It appears cinema is not the same thing we might have once believed. A history has begun to reveal that we may never enter a new, even semi-stable, temporal technological paradigm similar to the seeming constancy of the technologies of cinemas past. Cinema's mutations from a 19th century technology rooted in Renaissance viewing practices, through the advent of video, small format film stocks and television, to the contemporary digital flux of images unfolding in theaters, taxi cabs, street signs, airplanes, online and in handheld gadgets, push us to formulate the hypothesis that « film » was itself a pre-historical moment in a larger history of cinema (kinetic images) or some other moving image techne. Wanting to be enthusiastic and unafraid of what our adored 7th art may become, some of us still approach the new hesitantly and with suspicion. What seems to plague us is an attachment to past practices and the continual mantra that cinema has died one or many deaths (the latter implying that at least it is otherworldly enough in its capacity to continually reappear in some new container.) Yet, where once problematic categories in film history seemed to have reached their respective aporiæ due to distribution, technology or spectator/participant-ship, what we are calling cinema today has liberated some of these historical constraints as a result of the seismic shift in just about every aspect of the cinematic-network-apparatus. One of the concepts that may well prove to have benefited from this is the idea of regional cinema.

Regional cinema has been of particular historical import for the Philippines, and in a 1987 issue of the Mowelfund[1] film magazine Movement, Teddy Co wrote what is probably the inaugural essay on the subject entitled "In Search of a Regional Philippine Cinema"[2]. The article looked to Iloilo, Baguio and especially Cebu for instances of this other, lesser-known cinema. The idea of a regional cinema has its obvious appeal; it invokes hopes of a local, sometimes minor, conception of cinema that challenges the aesthetics, fetishized production values and corporatism of dominant national cinemas. But a region is a complex concept to productively articulate, particularly with regards to an already complicated medium (if that is even still the appropriate term) like cinema. Given that a region, as the term is being used here, is a form of local community or territory within a nation, it is in some sense required to pass first through the difficult terrain of the national. This is primarily because even while the regional approach offers a more heterogeneous and hybrid expression of what makes up a nation—expressions that give more credence to indigenous, local and perhaps above all linguistic distinctions—it still maintains, or at least did in a more classical mode of film production, constitutive parameters that tend towards a potential homogenization. Ultimately boundaries are still erected and territories established, but what they encircle appears to offer, at the very least, more malleable or protean concepts of community.

In their discussion of the notion of the national with regards to Chinese cinemas, Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, critically addressing the turn to a trans-national approach to cinema, end up providing a précis of the problem of regional cinemas[3]. Citing film scholar Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto the writers note the ways in which there was once a simple, if mistaken, notion about how to construct the history of a national cinema[4]. This prelapsarian model might unfold, they suggest, by organizing a chronological narrative beginning with the earliest articulations of cinema and arriving at a unified picture of that cinema within the territorial bounds of the nation. From there one might have constructed a table of elements in which all the expressive cultural features of that nation would be noted, coming up with something that could constitute, let's say, for our purposes, Filipinoness. The pair shirks the temptation to succumb to the trans-national and instead reinvest in an expanded approach to national cinema. They cite three outcomes from their rethinking of the national, without having recourse to the trans-national:

 First, the nation-state is not universal and trans-historical, but a socially and historically located form of community with origins in post-Enlightenment Europe; there are other ways of conceiving of the nation or similar large communities. Second, if this form of community appears fixed, unified, and coherent, then that is an effect that is produced by the suppression of internal difference and blurred boundaries. Third, producing this effect of fixity, coherence, and unity depends upon the establishment and recitation of stories and images—the nation exists to some extent because it is narrated[5].

This passage could serve as a dialectical model to critique at once the dominant conception of a national cinema that appears to repress the regional and marginalized voices, while simultaneously suggesting a critique of that very same imagined regional cinema. In particular the second point must certainly raise some red flags for those interested in regional cinemas, in fact it seems to be calling on such a notion specifically, namely that those suppressed internal boundaries and differences are precisely those regions that undermine the picture of the fixed, coherent and unified nation. All of which implies that we are faced with the same challenge of trans-national models in articulating regional cinemas against the national. Are we not, ultimately, faced with an imagined region with a fixed, unified and coherent narrative?

