhaps Genghis Khan would never have gotten international distribution. While visually the black-and-white film has humor, a lyrical sweep that reminds me of the Soviet filmmakers, particularly Sergei Eisenstein, and a playful imagination that makes up for its meager budget, I would have preferred the two-hour Tagalog version—the director’s cut, in today’s parlance—with subtitles added. I hope the NFAP, established two years ago, can track down the original cut.

Why a film on Genghis Kahn? Can it be seen as an abstruse metaphor for the need of unifying the different regions of a seven-thousand-island archipelago? One might even argue that Temujin (Genghis’s natal name) foreshadows the advent of a figure like Ferdinand Marcos who sought to portray himself as a nation builder. In reality he was more of a nation wrecker, beggaring the country’s economy, trampling on human rights, and saddling us with a politicized military that still to this day acts as a law unto itself. At any rate, Conde wasn’t one to have his imagination limited by national and racial boundaries. The next film he made was Sigfredo, based on Wagner’s colossal Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibeulungen. Now there’s a film I’d love to see!

As a cinephile I welcome the existence of the NFAP, as well as the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP). The country has a rich cinematic history, one of the earliest, in fact, predating the advent of the US colonial era. The beginnings of Philippine cinema are innocent enough—in Manila, in August of 1897, several Lumière brothers’ films were screened even as the country was in the midst of the revolution against Spain. With the takeover by the United States, the way was open for Hollywood to come in.

Not surprisingly, during the American occupation, the Philippine public was inundated with imported American and European silent films, implanting in local moviegoers a taste for foreign films and an aesthetic of screen beauty that was decidedly Caucasian. At the same time, local films were beginning to be produced, spearheaded by Malayan Movies, founded by the Nepomuceno brothers, Jose and Jesus, their first opus being the 1919 silent film Dalagang Bukid (Country Maiden). Alas, there no longer exist prints of most, if not all, of pre-war Filipino films, and survive only in the writings about these films.

There is another reason I am heartened by the NFAP. It has committed itself to preserving and restoring the films of my late oldest brother, Henry, a pioneer in Philippine indie film. Olgado, and Briccio Santos, the head of the FDCP, are particularly keen to restore and strike a viewable print of Henry’s On the Way to India I Reached China Consciousness, a 16mm black-and-white lyrical portrait of bohemian New York, and the first part of what Henry intended to be a trilogy. Jonas Mekas, himself an indie filmmaker and founder of the Anthology Film Archives, reviewing it for The Village Voice in 1968, described On the Way as “the most original cinematic event in town … It is a quiet film, not noisy, not shouting, no splashing colors. It’s another window, it’s the window through which you look in, not out.”

At downtown Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives, the focus for a weekend was the oeuvre of Baguio-based Eric de Guia, whose nom de cinema is Kidlat Tahimik (his oldest son bears this name formally), also an important figure in Philippine indie cinema. His quirky, funny Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare) justifiably earned critical acclaim when it was released in the late 1970s. Unfortunately, due to Hurricane Sandy, the weekend program had to be curtailed—a bagyo dealing the Baguio filmmaker a knockout punch.

As for the much younger Raya Martin he is described on MoMI’s website as “one of the most distinctive emerging voices in world cinema” with more than a dozen films to his credit. Just twenty-eight-years old, Martin is “the youngest artist in Cinema Scope’s list of the 50 best filmmakers under 50 years old. … This daring, restless filmmaker with a sensibility all his own suggests entirely new ways of approaching film, personal, and national history.”

At the same time, at the Topaz Arts Center, in Queens, a show opened that brought to the city a slew of Philippine-based artists, curated by the established painter Manuel Ocampo. Titled Bastards of Misrepresentation, the exhibition formed part of a mini-series, with shows at the Queens Museum of Art, and the Asian/Pacific/American Institute of New York University. Bastards preceded the opening of Ocampo’s own solo exhibition at Tyler Rollins Gallery in Chelsea.

October, aptly referred to as harvest month, lived up to its name, giving the Big Apple a bountiful array of varied and tremendously gifted Pinoy artists. The cinematic side continued this past week, with another screening of Lyca Benitez Brown’s inspiring documentary Dance of My Life, a biopic of the former model and TV star Bessie Badilla’s unlikely and inspiring turn as a samba queen in Rio’s famed carnaval at the age of 49.

2012 Copyright L.H. Francia

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