Q&A: Critic Richard Bolisay on Tiktok as cinema, and why even COVID can’t kill Pinoy movies 2
Bolisay: "In the beginning of the lockdown, I planned to write. I already outlined how it’s gonna be. Four months later, I’m still here." Photo courtesy of Katrina Stuart Santiago

Q&A: Critic Richard Bolisay on Tiktok as cinema, and why even COVID can’t kill Pinoy movies

Foremost film critic Richard Bolisay on what the art of cinema can teach us about living in crisis. By JAM PASCUAL
JAM PASCUAL | Aug 18 2020

Richard Bolisay’s collection of film criticism essays, “Break It To Me Gently,” was released in the latter half of last year. Most reviews about it were keen to point out the book’s sense of historicity, and how deftly it encapsulates a specific era of Philippine movies.

Then COVID-19 came, the zeitgeist shapeshifted, and movie houses were emptied of their audiences. Critics like Bolisay strive to make sense of age once again.

Q&A: Critic Richard Bolisay on Tiktok as cinema, and why even COVID can’t kill Pinoy movies 3
Bolisay's first book of film reviews.

And as a writer, educator, and human being whose basic wants and needs are constantly challenged by national crisis, Bolisay approaches Philippine cinema and the state of national affairs with the same sense of sharpness and sensitivity that made him such an acclaimed name. I spoke to him a day after the SONA, whose demonstration he attended, so in many ways, this interview felt like a post-processing session.

In our conversation, we spoke about the mental stress of quarantined living, TikTok, and why rumors of cinema’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


I understand you went to the SONA rally yesterday? How’d it go?

Over the past weeks, whenever there’s a rally or demonstration being prepared, I took it upon myself to really go, ‘cause I just live nearby. So since I teach in UP, I go there with my bike. Yesterday was quite different, it was really hot. In the previous demonstrations, it was raining and all. I think there’s also a physical aspect to it that really tests the people’s patience and their resistance.

It went well. Personally, I wish more people had come, but it’s very understandable: we’re living under extreme circumstances, so okay lang naman. And I saw some of my students as well, so it’s nice to actually hang out, in a sense.

Q&A: Critic Richard Bolisay on Tiktok as cinema, and why even COVID can’t kill Pinoy movies 4
Multisectoral groups march toward UP Diliman in Quezon City in protest on the day of President Duterte's 5th State of the Nation Address on July 27, 2020. Val Cuenca, ABS-CBN News

Did you get to watch the SONA after you got home?

No, I was too tired. [laughs] I’m not planning to watch it because I think I’ve reached my limit to this thing. I’m on Twitter a lot, and I feel like on a daily basis, the strategy of these people is really to tire you, to make you feel inept and frustrated. They’re succeeding, in a sense, because I’m too sick of everything. Not that I’m planning to [watch]—just by reading the summaries online, it’s already frustrating. I don’t think it’s healthy anymore, at this point. Even the press conferences, I skip them. I stay informed, but also, personally, I think we should be wary of our health. [laughs]


You recently watched and wrote about the film “Aswang,” by director Alyx Arumpac. I wanted to talk to you about how this film portrays a violent day-to-day reality that we experience, but for some reason, watching this reality as a movie feels different. Does that register as a weird experience to you?

I was part of this festival called Daang Docu. It was supposed to premiere in that festival last March, and the festival was postponed because of the pandemic. So I was able to see it before everyone, and I asked if I could see it so I could write about it. I saw it again, and it’s still something that disturbs me. 

Like I said in the essay, it’s a very important film but it’s also something very difficult to swallow. It’s too intimate, it’s too close to home, and I started that article with a personal anecdote of seeing someone getting shot on the street, and I feel like that’s the best way to approach it. [It’s something] I don’t think a foreign writer would actually experience, because it’s so close to our own realities. 

It’s important to actually position yourself in your subject. And I think the attitude of the documentary towards the subject is important—we cannot really detach ourselves from the realities.

Q&A: Critic Richard Bolisay on Tiktok as cinema, and why even COVID can’t kill Pinoy movies 5
On Aswang: “We’re so used to the idea of documentaries as reflections of realities, how we see it. But I think the docu itself is posing an argument, no?”

