Out of Print

Ways of Seeing

by Audrey Carpio

Photos courtesy of Jewel Maranan and Daang Dokyu.

Three of the founders of Daang Dokyu on the importance of documenatiries and how shifting the festival online proved to be an unanticipated success.

The concluding week of the month-and-a-half long Daang Dokyu, the first documentary film festival in the Philippines, overlapped with the U.S. presidential elections. Though on the surface unrelated, the two events point toward a possible future for the Philippines that diverges from the realities of the past four years. The cancellation of the Trump Show proves that authoritarians can be taken down, misogynists have no place in public office, and that citizens should not be afraid to speak truth to power.

A documentary film festival that almost didn’t happen for obvious reasons, Daang Dokyu was originally slated to open on March 16—the day our country went on lockdown and life as we knew it was completely upheaved. Daang Dokyu was a project more than two years in the making, conceptualized by a group of four documentary filmmakers drawn together from a Facebook group of “Dokyupeeps” that started in 2015 and would become a vital networking and resource site for documentarists in the Philippines. Formalized as FilDocs or the Filipino Documentary Society, the women known as Monster Jimenez, Jewel Maranan, Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, and Baby Ruth Villarama began the difficult process of trying to raise funds to mount the event.

The festival directors are filmmakers first and foremost, collectively possessing an inspiring body of work and an impressive array of awards too lengthy to mention. The decision to mobilize a festival purely for documentaries came with the 2018 presidential announcement of the Centennial Year of Philippine Cinema, which was to be celebrated from September 12, 2019 to September 11, 2020. This date was arrived at by counting back to the premiere of what is considered to be the first Filipino-produced and directed feature film, Jose Nepomuceno’s Dalagang Bukid, which first screened at the Teatro de la Comedia on September 12, 1919.

There is some debate as to when Filipino film was actually birthed. The National Commission for the Culture and the Arts began its centennial celebrations in 2017, based on the year Nepomuceno established Malayan Movies, the first Filipino-owned movie company which he put up in 1917. Nick Deocampo, documentary filmmaker and film historian, would argue that the first Filipino film was shown in Cebu in January 1918—a newsreel that Nepomuceno shot of the funeral of Sergio Osmena’s wife. The first film was therefore a documentary, a fact that seems to be disregarded in the centennial’s officialization, which says much about the marginalization and misunderstanding of the documentary in the local film industry to this day.

“Documentary is not a genre,” says Monster. “It’s a perspective, and a process.” The 45 films selected for the festival, the oldest dating back to 1914, run the gamut from hard reportage to intimate portraits, from highly personal and meditative pieces to experimental shorts that push the boundaries between reality and fiction. (Then there’s Budots, which was an amusing look into the infuriating musical craze, until it sprung the can’t-be-unseen clip of Mayor Duterte dancing the budots.) 

Daang Dokyu also featured talkbacks, forums for discussing industry concerns and collectively processing the heavy issues the films presented. One of the most popular sessions was Deocampo’s masterclass where he underlined the importance of the documentary in defining our national identity. “It is not only in fiction where we can find ourselves as Filipinos. People in power are afraid of the documentary. They are afraid of truth and reality,” he said in his impassioned conclusion to an hour-long lecture on the origins of documentary film in the Philippines, from its colonial beginnings to its use as political propaganda to its radicalization, defying regimes and revealing the brutal, painful realities of life. “I came from a period which was so dark. You only had cinema, the documentary, to stand up for truth, yet we are ignored by you who want to watch your telenovelas. You are blinded.”

Daang Dokyu is a celebration of a hundred years of confronting ourselves and reckoning with our history. It is a compendium of social memory and historical truth that stands up to the current wave of disinformation and revisionism. Documentaries also look to the future, serving as a beacon for finding our way to a more just society, as a few examples have borne out: Ditsi Carolino’s 2005 documentary Bunso chronicled the lives of three minors detained in jail in deplorable conditions alongside adult convicts. Public outrage led to the passage of the Juvenile Justice Act, which raised the age of criminal liability from 9 to 15 and prescribed rehabilitation and intervention for children in conflict with the law. Baby Ruth Villarama’s Sunday Beauty Queen, which followed the travails and triumphs of Filipina domestic workers in Hong Kong, also galvanized policymakers and international justice organizations to advocate for measures that better protect migrant workers.

Documentaries are not easy to watch, nor are they easy to make. But they tell the stories that we have to hear, and they light the spark that we need to burn everything to the ground.

The following interview was conducted over Zoom and email and has been edited for publication.

Left to Right: Daang Dokyu founders Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, Monster Jimenez, Baby Ruth Villarama, and Jewel Maranan.

