Cinema, Cosmopolitanism, and the Crowd


The history of film culture in Manila includes both local and foreign cinemas, and the divide between the two often aligns with the city’s deep social divisions. In the early decades of cinema exhibition, advertisements would market films’ foreign origins, boasting, “‘cosmopolitan programs for cosmopolitan audiences’ with ‘only the best American and European stories.’”[1] The advertisements promoted the film’s foreign origins, endorsing a brand of colonialism veiled as cosmopolitan internationalism. This was a complicated endeavor.  Historian Nick Deocampo writes that initially, films in the country were European, thanks to film exchanges like Pathé.[2] When the Americans took over after the Philippine-American War, they set about converting the elites from Spanish to American culture, which proved to be a slow-going process; American films were initially rejected by audiences.[3]

The event of movie-going itself provides insights into the relationships among cinema-going and the larger social structures of colonization, ethnicity, and class (Figure 1). 

 
 Figure 1: “Sa Sine” (In the Cinema),  Pakakak  (Trumpet), July 22, 1922. p.9. The image depicts a diverse theater crowd, from the rowdy group of Filipino men to American teachers and Chinese laborers. The captions explain their different interpretations of the film: “Those embracing, who are carrying a book – there’s no clear story, and it’s all dirty;” “The one smoking: You’re smoking [the cigarette] like a mango tree!” (This refers to a practice of smoking mango trees to produce early flowers and kill pests);  “The Chinese: Wa ka nga!! Do it with gusto!;” “The ones with their feet up: Huuu! That’s the way!” Source: Lopez Museum and Library.

Figure 1: “Sa Sine” (In the Cinema), Pakakak (Trumpet), July 22, 1922. p.9. The image depicts a diverse theater crowd, from the rowdy group of Filipino men to American teachers and Chinese laborers. The captions explain their different interpretations of the film: “Those embracing, who are carrying a book – there’s no clear story, and it’s all dirty;” “The one smoking: You’re smoking [the cigarette] like a mango tree!” (This refers to a practice of smoking mango trees to produce early flowers and kill pests);  “The Chinese: Wa ka nga!! Do it with gusto!;” “The ones with their feet up: Huuu! That’s the way!” Source: Lopez Museum and Library.

 

In a text often cited within Philippine academic discussions of colonization and cinema, Mrs. Campbell Dauncey, a British visitor living in the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century, recalled her evening at the cinematograph in a memoir:

 
In the front rows, which were cheap...sat the poorer people in little family groups....Our places were raised a little above them, and were patronised by the swells who had paid forty cents—a shilling. Amongst the elect were one or two Englishmen and other foreigners; some fat Chinamen...a few missionaries and schoolma’ams in colored blouses and untidy coiffures a la Gibson Girl; and one or two U.S.A. soldiers with their thick hair parted in the middle, standing treat to their Filipina girls—these last in pretty camisas, very shy and happy.  A funny little Filipino near us, rigged up in knickerbockers suit and an immense yellow oilskin cap, was frightened at old Tuyay, [our dog] who insisted on coming to the show and sitting at our feet.[4]
 

Dauncy also spoke of interpreters who would translate the films’ French, German, or English title cards; in addition, they would explain foreign elements in the films.[5]  The movie-theater acts as a juncture of the various cultures inhabiting the Philippines, and this cultural intersection works in multiple ways. The imported product mediates between local viewers and foreign spaces. In addition, the audience reveals the colonial stratification at work through Dauncy’s own presence in the balcony and her amusement at the “funny little Filipino.” The presence of U.S. soldiers with their Filipina companions speaks to the gendered dynamic of military occupation.  Meanwhile, the attendance of missionaries and schoolteachers connects to imperialist attempts by the U.S. to educate their new subjects.  Upper-class Filipinos are absent from this description; at this time, they preferred the stage, leaving the cinematograph for the “masses.”

