Rescuing the lost heritage of Philippine cinema

It’s hard to believe that classic Filipino films by national artists such as Lino Brocka and Manuel Conde have been left to deteriorate because of a lack of foresight and, for the most part, funding. Now, ABS-CBN and Central Digital Lab are working on restoring the lost heritage of Philippine cinema, one film at a time.

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Not too long ago, Quiapo stood as an unofficial film school. Pirated films — in generic DVD-Rs packaged in plastic with their respective movie posters in front — lined the stalls of these bustling commerce centers, sometimes windowless and boxy. In the absence of proper film archiving and restoration, this underground economy was where lovers of film — hardcore or casual — turned to satiate their fix for that elusive Lino Brocka gem, or Ishmael Bernal’s debut, or a movie marathon of Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s feminist classics, most of which didn’t exist in accessible legitimate format.

These copies were not the best quality: digital transfers from ancient Betamax tapes, letterboxed video recordings from television airings (complete with the channel logo on the upper right side of the screen), or copies of low resolution VCD releases. These DVDs were the embodiment of “Pwede na ‘yan” — a telling sign of the local movie industry’s sorry state of archiving. Apart from a few DVDs, such as Cinefilipino that had films such as Lino Brocka’s “Ina, Kapatid, Anak” and Ishmael Bernal’s “Manila by Night,” the unwatchable Sampaguita Pictures copies, and major studio releases, there is hardly any legitimate source for any of the considered classics of Philippine cinema. Then suddenly, some of them weren’t being produced anymore.

The dilemma of the Filipino film buff deepens even further. There were no cinematheques then. The artist-run Mogwai at Cubao X in Quezon City was at least a saving grace for the brief years it existed, from 2007-2011, doling out screenings of contemporary Filipino films, Hollywood classics, and even a few film festivals. The UP Film Institute’s Cinema Adarna was, and still is, a constant refuge for retrospectives of important Filipino films. The Cultural Center of the Philippines also has its own archives. But aside from these places mentioned, where else could you go if you want to watch Manuel Conde’s epic “Genghis Khan”? Or Danny Zialcita’s deliciously subversive “T-Bird at Ako”? Or Eddie Romero’s still relevant “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?”

One of the keys to preserving our film heritage is the magic of restoration — classic titles all restored to their groundbreaking glories, whether small scale or grandiose. When you think of American cinema, titles such as “Gone with the Wind” (1939) or “The Sound of Music” (1965) exist — and are appreciated — in the hearts and minds of many, precisely because they are still around, retrievable and accessible in many forms — and have been restored to their fullest versions several times. Moreover, these two aforementioned films have recently been restored yet again in BluRay and 4K in time for their respective anniversaries.

A scholar, or even an enthusiast, looking to rediscover American cinema’s gems can easily source copies of “Citizen Kane” (1940) or “Raging Bull” (1980) in watchable form whereas someone looking for copies of Gerry De Leon’s “Ang Daigdig ng Mga Api” (1965) or any of Manuel Conde’s “Juan Tamad” films will be saddened to hear that no prints of these films survive — and both directors are National Artists for Film. Restoring a film is capturing history in itself, for visual language is more than just pretty pictures on the screen; it tells the story of our nation. And in the absence of film heritage, a nation suffers and forgets.

Images from Tony Perez's 1982 film "Haplos" starring Vilma Santos, Christopher De Leon and Rio Locsin. Pictured are shots of the film with different print damages such as splicing, molds, and breathing. Photo from ABS-CBN FILM RESTORATION/FACEBOOK

Up until the early 2010s, a local initiative for a large-scale restoration was almost unheard of. The first restoration of a Filipino film, Gerry De Leon’s “Noli Me Tangere” (1961), was backed by the German government in 1990. In 1993, the Society of Filipino Film Archivists (SOFIA), a non-profit NGO, was initiated by passionate film enthusiasts who took it upon themselves to save our film heritage in the absence of a government program. They’ve since worked with local and foreign institutions to save our cinematic heritage.

After “Noli Me Tangere” in 1990, it took eight years, and another foreign government — this time, Australia — and SOFIA, to rescue another lost classic, Carlos Vander Tolosa’s “Giliw Ko” (1939). The next full restoration wouldn’t happen until 2012, again, backed by a foreign initiative and in partnership with the government’s Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), with the repatriation of Manuel Conde’s epic, “Genghis Khan.” Restored in L’Imaggine Ritrovatta in Italy, the prints used were the same ones screened during the 1952 Venice Film Festival.