On cancelling the festival two days before the lockdown
Monster Jimenez: I was talking to a disaster management group, because I wanted to find out how to disinfect every screening. We just wanted to make sure if we could afford it and it was feasible. The disaster management guy said, “you know you could do all the disinfection you want, but if one person gets sick, you’re done. Doesn’t matter if he gets it at the cinema or the grocery.”

In our minds, we were taking extra precautions by talking to that guy.  We had a brunch that Sunday, and I said that I think we should call it off. They said no way. We had posters that just arrived, tickets, shirts. What the fuck are we going to do with all that collateral? We didn’t have a choice though, that afternoon or the day after, the president said we were on lockdown.

On the transition to an online film festival
Monster: It did not happen right away. We were shell-shocked, to be honest. All of the money was already spent putting this in place. We didn’t talk to each other for a month or two. We had been planning this for two to three years, with meetings that would last until four in the morning. Of course, we also enjoyed each other’s company, but we went through so much trouble only to pull it out.

I have my own company and I didn’t know what to do with it—I just expanded, moved into a new office. Kara is the founder of ICANSERVE, so she was also thinking about how the people with cancer are affected. Then there’s Jewel, who just had a new film going aground the festival circuit. Baby Ruth had an organization running a feeding program, so we all had our own shit. We agreed to not talk about it for a bit. I think it was only in June that we started panicking.

Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala: After much debate, we decided to ride the wave and do a virtual film festival. The pandemic turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The filmmakers had access to thousands of viewers, something a commercial run in theaters or a festival premiere abroad can’t guarantee. I am ecstatic for the filmmakers we featured. I felt like a stage mother eager to show off her gifted children who produced brilliant stories the last 100 years in a variety of aesthetics, voices, languages, localities, formats, each reflecting the temper of their times.

On launching the festival during the anniversary of Martial Law
Monster: It was definitely intentional. We knew we wouldn’t have a spectacular opening, and we didn’t want one. We knew we weren't going to have an entire song and dance to open it. We had to open in a way that was meaningful, that’s always been our motivation. They don’t have to be the best documentaries out there, but they have to mean something to us as Filipinos.

The reason we wanted to open on Martial Law with a Martial Law program was because there was just so much going on, and a lot of confusion about what really happened during Martial Law. It’s honestly atrocious how that is even possible. We weren’t even that ready, the opening was all over the place from a tech standpoint. I’m the most techie and that’s already not saying a lot, setting the bar really low. But we pushed for that opening and I guess it all worked out. A lot of students really reacted to that opening.

Kara: There was a high interest in anything related to the excesses of the Marcos dictatorship. One viewer said when she was in Grade 8 in 2016, her teacher told her class that former Pres. Corazon Aquino had her husband killed so that she would be President; that President Ferdinand Marcos was the best president we ever had. She and some of her classmates didn’t want to believe but they didn’t know how to convince their teacher and the other classmates who considered the teacher infallible. But after watching the documentary Marcos: A Malignant Spirit (1989) by ABS-CBN, she finally found the truth she was looking for.

Jewel Maranan: Films in the Daang Dokyu program that bring us back to the years during and in the aftermath of Martial Law offer testimonies of key events during the Marcos and Cory administrations while imprinting an experience of the spirit of those times. When seen alongside more contemporary works that hint at the return and impunity of authoritarian rule in the present times, like Alunsina (2020), Imelda (2003), Aswang (2020), We Still Have To Close Our Eyes (2019), Beastmode (2018), something greater is produced. Approximating historical consciousness, the viewer gains agency to grasp evident continuities and see through and beyond myopic perspectives produced in the rush of current affairs.

“The audience is ready and the audience craves the truth.”

On the pandemic’s impact on documentary filmmaking and film festivals
Monster: We invited people from Sundance, TokyoDocs and In-Docs, which is Indonesian, for an industry session where we talked about how the pandemic affected filmmaking. For sure the festival route has been affected and a lot of filmmakers are devastated. You’d want to see your film on screen and get to talk to other filmmakers. It’s truly a community experience. Film itself is always much bigger than the filmmaker, which is what draws me to the idea that what you’re doing is bigger than yourself. It’s not about the star, or the director. It resonates with something more relevant. People have stopped shooting. But there will be a lot of pandemic stories coming out for sure.

The pandemic honestly made Daang Dokyu more successful. The original venue was in UP Diliman. Cine Adarna sits 800 people. We were expecting 25 people at a time. In a way it was good for us, because there was no way we would have drawn that much attention. But having this online, there was a captive audience.

