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Memory keepers: Meet the new generation of Filipino documentary filmmakers

By Jason Tan Liwag Published Sep 29, 2023 5:00 am

The Philippines is not a country known for its memory-keeping. In the last three years alone, we have forgotten (or, at times, even resisted to remember) the simple facts of our history—a global pandemic kept us at home for months, surrounded by death and a life we struggle to grieve; divisive national elections threatened to fracture the country further, the stings of which can still be felt today; and an economic crisis is driving a wedge between the rich and the poor, pushing the divide further than it’s ever been.

Archives, if they’re lucky enough not to be erased or censored, remain underfunded, the people within them unable to stop the rot that happens naturally due to time and tropical climate.

It’s already a difficult task to look back on yesterday. What more five or 10, maybe even 50 years ago?

Despite the absence of high budgets and extensive networks to protect them, many young filmmakers have successfully used documentary to challenge the dominant narratives.

Cinema has stood witness to the beauty and trouble of our history, serving as a proxy for keeping and shaping national memory. Many efforts have been directed at remembrance and commemoration through cinema.

Last month, She Andes’ Maria became the first documentary to compete in Cinemalaya, displaying in a post-Duterte era the lives lost from the war on drugs. Film festivals such as the Active Vista International Human Rights Film Festival, which is concluding this week, also put a spotlight on issues at the periphery of the peripheries.

But the process of remembering is life-long, and these efforts cannot and should not be sustained by the older generation alone. Little is written about how younger generations are stepping up, connecting others to this long river that is cinema and Philippine history, and challenging the dominant narratives poisoning us through disinformation machineries.

Despite the absence of high budgets and extensive networks to protect them, many of these young filmmakers have successfully used documentary to capture everyday struggles and national scuffles, revealing how personal sufferings and observations are connected to much larger, more dangerous truths in the collective.

From humanizing disabilities to archiving labor movements and connecting personal struggles with collective issues, we highlight nine filmmakers who are growing to become the country’s new memory keepers.

Angelica Llanera
Writer-director of Ate Bunso (2022)

Before Angelica Llanera created her documentary Ate Bunso, she hadn’t envisioned herself making one. Though her work has gravitated towards mapping the dynamics of family, Llanera thought of herself more as a producer of narrative films. But when the pandemic forced their classes online, documentary became an attractive alternative while still allowing her to explore such themes.

The subject of Down syndrome has been on her mind since her freshman year at Mapua, but she hadn’t intended for her film to be about her family, especially to such an autobiographical degree. “Feeling ko kasi typical lang yung family namin,” says Llanera. But when her initial thesis adviser left Mapua, she found herself mentored by the documentary filmmaker She Andes.

With lockdown shoots increasingly expensive and complicated, especially for people with special needs, Andes recommended that Llanera put her narrative film on the backburner instead. “Siya na yung nagsabi: ‘Huwag ka nang lumayo, gumawa ka na ng documentary about your family.’

The process of researching for Ate Bunso, Llanera’s thesis film and first place in the Documentary Category of the 35th Gawad Alternatibo, exposed her to forms outside of the typical TV documentaries in iWitness and Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho, opening up the ways Down syndrome had already been depicted onscreen.

The process was difficult: she had to shift from an initial poetic approach to a straightforward sit-in interview with her family and then to a solo self-recorded version with a script. Luckily, she was able to realize why the film wasn’t working.

“I was delayed for almost two years kasi all this time, I wasn’t ready to tell the story,” says Llanera. “I was vulnerable when I was sharing it but I wasn’t vulnerable while editing it.” When Llanera got Piolo Angelo Mayuga as the editor to distance herself from the project and consulted again with Andes, they settled on the film’s form as a love letter to the family unit.

“‘Yung mga moments na umiiyak yung kapatid ko or yung mga moments na yung bahay namin, hindi perfect yung itsura, kailangan kong hayaan ‘yun.”

Memory-keeping through cinema allows such personal transformations to occur from the ordinary. “We tend to overlook the familiar people because we see them every day,” says Llanera. “Madalas iniisip natin, kailangang grand! But I think mas maganda ‘yung magka-deeper sense of understanding sa mga familiar na tao.”

For Llanera, documentary allows us to reimagine the people around us, reframe what life has given us, and resist the narratives people place on us day-to-day.