Several titles would soon follow, two of which would be backed by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation: Lino Brocka’s “Insiang” and “Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag” (1973).

But the sole full-scale film restoration by a Filipino company wouldn’t happen until 2012, with ABS-CBN’s restoration of Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” (1982) — a pipe dream that was several years in the making.

As early as the late 1990s, ABS-CBN had been gearing up to restore some of the most important films in its vaults. When the media company began its film production arm, Star Cinema, in 1993, a cable movie channel soon followed after, and subsequently, a film archive that contained titles for which it had acquired television rights, which had productions under Seiko, OctoArts, and RVQ (Dolphy’s film outfit), and other films ABS-CBN owned in perpetuity, such as the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines productions, including Peque Gallaga’s “Oro, Plata, Mata” (1982) and Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” (1982) — both of which were produced by the then channel head of ABS-CBN, Charo Santos-Concio.

ABS-CBN Film Restoration and Archives head Leo Katigbak photographed at the ABS-CBN film vault. Photo by JL JAVIER

The film archives of ABS-CBN is one of the few of its kind in the country. The vaults are climate controlled with temperatures kept between 8 to 10 degrees Celsius to preserve the fragile negatives. Other private archives, such as the facilities of Viva Films, FPJ Productions (which recently acquired a 4K scanner for their titles), and Reyna Films (owned by Armida and Carlitos Siguion-Reyna), are also some of the few well-kept facilities in the country.

Otherwise, the films in poorly maintained facilities have suffered damages due to several factors such as fluctuating temperatures (air conditioning is turned off at the end of day) which only hasten the deterioration of the negatives — often deteriorating into flush or “vinegar syndrome” — unkempt records, and funding problems. After all, a well-maintained archive means spending money for temperature and humidity control. The estimated budget for a national film archive structure alone, according to a monograph published in 2005 by SOFIA, is approximately ₱200 million.

But protection and preservation of films not only mean safekeeping, there is also the responsibility to keep the legacy of these films alive. This is something that urged Leo Katigbak, the head of ABS-CBN film archives, to find ways to restore some of the important films under its care.

One of the first films that they were eyeing on was “Oro, Plata, Mata.” But in early 2000s, this meant that the restoration will be done using analog technology and would cost around ₱25 million.

“At that time, the cost was too prohibitive [… and] it would not even address all the problems that ‘Oro’ already had at that time,” shares Katigbak. “[The quote] was pretty steep. So [we decided] we’ll bide our time, and see what options are there in the future, but the idea being if the films are already with us, hopefully, we will prevent any further deterioration.”

“Himala” would become the benchmark of the success of ABS-CBN’s restoration program. In 2012, Bernal’s film was celebrating its 30th year. Its screenwriter, Ricky Lee, was set to release a book about his experience on set, and Cinema One was working with Sari Lluch Dalena and Keith Sicat on a documentary on the making of the film (its climactic scene featured a 3,000-strong crowd, eight cameras, and no digital effects). And even though the restoration project was already underway with several of Star Cinema’s older titles — the first completed was “Maalala Mo Kaya: The Movie” (1994) — it made sense to launch with a marquee title such as “Himala,” which was hailed as the Best Asia-Pacific film by CNN in 2008 and is headlined by one of the most recognizable icons in local cinema, Nora Aunor.

By the early 2010s, restoration equipment and processes became more accessible and less expensive. Central Digital Lab, ABS-CBN’s partner with the restoration project, was already scanning some of Star Cinema’s films so they were, to some extent, already digitizing some of the company’s archives with some of the lab’s in-house film specialists. At the time the full restoration of “Himala” was being put into plan, the film was already halfway through the process. The scanning part was easy, the actual restoration part was that boulder that they had to wrestle with uphill.

Rick Hawthorne and Manet Dayrit of Central Digital Lab, ABS-CBN's partner for the film restoration project. Photo by JL JAVIER

“It had a lot of discoloration,” says Manet Dayrit, Central Digital Lab’s president. “It had missing frames — a lot of it is really manual work, frame by frame.”

Central Digital Lab completed the restoration of “Himala” in time for the anniversary. It was picked up by the Venice Film Festival in 2012 for their classics sidebar (Nora Aunor attended the screening). But the task was monumental. It took 664 hours to complete with a budget as close to the original ₱3 million shooting cost.