Filipinos countered this outside influence through the establishment of their own film industry, beginning with the founding of Jose Nepomuceno’s Malayan Movies in 1917 (Figure 2).[6]

 Figure 2: Malayan Movies’  Punyal na Ginto  ( The Golden Dagger ) was the first Filipino talking picture. It premiered on March 9, 1933 at the Lyric cinema.  Source

Figure 2: Malayan Movies’ Punyal na Ginto (The Golden Dagger) was the first Filipino talking picture. It premiered on March 9, 1933 at the Lyric cinema. Source

The formation of this studio was an effort to lobby against American influence on the upper classes and the young (Figure 3),

 Figure 3:  Philippine Yearbook , 1939: “Escolta street, as narrow and almost as short as New York’s Wall Street, is the business, financial, and theatrical center of Manila.” Source:  Manila Nostalgia

Figure 3: Philippine Yearbook, 1939: “Escolta street, as narrow and almost as short as New York’s Wall Street, is the business, financial, and theatrical center of Manila.” Source: Manila Nostalgia

who increasingly preferred American goods and acquired American customs. One of the studio’s goals was to adapt the movie industry to the “tastes and conditions” of the country, a move that proved successful with local audiences. 

 

In this 1938 clip from Andre De La Varre’s series of travelogues, The Screen Traveler, we see the downtown Escolta area, where many cinemas were located. Owned by wealthy Filipino families or the colonials who called themselves “Manila Americans,” these cinemas were either in business with Hollywood studios (for example, playing only Warner Bros. or MGM films), or played primarily local films. In this sequence, look out for the State theater, designed by architect Juan Nakpil, as well as the Cine Ideal, designed by Pablo Antonio. 

 

Just before World War II, Manila’s studios released almost sixty films per year; by 1958, the studios released over 100 films.[7] Historically, this is often called the first “Golden Age” of Filipino cinema. The major studios operating at the time included the so-called “Big Four:” Sampaguita, LVN, Premiere, and Lebran Productions.[8] They operated in a system of mutual protection, which led to their control of the production, distribution, and exhibition of 90% of Filipino movies.[9] This dominance shifted when employees of Premiere went on strike in 1950, eventually losing the case in 1955; the halt in production cost the studios their leverage with exhibitors.[10] The studio system would end with the rise of distribution houses like Deegar, which could serve talents who wished to work independently.[11]  By the late fifties, approximately 100 studios existed in the Philippines, and of the Big Four, only Sampaguita was left. 

This has been discussed as one of the first “deaths” of Philippine cinema, with independents primarily interested in profits, producing “quickies” that attempted to compete with foreign films through adapting foreign genres and depicting graphic sex and violence.[12] The production of these “lowbrow” films led to the construction of a “lowbrow” audience—the “bakya” crowd, named for the wooden clogs commonly worn by the poor. A journalist describes this viewership with barely concealed disdain in a 1965 column:  

 

The bakya crowd is not so much a matter of class distinctions as a certain mentality. The bakya mentality advocates conformity, is a zealous practitioner of pakisamasama (going along with the crowd), and hates what is not of the crowd…They watch a bakbakan (violent) movie where the hero shoots down seven men with six bullets, seated in a bedbug-ridden, knife slashed P1.20 seat, their feet on the backrest in front of them, cracking peanuts and repeating loudly every line said on the screen. The rise of the bakya masses as the domineering force in our society is a post-war phenomenon. One factor is the population explosion. This country is getting younger, judging by the population figures and age brackets. Another factor is the contemporary attitude that demands overt acts of concern for the masses and an overwhelming show of social consciousness. People have an urge to be the champion of the masses.[13]

 

Despite claims that the bakya crowd is not about class distinctions, the markers of social class are obvious in the description of an exploding population, flaunting their uncouth manners in a rundown, low cost theater (Figure 4).

 Figure 4: “Antics at the Cinema,” J. Zabala Santo. Though this cartoon dates to the 1950s, it demonstrates some of these ideas about the mass crowd. Source: Lopez Museum and Library   

Figure 4: “Antics at the Cinema,” J. Zabala Santo. Though this cartoon dates to the 1950s, it demonstrates some of these ideas about the mass crowd. Source: Lopez Museum and Library

 

Indeed, several lines later, the writer expresses resentment that contemporary attitudes demand that “people”—ostensibly, the middle and upper classes—are culturally obliged to demonstrate social consciousness and champion the masses. 

