Some years back, during the First International Philippine Studies Conference, someone asked during the first day the question: Who has the right to imagine the Philippines?
The question came up because, for the first time, scholars – anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and other social scientists – were gathered under one roof. A significant number of these intellectuals were foreigners and they contributed to a vast body of knowledge that conjured the images about the Philippines, the country and its cultures.
I do not remember anymore what went on after that question was raised. What was amazing was that, on the second day, the visiting scholars from different universities and research institutes abroad, started talking in Tagalog/Pilipino. There were a few scholars who could not speak the language and thus became the quietest of them all.
For the first time, I heard my Japanese adviser, Prof. Hiromitsu Umehara, of Rikkyo University in Tokyo, speak conversational and colloquial Tagalog. Back in Tokyo, Prof. Umehara, true to being Japanese, never spoke to me in Tagalog.
The lesson for that day was that if you want to study a culture, you must know the language in that society. That, only those who had that skill to understand the language of his field of study have the right to write about that particular society and its culture.
I ask this question given the rise of Bikol cinema.
The advent of independent cinema or indies and the development of regional cinemas necessitate the asking of the same question: Who has the right to imagine Kabikolan in cinema?
You may perhaps think that anyone, anyone at all, can make a film about the region, its people and culture. This was the thinking back in the 50s and 60s and even up to the year 2000, that Manila-based artists, given the technology of cinema had all the rights to make a film about any place, and any culture in this nation,
For many years, therefore, the images of Bikolanos and Bikolanos and the place where they came from were captured by screenplays, which were then translated onto the silver screen. The results were mixed, uninformed, biased and reeked of stereotyping.
A 1946 film called “Sarung Banggi”could be one of the earliest films that caricatured the Bikolana. Starring Mila del Sol, the film became notorious because in one scene, the character of Mila del Sol, hoisted up her “patadyong” skirt up above her knees. The moral guardians went up in arms! Remember this was the mid-40s.
In the film, the song was presented as having been composed by this young man who decided to go out to Manila to present his composition. The actor whose character, Nanding, claimed authorship of the song was played by Rogelio de la Rosa. There was one reason why the filmmakers had the strength to play around the song, “Sarung Banggi.” For several years, it was thought to be a folk song. “Sarung Banggi” is not a folksong because Potenciano Gregorio of Sto. Domingo, Albay composed it.
Another filmmaker, Emmanuel de la Cruz, abused the same song, Sarung Banggi, in his film “Sarong Banggi.” Played in different versions, the Bikol song played counterpoint to the story of an aging prostitute and a young man undergoing the rites-of-passage to manhood. In the story, the prostitute supposedly used the song as a lullabye for her child.
The Bikolanas had always been described as “hot as sili.” Despite protestations or maybe because of lack of it, this depiction of Bikol womanhood persists. Bikolana maids are described as “makati” and Bikolanos are defined as “malibog.” Strangely, there is a sense that we encourage this kind of imaging.
This attitude is almost similar to the Japanese “Nihonjinron,” which refers to the theories and materials about Japan that singles out its uniqueness. Written mostly by outsiders or foreigners, the Nihonjinron documents are almost tacitly approved and encouraged, creating in the process this strand of description that runs as a theme across Japanese society: it is a unique society that is so different it cannot be compared to any society,
Which brings us to the current question: what is Bikol cinema? What makes Bikol cinema Bikol?
Even in our Executive Council of Cinema under the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), we are still grappling with definitions and demarcations. The beautiful thing is that we are conscious that we are struggling with how to define regional cinemas.
When a director is Bikolano, does it necessarily follow that the film being made is Bikol?
Can location be a defining element of regional cinema. In other words, if we are going to make a Bikol film, does it become necessary that we shoot right here in Bikol?
Artifice is a prevailing concept in cinema. This simply means that, generally, cinemas pretend that a film is being shot in some foreign countries even if things are happening merely in well-equipped studios.
The difficulty of shooting in actual places written in the screenplay is being reconsidered because of current safety concerns. Basilan therefore can be “made” on the hills and towns of Tanay in Rizal. A Badjao village can be constructed somewhere in Batangas.
Given this perspective, authenticity can be overrated. In the case of regional cinemas, the fact that places at the peripheries (which include Kabikolan) have been appropriated and misappropriated by Manila filmmakers, there is now this move to claim the land as is. This means that, if the shoot requires being in Naga City, then the filmmakers just have to be in our city.
The regional cinema, with its celebration of the native exegesis and the triumph of the real setting, assumes that the local is the expert. The notion of a Manila-based filmmaker coming over and promising to change the cinematic landscape or, at best, to teach the locals, is a crude and dumb model of a new kind of imperialism. The regional cinema is a feast of new and fresh content. This content is not found in the tired and synthetic putative Center but in the wild jungles of symbols and metaphors abundant in the margin.
The natives have the right to their filmic destinies. Listen to the locals, for the new lessons about cultures and identities will rightfully come from them. Regional cinema is going to be defined from the region and not from the center. Bikol shall be defined by the Bikolanos. This is the new politics of regional cinema; anything different from this is intrusion.