“Himala” is one of the few older films that was fortunate enough to still exist in multiple prints. Most of the older films restored by ABS-CBN only exist in badly preserved prints, which contain several instances of damage such as molds and fungi, color shifting and fading, specks and scratches, flickering, and breathing (“‘Yung image na lumilinaw at lumalabo,” Katigbak notes). The ideal reference would be the master negative — the film exposed to the actual camera — and several Star Cinema films still exist in this form. But in its absence, any existing print, just as long as it is in rescuable form, will suffice.

A film reel is being scanned at the facilities of Central Digital Lab in Makati. The company was first tasked to digitize Star Cinema's films until they eventually got the deal to restore the films under ABS-CBN's Sagip Pelikula project. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Himala” formed the structure for the restoration of the subsequent films. Instead of just drawing up a random list, Katigbak wanted a film from each auteur. Aside from modern classics such as Rory Quintos’ “Anak” (2000) or Romy Suzara’s “Sarah… Ang Munting Prinsesa” (1995), unseen or unrecognized titles are put out, such as Celso Ad Castillo’s “Virgin People” (1983), Butch Perez’s “Haplos” (1982), and Ishmael Bernal’s “Ikaw Ay Akin” (1978).

“Hindi rin ako pwedeng puro luma kasi kung ang population ng Philippines masyadong bata, matatandaan pa nila ang ‘Sarah... Ang Munting Prinsesa’ pero ‘Himala’ hindi na nila matatandaan,” says Katigbak. “So I had to make sure that I am appealing to two sets of audiences that can potentially cross.”

If possible, the director or any of the surviving film crew would supervise the process. With “Himala,” Ricky Lee was on board, and it was cinematographer Romy Vitug and director Carlos Siguion-Reyna himself for the Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta “Wuthering Heights” adaptation, “Hihintayin Kita sa Langit.” They make sure that the colors, sound, and texture of the refreshed version still hew close to the original.

“Part of the discussion was to what extent do we push the restoration,” says Katigbak. “Kasi kung gusto mo talagang linisin, pwedeng ‘yung film magmumukha nang video. And to me, it still should look like film. We had to agree na kapag ganito ‘yung defect, hanggang ganito lang natin aayusin ‘yan … Para kang archaeologist, eh. You have to make a judgement call [kung] ‘yung paglilinis makakasira ba o hindi.”

One of Central Digital Lab's senior restoration artists, Ana Bilbao, at their Makati office. On the wall are posters of the restored films they have worked on. Photo by JL JAVIER

The office of Central Digital Lab is a vault in itself. Editing bays are dark and cold, with heavy, soundproofed doors shutting you off from everything else. For the artists pouring hours and hours of laborious work, the world is just the computer screen where the human condition exists in badly damaged footage.

“You have to imagine that we're looking at these frames, one frame at a time,” says Tiqui Del Rosario, one of the senior restoration artists at Central Digital Lab. “It's not as if [the film] is always playing. It's just like you're photoshopping a single picture for hours. If you're not passionate about it, mababaliw ka talaga. When you go home from work, [you’ll think] ‘Ah ‘yun lang ‘yung nagawa ko [the entire day]’ ... pero when you think about it in the end, when you're in the theater watching [the final result], it’s all worth it.”

A chunk of the lab’s staff, as well as in ABS-CBN’s restoration and archives department, are in their 20s. Most of them only have a vague, nostalgic recollection of these films from the ‘70s and ‘80s — the attachment of working on bringing them back to life might just be on a basis of accomplishing one task to another. But it takes a different kind of frenzied relationship with cinema to power through thousands of hours of restoration work.

In Del Rosario’s office, which she shares with another senior restoration artist Ana Bilbao, the walls are adorned with posters of the films they’ve worked on. It’s a trophy wall of sorts, with the most difficult ones — such as Lino Brocka’s “Cain at Abel” (1982), and Danny Zialcita’s “Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi” (1983) — on the left wall. Closer to their workstations are films from the ‘90s — Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes’ seminal fantasy film, “Magic Temple” and the MarJolina (pre-KathNiel tandem, Marvin Agustin and Jolina Magdangal) starrer “Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang?" — films that are more beloved and familiar for people their age.

