Seen in Scenes: How Women Change Philippine Cinema

Women have never been absent in the country’s film scene, but their success and evolving roles are still being challenged.

In the Philippines, no film succeeds without women. From mainstream box office successes and independent filmmaking’s international recognition to regional initiatives to support aspiring filmmakers, women have always been part of the country’s cinema landscape.

But while roles may earn women on screen the status and appeal of a celebrity, large strides are oftentimes hampered by the barriers behind the scenes. Today, a hundred years after the industry started in the Philippines, women still face these challenges.

Reel Influence in the Past and Present

In 1919, the first feature-length Filipino film, Dalagang Bukid (dir. J. Nepomuceno), premiered. It was a silent film considered by many film historians to have paved the way for Philippine cinema. It was the first film to have been made by a Filipino-born director and a Philippine-based production company.

Today, only a few stills of Dalagang Bukid survive after its production company, Malaya Movies, suffered two burning incidents in 1921 and 1923. Dalagang Bukid, however, introduced a lasting contribution to Philippine Cinema in the personhood of Atang de la Rama, the first female actress for film in the country. In the movie, de la Rama played the lead role of a young sampaguita vendor forced to marry an old patron despite being in love with an intelligent man her age. Dela Rama would later go on to become a National Artist for Theater and Music, a recognition that cements her place in the country’s cinema landscape.

And then there were others who followed in her footsteps.

With the arrival of the talkies (films that started to integrate audible dialogue), the country saw the talent of Marlene Dauden, the first actress to have won five acting awards from the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences Awards (FAMAS). Amalia Fuentes, often likened to Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor for her fierce gaze, made her breakthrough in the 1950s and eventually founded her own production company, AM Productions, in the 1970s. Then there were the ageless talents of Susan Roces, who starred in box office successes during the 1960s, and the Nora Aunor, whose performance in Ishmael Bernal’s 1982 classic Himala miraculously set the Philippines on a pedestal of award-winning features.

“At the start of Philippine cinema, women were already very prominent,” Film Development Council of the Philippines Chairperson Liza Diño stated in Cinebayi: A Forum on Women in Cinema. Many iconic lines and roles were brought to life by women, a good number transcending trite roles like passive love interests awaiting their knights in shining armor. There were empowered figures of heroines, faith healers, heiresses, and rags-to-riches icons on film.

But while they were visible on-screen, a woman calling the shots was rare in this era — perhaps echoing the similarly grave lack of opportunities presented to women in all industries at the time. Brigida Perez Villanueva and Carmen Concha, however, were an exception. Brigida Perez Villanueva was the only female in a list of all-male filmmakers in the silent era, but none of her films survived the times. Succeeding her was Carmen Concha who released three films in 1940. In the same decade, another director by the name of Susana C. de Guzman earned her success through the 40 films and the 54 screenplays and stories she created.

Today, the top ten highest grossing films in the country include five films directed by women — a clear indication of women’s successes in the industry.

Cathy Garcia Molina’s Hello, Love, Goodbye (2019) and The Hows of Us (2018) nearly reached the billion-peso mark. Her 2015 romantic drama A Second Chance (2015), a blockbuster follow-up to 2007’s One More Chance, is by far the highest-grossing sequel to a film in the country. Joyce Bernal’s comedy flicks, The Super Parental Guidance (2016) and Gandarrapiddo: The Revenger Squad (2017), both starred by comedienne Vice Ganda, complete the list.

Aside from directorial careers and box office successes, women have also made their names abroad. In December last year, the 7th Asian Film Festival concluded with the Best Screenplay Award given to Mary Rose Colindress for her work on Iska, a Filipino independent film that centers on the story of an elderly woman who struggles to take care of her differently abled grandchild in a society that lacks the facilities to cater toward children with mental disabilities. Ruby Ruiz, who played the titular role, also bagged the Best Actress Award at the Harlem International Film Festival.

The 21st century has also seen an emergence of talented female filmmakers whose works have been recognized both in the country and abroad. The industry commended Michiko Yamamoto for her screenplays that focus on compelling narratives, such as the innocence and wonders of a child in Magnifico (2003), the coming-of-age circumstances of a gay teen in Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Olivero (2006), and the skirmishes in the drug world in On the Job (2013), which she cowrote with director Erik Matti.

