Note: Nick Deocampo presents an overview of the development of alternative cinema in the Philippines on Feb. 17, 2023 as part of ArtFairPH/Film. Register here.
It took 40 years for Nick Deocampo to write his book on Philippine alternative cinema. Part of it is because it comes as a natural progression, or a culmination even, of decades' worth of experiences and writings. A huge part is because of frustration — it took 100 years for anyone to write a comprehensive book on Philippine alternative cinema due to a lack of want. “Kung ’di ako ang magsusulat, sino pa?” he said, resigning himself to the Herculean task of doing so.
"It comes from anger," says Deocampo in a sit-down interview with CNN Philippines Life. “Sorry, it really comes as deep as that. Alternative film history has never been part of the discourse.”
The sprawling saga of alternative cinema
"Alternative Cinema: The Unchronicled History of Alternative Cinema in the Philippines" is what the title says it is. But it's also a memoir, as most of its content is culled from the living memory of Deocampo. As sad as it is that it took this long for a book like this to be written by anyone, no other person could've had more authority to write it.
From his time cultivating young filmmakers through workshops in the UP Film Center and Mowelfund in the ‘80s, to Philippine cinema's centennial celebration and the present, Deocampo has dedicated more than half his life to the advancement of alternative cinema in the country. And all of it is recounted in the book.
"Alternative Cinema" is the fourth entry in a series of five books that covers the history of Philippine cinema. It is a paradigm shift from how Deocampo writes history. If "Cine," "Film," and "Eiga" delve into our commercial film industry during colonization and its foreign influences, "Alternative Cinema" focuses on the margins, on what has been ignored and forgotten.
Borrowing from French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's theory of the “rhizome,” the book tackles the multiplicity of cinema's needs and forms outside of the commercial mainstream. By needs, it pertains to the reasons in which films are made aside from profit. Such needs elicit different forms of films such as shorts, documentaries, experimental films, animation, advocacy films, propaganda, educational/informational films, home videos among others. This theory of rhizomatic film is already discussed in a previous article. This time, the theory is applied in the new book's writing.
Reading "Alternative Cinema," you'll easily notice its off-beat structure. Chapters are organized per period, although non-chronologically. Strikingly, it starts not with the film industry’s earliest years in the country but with the martial law era. The reason for this is because Deocampo began his foray into film when he made Super 8 documentaries against the regime and conducted workshops mentioned before.
The book then transports its way back to the earliest years of filmmaking in the country to Benedicto Pinga's post-WWII attempts of forefronting the widespread expansion of documentary and experimental cinema through formal education in the ‘50s. Next is the analog movement in the ‘90s, and the digital revolution in the 2000s. It goes back again, and off again, then back again with all the ruptures and outside powers that shape each generation in between.
"I was afraid that people may not understand me. Before, the book was organized chronologically. But I was challenged by a professor in UP who also served as a referee between me and UP Press. She said, ‘There's something wrong in your organization. You're talking about a rhizome which is fragmented, disembodied, and horizontal in its growth but you're very vertical in your historiography. You're not being true to the paradigm you are talking about. If you have something new to say, then show it.’ That's when I took my strength and courage where I said: Mukhang ready na ang aking readers na maintindihan nila why I am fragmenting my historiography."
The need for writing history
Admittedly, for what it covers, the book has limitations. The idea of alternative cinema being a people's cinema, and it supplanting our notion of a national cinema that is the commercial film industry for its future is only stated in the book's concluding chapter:
"What is produced in alternative cinema is a people's cinema. This has yet to be accepted as the nation's audiovisual heritage, although it is already widespread. Unable to even meet each other personally, individuals who make these films form a virtual community, each satisfying a need for visual communication. They are ordinary persons, amateur filmmakers, students, teachers, artists, researchers, scientists, movie fans, housewives, all those who found the need to make films without the imposed compulsion for profit or fame. They make films to express, inform, teach, document, preserve, advocate, and so many urges to satisfy. This is what alternative cinema stands for — the freedom to use film to fulfill a need expressed through the medium of motion pictures."
Even for the 800-plus pages that is written, it's hard not to think of the whole book as a preface for something bigger. Because it is. The volume's heft comes from it being an auto-ethnography of Deocampo's own proximity. It will always have its limits.
That is why Deocampo is keen to highlight the word "chronicle" in the title, even though it's more than that. What alternative cinema is and its many forms are already listed down and contextualized. If fortune permits, he plans to write separate books on each form of alternative cinema from each type of people that would further dive deeper into its complexities and nuances.
There's also another critical irony that needs to be addressed from the book. Due to the limits of Deocampo's position and the failure of having a reliable archiving system in the country for alternative films (both of which are not the author's fault), the scope tends to build alternative cinema its own hegemonic canon. Vast others are left unmentioned. And it's because such films are simply lost. The issue of archiving is a topic to be addressed in another book by Deocampo to be released this year.
Venting out his full frustrations, Deocampo said, "Consider me as a lone wolf. Because who else is doing this? Now that the book is out, people keep telling me that I really am the first person to work on this. People consider me as a pioneer; may pioneer pa pala in the 21st century. Para bang I discovered a new field, a new world."
"But where my anger comes from is that this is the oldest form of cinema. My claim in Chapter II is that before there was "Dalagang Bukid," a feature-length film, there was a newsreel. How could people have not seen that? How could our so-called film historians... I begin to wonder, I know it's an audacious claim but do we really have honest to goodness film historians in the country over the past years? Mainly there were film critics, they were not really historians. They just put dates and personalities there in their criticism. But mainly their discourse is criticism and criticism is not historiography."
He's not remiss in thanking the University of the Philippines Press, the Film Development Council of the Philippines, fellow researchers who contributed to the book, and archives all over. All gave resources that made the book possible.
"Alternative Cinema" is not a definitive history. But it never aimed to be. It serves as a cartographic map of cinemas that is forever marginalized. Alternative cinema persists in times of crises when the commercial film industry could not. The past couple of years in a pandemic is a testament to this. Shall the neglect of writing history be its doom?
Deocampo is only one historian of alternative cinema. But he has done more than all others before him combined. The task of writing what's next falls now unto us, the new generations which will carry on our own cinemas.