The institution of cinemagoing maintained this class segregation into the 1980s.  Rather than being divided between front rows and balconies, the boundary occurred along the lines between foreign and domestic products. Writing in 1983, scholar Rafael Ma. Guerrero describes:

 

Since its inception here, movies in our national experience have been composed of foreign and local film productions, and this is a dichotomy which exists to the present day.  Indeed, this situation occasioned in our society a cultural segregation so pronounced that it was possible…to distinguish between an audience exclusively patronizing foreign films and another larger, less affluent public frequenting Tagalog movies.[14]

 

The divide between “cultured” cinemagoers and their masa counterparts is deep, occurring largely along lines between the local and the foreign. 

From a more contemporary perspective, scholar Joel David reflects on issues of class and nationalism in relation to foreign and international film consumption. Looking at Philippine film history within the contexts of postcolonial theory, David writes of the ways in which U.S.-trained scholars in the 1950s and 1960s observed the trend towards post-colonial nationalism in the 1960s. David elaborates how divisions among European, boutique cinema, local works, and Hollywood productions played out within Philippine contexts:

 

The result in the Philippine experience was the imposition by local critics of what may be called nationalist and sometimes anti-imperialist criteria of appreciation on Philippine productions, but without a consistent and rigorous deployment of the same criteria on foreign imports exhibited in local theaters.  Also there occurred an adoption of the Hollywood classical-versus-European art cinema dichotomy, valorizing the latter within the spheres of Philippine film practice without explaining how Philippine cinema can function as an alternative in itself (cf. the Third-cinema question), and with even much less regard for the fact that the moviegoing audience much preferred—and still does—Hollywood and Hollywood-inflected Hongkong films.[15]

 

The newfound cosmopolitanism of some local critics led to the mapping of Philippine cinema within international cinematic systems; this internationalization occurred at the expense of local commercial cinema’s appreciation on its own terms.  However, with the advent of the Marcos dictatorship, Philippine cinema entered a second “golden age,” marked from 1974, two years after the declaration of martial law, to 1985, one year before the EDSA I uprising that deposed Marcos.[16]  If the 1960s marked cinema’s decline, declared in the face of a lowbrow, local audience, the 1970s marked its revival, when filmmakers often, though not exclusively, made films responding to political conditions and circulating in international festivals.

 

Trailer for Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag/Manila in the Claws of Light (Lino Brocka, 1975). The film was restored by the World Cinema Foundation in 2013. Source: National Film Archives of the Philippines

 

As Bienvenido Lumbera relates, in the 1970s, directors and screenwriters’ backgrounds were constructed by cultural forces that came about in the 1960s: existentialism, the “world-wide youth revolt,” sexual liberation, the French New Wave, and the U.S. anti-Vietnam-War protests. In addition, Lumbera adds that film books from the West became available to young college students, providing an alternative to film education in the industry.[17] In this historical moment, filmmakers such as Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, Eddie Garcia, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Laurice Guillen, and Mario O’Hara rose in renown, sometimes making films that appealed to more commercial tastes, with stars and elements of melodrama, other times making more intellectual works appealing to a more “difficult” aesthetic sensibility. 

This cinematic golden age came to a close with the end of martial law. Art historian Patrick Flores notes that following Ferdinand Marcos’s overthrow in 1986, the complexity of the post-dictatorship context “threw the more progressive filmmakers of the previous decade off track. The conditions were now different and a new Philippine film aesthetic had to be ushered in.”[18] The decade of the 1980s saw the strengthening of industry norms such as the star system, studios such as Regal and Viva, and the dominance of stable genres such as action, melodrama, sex, and comedy.[19]

 

In this clip from Christian Blackwood’s 1987 documentary, Signed, Lino Brocka, the famed Filipino director discusses what he calls Filipinos’ “mania” for movies, some of which are low budget, Hollywood films, imported by the pound.

 

In the 1990s, this commercialism grew, as the industry began to produce films for video and television, in addition to theatrical releases (Figure 5).

 
 FIgure 5: Hand-painted movie posters for local commercial films, 1995. These were low-budget, quickly produced films made by outfits like El Nino films, known as local softcore studio. Source:  John_Ward-Philippine Rabbit Isuzu CVE-751 (fleet No 1239) A Bonifacio St, Santa Cruz, Manila, Philippines-1995.  

FIgure 5: Hand-painted movie posters for local commercial films, 1995. These were low-budget, quickly produced films made by outfits like El Nino films, known as local softcore studio. Source: John_Ward-Philippine Rabbit Isuzu CVE-751 (fleet No 1239) A Bonifacio St, Santa Cruz, Manila, Philippines-1995. 

