Interview with Eduardo Martin Menez, Respectable Philippine Ambassador:
Nowadays Independent Cinema Is a Training Ground for Future Commercial Directors
Art and Experience–Elaheh Goodarzi- Arezu Ghorbanpour: Eduardo Martin Menez is in Iran as Philippine ambassador for three years. He studied political science and law and It has been 25 years that he is working for Philippine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was in countries like Poland, Singapore and United State as an ambassador. His father was also worked with Ministry of Foreign Affairs and due to this fact Eduardo Martin Menez was born in Italy and traveled to many countries like Japan, Island and Egypt with his father. Philippine ambassador came to Art and Experience office before Nowruz and talked about Art and Experience cinema and independent cinema of Philippine.
– Despite the existence of supervision and control of BCMP, the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures in 70s, still this period is called as the golden age. How the filmmaking style was like in that period?
The history of Philippine cinema goes back to over a one hundred years. Philippine was a colony of Spain and I think as early as 1897 the first films were screened in Manila. There have been a certain periods in our cinema industry which was considered as golden age and sometimes it went down. You mentioned the period of censorship during the 70s and during that time we had martial law. Things were restricted, including the media, press and also films but even during that time I think some of the best films of Philippine were produced and some of the best directors of the Philippines were able to produce their work. Some of these works were called social realism which was critical of the conditions. Some of these films were political but artfully portrayed or sometimes the themes were not directly political but then people understood that the films describe the situation of the period. Some directors like Lino Brocka was a very famous director who had very serious films about the society. Those films were recognized internationally and also in Asia won some awards. Even there was censorship at the time, the good filmmakers were still able to express ideas that many of those who watched the films appreciated.
– After 1990 commercial movie production became successful and 200 movies a year was being made. How were these movies in structure and attracting audiences?
As you said, number of film production and number of film studies increased in 80s but the type of films that were producing were commercial films so many of them were very light, entertaining, comedies, musicals and drama as well. Some of the studios were producing several films in a year and each of the studios had their own artists, actors and actresses that they promoted. The type of films that were producing was mostly light entertainment or drama that many of the people were willing to watch. Going to cinema was one of the cheapest and most accessible forms of entertainment. During that period that we had two hundred films a year, I think over one hundred million people watched films. In 80s and 90s the digital film was not yet very popular and it was still quiet cheap to make a movie, that’s why there were many movies and people watched the films.
Going to cinema was one of the cheapest and most accessible forms of entertainment
What’s your definition of independent cinema?
In fact independent films lately become very popular. These are the small films that produced or made by young directors and they use digital format but maybe this is the latest expression of independent cinema but even before we had the tradition of independent cinema which was related to Art House. As early as 70s, we had young experimental directors and I think maybe during the 70s and 80s most of the films were experimental films and we had young directors who were taught by Europeans like Germans and the French. There was a famous director at the time, his name was Kidlat Tahimik. It’s a Pilipino name, like a fake name and means quiet lightening and he studied under the German Art House School and one of his famous films was “Perfumed Nightmare.” So in 70s the experimental films were the independent films at the time and they used 90 or 60 millimeter films. But then after a while because they were such a small group and they didn’t make money, their film productions become few in 90s until this decade around 2010 to 2016, we have very many young directors that our film academy also promote. They are mostly young digital format directors because nowadays it’s very easy to make a film; you can even make a film with your telephone. So we now have many festivals which are dedicated only for independent film makers. And when we talk about independent cinema we talk about young and sometimes unknown directors who use the digital format to make the films but the interesting difference of nowadays independent films and the past is that in the past when you had experimental films with unknown directors even the actors were more or less unknown but now because it’s so popular even the famous actor and actresses been appeared in independent films.
When did the growth of Philippine independent cinema which was affected by theater and Hollywood screenings started?
