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Route Sharing II: One Long River

By Jason Tan Liwag


When I enter the home of Filipino screenwriting legend Ricky Lee, I am greeted by piles of boxes. Some form a small hill on his pool table, while others nestle around odd corners of his house. They contain floppy disks from the 80s and 90s, hard copies of screenplays, stills from films and television work, memorabilia, and notes and letters from the people involved in the hundreds of films he has written across his half-century career. Lee’s household doubles as a space where the past and present congregate; his archives bear the seeds that will grow into his memoir and a series of books on Filipino cinema.


Lee is no stranger to publishing books on Filipino cinema, having self-published a manual for Filipino screenwriters (“Trip to Quiapo”) and several of his film scripts (“Salome,” “Brutal,” “Moral,” “Bukas…May Pangarap,” “Si Tatang at mga Himala ng Ating Panahon,” and “Jose Rizal”) in the early 1980s and 1990s—at a time when such a practice was not yet popular locally. “I came from literature, so I look at scripts as literary texts,” Lee said. “It’s the text that can exist apart from the film. Maybe it validated me to see the works published because then people could read [what I wrote].


“I used to borrow money and ask for help left and right. During book launches, pages would tear apart because we had them printed cheaply. They teased me a lot back then. But I continued doing it.”


Now, Lee’s book projects assume a significant scale. Since 2021, he has been backed by the UST Publishing House, Asia’s oldest existing university press. His collaborations with director Marilou Diaz-Abaya on Brutal, Moral, and Karnal were compiled and are the first of a series of film books released last year that honored both filmmakers’ legacies shortly after they were granted into the Order of National Artists of the Philippines for their contributions to Film and Broadcast Arts.


Returning context to the work


Lee’s books on Filipino cinema also serve as both a proxy for film archiving and a way to recontextualize the films. “Releasing a book like Ang Puso ng Himala (2012) provides the audience with information about the work that may not have been accessible when it was released.” The 218-page book seeks to inform the audiences about not only the substance of the film but the material and sociopolitical conditions that shaped it—from its real life inspiration Belinda Villas, of Occidental Mindoro, the 11 year old who reported visions of Marian apparitions, to its tethers to the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP) initiative. “The content will always be text, context, and history,” says Lee. “In publishing these film books, we’re hoping to encourage people to exercise their collective imagination and to seek out the in-betweens, the subtext, the hidden meanings. The goal is to help the audience make those connections.”


One thing that separates Lee’s work from other film books published in the country is his community-based research and production process. Lee, along with a team of thirty to forty volunteers, many of whom are former participants of his free screenwriting workshops, sift through hundreds of physical materials from the early 1970s to early 2020s, manually digitizing or transcribing the work. Volunteers interview not only the artists and artistic team but also the extras from film locations, and this process reflects how Lee sees himself as merely a “conduit” of stories drawn from the communities he was immersed in. So, in a way, this is also an act of returning the narratives to their cultural roots.


“The problem is that we used floppy disks and manual typewriters, so we can’t find some of the scripts,” said Lee. “For example, for [Lino Brocka’s] Cain at Abel, I had to ask [for] the help of some friends. We had to transcribe some of the films and from random notes we’d put together drafts. So they’re transcribed scripts that are unlike others. Right now, we’re transcribing some of the older films like [Chito S. Roño’s] Private Show because even the directors and actors don’t have copies [of the scripts].” The creation of Ang Puso ng Himala and Cain at Abel formed the backbone of Lee’s current publishing process.



Restoring lost films through literature

Lee is aware that Himala is an exception to the rule. Many iconic Filipino films, especially those created prior to the 1960s, even ones by important National Artists like Gerardo de Leon and Lamberto V. Avellana, have been erased due to insufficient local investment in film archiving and preservation. Despite the dedicated work of people from the Society of Filipino Film Archivists (SOFIA), Sagip Pelikula Foundation, and others from the private sector, the volume of work that is misplaced or lost yearly to vinegar syndrome seems to outnumber those saved.


To create cinema in the Philippines is to surrender it to oblivion.


It wasn’t always this way. Quiapo, the titular destination of Lee’s screenwriting manual, “Trip to Quiapo,” formerly functioned as the country’s informal film school—not only because it was the setting and source of many iconic Filipino films and characters but because it also contained the largest hub for pirated movies in the country. Bootleg copies of local masters like Joey Gosiengfiao and international auteurs like Ingmar Bergman could be purchased for a few pesos on betamax or disc from stalls like Ligaya Master. The space became, for many curious and budding filmmakers and enthusiasts, a small window into cinema’s past and present.