 

Expectations to create more media in less time led to so-called pito-pito [seven-seven] productions, referring to seven days spent in production, seven days spent in post-production.[20]

Meanwhile, the local studio system shifted to multimedia conglomerates, and the era of the “film cartel” began. For example, ABS-CBN hosts Star Cinema, Star Records, ABS-CBN Channel 2, FM radio station DWRR and AM station DZMM, and Sky Cable.[21] Theater owners also invested in movie production, creating a self-sustaining feedback loop between production and exhibition. Flores argues that the booking mechanisms imposed on local studios became one reason for the failure of independent productions.[22]  While the local industry was producing more and more films of decreasing quality, the Hollywood distribution system strengthened, and new releases began opening contemporaneously across film capitals such as Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Sydney.[23]  Not incidentally, the 1990s also saw the Philippines’ accelerated integration into the global economy, through the Ramos administration’s “neoliberal revolution.”[24]

Industrial structure wasn’t the only reason for the film industry’s waning in the face of foreign imports. José B. Capino partly attributes this decline in commercial filmmaking to the Philippine film industry’s failure to successfully engage with dominant, global media.[25] Capino proposes that Filipino filmmakers are losing their audiences to foreign films in part because they have “failed to evolve a more dynamic relationship with them and with global culture—in other words, a complacency of sorts in tending to the strategic aspects of its hybridity.”[26]

 

This trailer for Regal Films’ Goosebuster (Tony Y. Reyes, 1991) reflects a common industry practice of the time: (very) loosely adapting Hollywood narratives for local consumption. Source

 

Because this mixture of local and global produces a symbiotic, interdependent relationship to foreign film and culture, Capino points out that the balance between proximity to and distance from the dominant global culture requires continuous fine-tuning.[27] Filmmakers have to be strategic and creative about it. Sadly, in the Philippine mainstream media industry, the lack of differentiation between local and foreign cinemas eroded local cinema’s own niche. As Capino puts it, “local films don’t stand out because they are neither boldly different nor audaciously similar to foreign films; instead, a bland, unadventurous similarity prevails.”[28] These aesthetic failures were soon matched with failures in box office revenue. The films were too similar to their Hollywood competition to stand out, but not high enough in their production values to compete. 

This brief historical sign posting illustrates some of the connections among Philippine cinemas, foreign films, and local social structures. As the overview above indicates, this commercial industry has declined over the past two decades, for varied reasons. At the same time, a recent surge of production has emerged outside of the mainstream system.


1: Martin, “The ‘Silent Pictures’ Era in the Philippines,” 21.
2: Deocampo, Cine.
3. Deocampo, Cine.
4: Quoted in Del Mundo, Native resistance, 53.
5. Guerrero, ibid.
6. Del Mundo, Native Resistance; Tofighian, “The role of Jose Nepomuceno in the Philippine society.”
7. Paul Rodell, Culture and Customs of the Philippines. (Greenwood Press: Westport, 2001).
8. Lumbera, “Problems in Philippine Film History,” 71.
9. John Lent, The Asian Film Industry, 156.
10. Lent, Ibid.
11. Lent, Ibid.
12. Lent, Ibid.
13. Roces, 1965, quoted in Lent, The Asian Film Industry, 158.
14. Guerrero, ibid.
15. David, “Philippine History as Postcolonial Discourse,” 11.
16. Lumbera, “Problems in Philippine Film History,”406.
17. Ibid., 407.
18. Flores, “Philippine Cinema and Society,” 423.
19. Ibid., 423-424.
20. Ibid., 426.
21. Ibid., 427.
22. Ibid., 427.
23. Ibid., 427.
24. Walden Bello, “Neoliberalism as hegemonic ideology in the Philippines: rise, apogee, and crisis,” Plenary session of the National Conference of the Philippine Sociological Society, Focus on the Global South, October 16, 2009, http://www.salon.com/2014/09/10/the_golden_age_of_sexual_taboos_how_indie_movies_brought_deranged_sex_acts_to_the_big_screen/?source=newsletter.
25. Capino, “Philippines: Cinema and Its Hybridity.”
26. Ibid., 43-44.
27. Ibid., 44.
28. Ibid., 44.