The evolution of independent film industry in Philippine began with experimental directors who were before influenced but Europeans. After the advent of digital medium many more directors started to make their own low budget but interesting films so I would say this movement really blossomed in 21 century. But the interest to make independent film, meaning not to make commercial films was there from 70s. In fact our institutions which promoted films even in 70s which they were under control, always had a small budget or small interest in experimental films but when digital format came out, more institutions related to film were established and they started to teach film in the universities, that is when independent cinema more blossomed.
– Does the government support this kind of cinema? And is that possible that the government has any share in independent films production?
During the golden age of 50s in Philippine, cinema industry was controlled by the film studios. There were two or three major film studios. Same story was in Hollywood, they had MGN and Universal. The major studios were the ones who were funding most of the films. During those years the government wasn’t so much involved but as I said in the 70s even though the government was under martial law, our cultural institutions did devote some of their activities to film making because as I said it was one of the popular mediums of expressions. The early years in 70s we had Cultural Center of Philippines which dealt with cinema and then later on in the 80s we had National Commission for Culture and the Arts which also had one section which dealt with cinema and we also had one agency that we called Mowelfund which was created by the artists which helped the actors and directors with funding. We also had the Film Academy of Philippines which eventually became FDCP, Film Development Council of the Philippines and is actively supportive of independent films.
-In Iran independent films production are without the government’s support.
I am interested in Iran’s independent cinema and like what I always say, Iranian directors face very limitations and special conditions so the films you produce are very unique because you are able to tell a story even with special limitations. Months ago I watched Fish and Cat in Art and Experience cinema hall and I said: You are able to tell the story of a crime without showing the crime itself and this is very creative.
I am interested in Iran’s independent cinema and like what I always say, Iranian directors face very limitations and special conditions
-Philippine Cinema Academy has been established 36 years ago, how does it work?
It is a separate agency which focuses primarily on films and if I’m not mistaken, they also sponsor one of the major film awards of the year. They have programs where they support filmmakers, training, they invite foreign films directors and they have these annual awards for best Pilipino films but aside from the Film Academy of Philippines which I believe is now FDCP, There are other institutions which promote film and as I said they started to teach in universities and some universities have their special course and their own cinema for students and the public. One of the state universities of Philippine has a film institute and this was set up while I was still in college in the 80s. This university is similar to university of Tehran and is one of the biggest famous universities and this is where future directors were studied and watched and learned about craft of film making.
-Does the government or the ministry of guidance of Philippine intended to establish the national cinema school?
The government is not involved in teaching. Each university has their own program and aside from the Film Academy, Cultural Center, The National Commission for Culture and the Arts which all promote film and have short workshops or for example they invite a German director to have a lecture and those who are interested will attend but Universities are the only one who teach it as a course, they are the ones who teach filmmaking.
-In your opinion how much the agencies and institutions you mentioned will effect on independent cinema?
All of these agencies and institutions will help. In my opinion the only differences between independent cinema and commercial cinema are that the subject of the film, usually the independent films be tackled issues which are not commercially popular. Usually the independent cinema directors are young director and they start of an independent director but many independent directors in Philippine become commercial directors. Once they become famous, the big studios will get these independent directors and they produce commercial films. So sometimes depending on the director because as I said when you are an independent director you are in charge and you can control the creative accepts of the film, you can choose the subject, you can choose the actors but then you become the commercial director, it’s the studio who choose. They will tell we will give you a story and you just direct. Many of the institutions start with young directors of independent cinema and some of them become commercial directors but some of them don’t like the control and stay as an independent director.
– What are the rules of movie production?
During the golden age of 50s it was the studios that were producing the films; they had their own actors and their own directors and provided stories. So the studios had the money to make films as the popular entertainment. Even up to now the film studios are still the ones who have the money to make big films with famous actors so they are an important part of cinema industry in Philippines. We have MTRCB, The Movie and Television Review and Classification Board and this is the body that reviews films which are publicly released, also on television and they give a rating similar in united stated and will tell of they are suitable for the family or restricted for under sixteen or eighteen or its for adults. I think in terms of control that is the only government body that exercise censorship and the other government agencies that I mentioned like the Film Academy of the Philippine, Cultural Center and The National Commission for Culture and the Arts, they support the film industry by providing some funding but they do not censor. They may suggest. For example they say we would like to focus on animation this year and they provide budgets for it and then awards in festivals for animation and etc. So maybe they try to influence where our industry is going.