We’re so used to the idea of documentaries as reflections of realities, how we see it. But I think the docu itself is posing an argument, no? Or posing arguments of our situation right now, and I think that’s what we need, especially in the age of fake news, post-truth, late stage capitalism. But the docu for me, the success of it or the achievement of it is that it took sides. I mean, it’s what people often say: docus should be objective. I respectfully disagree. A portrayal or a depiction of reality always entails taking sides. I appreciate documentaries that take sides, because any art takes sides, because not taking a side is already taking a side. 

In this political climate most especially, seeing that kind of documentary—and it’s an ongoing documentary, you know? It’s not something finished—I feel there’s a lot more to do, and this is just a step forward. I don’t think the docu is telling us we’re doomed or anything. In fact, it’s not a warning, but a sort of wake-up call.

The writing of that essay was really a difficult process, especially during the pandemic. It’s very difficult to focus and gather your thoughts. Ideally, it’s easy, because we have a lot of time. But you’re so stressed with the bigger picture, with the realities around you. Sometimes you even think if these things matter because there are people dying, literally. Like that Kim Kardashian meme. [laughs] There are people dying.


Over the course of quarantine, has your relationship with writing changed? You mentioned earlier that this administration has a knack for making us feel that we’re totally at capacity, always at the limits of our emotional bandwidth. Has that affected the way you approach your craft?

Most definitely. Writing is never easy for me. As much as I love it, as much as I think it’s the only thing I’m good at, I envy people who enjoy writing. I envy people who can do writing quickly. I feel like in everything I write—not to sound like I’m romanticizing it—there’s something in me that gets pulled out.

I wish I could be inspired to write a lot, but there’s a lot of struggles, mentally, especially with mental health, physical health, etcetera, that impede me from actually doing some writing. This is coming from someone who’s quite privileged, and I’m very aware of that. I don’t have to go to work on a daily basis, and even with that kind of freedom, I feel like I’m still limited by my conditions. Very mundane things—you can’t even remember what day it is, you can’t even keep track of things that you’re doing.

I mean, how many months have we been [in quarantine]? Five or six months and—in the beginning of the lockdown, I planned to write. I already outlined how it’s gonna be. Four months later, I’m still here. [laughs] Hindi ko naman masyadong inaano sarili ko. I don’t think it’s worth being hard on myself. I feel like we should all be kind to ourselves, in the sense that, if we are not able to fulfil our goals, it’s fine. But writing-wise, I mean, like I told you kanina, I’ve been useless. But I’ve been reading. Reading is part of writing. It’s not a lot of reading, but I’ve been reading fiction, I’ve been reading poetry, and that contributes a lot to my writing process, even though there’s no writing that materializes. It’s something that I can use in the future as well. I’ve also been reading some academic articles because as a teacher, it’s something that I need, too.


How has your relationship with movies changed, though? It must be unusual. We’re watching movies in a world where cinemas are closed and all we have are streaming services, and some people are going back to torrent.

I know what you mean. I wrote something for Rappler a few months ago. They asked me, what to do you think is the future of cinema in the Philippine context? It’s one of the few things I was able to write during quarantine. And I thought about it a lot. 

The landscape is changing. I think cinema is lucky compared to theater, in the sense that we have these streaming platforms, and people are more used to watching films now on the smaller screen, on their laptops, on their mobile phones, on their iPads. 

Sadly, I belong to a more traditional type of moviegoer in the sense that I really watch films in the cinema, even way before. And as a teacher, I became aware that my students no longer belong to that type, and they’re more used to watching films on Netflix. And I realised that I have to keep up, in the sense that my values can no longer apply to them. 

I tried watching films on Netflix [and other services], I download movies, I encourage piracy in terms of foreign films. We have no access to these films and I think it’s kind of obstinate, stubborn, to insist on legal means while our political economy is very different from those living in the US and first world countries. I’m fine with that. It’s just that I still long for the physical space. I believe cinema is physical. You’re sitting, you’re with other people, and there’s this screen that’s larger than you. That’s one of my definitions of cinema.

I’m easily distracted. I hate that I can’t finish a movie without pausing it. I feel like it really affects the experience of watching a movie. But it’s bigger than me, y’know? It’s bigger than all of us. And I feel like I have no choice but to really adjust to it and to understand how it works. And it’s gonna be here to stay. I don’t think we’d be able to see movies for the rest of the year. Even if they bring Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” here, I don’t think I’ll see it [in the cinema]. It’s too unsafe to do it.

