How films and television shape historical memory in the Philippines

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With increasing access to historical fiction and documentary films, how does film and television affect the country’s collective memory, especially around historical atrocities? Screencap from JERROLD TAROG/YOUTUBE

We underestimate how much cinema and television mold our country and its history.

Outside of the classroom, we encounter the history of the Philippines through our interactions with cinema and television. Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s “Jose Rizal” (1998) and Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” (2015) became tools to renew interest in historical figures; Zig Dulay’s “Maria Clara at Ibarra,” (2022) a recent televisual reimagining of Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tángere” and “El Filibusterismo,” blends science fiction and period drama to connect the fictional past with the current state of distress; re-released classics on Netflix such as Peque Gallaga’s “Oro, Plata, Mata” (1982) and Clodualdo del Mundo’s “Markova: Comfort Gay” (2000) become time capsules of a way of life disrupted by World War II.

Cinema may act as a witness to atrocities often confined to the peripheries of national memory — from the bombing of Lumad schools in Kristoffer Brugada and Cha Escala’s docushort “Bullet Laced Dreams” (2020) to the fiction that wrestles with the Maguindanao massacre like Mikhail Red’s “Birdshot” (2016) and Erik Matti’s “On the Job 2: The Missing 8” (2021) to the lives lost during the martial law era that struggle to seek reparations in “11,103” (2022).

But cinema and television may also be used to uphold the status quo, capitalize on the communities from which they draw stories from, or actively harm these communities by failing to humanize their plights or by peddling propaganda.

Kristoffer Brugada and Cha Escala’s docushort “Bullet Laced Dreams.” Photo from DAANG DOKYU

Our increasing reliance on film as a medium for self-education and of instruction is, as Bryan Le Beau has articulated in “Historiography Meets Historiophoty: The Perils and Promise of Rendering the Past on Film,” a “disturbing symbol of an increasingly post literate world.” Most dangerously, national politics have been stuffed with celebrities who have accrued enough social capital to eventually enter the political arena — enabling the likes of Isko Moreno, Vilma Santos-Recto, and Joseph Estrada to affect not only public imagination and memory, but also public policy.

“The challenge for historians and for filmmakers is the same: You have a duty to bridge knowledge and history to your audience,” says Kristoffer Pasion, Senior History Researcher at the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. “The director of the Martial Law Museum in Ateneo [​​Miguel Paolo Rivera] said something important: Fact-checking [alone] no longer works. The battleground is [now] affect. How much does the story resonate with the audience?”

Efforts have been made so that history itself will not be distorted by these fictional narratives or by poor dramaturgical practices. Most recently, the University of the Philippines Film Institute began offering courses on martial law and cinema, one of them taught by multi-awarded filmmaker and associate professor Sari Dalena. But with a bevy of historical narratives available to us through film and television, and the increasingly complex sociopolitical realm, how do we go about sifting through the muck?

In hopes of arriving at answers or maybe better questions, I spoke to Pasion and Dalena in late July about how cinema and television shape historical memory, the role of critics in the cultural conversation, and the value of holding artists accountable for their art. These two separate interviews, conducted via email, have been combined to read as a roundtable discussion, and have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Documentarian and professor Christine Choy said in the documentary “The Exiles” released earlier this year that film, unlike other art forms, is able to reach a wider audience because it doesn’t require literacy. Do you think film shapes history and what people value in the Philippines?

Kristoffer Pasion: I think film is a huge factor [that shapes] people's perception of the past. Much of the general public’s historical awareness comes from what could be gleaned from the very linear and presidential-term-oriented periodization of history in our schools. Many experts have commented on how our historical education in schools is oriented towards the questions of what, when, and where, but almost never the whys. As such, students are urged to memorize dates and names. Never mind if they aren’t relevant to the realities of the day. This renders history, to the vast population, as boring and irrelevant. And hence the huge vacuum of the past in people’s perception.

