The term independent once meant something in Philippine cinema. It was reserved for such luminaries as Rox Lee (the great animator), Raymond Red (the great short-film maker), and in recent years, Lav Diaz (the great stubborn filmmaker). These were artists who had earned their stripes and garnered accolades but refused to sell out or cater to commercial demands, preferring to maintain control over their work rather than cash in and see their names in lights.
Today independent and its many synonyms has become a hot buzzword in the Philippines. Young filmmakers, students, festivals, even commercial studios are beginning to use the word, defiling the purity that was once associated with it.
When parties from the commercial industry, from the mainstream or establishment, begin to infiltrate and claim the underground for themselves, what is left for the true independent filmmaker to do? Stan Brakhage put it best:
So the money vendors have begun it again. To the catacombs then, or rather plant this seed deeper in the underground beyond false nourishing of sewage waters. Let it draw nourishment from hidden uprising springs channeled by gods ... forget ideology, for film unborn as it is has no language and speaks like an aborigine monotonous rhetoric.... Abandon aesthetics.... Negate techniques, for film, like America, has not been discovered yet, and mechanization, in the deepest possible sense of the word, traps both beyond measuring even chances.... Let film be. It is something ... becoming.
It is in this spirit that the New Philippine Cinema, conceived in 2004, birthed in 2005, and now beginning to mature in 2006, is being forged. While it does encompass this false new independence, most of its best and brightest moments have been strong reactions against it.
To speak of ambition in regard to Raya Martin's A Short Film about the Indio Nacional (or the Prolonged Sorrow of Filipinos) would be to speak of the obvious the director was a 21-year-old college senior undertaking a feature film, silent with title cards, shot on 35mm, in black-and-white, set in the 1890s Spanish-era Philippines. The movie starts with a frustratingly slow 22-minute piece, shot in color, on digital video, with sound, that's devoid of action for the first 17 minutes (before settling into a moving tale of nationalism). Martin's A Short Film is an intensely personal work projecting the young director's emotional impressions of the bygone era into the beginnings of the uprising, the stirrings of Philippine nationalism. Is Martin's film accurate in its depiction? Does it represent a work evincing deep historical research that may be used as a text for young students to study in order to know more about the era? No and that is both its strength and its weakness.
A Short Film focuses on minor and intimate moments, creating images that would otherwise be left out of major historical films (and were left out of the films shot at the time by the colonizers). How relevant is the film in the cultural geography of the Philippines? I daresay it is a very, very important work, one that will be looked at with as much perplexity now as admiration in the future. But the reasons for its importance, for its significance, will be (a) its audacity, (b) its aesthetic, and (c) the emotional impact it will have on maybe not an entire generation of average viewers, but at the very least this generation of filmmakers. A Short Film throws down the gauntlet and with rude authority for the heights of sophistication and beauty the Philippine aesthetic may reach.
John Torres is as personal a filmmaker as you can possibly meet.