[Local cinema] will change a lot. For example, locally, production of films has really stopped. I mean literally. Cinemalaya is going online in August—I think they’re preparing their platforms for online viewing. We don’t know yet what will happen to Q Cinema or to Cinema One Originals.

I teach theory and criticism. And one of the questions I ask in the beginning of my course is this very simple, deceivingly dumb question, which is: is TikTok cinema? 

TikTok is very pervasive, you see it everyday. It’s something that gathers a lot of discussion. It’s one way of making cinema accessible to younger people because they easily get turned off by the word [theory] itself. They think theory is something that they don’t do on a daily basis, but in fact we do theory on a daily basis, we’re just not aware. 

Teachers also need to adjust to the needs of their apparently younger students. I was born in the late 80s, and my students are born like, 2000s, late 90s. And although that gap is small, you can really see how much has happened between those years. Technology, most especially. The internet. It’s something that I think about a lot, because I want to be a good teacher, and I feel like the stuff that I know how to teach well, it’s no longer applicable.


What was the last movie that you saw in a moviehouse?

“The Invisible Man.” The one with Elizabeth Moss. It’s exciting. I’m not a big fan, but I like genre movies that try to [play with] conventions. I didn’t realise that would be the last movie that I’d be seeing in the cinema.


We touched on this earlier—I wanted to ask you if local cinema was dead. And I know that eulogies for art forms are dime a dozen, but this time around, calling something dead actually feels prescient.

The question is if local cinema is dead. I don’t think so. The definitions are changing. I think there’s a lot of things going on in a sense of, you know, like, “Game Boys,” “Hello Stranger”… this is not our conventional idea of cinema. But it evokes the same experience. It has a story, it has a narrative, it’s something that we see on the screen, it has characters that we’re deeply invested in. It’s not something that we see at the cinema. It shares similar elements or characteristics with traditional definitions of cinema. 

Q&A: Critic Richard Bolisay on Tiktok as cinema, and why even COVID can’t kill Pinoy movies 6
On “Hello Stranger” and the like: “This is not our conventional idea of cinema. But it evokes the same experience. It has a story, it has a narrative, it’s something that we see on the screen, it has characters that we’re deeply invested in.”  Screengrab from Black Sheep on YouTube

Like I said earlier, we really have to take into consideration how the landscape is changing. I think there are people who make non-traditional movies, films while they’re in quarantine, personal movies, and while we’re not seeing them in a public space, we cannot really discount the fact that they also tell our shared experience, which is what, for me, cinema is about. It’s something that reflects on our existence, that reflects on our time on earth.

I think people who always say that [cinema is dead], I don’t know, they just like saying it because they like drama. People say that cinema was invented over a hundred years ago, but the origins of cinema is something rooted in photography, and photography is way way old, and it’s something that developed over time because of technology. And who knows where it will go? If you’re on social media, you see a lot of images. And the function of cinema is really the moving image. And as long as we have the moving image, you cannot really just discount this small stuff as non-cinema. I’m just very open-minded with these things. I just believe in not confining things to a single definition, in the same way that genders are not fixed.


Speaking of the changing of cinema—I’ve seen this take go around, and you’ve probably seen it too—that by the time this is over, we’re gonna have so many movies and TV shows about COVID, about pandemics and about contagions, and that people as we speak are already working on their manuscripts about living in the time of COVID. What is your take on that?

That’s inevitable. [I was in] the committee for two festivals. My work is to read through different submissions for the festival. There was a time in 2016 or 2017—till 2018, even—that we received a lot of scripts talking about Duterte. Not even at the center. Something in the periphery. And that’s good! Because it’s a way of acknowledging the reality we’re living, and it’s something that’s in the tradition of realism that our cinema is very much rooted in. It’s something that we should expect, it’s something that is just part of the process.

Now it’s very difficult to imagine life without distancing and without masks. Watching films now—or even watching porn now, if you see people who are not—[laughs]—who are not wearing masks or who are not physically distanced, you worry! Right? It’s very different from the lives we lead now. I very much expect it. I just wish the stories would be well written. But if not, it’s fine! Films are historical. They really document the time of writing, the time of filming, and if we look back, and we see those films twenty years from now, it’s a reminder that we’ve really gone through this period that’s difficult, but we are able to actually overcome it.