Storytelling will not be complete without its complementing visuals and artistic designs that are consistent with the film’s treatment and themes. Tey Clamor and Shayne Sarte are among the most sought-after cinematographers in multiple genres. The same can be said of Adelina Leung, an industry favorite in commercial and film production design.

Regional Filmmaking

Many more stories exist beyond the bounds of Imperial Manila. And filmmakers, especially women, in other regions need opportunities to pursue and refine their craft.

The Inday Film Workshop, a program launched by Cagayan de Oro Film Festival (CDOFF) with the support from FDCP, is one of the rare avenues that provide such opportunities. In line with their advocacy, IFW includes lectures delivered by prominent female filmmakers in the Philippines who also mentor the participants through their process in creating digital short films in Binisaya, Hiligaynon, Maranao, Maguindanaon, and Tausug, among others. It also aims to empower these women to tell their stories, based on the realities they have faced in Mindanao.

“I have long since wanted to unite women filmmakers from Mindanao to create a community that will support their needs not only as women but as filmmakers,CDOFF director July Ilagan stated in an email to COMMONER. As an experienced filmmaker, Ilagan has directed two short films and a feature-length film which premiered in 2018. All of them were based on Mindanaoan realities that ranged from the issues of drug abuse to the tragic circumstances of typhoon survivors and the plight of indigenous communities. We all have great stories to tell. And I believe that there are many stories about women that should be told by women themselves,” she added.

Although filmmaking remains vibrant in Mindanao, Ilagan opines that there has been a scarcity of female filmmakers in the regions, as some cut their careers short due to the lack of opportunities to hone their craft — a problem that can be addressed by the decentralization of filmmaking grants and support to keep women engaged and active in their careers. And when opportunities are present, it’s also important that these take place in safe environments that allow them to thrive without fear of harassment and misogyny.

Sins behind the Scenes

In October 2017, the New Yorker revealed in an investigative story the harassment cases that have plagued Hollywood over the years, the most infamous of which involve former film producer Harvey Weinstein. But as it turns out, he was not the only perpetrator in the scene. In the months that followed, sexual assault survivors in Hollywood would speak against the abuse that they had received from executive producers and film moguls like Weinstein, celebrity-turned-politicians like Donald Trump, or actors like Kevin Spacey.

The movement to expose and investigate sexual allegations was echoed in the Philippines. In 2011, veteran actress Cherry Pie Picache held nothing back to defend herself after actor Baron Geisler touched her breast during a taping. Filing a sexual harassment case against him was one of the ways she addressed the issue. Geisler was also under fire when a number of women spoke out against him for violating their privacy and for committing other similarly inappropriate actions. Among them are GMA-7 talent Yasmien Kurdi and Patricia Martinez, the eldest daughter of actress Yayo Aguila and actor William Martinez. Likewise, actress Mauren Mauricio opened up about her traumatic experience as a child star. In the beginning of her showbiz career in 1980, the then underage Mauricio was asked by a director to expose parts of her body during an audition for a talent search.

The issue also deeply affects women behind the scenes who arguably have less support and platforms to speak up. In turn, some female filmmakers choose to walk out of the industry or swallow their pride in order to evade repercussions from powerful individuals.

“The victims are afraid to speak up,” says multiawarded independent filmmaker Sari Raissa Lluch Dalena. “Baka kasi raw ma-blacklist sila. (Because they’re scared of getting blacklisted.) The alleged harassers are often award-winning filmmakers who are very active in the industry.”

She also explained how sexual harassment and forced exposure of certain body parts have been normalized in the industry. She talked about how a senior filmmaker would bring a woman to a “dark place” where they can spend time “in private” even without the latter’s consent. Such instances are in the underbelly of the film industry, and cause discomfort, trauma, and discouragement among women who wish to pursue careers in film.

With these cases, Dalena suggests for filmmakers to strengthen their network and help defend aspiring filmmakers, especially women, from harassment and encourage survivors and victims to speak out.

Maganda talaga na mag-create ng grievance committees and they must also find ways to elevate them” (It’s best to create grievance committees and elevate them), Dalena said.

Today, the prominence of women’s involvement in present-day social, political, and artistic affairs underscores the power and fierceness they possess, with visibly active roles in various industries from lawmaking, to entrepreneurship, all the way to the world of filmmaking. But across these fields, there is a need to reexamine not just their contributions but also the ways to protect and empower them.

This article was written by our contributor, Angelo Lorenzo.