From this complicated question of the nation (or the national) emerges the equally thorny question as to what is a region? The question seems perhaps naïve, and yet when we interrogate its most rudimentary implications, the capacity for this simplism to raise increasingly complicated, problematic and defamiliarizing points w challenges most pat responses. The first two problems we are faced with are the definition of a region as such, and then what will be constitutive of this region's cultural production: namely, how will a region escape national and regional hybridity in a global situation that has international, cultural, political, and social contagions occupying the most minute territories of the planet? To be clear, we are not discussing larger geo-political regions such as the Eurozone, ASEAN or Sub-Saharan Africa, all of which come with their own multitude of complications. Our concern is rather with local regions within a given nation, and what the qualifying criteria will be for a film to be considered as a regional work.

Of the many problems with a purely expressive national approach to cinema is the question of migration and diasporic populations. A good example comes from Somalia. This history of Somalian film production is quite young, really commencing in the early 1960s. But, a large majority of the films were produced in the 1990s and 2000s in what has become known as Somaliwood. Yet, Somaliwood is geographically located in Columbus, Ohio[6]. The upshot, of course, is that a large sector of a nation's cultural production is not even taking place in the nation itself. When we scale this down to a nation's internal regions, and the kinds of migratory and diasporic populations adopting regions (often temporarily), we see again how the location and definition of regional filmmaking is going to be a difficult path to follow. And the question of a «regional abroad» in conflict with a «national abroad» complicates matters that much further, i.e. is the filmmaker living in Toronto, Canada Filipino or Zamboangan?

An interesting discussion of regionalism with regards to cultural production takes place over the period of a decade in the writing of Cebuano scholar Resil Mojares. In 1976 Mojares wrote "On Native Grounds: The Significance of Regional Literature"[7], a very instructive text for our purposes as it lays the groundwork for developing a concept (however mutable) of the regional. Obviously, one of the caveats here is when trying to take the text on regional literatures and superimpose it seamlessly onto cinema we will experience some resistance around medium specificity. Without diminishing the complications of regional determination in literature, of which there are many, we can perhaps imagine a more workaday definition of how a single writer born in Cebu to a family with ancestral roots in Cebu, and who writes in Cebuano about local issues or narratives and publishes in a Cebuano publication, might constitute a pretty good approximation of a regional writer. Obviously the issues of the technique of writing, the literary traditions of the Occident and other serious historical factors have not been eliminated here, but the complication for the everyday reader may seem less, that is, some of the complication vis-à-vis the determination has been attenuated. The problem with film, its economics, its narrative methods, its imposition from the West and its technical historicity might well be more difficult to disentangle. 

Mojares establishes some early coordinates for discussing regional cultural production. While not synonymous, Mojares frequently moves between references to regional literature and to vernacular literatures, and he locates sites of vernacular literature in magazines, pamphlets, periodicals and sometimes books[8]. What is being summoned is the idea of a vernacular literature that is associated with «a different and lower social class» a literature that «lies close to the soil…and provides us with insights into a different order of reality with its own characteristic patterns of thinking and feelings and modes of expression»[9]. The hope is that by accounting for these other tendencies in literature the national literature can be a more robust one that in turn gives voice to or is expressive of the multiplicity of languages, experiences and cultures in a given country. For our purposes, it might be appropriate to begin to think about how what we refer to as regional cinemas conforms in some sense to this description of a vernacular literature. Yet, already problematic in Mojares' description is the expressive aspect, especially if we are rejecting the early expressive mode of national cinema.

In 1986 Mojares wrote a kind of rejoinder to this piece. While the argument in favor of a national literature that accommodates, or even insists on, regional literatures forming a part of the totality of a national canon is still present in the second text, he does pose a couple of troubling questions. First, he asks, in reflecting on his previous writing, if a regional literature still exists ten years after the publication of the previous essay. Mojares writes:

 

That there are writers writing in the regions is easily seen. That librarians now have respectable collections of vernacular works is true. Yet, undoubtedly there ought to be more to the concept of a regional literature than facts of medium, bulk or residence[10].

 

This line of reasoning eventually finds Mojares asking a question that we might rather repress, and that is, what cultural validity, if any, does the concept of the region hold? Mojares' implies that what is needed in the face of this question is not the jettisoning of the concept in its entirety but a reinvigoration of its definition and an articulation of what the concept claims.

