Two momentous events in the history of Asian cinema: first, the Oscars sweep of Korean director Bong Joon Ho's masterpiece Parasite. The film’s victory is practically a call for the world to look for beauty beyond the perimeters of Hollywood fare.
Second, we’re still celebrating 100 years of Philippine cinema. Dalagang Bukid, directed by Jose Nepomuceno A.K.A "The Father of Philippine Movies," came out September 12, 1919. It's been a century since the first Filipino film came out and by God, have we come a long way.
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Erwin Romulo and film critic Philbert Dy, together with archivist Teddy Co, are commemorating this milestone in ways that challenge, in genuinely disruptive ways, how we normally engage with film. The three are doing this via a special program attached to this month’s Art Fair Philippines. It’s called The Unconfined Cinema, and they’re screening some of the best local films from the last 100 years. “Putting it into the context of the art fair, we're uniting these films under the banner of art,” says Dy.
Most of the screenings will be in an enclosed space a little smaller than a classroom, which I'm told can seat about thirty. There will be no prior announcements made about which films will be showing, but it's a crazy cultural grab-bag, from mainstream to experimental, indie to Star Cinema. "It's not just art films, it's not just commercial films, it's not just old films, it's not just new films," states Dy. "The whole point is to celebrate the past hundred years." He says that one point of the project is to demolish boundaries—never mind what's high or low brow. All these things are woven into the great tapestry of local cinema's rich history, and all of that will be screened all day, every day of the Art Fair.
"Our only promise is, this is stuff that we like," continues Dy. If it were anybody else, this would be an unsound curatorial statement. But Phil Dy is one of the nation's most prolific and consistent film critics, and Erwin Romulo has been curating some of the fair’s most provocative, most talked about pieces for the past few years. To have these two at the helm of this program—along with co-programmer Co of the National Commission on Culture and the Arts—makes us look forward to a hell of a show.
Part of what makes this program "unconfined" is that it takes place at the Art Fair, an atypical space for films to be screened. "We kind of romanticize this, the idea of the darkened cinema, that's where we encounter cinema, that's how we engage with it,” says Romulo. “But the box office of any local film will tell you, in the last couple of years, we don't watch films anymore in the cinemas per se. People watch it on their couch, on their beds, on their computers, on their phones, while on the bus." So—and this is where things get a little out of the usual —"Why not at Ayala Triangle Gardens? Why not inside an art fair?"
The program of The Unconfined Cinema will also include outdoor screenings, projections taking place at Ayala Triangle Gardens and on the facade of the Philippine Stock Exchange. What film are they screening at the Ayala Triangle? One More Chance, the John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo starrer. Because, well, you gotta put One More Chance in a program like this. And that's taking place a week before the Art Fair opening, on Valentine's Day to be exact. "[This program is] in a way, trying to create some magic, to yell out to the country like, 'This is our cinema!'" says Romulo.
These outdoor screenings (which culminate in a "special" presentation of another popular romcom, That Thing Called Tadhana) allow The Unconfined Cinema to truly fulfill its promise of presenting the art form as something pervasive and uncontainable. And while it’s celebrating the last century, it is not about nostalgia. Quite the opposite. “This film program that we're launching is not just a celebration of the first hundred years of cinema. It's about opening the channels and presenting the channels that could be open for cinema for the next hundred."
To illustrate, in the aforementioned enclosed space will also be screenings of the works of students of Roque Federizon Lee A.K.A. ROXLEE who, for the past few years, has conducted animation workshops for children. "These are the youngest filmmakers in the country," says Romulo of the kids 6 to 7 years of age. "That's the future of cinema right there."
More than this particular feature though, The Unconfined Cinema as a program is designed to open the eyes of all its visitors to all the things they missed in local films.
But there's one stroke of genius to this program that makes the Filipino people a literal part of a movie. This won't take place at an enclosed space. There’s this other booth where Filipino visitors specifically can have their portrait taken.
Each portrait will become a part of an experimental film by director Lyle Nemenzo Sacris, who has been collecting portraits of the Filipino populace for years. Each mugshot will take up one frame, and through persistence of vision, all these frames and countenances will serve to form an all-face, the morphological gestalt of thousands of Filipino faces forming a singular face.
This film will be projected on the facade of The Link, and faces will keep being added to it in real time as the Art Fair progresses. It's an ingenious gesture, if you think about it. This is how The Unconfined Cinema pays tribute to one indispensable factor of local film—by giving part of the spotlight to the audience, without which there would be no cinema in the first place.
Portraits of Erwin Romulo and Philbert Dy by Nicole Revita