Brief History of Film Industry in the Philippines

Another European import is film. Two years after successfully launching cinema, the Lumiere brothers’ cinematographe film camera and projector invention made its way to Philippine shores via the efforts of a Spanish soldier named Carlo Naquera. With the cinematographe, he brought several Spanish-language short films and showed them to select audiences during 1897. When he ran out of short films to screen, he brought the cinematographe around and shot local scenes then showed them as brief documentaries. Seeing their own selves on the big screen prompted Filipinos to love this medium more. Thus began the Filipinos’ undying love for this art form. Thus, with the advent of another period of colonial history in the country—the American period—short films from America were soon imported and shown in the early theaters in Manila, particularly those located around Escolta and Intramuros, during the early 1900s.

Since it was an audiovisual art form similar to what Filipinos then had already been accustomed to and was already creating—namely the stage theater-originated musical shows such as the “zarzuela”—it was no surprise that film-watching became a popular form of entertainment in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the very first Filipino-produced film, Jose Nepomuceno’s Dalagang Bukid (1919), was actually a movie adaptation of a popular musical stage play created by Hermogenes Ilagan starring the popular singer-stage actress who originated the role, Atang Dela Rama. The film ushered in another dimension to Dela Rama’s illustrious career as she would star in many more, as the film also designated Nepomuceno the title “Father of Philippine Cinema.” Because of such early artistic evidence, the Philippines is hailed as having developed one of the earliest film industries in the Asian region.

During the Spanish period, Filipinos who didn’t understand the language of the movie didn’t find it a hindrance to appreciate the imagery and the music that accompanied the screening. This is what makes a film a universal and powerful medium of information and communication dissemination. But since the American period mandated Filipinos to learn the American language and culture, it was no wonder that Filipinos embraced Hollywood film products that easily during those early times. This is why people sometimes joke that we Filipinos were under “400 years of Catholicism and 50 years of Hollywood:’ resulting in the Filipino of today.

Film’s primary purpose in the Philippines rooted in the entertainment factor, but this changed when the Japanese colonial period began. Seeing film as a viable form of mass media communication, the Japanese led the production of propaganda films and tapped Filipino directors and actors to make them. The most popular of such films was Dawn of Freedom (1944) which highlighted the World War II aim of the Japanese to have an “Asia for the Asians:’ It was co-directed by another pioneer of Philippine Cinema, Gerardo de Leon, and starred Fernando Poe Sr. plus other Japanese and Filipino actors. Emerging from the war-torn culture of the Philippines, especially Manila, gripping narratives featuring the war, lower-class underdogs and ordinary people as heroes for the people emerged in the cinema. Such themes and characterizations are still popular among Filipinos today when watching local or foreign films.

But as with the print industry, things changed during the Marcos dictatorship. Film was one of the most heavily censored media during those times, with filmmakers even changing the titles of their films if President Marcos or the First Lady Imelda Marcos found them offensive. Yet this era also produced a batch of the most artistic and thought-provoking films that somehow dared to show the real state of the Philippines and highlighted the drive of the Filipino people to be free from their daily struggles. Directors who became our National Artists for Film during this era included influential filmmakers Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal.

After the 1986 EDSA Revolution, the Philippine film industry became freer again, and the early independent studio producers blossomed into the leaders of film production today. The most notable of this batch is Lily Monteverde’s Regal Films followed by another family-ran business Viva Films. During the 1990s, ABS -CBN started their own film production company, Star Cinema, and the move was duplicated by GMA-7 in the 2000s with GMA Films. Today, most of the mainstream films being produced locally come from these studios.