Joel Andrei Ramirez
Writer-director of Robota and Kino Kalye (2023)

Joel Andrei Ramirez had plans to make narrative shorts with his friends and orgmates. But when the lockdowns extended and the cost of production rose, such dreams were put on hold.

During these periods of online classes, he entered filmmaker Adjani Arumpac’s class on documentary filmmaking and, maybe like lightning had struck, the medium seemed to open itself up to him. “Ang laki nung potential nung medium,” says Ramirez. “Suddenly, the methods in docu sit well within my present conditions. It just clicked. Maraming pwedeng sabihin through it.”

The two documentaries that Ramirez created under Arumpac’s guidance—Robota (2022) and his thesis film Kino Kalye—seem to be linked in their interrogations of labor. Robota emerged from Ramirez’s personal experience becoming involved in their family business selling parts of air conditioners, where he set up and managed their Shopee account.

“Pakiramdam ko it’s so alienating, it’s so fast, it’s so impersonal. And yet, this is the new normal,” says Ramirez. “I was trying to question that situation.”

Kino Kalye was birthed from a desire to show how this sense of alienation, the speed of commerce, and the consequences of the increasingly digital landscape occurred even outside his home, across industries, felt most strongly by those in the margins.

“The goal was to find the pattern that I first saw in Robota,” says Ramirez. Kino Kalye—which won Best Thesis at the UP Film Institute—interrogated the material conditions of all aspects of the production pipeline, from construction and creation to packaging to delivery and consumption to even waste management.

What emerges from the form is the amount of time lost on these capitalist structures, regularly depicted through the use of time-lapse photography, and the ease with which society is able to subject laborers to oppressive conditions without having to confront the actuality of their suffering.

“Fragile ang ating labor consciousness and class consciousness because it’s being attacked by tools and by our craft,” says Ramirez. “Digital platforms and the language of film are used to alter that consciousness to favor the ones in power, and we should regain control of the aesthetic and the form. Hindi dapat nating hayaan na gamitin siya for propaganda.”

Though still young, Ramirez aims to use cinema to create associations between workers, in the hopes of making abstract ideas of collective struggle more tangible and actionable.

James Magnaye
Writer-director of Báon Sa Biyahe (2022)

James Magnaye was on the way home after taking care of his scholarship requirements when a jeepney driver asked him an unexpected question: “Pwede bang gamitin ang jeep pang-foodpanda?”

At that point in the pandemic, jeeps had only begun returning to the road; curious, Magnaye spoke with the driver, later finding out he only makes around P300 for a full day’s work.

Magnaye, like many of us, had been aware of how difficult the pandemic struck the transport sector, had seen news of drivers asking for money on the streets, and had the jeepney modernization program summarized to him over TikTok.

He knew that the program, launched under former president Rodrigo Duterte in 2017, asked too much from the drivers and explained too little about government execution and driver incentivization. But up until then, these were merely ideas. Now, they were in front of him, flesh and blood, with tired eyes seeking understanding.

Baón Sa Biyahe—the capstone thesis of Magnaye and collaborators Julius Quiapos and Gio Rayla, winning second place in the Documentary Category of the 35th Gawad Alternatibo—was born from this encounter. “Naalala ko pa nakatayo lang ako sa gilid habang nakatingin sa jeep niya. Ang lalim ng inisip ko ‘non,” says Magnaye.

Centered on the drivers Noe Tuquero and Teody Elevencione, Baón Sa Biyahe mixes talking heads and images of traffic and the labor movement to contrast not only the work and day-to-day lives of two jeepney drivers amidst the pandemic and the jeepney phase-out, but also the unexpected ways the state differed in their responses towards them.

“Nung nalaman namin yung experience ni Sir Noe na pinadalhan siya ng Order to Show Cause kahit hindi nagprotesta, tapos si Sir Teody walang natanggap kahit lagi siyang nasa protesta, talagang nabigla kami.”

While Magnaye conducted pre-interviews to prepare himself and his subjects, the production process offered an intimacy that was, at times, unexpectedly emotional. “Sa documentary, hindi mo mararamdaman na filmmaker ka,” says Magnaye, comparing the experience to being a fly on the wall.

“Kahit na walang inuman, ikaw ang katagay. Feel mo part ka na ng circle ng tao na ‘yon. Hindi ka stranger.” Magnaye’s work strives to show how we must elevate the conditions of the workers and the consequences we, as a people, are burdened with if we do nothing about these inequities.