– What’s your yearly statistics of your independent cinema production?
The popularity of independent films has gone up and down. In the 70s experimental films were a small group and the audience was also a small group, mostly the Art House students, university students, intellectuals because the subject matter was sometimes very strange and not popular. In the 80s we had also some experimental films and these were adult themes so they become popular for a while but still not every popular but this latest filmmaking because of digital medium is now very popular. I mean we did not have awards for independent films and now we do and every year, starting maybe five or seven years ago, award film festivals for independent films and many directors and many more people watching independent films and even big actors with big salary they volunteer for independent films because they are considered as more serious films and like in Hollywood that many of big actors, they like to go perform on stage live in Broadway because its more serious. So your reputation as a good actor sometimes improves if you work for an independent film. We have many famous actors but they are not considered as serious actors. They are very popular and they play in light films but when a famous actor works in an independent film with serious theme, subject matter, then he is more respected and known as a good actor.
When a famous actor works in an independent film with serious theme, subject matter, then he is more respected and known as a good actor
In your opinion, what’s the relation between independent cinema of Philippine and the main stream cinema? Do you think it will help the growth of the main stream cinema?
Independent cinema was equivalent to experimental Art House cinema and audience was not very wide but nowadays independent cinema is made more easily because of digital format and it is more popular and as I said some of the independent filmmakers become commercial filmmakers. So in that sense we can say that nowadays independent cinema is a training ground for future commercial directors.
-How is the situation of cinema halls, theaters, movie screenings according to welcoming filmgoers and audiences facing native films? We want to know if the native films are well-received by people considering the power of Hollywood?
There is a funny saying in the Philippines, they say “Three hundred years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood” because we were the colony of United States for fifty years and we were the colony of Spain for over 3000 years and that’s why Spain give us the religion and United States give us Hollywood meaning the English language and education and even the concept of popular entertainment. Hollywood has always been popular in Philippines but despite the popularity of Hollywood films and actors, the Philippine film industry developed separately and became popular such as during 80s we had 200 films producing every year. We speak English, we teach and learn in English in universities and even most of the television programs are Hollywood films and also very popular. We still were able to develop the Pilipino film in Pilipino language. Although we also have many dialects like in Iran, you also have many dialects like in Tabriz, the Pilipino films are in Pilipino language which is the official language of Philippine. Because it’s very expensive to have films in dialects and there would be a very few audience. Even though they are not as popular as the past and every year it’s less than one hundred or seventy or fifty films made in Pilipino language a year, they have still been able to survive in spite of the influence of Hollywood.
–In the recent years commercial films productions are gaining success once again and audiences are interested in happy endings or novels and it has made the government to show some help to the cinema people, how do you see the government’s actions in this period?
The rule of government in promoting and supporting the film industry in Philippines has also gone through different stages. During the early years, the 50s and 60s maybe not so much involvement. Film at the time seen as a form of entertainment. And then during the 70s and 80s and specially in 70s in particular even though there were popular films, Pilipino people were able to use film as means of expression for the political and the social issues at the time and even though the government was under martial law and may have not wanted these ideas to be promoted in public, they still been able to make serious films and some of them made the people think about these serious issues but then finally enough when the martial law was removed in 80s and 90s, the film industry became more popular as entertainment and they didn’t want serious themes and more so they go back to entertainment, comedy and drama to take their minds off the problems. Maybe again now because the independent cinema has become more popular, again the themes being discussed and portrayed in movies is becoming broader again. Not just to entertain, but also to think. With social issues and politics once in a while and social realism has always been more subject matter of serious independent experimental filmmakers.
