Pinoy rising

"New Filipino Cinema" spotlights the island nation's burgeoning, work-in-progress filmmaking scene

Loy Arcenas' Niño kicks off the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' series

FILM Cinema has had a long and colorful history in the Philippines, with a first "golden age" of home-grown product in the 1950s, a turn toward exportable exploitation films in the '60s, notable new-wave directors (like Lino Brocka) emerging in the '70s, and so forth — sustaining one of the world's most prolific film industries despite difficulties political and otherwise. At the turn of the millennium those wheels were wobbling and slowing, however, hard-hit by a combination of too many low-grade formula films, shrinking audiences, and stiffer competition from slick imported entertainments. The commercial sector stumbled on, but as a shadow of its robust former self.

But there's something percolating beyond hard consonants on the archipelago these days, signs of a new DIY vigor coming from independent sectors juiced by the inexpensive accessibility of digital technology, undaunted (at least so far) by problems of exhibition and income-generating at home. It's a sprawling, unpredictable, work-in-progress scene that some figure could well become the next "it" spot for cineaste types seeking one of those spontaneous combustions of fresh talent that arise occasionally where you least expect it — like Romania, to name one recent example.

One person who definitely thinks that's the case is Joel Shepard, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' longtime Film/Video Curator. He's traveled to the Philippines several times in recent years (once serving on the jury at CineManila), and has previously programmed a few prime examples of the country's edgy new voices — particularly Brilliante Mendoza, whose notorious 2009 police-corruption grunge horror Kinatay (a.k.a. Butchered) was one of the most hotly divisive Cannes jury-prize winners in recent history. Now YBCA is presenting "New Filipino Cinema," Shepard's first "big fat snapshot" — hopefully to be continued on an annual basis — of a wildly diverse current filmic landscape, assembled in collaboration with Manila critic Philbert Ortiz Dy.

Shepard's program notes call the Philippines "an extremely fascinating country...but the more I learned about the place and its people, the less I felt like I actually understood anything. The truth felt more and more slippery." One might get a similar sensation watching the films in this expansive (nearly 30 titles, shorts included) sampler, in that they're all over the map stylistically and thematically — from lyrical to gritty, satirical to anarchistic — suggesting no single defining "movement" or aesthetic to New Filipino Cinema.

Nor should they, since these movies reflect very different cultures, politics, and issues in regions hitherto underrepresented onscreen. After all, Manila isn't the only place you can get your hands on a digital camera; and Tagalog is primary language for just one-third of all Filipinos.

The series opener has significant local ties: Loy Arcenas is a lauded stage set designer who's worked frequently with our own American Conservatory Theater. Unavailable for preview, in description his feature directorial debut Niño (2011) sounds redolent of Luchino Visconti and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as well as, perhaps, 1975's Grey Gardens) as it depicts a once grand family of Spanish émigrés living in decrepit splendor, diminished over generations by political inconvenience and a proud, fatal inability to adapt.

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