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Philippine indie films make headway

1 March 2009

While independent films are largely ignored by ordinary movie-goers in the Philippines, the genre has become the 'in thing' in the country as indie movies gain international acclaim and generate worldwide interest.
Industry experts noted that indie filmmakers produce more movies now than mainstream studios, which have been saddled by huge losses due to piracy, high taxes and stiff foreign competition.
Brillante 'Dante' Mendoza, director of Serbis, said indie filmmakers have taken the lead role in reviving the Philippine film industry as budding directors turn to the genre because they would need less money to produce.
'It's very accessible. You just go out, write your script and shoot the film,' said Mendoza, who has directed and produced a total of seven indie films since 2005, most of which have won several awards abroad.
'You don't need a production team,' he added. 'You don't even need actors, just as long as you have your camera.'
But while the indie industry is flourishing, the main problem is getting the audience, Mendoza noted, lamenting that Filipino movie-goers are so used to big-production movies that showcase their favourite stars.
'Realistically speaking, indie films don't have commercial value because we don't have the famous stars, we don't have the formula story and we don't have the money to promote the film,' he said.
The 47-year-old director said he has been going to Philippine schools to prod students to patronize Filipino films, especially local indie productions.
'What we are doing is going straight to schools and talking to the students and showing our films to the students,' he said. 'We want to raise their awareness on indie films.'
Mendoza stressed that he does not discourage people from watching mainstream movies, saying, 'If in a month you're going to watch three movies, then watch two Hollywood or local mainstream movies and then watch one indie film.'
'That way, you get yourself entertained and then you also watch something for your soul,' he added.
Vicmar Turtal, an official of the Philippines' Movie and Television Review and Classification Board, said indie films could eventually replace mainstream cinema amid a moribund movie industry. He lamented that many major studios in the Philippines are no longer producing new movies because it has become too expensive.
'On the first day of showing of most movies, one can already find pirated copies of the film in the streets,' he said. 'No one is going to the theatres because they just watch out for the pirated versions. This is a business, so why would anyone invest in something that is losing?'
From a high of 200 films a year during the 1980s, the country's film industry was down to making a total of new 56 films in 2006 and around 30 in 2007.
Industry leaders say the Philippine film business is the most overtaxed in the world, pushing up the prices of watching movies in theatres.
While the country still has the highest level of theatre admission in South-East Asia, it registered the steepest drop in movie-goers, from 131 million in 1996 to 63 million in 2004.
Mendoza said the country's movie industry, including the indie genre, needs the support not only of the Filipino moviegoers but also of the government.
'We need major support of the government,' he said. 'If the government can support athletes and spend millions on their training, why not give a bit of attention to filmmakers?'
The Philippines has caught the attention of many filmmakers in recent years due to its competitive filming costs which negate budget restrictions, allowing for the creation of seemingly high-budget motion pictures that won't break the bank.
With an English-speaking population and a world-renowned sense of artistic creativity - not to mention a lush tropical landscape of unparalleled beauty - the Philippines is an up-and-coming film industry with several films recently winning awards at independent festivals, and others promising works in the pipeline.
"The Philippines offers state-of-the-art equipment and post-production service providers with cutting-edge technology on par with that of Hollywood," said Digna Santiago, executive director of the Philippine Film Export Services Office (PFESO), the division of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) which helps facilitate international filming projects.
Once pigeonholed as a set location merely for war pictures such as Apocalypse Now, Born On The Fourth Of July and Platoon, the Philippines has recently attracted a much greater variety of films from award-winning independent dramas showcased at Cannes and other key festivals to major Hollywood blockbusters including Josh Hartman's upcoming I Come With The Rain.
This can be attributed in part to local Filipino directors such as Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka, known respectively for confronting controversial feminist and gay and lesbian issues in their films. Brocka, whose masterpiece Insiang was the first Filipino film shown at Cannes, has been honored with accolades worldwide, including the Peace Film Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago, known for his work with prolific American "pulp" producer Roger Corman, has been identified by filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as one of his greatest influences. Several characters in Tarantino's award-winning Kill Bill epic were based on Santiago's movies.
Tarantino's most recent Grindhouse collaboration with Robert Rodriguez is believed to have drawn on images from another Filipino film, Twilight People, directed by the acclaimed Eddie Romero, who was named National Artist of the Philippines in 2003.
These notable Filipino directors, as well as a host of younger filmmakers following in their prestigious footsteps, have raised the country's profile in the industry and brought attention its many diverse offerings which extend far beyond the jungle and include the fast-paced cosmopolitan city of Manila, as well as centuries old churches and other structures dating back to the Spanish Colonial period.
The Philippines shines artistically as well due to the unique character of the Filipino soul, which is a product of many cultures from all over Europe, Asia and North America. This unique sense of artistry is evident in the country's architecture as well as the handcrafted furniture, props and costumes which add a inimitable flavor to any movie set.
Filipino pictures have been described as "a cinematography filled with energy and audacity" by the organizers of the 2008 Paris Cinema International Film Festival, which honoured the Philippine film industry and its new generation of directors showcasing 40 of country's most remarkable titles. ASIAIMAGE
More information on filming in the Philippines is available at (011) 632-633-2204 or (011) 632-632-9512, e-mail: or visit:

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