This has been an interesting week for me conversation-wise about the trials and tribulations of the budding Cebuano film industry. In one of the many Cebu Film groups on FB, a post was made inviting the members to participate in a film market to “start” a film industry. Janice Perez, director of Sabongero (2009), Tigba-id (2010) and Muses (2013), responded to inform them that there is one and what ensued was a back and forth that primarily revealed how little is known about the industry and how it’s operated over the past years.

Full disclosure: These are my thoughts and my expression of the conversations I’ve had with other members of the industry. I’m not representing the organisations I am a member of by posting this rant or any companies I might be part of. These are my words and mine alone and I accept full responsibility for any toes I step on. I live for argument. I’d love for anyone to correct me or try to change my mind about something. But I am frustrated and it will come out. Make kasaba me if I am woefully ignorant or if I misrepresent anything. Keeping quiet and making hunghung lang amongst your friendships about the stupidity of that Ara Chawdhury creature will not teach me anything. Hi haterz. Panglugwa na mo para bibo.

I used to be a correspondent at Cebu Daily News (CDN), for the business page. Correspondent is a glorified term for intern. It was the worst job for interns because business terms sound like a different language and is not usually taught in our masscomm courses. So I learned a thing or two about “industry” as if it was hammered down my “I-Hate-Math” brain. During my time, I’d be sent to do stories on small businesses, because it was CDN’s advocacy to support them. I did stories on carenderias, grave marker makers, fruit vendors, etc. Because even if it’s just a stall at the side of the road, or a pushcart, if it engages in trade, if it feeds a family, it’s a business.

miss bulalacao

When I got into film, there were a handful of filmmakers who had met as enthusiasts at Bigfoot, and had left with a “screw you Bigfoot, I’m gonna make bisaya films” attitude because the company has a policy against using the local language (bet you didn’t know that!). Hence the Binisaya film fest, hence Panumduman Pictures, hence 8thumbs, etc etc.  These filmmakers made short films and went on to gain renown for a sensibility that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Some of them were involved in the creation of the Sinulog film fest but had left, some of them went on to be part of the first Cebuano language digital film, Confessional, funded by peanuts and sweat equity. They pitched it to Cinema One and got paid. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

In 2010 Damgo ni Eleuteria was approved and received a production budget. I was production coordinator so I know the numbers. We had 70 people on set every work day. Everyone got paid (Except Rem who used his sweldo to pay people for a reshoot that was albeit unused). People who’d been trained under Bigfoot were hired. Newbies were hired. I was one of the newbies so I can definitely say it was a ragtag group of people who just wanted to be part of this historic event. If any actresses had announced before the film that they were going to be part of it but didn’t, it was simply because there was no money left for P10,000/day-actor’s assistants or preferred cinematographers. I do not mean to malign anyone by stating this, I know and have worked with old actors that insist on old ways and tradition. But Damgo ni Eleuteria was not a continuation of the old ways. Confessional had ushered in a new wave in Cebuano Cinema and Damgo was as new wave as new waves could crash.

Creative conflicts between the director and the writer had pushed back production for many months and had severely depleted production funds. There was no time for post production which was what cemented Rem’s decision to go back to the one-long-take technique they employed in To Siomai Love. In their determination to be truthful to the technique, we, the actors, would be stationed at “sets” and had a very basic idea about the course of events or what we would be doing there. Everything was improvised. Sometimes even the events. One day I thought the ending for Damgo would be that Terya wouldn’t end up going to Germany because huge clouds were speedily approaching and the team had already completed a third of the route (I was stationed at the end of this third, near the port where I could ask people not to look at the camera). That ending didn’t happen because the technical team couldn’t afford to get their equipment wet.

The Cinderella ending of this story is well documented – the film and director went on to garner international and local awards. The trophies are in Rem’s office. This particular Damgo successfully reestablished Cebu on the film world map, and at the very least cemented a confidence in our ability to summon skilled workers and produce material at a moment’s notice (oooh, almost a direct quotation. hurdyhurr). That’s continued, 6 years later, with 2-4 films in the language per year. Some 50 to a hundred people have managed to get work creating these films. We’ve been creating AVPs and other video productions longer than that. You can even argue that Wedding Videographers are part of this industry because we rent from the same places and we hire the same people (and sometimes we ARE those people. Huhuhu hire us plz). Our productions have certainly gotten better over the years. We’ve finally figured out how to work with festival timelines.

If you count all of the Cebuano films that have been made since 2007, there are 20 now, majority of which have been critically acclaimed, awarded, and have been INVITED to various international festivals (and thank goodness for festivals that sponsor for flights. Sidenote: I question the intentions of a Cebuano who pays to be in international film festivals but has never paid for a ticket to a Cebuano film). A lot of our crew members take odd jobs like habal-habal driving just to be available when another raket pops up, or when someone wins a grant. Otherwise they leave. They move to Manila where business is more frequent. Or to Singapore. Which isn’t to say they’ve abandoned us forever. They still check in and share information with us. I would name them here if it wasn’t for fear that I might miss a name nya manluod nako.

So yes, there is an industry. Cottage industry, micro-industry, call it what you will, but you cannot say it does not exist.


