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Archivers make up for lost time in preserving Philippine past on film

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Philippine Film Archive employees inspect the vault containing film reels — BRONTE H. LACSAMANA

By Brontë H. Lacsamana, Reporter

TEDDY CO, a 64-year-old film curator, cinephile and advocate of archiving and regional cinema, helped shape Philippine film history.

Many Filipino archivists turned to him for information on lost films, including anecdotes about their origin and possible location. He was more of an oral historian, the people around him scrambling to take notes as he went off on a tangent about tidbits that led to long-forgotten reels.

People who knew Mr. Co felt the hole he left behind when he died in November.

“He found a missing reel of Gerardo de Leon’s 1961 film The Moises Padilla Story,” Don Gervin T. Arawan, head of the Philippine Film Archive (PFA), told BusinessWorld. “The film was shown back in 1985, but with a questionable arrangement of scenes due to possible censorship.”

PFA consulted film scholar Clodualdo “Doy” Del Mundo, Jr., the film’s own assistant director Dik Trofeo and Mr. Co, who spent a whole day discussing the film’s original contents, to come up with a decent edit, Mr. Arawan said.

The film premiered in September 2022 and was shown in December 2023 in a tribute to Mr. Co’s life and work.

Mr. Arawan said PFA is trying to catch up with lost time.

“We only recently started archiving even though Philippine cinema has existed for over a hundred years,” he said. “We do recover a lot, but it still hurts to have lost a lot already, especially those with missing or damaged parts.

The law that created the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) mandated film archives to keep film negatives safe. PFA was born in 2011 to preserve and promote the country’s cinema, but it only began digitizing old analog films in 2018.

About 20-40% of film cans retrieved from depositors are unsalvageable due to poor storage conditions, according to the agency. The acetate-based reels suffer from extreme vinegar syndrome, called such due to the intense vinegar-like fumes they emit.

Before the internet and online streaming, there was no reason to care for films after their theatrical release. In the Philippines, humid weather and high maintenance costs also shortened their lifespan — each film costs at least P1 million ($17,900) to restore.

“Archiving here isn’t known as a profession,” Mr. Arawan said. “Very few people understand what it means, so it really takes effort to tell people about it so they know that money needs to be allocated.”

Last year, PFA managed to restore six films — two more than target — using part of its P308-million budget.

Private institutions have been filling the gaps all the while, with the ABS-CBN Film Archive at the forefront.

The archive’s head, Leonardo “Leo” P. Katigbak, has led the network’s film restoration campaign Sagip Pelikula since 2011. ABS-CBN’s first-ever digitally restored film under the project was Ishmael Bernal’s 1982 classic Himala, which was screened in 2012. It has restored more than 200 films since then.

“We have state-of-the-art facilities, vaults that are temperature- and humidity-controlled,” Mr. Katigbak said at a free screening of Ibong Adarna, LVN Pictures’ 1941 film adaptation of the Filipino epic, in November. “For restoration, we deal with 24 frames per second of film, which is about 200,000 frames that we painstakingly fix.”

The denial of ABS-CBN’s broadcast frequency franchise in 2020 was a major setback for the archive, which was forced to downsize amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic also brought supply issues, with some imported chemicals or equipment failing to arrive, while extra restoration work paused due to lockdowns.

Spreading the advocacy online became a big priority, too. “We have to make sure the things we do are seen by many,” Mr. Katigbak said.

The Ibong Adarna screening was part of a set of restored Filipino cinema classics shown at the Manila Pop Culture Convention.

Archivers stressed the importance of online services, special screenings and talks to increase public access, Rosemarie O. Roque, board president of the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA), said in an interview.

“Archiving is a selfless act,” she said. “That’s why collectors are not archivists. The act of preserving doesn’t stop with a person or institution’s collection; it should go beyond one’s lifetime.”

In 2023, films by the late national artist Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka and Marilou Diaz-Abaya hit the big screen thanks to the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Cine Icons program.

Many of these digitally restored gems are also available online, allowing Filipinos to see them. Online platforms include FDCP’s Juanflix, ABS-CBN’s iWantTFC, Apple TV, Netflix, Prime Video, KTX.ph, Facebook and YouTube.

Probe Archives, which focuses on documentaries produced by the Probe Team from 1988 to 2004, is working on digitally converting its collection of 14,000 U-matic, mini DV, Betacam and magnetic tapes by 2025.

LONG-LOST FILMS“Probe produced stories that are documentary-based and evidence-based, the preservation of which will help with fact-checking in the modern age,” Julie Ann S. Nealega, Probe Archives’ head, said at a talk on film preservation at FDCP in November.

The team uploads on social media its fact-checking shows that use footage from old documentaries as context.

SOFIA also held campus talks as part of their 30th founding anniversary in 2023 to spread awareness about audiovisual heritage among students.

SOFIA is set to hold a summit where member groups like the Mowelfund Film Institute, Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) Archives and the University of the Philippines Film Institute can discuss their initiatives.

“We have to strengthen the archiving community,” Ms. Roque said. “Our summit for 2024 will be based on surveys conducted at the pre-summit, so we know if we need workshops on topics like copyright or ethics.”

Archives may involve a filmmaker or students making thesis films, and the jury is still out on an autonomous, exclusively mandated national audiovisual archive.

PFA is bound by being a unit of FDCP, unlike the National Library, National Museum or National Archives of the Philippines, which all stand on their own.

In 2023, the Senate public information committee heard a bill that seeks to set up a National Film Archive of the Philippines. The House of Representatives had also discussed having a separate archiving agency as proposed by Pangasinan Rep. Christopher de Venecia.

Mr. Arawan said they wish to jumpstart the archive’s move to FDCP’s Philippine Film Heritage building in Intramuros, which broke ground in October.

“Unlike our current building, the Film Heritage building will actually be designed for the archives,” he said. “It will also have a cinematheque and a gallery, which will make it an essential part of the Intramuros museum tour.”

This is a major push to increase public access to film archives, but much needs to be done. In other countries, audiovisual archives are housed in old bunkers and protected by heavy vault doors — a staple of few private archives in the Philippines.

A number of Filipino archivists are active in international networks like the Southeast Asia-Pacific Audio-Visual Archive Association and the International Federation of Film Archives.

There, they exchange information on archiving processes and comparative research. Filipinos learn from best practices abroad and, most importantly, locate long-lost films, Mr. Arawan said.

He recounted how the Venice Film Festival Archive called PFA one day to say that they had stumbled on a copy of National Artist for Film Manuel Conde’s 1950 biopic Genghis Khan. “We asked for it and restored it since it is a landmark film that introduced Filipino creativity to the world,” he said.

SOFIA’s Ms. Roque said it’s impossible to archive alone because finding material takes many referrals.

This was true for the discovery of Mike de Leon’s 1984 film Sangandaan, which is the original, uncut version of Sister Stella L that was only ever screened in France.

It started with the late Teddy Co chatting with other cinephiles after an event. He had revealed that the movie as Filipinos know it had a different title, a factoid Ms. Roque then pursued with the help of European archivist friends, she said.

It eventually led her to Cinémathèque Française, where she found the 35-mm film in good condition.

“Archiving is collaborative,” she said. “No one can ever do it alone. That’s why we have to bring the community together.”

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