EXCLUSIVE: Mike De Leon on the newly restored ‘Itim’

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The director talks to CNN Philippines Life about the self-funded restoration process for his 1976 film. Photo from MIKE DE LEON

The new restoration of Mike De Leon’s “Itim” (1976) recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a sold-out Salle Buñuel. In a rare gesture, Cannes Delegate General Thierry Frémaux introduced the film, De Leon’s history at the festival (premiering both “Batch '81” and “Kisapmata” in Directors’ Fortnight in 1982), co-writer Gil Quito, and Vincent Paul-Boncour of Carlotta Films, the distributor of “Itim” in French-speaking territories. Quito explained how the film was a first for many on the crew: De Leon’s first feature, Charo Santos-Concio’s first role, Rody Lacap’s first time as a cinematographer, etc. Despite this, “Itim” looks and sounds expertly mounted, which is all the more evident in the restoration. Often described by critics as a slow-burn, atmospheric horror, the film has the expected oppressive darkness against white compounded with unexpected dark browns and maroons in interiors against verdant backgrounds. The Italian film laboratory L'Immagine Ritrovata restored these qualities to their proper depth, soaking the viewers in a bath of voluminous, deliberate color, light, and shadow.

While photographing Holy Week rites, Jun (Tommy Abuel) discovers Teresa (Charo Santos-Concio) basking in a rare shaft of light in the darkness. He takes her photo, causing her to stir away, and chases after her with his camera until he loses her in the night. This sets a curious precedent for the two’s relationship in the film. Jun may wish to possess Teresa more than he wishes to court her consent, but the film is too strong to compromise the ambiguity from his motives. Eventually, it becomes clear that Jun might somehow have a connection to Teresa’s older sister, Rosa (Susan Valdez-LeGoff), who has been missing, making their relationship feel fated beyond their control rather than spontaneously romanced. Then, slowly, the horror of their families’ connected pasts creeps in.

With the return of the Marcoses in power, history also haunted the film’s Cannes premiere. In De Leon’s statement, read to the audience in French by Carlotta Film’s Paul-Boncour, the director begins with an excerpt from his upcoming book about LVN studios and his life in film, “Last Look Back”: “It was my fate to get dragged into politics even with a genre film like ‘Itim’.” This section of the book describes an “Itim” Q&A at FILMEX in Los Angeles, where a viewer asked him if the Philippine government supports filmmaking. He replied, “The government’s sole commitment to filmmaking is documenting the daily existence of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.” He didn’t know Philippine consulate officers were in attendance, and for this mild remark his passport was pulled and he had to explain himself to the Board of Censors.

Charo Santos-Concio as Teresa in the newly-restored "Itim." Photo from MIKE DE LEON

Forty-three years later, I caught up with De Leon via Zoom (and then through email) and again asked him how he felt about the Philippine government’s efforts to support filmmaking. “The ECP [Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, headed by Imee Marcos] did produce very good films like “Himala” or “Oro Plata Mata,” but the lines were very clearly drawn during those times, and Lino [Brocka] and I did not want to be associated in any way with the Marcoses, especially Imelda,” said De Leon. He noted “...there was no attempt by any of [the ECP] filmmakers to do anything political.”

The ECP was succeeded by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, which now makes an annual appearance at the Cannes Film Festival and runs the Philippine Pavilion. This year, De Leon made a statement on his Casa Grande Vintage Filipino Cinema Facebook Page, making clear that “The Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) has tried to co-opt [‘Itim’] as part of that agency’s massive Philippine delegation (using the Filipino taxpayers’ money of course). We have refused them TWICE and have not accepted a single peso from that agency.”

The 75-year-old filmmaker still remembers the film’s first screening at a theater in Quezon City in 1976. He said, “The brightness was just right but we had to project a reel of the film before the premiere and make the appropriate adjustments. Remember, we were still using carbon arc projectors, not even xenon. But during the regular release, the film was shown in a couple of huge theaters in downtown Manila where the projection was not ideal. In these theaters, like the Avenue Theater on Avenida Rizal (Rizal Avenue), the film was very dark and people would holler ‘Karbon! Karbon!’ to remind the projectionists to check if the carbon arcs were burning properly.”

De Leon feels “the restored version [of ‘Itim’] looks better than the original theatrical version,” primarily attributing this to how the digital color grade compliments how he “post flashed the film in the lab,” basically a method of adding depth and visibility to the shadows after the fact of shooting. Of an earlier color grade finished at a local post house, De Leon said, “I don’t think the colorist ever fully understood how flashing intentionally lowered the contrast and desaturated the colors. The initial grading was very contrasty, it upset me a great deal.” But with L’Imaggine Ritrovatta “it was very interesting to manipulate shadow contrast alone without affecting highlight contrast. That was impossible to do on film. This gave the film a ‘new’ look” that he said made him “fall in love with film all over again.”

Behind the scenes of the "Itim" restoration process. Photo from L'IMMAGINE RITROVATA

Ritrovata also maintained the print’s unique, goldish-brown tinge, which De Leon says may have been a happy accident of the post-flashing process. “The lamp on that old black and white printer [used to post-flash the film] was not halogen, but tungsten, and the color temperature (I'm guessing here) was not constant.. It’s possible that the lower color temperature gave the film a warm, reddish gold hue, which surprised me. But I kinda liked the effect.”

In comparison, De Leon said, “‘Citizen Jake’ looks like a bad video movie. But digital grading was new to me and I realize the imaging technologies of film and digital are vastly different. That is one of the reasons I want to make one more film, to unlearn many things I learned about digital.”