Now our problem with financing is that none of it is local. For the past years, Cinema One Originals has sponsored our productions. They also end up owning the films so tabla ra. But C1 is a competition, and there is no guarantee that we’ll get a project from them every year. So we encourage promising filmmakers to join. We teach, we conduct workshops, we share our knowledge and contacts. We are definitely not exclusive. Every new director getting a film made means jobs for all of us. The more films the better. Meanwhile we pay 30% entertainment tax. One filmmaker was asked how much he spends per short and was told he’d rather donate it to building a school and then lectured him on the value of campus infrastructures versus art-art. As if art and education are mutually exclusive.

Cebuano businessmen are conservative and look for hard investments. Unless it’s a vanity project (wedding videos, birthday coverage, etc), people here aren’t likely to spend for “art”. It doesn’t matter if it’s lauded abroad and will be the benchmark from here on end over a certain technique. It’s just “art”. The Cistine Chapel’s ceilings? Art ra to bai. Mozart’s symphony? Art ra sad to bai. I cannot say how many times I’ve been asked “What’s your ROI?” when I send out a film proposal. Here lies our problem.

We do not have business if we do not have an audience. The Cebuano audience pays for American films. The Cebuano audience SUPPORTS that economy. And I may sound bitter, but hear me out – I know you will still watch the next comic book film over a Panumduman Pictures Presents because they’re generally better made. They have enough budget to pay people to keep working for years to produce the best version of the concept, while we only have enough to shoot for 10 days or less (a Cebuano filmmaker got a seemingly big deal with a big production studio recently and found out that they only had enough budget to shoot a 100-scene film for 3 days. Hi Bai, I feel you.). No wonder people in production drop like flies, through disease death or just a need to afford three meals a day. How can you expect us to top their efforts if you won’t even invest in your own?

Consider this: when you pay for a local film, ALL of it returns to the local economy. The fees of workers who live and breath in the same air you do goes to the food we eat, to the taxes we pay (because yes, some of these production houses are registered businesses), to tuition fees for our kids, etc etc. When you pay for a Hollywood film (or for any imported stuff), a percentage of our money goes to another country. Even if you aren’t a nationalist or whatever, where’s your sense of community? We keep insisting on foreign investments and dole outs for every calamity without realizing that we aren’t doing a good job of keeping that money flowing within our local economy. I can understand if you only want the best that your money can buy. But for the best community, you have to invest. Invest in that local band you’re being bugged by your hipster friend to watch. They might be crap now, but getting better takes time and effort. Effort has an opportunity cost. Being able to account for that opportunity cost means a continued investment. Mahal ang workshop, ang tuition fee, and art material para ipractice. Sure maayo na musikero imong silingan and you might as well get them instead of the “diva bisdak band demanding for royalties”. But does your silingan spend for studio fees and instruments? Does your silingan have time between their day job and family to put in the necessary effort to get better? And let’s face it, you don’t have your silingan on your ipod on repeat. You have Justin Bieber, who has a record deal and therefore sweldo. He has an entire team who made the effort to get his music into your iPod. He had investors.

We won’t get investors interested if we can’t present an ROI. We won’t get distributors to bring our films to expensive theaters if we can’t assure them that people will go. (Sidenote: People ask me why they’ve never seen my film like it’s my personal fault that they didn’t go to the one theater screening we managed to score. Second sidenote: we manage to fill up theaters, but have never had the opportunity to screen for a solid week to see if that number is still as high.)

life of a filmmaker

YOU decide that. You decide that with your ticket money. You decide that by talking about our films. If you can’t watch them, reach out to us and organize screenings. We don’t have the machinery to pay for marketers and theaters. You’re going to have to do that for yourselves. And if you don’t particularly like our stuff, at the very least tell us so we can get better, rather than hanging back until a better movie comes out. It doesn’t work like that. Either you engage us, invest, criticize, or you make a better film. Otherwise it’s not going to happen. We can only survive for so long on dole outs. But unless we have an audience, we have no business, and any and every attempt to #ReviveCebuanoCinema will fall flat. Such a shame considering we have one of the oldest film industries in the world (Bet you didn’t know that either).

Furthermore, when we support films that tell OUR stories, we contribute to the preservation of our culture. We create documentaries of our humor, our fears, our dreams, our sensibility as a people. Nobody else will do that for us. Kusog baya kaayo mo mangshare ug pictures of Old Cebu. Pinoy pride dayon kung madaog si Pacquiao.

On the big screen things become larger than life. Manila’s star system is a perfect example of that. Inun-unan suddenly becomes as exotic as caviar on a Berlin theater screen. Your lola’s folk song suddenly becomes the anthem of an OFW’s childhood revived. PETA documentaries on animal cruelty have converted meat eaters the world over. And we are surrounded by media 24/7. I am ashamed to say my son speaks better English than Bisaya because of YouTube celebrities that sell him toys. I can’t speak laglom na bisaya because I grew up with Sesame Street and Disney films. I shot a short film in the old Outpost that will never see the light of day because we didn’t have the budget to dub Alex Uypuanco’s lines over street noise or pay for a musical score. Now the Outpost is gone and the great sir Alex Uypuanco is dead. He was a great actor. There are no markers left for him or books written about him. But let’s remember him and what he tried to do to elevate thespians in Cebu.

I pray that the value of art in Cebu in the minds of local investors equates beyond ROI’s and numbers. I pray for Cebuanos to invest and engage actively in local culture. Change is coming man kaha. Sugdi na.

Ara Chawdhury

Follow her @mutangpusa

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