Kara: The pandemic gave us permission to hold the audience hostage. Perhaps they wanted a break from K-dramas and Netflix and other pandemic staples or were simply curious and visited the movie page of Daang Dokyu. For whatever reason they viewed our films, we are happy they fell in love with the genre. For me, this was the best part. Our audience didn’t hold back telling us in detail how the films affected them. They were also effusive in their praise and gratitude.

We were surprised that our viewers were excited to watch old black and white silent films like Native Life in the Philippines (1913) by Dean Worcester and Glimpses of the Culion Leper Colony and of Culion Life (1929) by Merl La Voy. We acquired other black and whites but held back showing it because we wanted to screen it as originally planned before the pandemic, with live music and live performance to enhance its appreciation. But it looks like our viewers appreciated those kinds of films presented without fuss.

On Nick Deocampo’s quote that “Documentaries never promise to show a beautiful world. They ask people to understand why it is not,” and the difficulty of the documentary
Monster: The statement is correct in the sense that truth is hard to face. One of the strongest things about the festival are the talkbalks that we schedule. We had masterclasses and workshops with Nick and Alyx Arumpac. Nick had an emotional parting message: people are not ready to talk about homosexuality, poverty, the drug war, mothers who cannot be with their babies when they die. Truth can be beautiful, but we have to talk about the stuff that’s hard to talk about. I think that’s beautiful, when someone tries to talk to you in that way.

Kara: Documentaries sometimes have a bad image. They have this air of requirement, like they’re vegetables—good for you but not necessarily enjoyable.  But that’s the thinking of those who never gave documentaries a chance.  Some of the hardest-to-watch films in our festival were the most watched, like Aswang, a film about EJKs by Alyx Arumpac. That was our opening film and we had almost half a million viewers. The audience is ready and the audience craves the truth.

Jewel: Filipinos have a violent past and a lot to process, from our colonization, betrayed revolutions, and continued oppression. This is why a lot of our documentaries are not happy stories. Fewer are those privileged enough to be able to deny this.

“Truth can be beautiful,but we have to talk about the stuff that’s hard to talk about.”

On the importance of remembering and the idea that Filipinos have short-term memories
Kara: I always say, not knowing and appreciating documentaries is like never having met your grandparents or your great grandparents. If you know nothing of your past, it’s going to be tough to know who you are, what you’re made of, what you’re capable of doing. You have no stock knowledge, no insight or mistake to build on. Each generation will simply be starting over. No benefit of the learning curve theory. You’ll be lost and might be moving in circles. Nothing wrong with that, but if you knew your “provenance,” your possibilities for a meaningful life are limitless.

Jewel: Memory appears to be a simple thing. It is not. And when applied to societies and nations, it becomes exponentially more complex than individual memory. I don’t believe that Filipinos, particularly, have a short memory, or that Filipinos are forgetful. I think this oft-used statement is just a convenient and obscure analysis for a web of problems that have concrete origins deflecting from something which is in fact more structural and systemic, to something that even serves to blame the victim and offers only self-defeatism as a result.

Now, we live in a time when it can be easier to access an online video than it is to access a classroom. History is now told first in images or the streams of social media before they are told in books. But if the classroom itself has been a field of struggle over how history should be taught to each new generation, this relatively recent and fast rising internet space quickly became a field of contradictions too.

On the impact of the recent crop of political documentaries and whether there is hope?
Kara: Despite the high ratings of our President today, from where I stand, there is so much dissatisfaction in the way this country is being run. And I think many of the dissatisfied are more frustrated that nothing is changing fast enough because they are unconsciously hoping for the quick wins brought about by previous forms of protest—a coup d’etat, massive crowds in the street, resignations of key cabinet officials, people power, etc.  I believe our freedom-seeking culture remains strong but the ways to uphold a democracy are changing.

I don’t know what form that will take, it’s for us to find out. I also think it will take a longer while to achieve the changes we seek, because it needs individual introspection and  an honest national reflection. It will take deliberate planning and systemic changes. It begins with education. It begins with studying the past. It begins with ourselves. The President is only part of the problem. If we skip this step, we will move in circles and a lot of documentaries from the past will remain relevant because we never learn.

Ultimately, the change can only happen through clean and fair elections. With citizens unafraid to express their choice. Something we have to fight for beginning yesterday.

In our case, we, the filmmaker founders of FilDocs didn’t want to behave like brats just because we didn’t like what was happening. So I guess Daang Dokyu was our creative pushback. Our humble contribution in cultivating critical thinking and active citizenship.︎

Audrey Carpio is a freelance writer and former magazine editor.