Color timing “Itim” in the ‘70s was a simpler and more limited process. Davide Pozzi, director of L’Imaggine Ritrovata explains, “You could only pick out a single value of red, green, and blue for every single shot.” Digital color grading technology allows for a greater range of possibilities, but Pozzi wished to “respect the original spirit, look, and feel of the film,” explaining, “We had to find the digital translation of this particular analog technology. Our biggest challenge is knowing when we have to stop. Otherwise, we can go too far and make a fake.”

De Leon self-funded this vibrant renewal. “The AFA [Asian Film Archive] had offered to fund the restoration but the pandemic struck and it would have taken two or more years before things went back to normal.” The director told me, “The process with Ritrovata had evolved since their first collaboration on “Maynila in the Claws of Light” (De Leon served as the film’s cinematographer), for which the lab constantly sent him Blu-rays by mail to review. But for “Itim,” De Leon could download the footage and grade it on his own computer from home: “Although my monitor was just an approximation of their 4K grading screen, we somehow got into the groove of instant feedback communication. Of course, I also sent them my project file so that they could actually see how I graded the film on a shot-by-shot basis. This was supplemented by copious notes describing my intentions and what perhaps they could do, since my setup was kinda limited.”

Tommy Abuel as Jun in "Itim." Photo from MIKE DE LEON

Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project funded the restoration of “Maynila in the Claws of Light,” which De Leon found unsatisfactory: “The final grading was not quite what the film originally looked like. That it won the Focal Press Best Restoration award is ironic.” Of the color grades of the ABS-CBN owned “Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising,” “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?” and “Hindi Nahahati ang Langit," De Leon said, “The restored ‘Kung Mangarap' is a big disappointment. It looked like video, bright and contrasty, and something soft and ineffable, like the feeling of old Baguio, was lost.”

“‘Kakabakaba’ was restored and graded at Ritrovata and the results are pretty good, quite close to the original. I think ‘Hindi Nahahati’ was also graded well locally, but I never cared much for that film and did not supervise the grading at all.

“I supervised all the restorations personally, except for those owned by ABS-CBN. It proved difficult at times because in some cases, like ‘Batch '81’ and ‘Kisapmata,’ Ritrovata had to combine scans from what was left of the original negatives and prints that were still intact and preserved at the AFA.”

Charo Santos-Concio and Tommy Abuel on the set of "Itim." Photo from MIKE DE LEON

“They cost me a lot of money but I rationalized it by thinking it was my father’s money anyway, the inheritance I mean. He once told me, do not use whatever money I leave you to make movies. But I figured that I didn’t want his legacy, my grandmother’s [Doña Sisang of LVN], and mine to just dissipate in time. It is also because we Filipinos have very short memories and have very little interest in preserving our cultural heritage. Strange that the Museum of Modern Art In New York has a film department while our bigger museums like the Ayala Museum don’t have one. I think these museums look down on Filipino films.”

“If I could save more LVN films, I would, but most of the good ones are gone. Perhaps I’d be criticized for focusing all my attention on my films and LVN’s. But that’s my own backyard, other groups like the FDCP or ABS-CBN should take care of the rest, which they’re doing.”

READ: Rescuing the lost heritage of Philippine cinema

When asked what he thinks government support for the Philippine film industry will look like under Bongbong Marcos, De Leon said, “It's too early to say what this administration will do, because it’s not just the Marcoses now, but other families like the Dutertes who have mixed together into this new gangster brew. I don’t believe Sara will allow herself to be a spare tire. Imee has been making statements about her suggestions to her brother. Then there is the runt Arroyo, who I hear is disappointed that she did not get the speakership. It was given to a Romualdez, a relative of Imelda. You hear the new senator Robin Padilla pushing federalism again and making ignorant remarks that nothing was done during Noynoy's term. You need some education to be a lawmaker, but it no longer applies to us. We’ve had so many ignorant fools in the senate, movie stars, convicted plunderers… Bongbong is not Ferdinand. He’s a spoiled kid who is being used to revise history and clean up the Marcos name. Marcos Sr. himself was a convicted murderer (Nalundasan case) but he was pardoned by Laurel, I think? That alone revokes his right to be buried in the heroes’ cemetery. But you know the expression, only in da pilipins.”

“What is disappointing but expected is how some very bright minds make grand statements about Bongbong making the right decision. The best thing to do right now is to keep quiet and watch those gangsters carefully. Activist movie celebrities who were very vocal against Marcos and pro-Leni, are now singing a different tune. It makes me very angry. Many movie stars are really stupid. A criminal was elected president. Very few people give a damn about learning the lessons of history.”

Unlike his agitprop shorts like the recent “Sangandaan" music video, his latest feature in development, “Sa Bisperas,” which he feels may be his last, will not be political but will deepen his exploration of toxic father/son relationships in a new supernatural context. In my time with De Leon, he seems to regret having to look to the past for restorations, the theatrical and Blu-ray distribution of his body of work in French-speaking territories by Carlotta Films, or for his now two-volume account of LVN and his life in film, “Last Look Back.”

He also seems to regret how often he’s “dragged” into politics, even when his subject matter is decidedly apolitical. In his statement to the Cannes audience, he wrote, “Horror has now acquired a more sinister meaning. It is no longer about a ghost but about the monsters of Philippine politics, monsters that, after a long wait in the subterranean caverns of hell, have returned to ravage and rape my country all over again.” When asked whether he meant the once apolitical horror of ‘Itim’ had obtained a political quality or relevance today, De Leon replied, “There is nothing political in ‘Itim,’ period.”


ERRATUM: An earlier version of the article quotes Quito that "Itim" was Max Jocson's first film as a composer. Jocson's first film as a composer is "Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag." We have corrected this oversight.