‘Divine Comedy it was not’

Leo P. Katigbak, ABS-CBN Film Restoration

Posted at May 04 2021 06:01 PM | Updated as of May 06 2021 03:07 PM

This piece is part of a series to mark the first anniversary of the shutdown of ABS-CBN’s broadcast on free TV and radio which happened May 5, 2020.

ABS-CBN Film Restoration PROJECT. MJ Felipe, ABS-CBN News

A Kapamilya for over 30 years, Leo Katigbak progressed from producing and acquiring television hits to ensuring these and other pieces of visual history in ABS-CBN’s care are passed onto the next generation.

His pet project “Sagip Pelikula” has used advances in technology to restore nearly 200 classic and modern Filipino films since 2011.

But the ABS-CBN shutdown scuttled the initiative by cutting off its main source of funding. Other legacy efforts, such as a proposed ABS-CBN museum, were also put on hold.

From a team of 14, only 5 people including Leo remain at the ABS-CBN Film Archives. 

The words “This is ABS-CBN now signing off” took on a very special meaning on May 5.

Typically, I'd hear it working late into the night after O'Shopping or whatever late night program capped the day. Instead, it was at the end of TV Patrol, on primetime. I was at home, having just had dinner and heard rumblings of what might happen that night. 

I had been going to the office twice a week but that day was a WFH (work-from-home) day. 

It was surreal to see it, even as I remembered being a child and Martial Law being declared with all the channels going blank. I was focused on cartoons then, but the full impact of what had happened in 1972 would dawn on me years later.

And in 2020, 48 years later, the unimaginable happened and I again witnessed ABS-CBN being shut down a second time, the full weight of what was happening crystal clear relative to what an 8 year-old saw all those years ago. 

The conversations at home were somewhat muted that night. Everybody knew what happened but was as at a loss for words, incredulous how the shadow play had unfolded.

Over the next few weeks, the repercussions would be clearer as people who initially saw pay deferments soon suffered pay cuts and lost their jobs. Even those who kept them continue to have a sword hanging over their heads as ABS-CBN struggled in this very real hell on earth. A Divine Comedy it was not.

The Archives, Restoration efforts and Advocacy team lost two-thirds of its team in one fell swoop. People who had been family across two decades were gone, lost like the casualties of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg, with the survivors holding on for dear life, waiting for the beacon of an approaching rescue vessel to save what's left.

Restoration came to a halt, as did many of our other initiatives which required funding and resources. We refocused on the SAGIP PELIKULA advocacy, using films that were completed in 2019 and 2020 before the shutdown and subsequent closure of broadcast operations. 

The attacks against the network and the complications COVID lockdowns posed bought us time to realign as well as direct our energies on work we could still do given our drastically reduced manpower and resources.

What is different now from those years under Martial Law was that ABS survived the shutdown, albeit barely, and was able to evolve quickly, taking advantage of technology which we were not able to do in the early 1970s. We are in uncharted territory now, moving in areas where we have some wiggle room. 

You play it day by day. Typically with me, multiple scenarios are always considered. If this happens, what next? If that, what do we do? Kaya mabilis din kami maka-adjust and mag-re-align. It's just harder with fewer resources, but as I always say, never ka naman mawawalan ng gagawin lalo na kung ma-diskarte ka.

We always say we are in the service of the Filipino but not all of that is “kawanggawa” (charity). Some of our service is for the heart, for the soul, for history, or for culture. It is a lasting legacy for future generations to appreciate, ponder and ruminate.

The value of what we do is appreciated with the perspective of the future, not the immediate. It is bridging past and future. And it is a challenge even under the best of conditions. What more now?

The weeks and months continue to be a struggle, the work harder many times over. But in true ABS-CBN spirit, we persevere and do as best we can, and always in the service of the Filipino. We are still hopeful to see that beacon that can light the way as we make our way to the end of the tunnel.