Films help fill up this vacuum. We are a very visual people, [as] evident in our indigenous material culture and oral traditions reflected in textile and design. We retain information not just via print, but most especially via visual mediums. The impact of the film “Heneral Luna” (2015) shows how the public [is hungry] for history because of the narratives that resonate with them, disproving the notion that history is dismissed by the wider population. Many other classic films set in historical periods also give the public an interpretation of the past that is immersive, even when much of the main characters or the historical setting are laid out with creative license by the filmmaker.

Sari Dalena: I remember having this conversation with Lav Diaz from many years ago about how Philippine cinema helped shape our historical and political landscape — starting with the former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s biopic and propaganda film, “Iginuhit ng Tadhana” (1965), which received tremendous popular support.

Then the Estradas, Revillas, [and] Ejercitos built their mass following through komiks and fantasy movies — [with] “Ang Panday,” (2009) “Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo,” (1964) and “Asiong Salonga” (1961) [showing] how cinema solidified their populist appeal, shaping people’s core values and tastes.

So here we are, 57 years after “Iginuhit ng Tadhana” — we witness the return of the Marcos family to power and how they’ve weaponized cinema, social media, and other platforms, targeting schools and universities with blatant historical distortions.

Given the increasing instability of our current sociopolitical landscape, do you think filmmakers have an added responsibility for their creations?

Sari Dalena: Yes, more than ever. There’s an urgent need for filmmakers to take the difficult path of becoming “memory keepers,” that’s why documentary and historical films should be made more accessible to the general public.

Kristoffer Pasion: Even when they make their art “for art’s sake,” filmmakers cannot dismiss the public’s interpretation of their art, nor can the film be separated from the cultural and political context of its audience. The filmmaker’s duty is to disturb the complacent, challenge preconceived notions, and promote empathy and values of freedom that make their very art possible.

Sari Dalena: Regardless of who is sitting in the current administration, filmmakers, historians, and artists shouldn’t be afraid to probe for the truth and in turn, the general public and public servants shouldn’t be afraid of the truth. History is alive and filmmakers should respond to the call of the times.

What is the role of criticism in this process? Should critics engage with inaccuracies within films and with political propaganda? Or does this engagement just legitimize films and filmmakers with “problematic” politics?

Kristoffer Pasion: We understand that given the time limits of full-length or short films, there are things that the filmmaker has to choose to include or exclude. His added creative license on the material may, even when historically unfounded, be good for the overall narrative of the film that will most definitely hook their audience.

However, given that the filmmaker creates and refashions worlds on the silver screen, the duty of the critic, or even a historically-inclined viewer, is to engage the material, inviting the public to do so with them, to sift through the inaccuracies and zoom in on the soft propaganda messaging that the material may have, so as to foster critical thinking and independent thought. Omissions and additions in a purported “historical film” may extremely tilt a certain angle that will make the overall film historically inaccurate, contributing further to historical distortion.

For outright propaganda films, whether we like it or not, we cannot dismiss these films and wait for the fad around them to die down. We need to constantly engage the material so that the wider public is, at the very least, aware that there are other contrary alternatives and more factually-grounded views on history. It doesn’t matter if the critics are dismissed. What matters is that the critics have provided ample alternatives to the film’s message that the audience can turn to.

Sari Dalena: This is where the academe comes in — film education and media literacy can be an antidote to constant disinformation. Film scholars and critics in alliance with historians, cultural activists, and workers should generate discourse and engage in social media beyond the academic setting. In other words, we have to get out of our echo chambers.

"Even when they make their art “for art’s sake,” filmmakers cannot dismiss the public’s interpretation of their art, nor can the film be separated from the cultural and political context of its audience. The filmmaker’s duty is to disturb the complacent, challenge preconceived notions, and promote empathy and values of freedom that make their very art possible."

What are the limits of film as a means of teaching people, specifically the youth, about history?