“As a kid, you would watch these films, and you never would have thought na when you [grow] up, you'd be actually working on these films,” says Bilbao. “So iba ‘yung feeling na, parang, oh my gosh, nung high school ako [I watched this film] … tapos biglang you're actually restoring it. Iba ‘yung nostalgia.”

When asked about the toughest work to date, all of them, including Dayrit, immediately answer Zialcita’s “Nagalit ang Buwan….”

“There’s a shot with an airplane landing on an airport and wala na talaga siya. It’s burned,” says Bilbao. “There are molds, tears, and all the damage, it’s all there. It’s the best of the worst.” Not to mention that in the print they’re working on, some curse words are censored and can no longer be re-dubbed anymore.

The lab usually works on several films at once, even up to six days a week with artists in shifts. It starts from scanning the film itself. One film is usually made up of five to six parts, each roll made of 35 mm negative (about 20 minutes of screen time). There are more cans if multiple copies of the print exist.

“We might have a couple copies of one particular title because there’s bits missing or there’s some rolls with different condition,” says Rick Hawthorne, the lab’s film specialist and Dayrit’s business partner since the company was known as Roadrunner. “Particularly the heads and tails on the beginning and end of the part which [are] the most vulnerable [parts]. Sometimes they’re missing. We’ve had movies here which we’ve had to actually rebuild the open credits, [such as in the case of ‘Ganito Kami Noon…’].”

Once the print cleanup is done, the file is stored in a server and is accessed only by the artists working on the restoration. Then, that’s where the hard work starts.

In conversations with the lab’s artists, the word “magic” usually comes up in reference to the tricks that they use to reverse the damage of each image. “Magic” is how Del Rosario and Bilbao made the airplane appear again in “Nagalit ang Buwan…” “Magic” is how tinny audio tracks are replaced with pristine and crisp ones, perhaps conjured from celluloid heaven. But, as Hawthorne explains, it is a complex machinery that involves numerous software versions, updated plugins, and a bottomless cache of patience and attention to detail.

For the nastiest, almost un-restorable prints, such as the Mike De Leon negatives from the Asian Film Archive in Singapore, they had to be sent to the Italian film laboratory L’Imagine Ritrovatta, which restored Lino Brocka’s “Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag” (1975), where De Leon was the cinematographer, and Lamberto Avellana’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino” (1965). The lab is currently working on three more Filipino films under the ABS-CBN restoration project: Jose Javier Reyes’s “May Minamahal” (1993), Uro Q. Dela Cruz’s “Misteryo sa Tuwa” (1984), and Pio De Castro III's “Soltero” (1984).

“The funny thing is I talked to Ritrovata, they’re doing all the [restoration for] Hollywood studios,” says Katigbak. “Sabi ko what are the top 10 movies that you’ve had the most difficult restoring — three of our movies are in that top 10 list. Because with the U.S., kahit sabihin mong maraming problema, they have multiple strips of negatives. So sabi nga nila, if may problema ka sa molds, in all likelihood, hindi siya naka-duplicate sa iba … ‘yun ‘yung mga negatives na iba-iba ang kulay. Kumuha ka lang ng clear image [from another negative]. ‘Yung sa atin, iisa na nga lang ‘yung source mo, compounded defects pa.”

Poster studies for the restored version of Mario O' Hara's "Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos." Photo courtesy of ABS-CBN FILM RESTORATION

The initial success of “Himala” also paved way for a marketing and distribution process to be put in place. The 30th anniversary of the film was met with a good box office response. It took a long time before Katigbak finally had a foothold to release the rest of the restored classics roster. It would not have made sense for the films to be just sent back in the vaults again.

They initially had to contend with first day-last day screenings, obscured by newer and bigger releases. “Nagmamakaawa ka every time for airtime [of the trailers], for booking, para sa suporta, para sa mga sinehan … Ilalako mo talaga. Para kang nagbebenta ng insurance … ng encyclopedia.” The original venue for the premieres was UP Film Institute’s Cine Adarna — with red carpet premieres attended by stars such as Nora Aunor and Lea Salonga (“Sana Maulit Muli”) — but Katigbak wanted a more accessible location. He eventually snagged a deal with Power Plant Mall, a fruitful partnership with week-long screenings of restored films being held at the mall’s cinemas. Ayala Malls has also extended help, with screenings at UP Town Center, Trinoma, and Glorietta so far.