JT Trinidad
Writer-director of the wheels have stopped from rolling (2022), as if nothing happened (2020), and like people, they change too (2022)

The impulse to tell stories comes from personal places, but the films one creates don’t have to stay there. In as if nothing happened, JT Trinidad shows semi-empty spaces in Quezon City and Manila as individuals with etched-out faces commute, with a voiceover narrating its search for a missing person.

While the film was initially created on a whim with friends, it has grown in hindsight. “Thinking about it now, we just documented the state of our nation during a health crisis while an unsent love letter was being read.”

Trinidad hadn’t planned on making documentaries, especially ones about the self. But with a family that regularly takes videos of their time together and their surroundings—through footage on laptops, phones, and VHS tapes—sifting through personal histories becomes possible.

Trinidad’s documentaries are interrogations of space and belongingness amidst political placelessness, using photos and videos to create an accumulation of the personal and the national that weaves so closely together they become indistinguishable from one another.

When their grandfather passed away, film seemed to be one of the few ways one could make sense of things such as tragedy and mortality. “Making a narrative film in the middle of a pandemic was a risk and impractical,” says Trinidad. “Since I was in touch with myself the most during the lockdown, most of my stories are about me, me, and me.”

In the wheels have stopped from rolling, Trinidad uses Newton’s Law of Motion to rationalize their grandfather’s death. But what begins as a foray into grief becomes an attempt at confronting class guilt and family history, especially as Trinidad delves into how land was taken away from their family.

For Trinidad, memory-keeping lies in capturing, wrestling with, and sublimating this context into cinema. “The personal becomes political when we situate the self in the community,” says Trinidad.

While Trinidad sees present efforts of memory-keeping centered on resistance, collective struggle and community organization, they also hope that the camera can become a liberating force. But what does that look like? “I wish for a future where workers and farmers are the ones who document their daily lives,” says Trinidad. “It is when the capitalist tool, the camera, becomes integral in building communities.”

Joanne Cesario, Aly Suico, Brian Sulicipan, Tel Delvo and Mervine Aquino
Collaborators on Invisible Labor (2023)

We don’t often think of Filipino workers as crucial to preserving historical memory. But during a workshop under the Philippines Labor Movement Archive (PLMA), five labor rights advocates—Joanne Cesario, Aly Suico, Brian Sulicipan, Tel Delvo, and Mervine Aquino—heard the story of Cleto “Carlito” Piedad.

From 1998 until his untimely death in 2006, Piedad’s silent efforts of cleaning and rewinding tapes during his downtime as a janitor at the IBON Foundation preserved films about people’s struggles and resistance during martial law, all of which were from the political collective AsiaVisions Media Foundation.

“Invisible Labor started with this idea of how Carlito's efforts, while unknown to many, contributed to the preservation of a history now under attack,” says the team. “We wanted to relate this with the way that on a larger scale of things, workers contribute most to the shaping of history through their collective struggle.”

Aly Suico, Joanne Cesario, and Mervine Aquino

Directed by Cesario and produced by Mayday Multimedia, Invisible Labor uses archival footage, talking heads and current videos from social media to draw parallels between the labor movements of today and yesteryear, serving as a tribute to the thankless work involved in fighting for rights while also interrogating the poor structures for memory-keeping in the country.

In its decision to take on a grassroots perspective, Invisible Labor is tender in its treatment yet serious in its questions, particularly the reliance of government on the benevolence of the underpaid few instead of investing in sustainable systems and practices; inadvertently exposing who benefits from such mediated amnesias.

"(Making) it has entailed learning and digging deep into the context of past workers' struggles and victories, and finding out how so much remains the same," says the team. "Working with archival materials in the documentary opened our eyes to the reality of how rich Philippine labor's history is and how much of it is kept inaccessible from the workers themselves. Material and political boundaries intersect in keeping this history inaccessible, which informs us of how our documentary should participate not just in cultural platforms but in political platforms as well."

Can systems of care and compassion exist within such a corrupt system? Yes, but the cost of creating such conditions shouldn’t be shouldered by the masses, most of whom are already structurally disadvantaged. Documentaries can help alleviate these inequities, but only so much.

“Documentaries are a potent tool in popularizing images and narratives of struggle against ruling powers,” says the team. “We would like to see more documentary filmmakers go beyond elite spaces for filmmaking, and really make films for the people.”

Invisible Labor makes a strong case for creating ways to recover the past. Otherwise, we will be left with no future.