 

But when faced with the question of a regional cinema, as opposed to a regional literature, we have to keep in mind the differences between these media and the material at our disposal. And it is here that as historians a kind of contradiction will emerge in our approach. If, for instance, the Cebuano cinema of the pre-digital age is all but lost (we have access to roughly five movies from the entire history, all made during or after 1969[11]) we are not yet in a position to have even the basic historical and material conditions for what Mojares describes as being insufficient for a regional cultural production. We can imagine a scenario where we would have access to the majority of the films and could then set about a kind of analysis of these works that would eventually allow us to come up with a similar conclusion as Mojares, but this is, materially speaking, not the case.

 

Returning to the shape of evolving technologies on contemporary audio-visual screen arts, we see that the emergence of a regional cinema within a given nation is affected in significant ways. One of the most significant relates to issues of institutional censorship. Once independent media producers (replacing filmmakers perhaps) have platforms and networks, which in large part are decentralized, with which they are able to exhibit their work without any real infringement on the part of the MTRCB (Movie and Television Review and Classification Board) or other governmental censorship or even ratings agency, the cultural expression that emerges is wholly other than that cinema which, in order to have permission to be exhibited at movie theaters, had to be accepted by the censors. We should note for example, that the second largest period of film production in Cebu, prior to the digital age was during the period of Martial Law. Working under such constraints we have ask how a region's attempts at autonomous cinematic expression could really emerge. So while on the one hand we have the global complications of reconceptualizing what cinema is tout court, we begin to see on the other hand the development of a space for regional expression less imbued with the institutional and governmental constraints in place during the more restricted period of classical film production.

 

The second most important amelioration for the concept of regional cinema in the contemporary technical regime is the question of language. In looking at cinema from the pre-digital period there are myriad complications for coming up with even a rough constellation of descriptives to define what we mean by a regional film. Continually, the most persistent element is that of language and in a quasi-Althusserian formulation we could say that it was language, in the final instance that determined a regional film.  Today, with the means of production being much more accessible, user friendly, popular, mobile, immediate and immensely distributable, we are suddenly confronted with films in Visayan, Waray, Hiligaynon or even Chavacano. Of course these two elements, more autonomous expression and a body of productions, are only beginning to fulfill Mojares's necessary but insufficient conditions for the definition of a regional production. But it is a first for the moving image in these previously unrepresented populations, we move forward gladly with the region, but still hesitantly with regards to what this thing we once called cinema is to continually become and unbecome.

 

 

Paul Grant

 


[1] The Mowelfund is the name of the Movie Workers Welfare Foundation in the Philippines.

[2] Co, Teddy. "In Search of Philippine Regional Cinema", Movement, Volume 2, Number 1, 1987. Teddy Co has pursued Philippine regional cinema by establishing the traveling Cinema Rehiyon film festival.

[3] Chris Berry & Mary A. Farquhar, China on Screen: Cinema and Nation, Columbia University Press, New York 2006

[4] Ibid., p. 4

[5] Ibid., pp. 5-6.

[6] "Somaliwood: Columbus has become a haven for Somali filmmaking", Hiiraan Online, April 19, 2007 http://www.hiiraan.com/news2/2007/may/somaliwood_columbus_has_become_a_haven_for_somali_filmmaking.aspx

[7] Resil B. Mojares, "On Native Grounds: The Significance of Regional Literature" in Roger J. Bresnahan, Literature and Society Cross-Cultural Perspectives  Eleventh American Studies Seminar, 1976, pp. 154-158.

[8] Ibid., p. 156

[9] Ibid., p. 157

[10] Resil B. Mojares, "Do Regional Literatures Exist Today?", Solidarity, No. 108-109, 1986, pp. 128-129

[11] The pre-digital films which we know are still available (though at least one is only available in digital format) are: Badlis sa kinabuhi (Leroy Salvador,1969), Aliyana ang engkantada (Eugene Labella, 1974), Itlog Manoy Orange (Alfonso Ang, 1976), Ang Manok ni San Pedro (Joe Macachor,1977), and  Matud Nila (Leroy Salvador, 1991).