The films are also available on iTunes and the platform has a strict HD quality requirement for the titles submitted. In an industry that demands more HD content as devices scale up the picture output (even an iPhone can shoot up to 4K quality now), Dayrit posits that this is also one of the reasons why ABS-CBN, being a company that thinks ahead on how its content can survive in an increasingly digitized market — had to undertake a massive restoration of their film archives — not only for streaming and screening but for their HD channels as well.

“I remember the stuff that was showing in Cinema One, the old films, they were really scratched up but people are like, okay lang, let's watch it,” says Dayrit. “They'll watch it anyway, because it's Nora Aunor or whoever. But then all of a sudden, oh my gosh, you put that in HD, it looks horrible. It looks even worse. Now you can really see all the defects and stuff.”

Social media and marketing materials are also integral to the success of the project. The restoration’s Facebook page constantly posts updates of screenings as well as teasers of upcoming films, all of which are made by Justin Besana, their in-house artist.

Besana is tasked to making a new poster of the restored film, while keeping the spirit of the original. The result of which is an interesting cross-section of modern design and the usual artista-centric promotion of local films.

“Aside from being nostalgic [yung posters para] sa fans ng movies, gusto namin ma-appreciate din ng mga bata ngayon,” says Besana. “We want to communicate with the younger audience para maappreciate din nila… [para] malaman nila kung bakit naging ganito yung state ng film natin ngayon.”

The staff of ABS-CBN's film restoration and archives. Standing, from left: Jane Tenorio, Ferdie Manalili, Meliza Oca, Leo P. Katigbak, Froilan Tinay, Julie Galino, and Justin Besana. Sitting, from left: Kimberly Narciso, Carmela Barbaza, Mary Del Pilar, JR Macatangay & Marco Gatpandan. Photo by JL JAVIER

Films go with tradition. The holidays are marked by viewings of “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) or “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). These are films that are more than 70 years old but have survived the transfer of technology because they are embedded in the viewing habits of the people. In the Philippines, one of the closest things that we have to an “annual” film tradition is when Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” is on TV during the Lenten season. The film used to exist as a scratchy ghost of its former self, flanked with Japanese subtitles on the left side of the screen and Chinese at the bottom.

Dayrit points to the lack of foresight when talking about why these films were just left to die. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the concept of DVD extras or a director’s cut were a far-off thing. The destination of each film was just the cinema, and in the ‘90s, home video.

“I was editing films for a lot of [studios and productions] like Regal Films and I would talk to sina Mother Lily, and say, ‘We have to start saving your old films. It's all wasting away; they're disappearing as we speak,’” says Dayrit. “[They'd say,] ‘Ah masyadong mahal ‘yan,’ because it is expensive to do. And the return on investment is matagal. But ABS-CBN really realizes that regardless of how long the return on investment is, we have to do it now, because one, everybody needs the content, and two, this is really our film heritage that we are preserving.”

Katigbak notes that he is indebted to then ABS-CBN’s chairman Gabby Lopez and then president Charo Santos-Concio for supporting the “Sagip Pelikula,” the name of the restoration project.

“Mr. Lopez is also passionate [about] the movies,” says Katigbak. “So I really didn’t have any problems. Ang sinabi lang sa akin ni Mr. Lopez, ‘I understand that this is something we have to do, but I don’t know how we can recoup our costs’ because [this] will be expensive. And it’s not like the brand new movies [which have] far more commercial value. So ang pinangako ko lang, sabi ko, ‘Gabby, what I’ll promise you is that I’ll be very diligent and very responsible with how I handle the budget of the restoration project.’”

Now that digital restoration of classic Filipino films exist, a new generation of audience can appreciate the forgotten glory of Philippine cinema. The “Golden Age” is no longer a hallowed spectre talked about in reverential tones, but rather something you can see both on the big screen and on streaming devices.

“I talked to Joey Reyes who was a professor, sabi niya, ‘We can’t even recommend movies to our students, because there’s not a clear copy,’ even of our movies,” recalls Katigbak. “That’s something that we were trying to address. Kasi today, one of the saddest things is, it’s like … What if the Mona Lisa suddenly disappeared from the face of existence? What if the great songs of Constancio De Guzman, and Levi Celerio, even George Canseco, all of a sudden, disappeared? Freddie Aguilar’s 'Anak,' ‘diba? World-acclaimed, ni wala kang kopya dito, ni hindi na kilala ng mga bata. To me, that’s such a great disservice.”