Filipino movies

Understanding democracy through Filipino cinema

Jason Tan Liwag
Understanding democracy through Filipino cinema
Which Filipino films do you think of when you think of democracy, independence, and freedom? Five film critics weigh in and answer this question. Understanding democracy through Filipino cinema

Democracy is rather difficult to pin down. From its supposed Greek origins to our present day, our understanding of democracy has evolved throughout history. Our historical struggle for independence and emancipation continues even in the physical absence of these colonial powers.

For the longest time, cinema has been used to explore the concept and experience of democracy in the Philippines. From the period of Martial Law when film was used to subvert censorship, to today when political turmoil is encoded in stories, cinema has been used as a democratic tool primarily because it is driven by freedom and togetherness.

The act of creating film requires collaboration and the product can be seen as a collective reconstitution of a perspective. Even the act of watching a film requires this form of independence, even in community.

However, when we talk about cinema and Filipino democracy, we largely confine ourselves to fictional biopics of national heroes — the likes of Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal (1998) and Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna (2015). Though these are excellent examples of films that directly tackle the struggle for independence, historic struggles are birthed from more than the stories of just a handful of men. Our focus as a public on these dominant narratives often leave seemingly mundane acts of independence and revolution ignored.

For our Independence Day celebration and in an attempt to expand our understanding of democracy, I opted to talk to some film critics about what films immediately come to mind when they think of democracy, independence, and freedom.

When I was initially approached about this, I immediately thought of two films — Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (1976) and Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Moral (1982). It’s easy to see why, given that both films were created during the Martial Law era and as both openly depict struggles of the Filipino people against their governments.

The former depicts tensions that result from being caught up between imperialist forces during World War II. In the absence of democracy, we are able to understand its importance in Philippine society. On the other hand, the latter paints the fight for independence through the lens of a female barkada coming-of-age.

The patriarchy is the invisible hand which suffocates them and prevents them being women by their own definitions. Both films openly explore female liberation, the material conditions that lead to suppression of choice, and the different faces of revolutions birthed from their given circumstances.

A contemporary example of an atypical filmic exploration of democracy is Glenn Barit’s Cleaners (2019). While the story is largely centered around the transition of provincial students out of high school, it is packed with political undertones that indicate larger systems that corrupt these kids at different levels: from Nutrition month to the Sanggunian Kabataan. Shame, guilt, and utang-na-loob permeate these social situations the cleaners participate in and the pressure to be clean and pure is immense. 

Rebellion seems to be in being willing to be dirty and liking it.

John Patrick “Joker” Manio

Creator of Cine Sensual and vice president of Cine Critico Filipino; Letterboxd: @cinesensual

“Picking films that define ‘democracy’ and ‘independence’ is a little tricky depending on who you ask. People can easily interpret it as overly patriotic films that contradict others’ notions of nationalism. For me, I’d pick Barber’s Tales (2013) and Dekada ’70 (2002). Each shows the importance of middle-class and working class solidarity in toppling oppressive institutions. 

Barber’s Tales sees the solidarity of the working class’ importance in toppling oppressive institutions. It also shows true feminist liberation. Dekada ’70 sees how the middle-class Filipino family realize the importance of protest during, but not limited to, times of fascism. The film also shows the integral role the middle class have in upholding democracy.

Both films give power to the people, versus some films that give focus to state might or ‘great’ individuals.”

Ligaya Villablanca

Former president of CINEMATA, member of the Society of Filipino Film Reviewers; Letterboxd: chickenligaya

“The Filipino film(s) that gave me a good grasp of democracy is (1) The Kingmaker (2020) and (2) A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution (1988) solely because of the active presentation of the government’s absurdities that made me question which of the human rights are fully benefited and which are ignored/abused.

Also, the tragic fact that A Rustling of Leaves took 30+ years to have a PH premiere. This is a documentary I personally find useful in a sense and democracy is misused till present day. I also recall being at the Cebu premiere for The Kingmaker and I think Active Vista yung nag-organize noon, I recall they too struggled to get it into theatres nationwide which speaks a lot. Though both aren’t directed by Filipino filmmakers. 

For a strictly Filipino film, I’d say Lav Diaz’s Norte, Hanggang ng Kasaysayan. It has a deliberate exploration of freedom through dialogue and action. Diaz covered multiple themes and did it extremely well. He did not restrict himself to display such themes because these are the truths we didn’t know we needed to see. 

If it was a shorter (or conventional) length, it might have been reduced to any other socio-political critique but the lengthy duration was used with some sort of cinematic catnip that makes a humbled audience follow through inviting rhythms. I think this factor became my incentive to understand a Diaz film regardless of how it was initially intimidating.

Ultimately, it brought up the question: ‘Can a great thinker also be a murderer?’”

Princess Kinoc 

Editor-in-chief of Film Police Reviews and co-host of the Third World Cinema Club podcast; Letterboxd: @cess_kinoc

“There’s a lot, but one film that made an impact on me in terms of Philippine Independence/Freedom would be Dekada ’70. Perhaps because I did the journey of reading the material before seeing the adaptation first. As a 13-year old trying to understand the different beliefs that everybody had around me, and the words spewed by Lualhati Bautista about a time that seemed so frail was something else.

She allowed me to see portions of that time that other writers wanted to document to remind us of a brutally unsuccessful time of every Filipinos lives. To see it in full form as an adaptation was brutal too, the performances of each actor — from Piolo Pascual to Marvin Agustin, down to John Wayne Sache and Danilo Barrios. And of course, Vilma [Santos].

It’s the kind of film that makes you flinch and it’s both sad and a wide-awakening for all, but then people forget. Which is the same for how we redeem our independence: grandiose but short-lived.”

Richard Bolisay

Assistant professor at the UP Film Institute and author of Break It To Me Gently: Essays on Filipino Film; Letterboxd: @rbolisay

“The first film talaga that came to mind is Endo by Jade Castro,” said Bolisay. Initially screened at Cinemalaya in 2007, the film follows Leo (Jason Abalos) in a series of perpetual contractual jobs in the hopes of providing for his family. Growing disillusioned, he meets Tanya — with whom he discovers stability and salvation from being in constant transition.

At face value, it does not fit into our traditional notions of films that connect to democracy such as Sister Stella L. or Liway. But in the absence of this grandiose narrative, it paints an often overlooked story in the discussion of democracy and freedom: the story of the working class; of those who are often left out because of the limits of their material reality.

From the contractual jobs Leo must enter to be able to free his family from poverty to the sex in hotels that is numbered, the transactional nature of many of the interactions frames Leo’s life in a perpetual chokehold under capitalism. Love and romance serve as an escape from these limitations but are also ultimately unable to survive in the environment. The film is a form of quiet yet powerful activism exactly in how it extends empathy and care for its characters: treating them as humans rather than as topics or caricatures. –

If you’d like access to the list of films in this article or if you’d like to contribute your own films that helped you understand democracy, independence, and freedom, I’ve made a Letterboxd list here.

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.