Kristoffer Pasion: Well, the film is boxed to its time limit, the vision of its filmmaker, and what we could see in the film. It also doesn’t have space for nuance, unlike in class settings or in historical research where the historian gets to weigh varying primary sources in order to come up with a factual historical narrative. While some historical films attempt to capture the nuances of the past they’re trying to portray, given the medium’s limitations, they often fall short, because the past is always complex, the [traditional, mainstream] film medium too simple and linear.

The young audiences’ attention span must also be taken into account. While good films do capture the young audience through their narratives, prolonged discussion in the classroom, while having room for nuance, may disengage the youth from the topic. Films, at best, are best jumping points towards a discussion, whether be it among friends or in class. That’s why I encourage audiences not to completely rely on the film as the sole authority on the past, but that they should be the ones to really get on with historical research, and consult credible historians who’ve spent years studying the period, to get more insights and understanding.

Sari Dalena: If you look at universities in the US, Germany, and Israel, they offer Holocaust and Genocide Studies of the 20th and 21st centuries as part of their general education and master programs. Institutions and memorial museums have permanent collections of historical records and artifacts on this horrific chapter in human history.

I remember showing Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog” (1955) to my documentary class, where Holocaust survivors took part in the production of the documentary. At the film’s ending, the narrator declared [that] 11 million were killed. Then in 2013, new evidence showed the Nazi Holocaust may have killed at least 20 million. This means information changes with new, verifiable findings. We must understand that this is an ongoing process of unearthing the truth, so new data should be welcomed since additional evidence has been gathered by Holocaust scholars.

According to [writer and documentary filmmaker] Michael Rabiger, “'Night and Fog' is possibly the single most powerful documentary ever made about the human capacity for destroying our own kin. Ironically, it was the Nazi’s own recording that contributed to the damning evidence of this powerful documentary.”

In the case of UP Film Institute highlighting the intersections between Philippine cinema and martial law, in the context of the 50th year of the declaration of martial law, it is just apt to offer special courses that are a well-balanced, multifocal approach to broaden the student's perspective on this specific period in history and its continuing consequences to the present day, regardless of the political stance of the sitting administration. This course was already planned as part of the Day of Remembrance because of the 50th year of the declaration. It's ironic our nation finds itself in this situation again just 50 years on.

How can institutions and communities address these gaps that film cannot?

Sari Dalena: ​​Institutions and communities provide ways to explore the past, in a more immersive and experiential way. There are rich possibilities ranging from mounting special exhibitions and dynamic engagement with communities, building memorial areas, museums and public performances to digital museums. These various methods can fill the gaps.

Museums are crucial spaces for collected evidence to be studied and accessed by everyone. I mentioned the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where part of their program is to train thousands of educators from across the country, about how to effectively teach the Holocaust in their classrooms to help avert history repeating.

Sadly, the scenario faced by our institutions here is dismal due to poor funding support and the exorbitant cost of archival preservation and mounting permanent exhibitions. Spaces such as the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes) come to mind — this institution’s future feels shaky and uncertain under this new administration. Same with the fate of the Freedom Memorial Museum, which is expected to open this September! We must now resort to alternative ways to preserve historical memory and safeguard democracy.

Kristoffer Pasion: Communities of different kinds can be spaces of discussion in the film for insights and contrary views. While good history remains scientific in its method (historical method), and factual (relies on credible, corroborated primary sources), we cannot expect our audience to appreciate this, much less demand that historians be given the sole authority to interpret the past.

Imagine a space where the film’s messaging is dissected and debated upon, where historians get to be invited to share how they came up with the conclusion of their research aiding the viewers of the film, a space where it is realized that the past can have many interpretations but only evidence-based interpretations are the ones that matter.

These communities must foster inquisitive minds, and critical thinkers, who would be able to think for themselves, and who are impervious to propaganda and historical distortion. I’m thinking, perhaps, of film viewings with lectures, not to promote the film per se, but to make spaces where people of contrary views are invited upon and be persuaded of historical truth.