But the proliferation of film torrent sites paired with the crackdown in Metro Manila against physical forms of film piracy have erased the landscape and thousands of films with it. The death of Quiapo’s bootleg movie hub, through the witchhunt led by the Philippines’ Optical Media Board (OMB) and the US-based International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA), exposed the country’s dependence on piracy for mass distribution and the lack of local investment in physical media. Many Filipino films, even ones released in recent years, are no longer accessible to the public. Some are already lost forever to time.


Don Jaucian’s 2017 article, “Rescuing the lost heritage of Filipino cinema,” details battles over rights and the prohibitive costs of film restoration and preservation. It also points out how there are few well-equipped archives in the country and a dwindling number of people specializing in these fields. Jaucian writes that, prior to the 2010s, restoration and preservation work was mostly funded from outside the country: as was the case with Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan (1952), which was restored by L'Immagine Ritrovata in Italy, and Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1973) and Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag (1973), which were restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. With the shutdown of ABS-CBN and its film restoration project Sagip Pelikula in 2020, whatever bottleneck has been stifling the process of remembering only tightened.


Literature resists this collective amnesia. Lee is not alone in this mission, and several other Filipino filmmakers, writers, and scholars have begun to actively commit cinematic legacies to longer lasting literature. Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s 2022 book Ang Daigdig ng mga Api: Remembering a Lost Film attempts to reconstruct Gerardo de Leon’s titular lost masterpiece. Mike de Leon’s Last Look Back, edited by film scholar Patrick F. Campos, is the eponymous auteur’s memoir, which doubles as a chronicle of the rise and fall of LVN Pictures Inc. Nick Deocampo’s Keeping Memories: Cinema and Archiving in the Asia-Pacific reports on the poor conditions of film archiving, preservation, and restoration shared by other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.



Chronicling Unproduced Films


Lee also hopes to someday release drafts of films that were never produced to better chronicle directors’ trajectories and the social circumstances that dictated what of their works remained on the shelf. “I had a biopic of Ishmael Bernal that centered on his last days,” says Lee. The surreal and expressionistic screenplay had the director encountering characters from his own films, like Manila by Night and Pahiram ng Isang Umaga. But the studio prevented it from proceeding beyond the paper. “I wrote a draft around ten years ago. But they said it was too difficult to do.”


Prior to his untimely death at age 52, director Lino Brocka collaborated on a number of screenplays with Lee—most notably Guardia de Honor, a feature adaptation of a short story by the poet Charles Bukowski, which was greenlit by Columbia Pictures producer David Putnam. Because Hollywood owns the rights and the film will likely remain unproduced, Lee simply hopes to share these surviving drafts with the rest of the world, in part to show how Brocka could’ve crossed over to Hollywood and gained even wider international recognition.


While the process of publishing books is cheaper and requires fewer specialized skill sets than film restoration, it is still mired in labor issues. More funding is being poured into these efforts by the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), but few publishers outside of university presses are inclined to take the risk on film heritage. Lee explains the harsh truth: “There are no publishers willing to publish books that they think won’t make money.”


Still, these efforts by Del Mundo, Deocampo, De Leon, and Lee keep the spirit of cinema alive, even if just in fragments. They hope to make the process of connecting to collective and national histories easier. “Filmmaking is one long river and whether we are conscious [of it] or not—whether we like it or not—we all draw from that river,” says Lee. “Coming up with these books shows how films respond to the times.”


Before I leave, I take one last look at the boxes splayed out all over Lee’s home. What at first seemed like excess clutter now seems more like an archipelago of stories waiting to be unpacked and shared with the world. It’s comforting to know that someone holds onto these histories that otherwise slip through our fingers and that, despite the conditions that encourage us to forget, there will always be ways to remember.


***

Note: The interview was translated from Filipino into English by the writer.




Jason Tan Liwag is a scientist, actor, writer, and film programmer from the Philippines. He is an alumnus of film criticism workshops in Manila, Rotterdam, Udine, and Yamagata, and has served on the selection committee and jury of several local and international festivals. He is the country's first and only member of FIPRESCI and is a two-time international voter for the Golden Globe Awards. In 2020, he was featured as one of Attitude Magazine's 101 LGBTQ+ Trailblazers Changing Today.


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