-2013 and 2014 were the best years of Philippine cinema according to sales, what was the reason behind it?
Very popular films had been very light films. Metro Manila Film Festival which happens every December, it shows only Philippine films in all of the Philippine’s cinemas and we have many hundreds of cinemas in Philippine and there might be only eight films for screening. So for two week eight films will be on screen and then there will be awards. Usually the bestseller wins the awards and they are mostly fantasy, light and comedy films but not necessarily the best films. If you combine how much Philippine cinema industry earns, including both Hollywood and local films, it’s over one hundred fifty or sixty million dollars a year.
Combination of Philippine cinema industry earning is over one hundred fifty or sixty million dollars a year
–With the background of 119 years of Philippine Cinema, It has been one of the last countries that their national cinema archive has been established in 2012, which means 4 years ago, what’s the reason behind this delay?
Even though the Philippines have been producing films for many years, one aspect of cinema industry that has not strongly promoted is precisely that, the preservation. Maybe for number of reasons. Number one maybe is technology. We never had strong background in film preservation. I understand that it is difficult to preserve the films because after a while the chemical process destroys the films. The Philippines is a tropical country and the weather condition does not support the film preservation easily. Number two, as I said in the beginning the government was not so much involved so it was only the big studios that were actively making the films but because it was a business they were only interested in making films and making money and they never thought that this would be important to keep the films safe for future and number three is maybe the cost. The cultural institutions didn’t have enough money set aside for film; they were more interested in music, dance and performing arts. In fact most of early efforts to preserve old Philippine films were done by the help of other countries, French government or German government of Japan government, they were the ones who advised the Pilipino cultural agencies and said cinema is part of the history and culture of a country so you should preserve these expressions of Pilipino artists. Of course nowadays it’s easier to preserve because of the digital format but the old mediums of nine millimeter and six millimeter thirty six millimeters were hard to preserve because no one paid attention. Some of the old Pilipino films were only kept in forging archives, that’s the way our films saved.
-In recent years the movies like Butchered by Brillante Mendoza or From What Is Before, A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery directed by Lav Diaz has shown somehow the ability of Philippine cinema in the world but what’s your opinion about the place of your country’s cinema in international level?
Our films have been recognized in the early years mostly in Asia which our films got some awards but it is only more recently that some of our directors had been able to get noticed in Canne, in Germany and in Italy. As you mentioned Brillante Mendoza was one filmmaker whose films had been screened in France and Lav Diaz who got critical acclaimed for A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery in Germany. Both of these directors start as an independent director. For example one of the latest Lav Diaz films lasted ten hours. I remember when I was in Singapore I watched one of his films and it was nine hours long and you really have to love film if you want to sit all those hours. Some of these images are for twenty minutes for example a river and it’s either very boring for you or very interesting. I think those who are really interested in film know that it makes you think, why? Why this long scene? Because the cinema nowadays is also more international that countries like Iran and Philippines and other smaller countries are able to have their films shown in international film festivals. Maybe before that was not so much the case because the big film festivals like Canne and Oscars were mostly focused on their own. Hollywood had Oscars, Bollywood had their own festival and even Iran had Fajr festival, but nowadays all of these international and national film festivals has foreign film awards so that’s why A Seperation of Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar. More international films are being shown in the film festivals and more people are now interested in foreign film directors and how they are telling their stories. I think Iran has very good directors, Japan, South Korea, and India and Philippine has some success too.
–How do you see the future of Philippine’s independent cinema?
I think that because it is so accessible now to make a film and tell a story with a digital camera or even a cellphone, future of independent films not only in Philippines but in all over the world will continue to grow and the quality of the stories and production values will continue to improve. It’s so easy to access the visual stories that are presented because of the technology, you have the digital media and then you have the platforms like youtube and the internet where you can watch the films so someone in Iran or someone in Philippines can go online and watch the films in other countries. So the future is limitless.