There I was on a Thursday evening in Los Angeles Echo Park, across the street from one of L.A.’s many urban Mexican food stands. It’s late August, a time where folks are headed back to school, cultural institutions are gearing up for next year’s big events, and at Visual Communications, where I would normally be wrapping up my summer activities and getting ready for the long, arduous programming research trek of international film festivals. So what would bring me to the very intimate, very grungy, and very down-home Echo Park Film Center?
Well, a couple of months beforehand, we were informed that EPFC would be hosting an artist-in-residence from the Philippines, one Mervin Espina, an independent filmmaker and educator who would spend his July and August in intensive teaching workshops with local youths interested in mediamaking. It turned out that Merv was well acquainted with other mutual friends and colleagues currently involved with their own mediamaking endeavors in the Philippines, folks like John Torres, Khvan de la Cruz, Lav Diaz, and many others. Not only did he bring a wealth of knowledge to impart to his charges, but he also brought along a gripload of short films by friends, colleagues, and fellow filmmakers whose works he admired. With the summer youth workshop nearing its conclusion and with a bit of free time to organize outside community activities, EPFC organized a special screening of works that Merv curated especially for his L.A. tenure.
For me, the program that Merv presented was something akin to taking a trip down memory lane. Once he got past a presentation of select works from Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia (what a stroke of brilliance of him to include Malaysian director Liew Seng Tat’s HALAL), a compendium of Philippine independent cinema ensued. Well okay, I’ve already seen pretty much all of the works he presented, but to see them again — a selection of mid-1980s shorts produced through the vanguard MOWELFUND Film Institute of Quezon City — was to see once again the roots of the new Philippine independent cinema movement now championed by disparate sources as the Cinemalaya International Film Festival, the Cinemanila International Film Festival, ABS-CBN’s Cinema One Originals initiative, various grassroots film collectives, and many others.
Titles such as THE GREAT SMOKE, SA MAYNILA, TRUE BLUE AMERICAN COCONUT GROVE, and KALAWANG brought back memories of Raymond Red’s first American tour of his Super 8 shorts from MOWELFUND and of the many works produced by his contemporaries during the waning Marcos dictatorship years. The exclusive excerpt from WE ARE INDIO-GENOUS BROWN reminded me again of the absolute genius of Kidlat Tahimik, the Philippine’s brilliant “mad scientist” of indie cinema; while Merv’s presentation of excerpts of two lost films from Brunei were a revelation of 1960s-era kitchy melodrama and neo-colonialism disguised as civic routine. And all throughout, Merv regaled the audience with stories of his discoveries of said works, as well as his own growing knowledge of the Philippines’ unsung cinematic heritage.
We’ve heard much about the exploits of independent filmmakers from the Philippines and of the sometimes fractious nature of those working in and out of the industry, but not nearly as much about those who seek to chronicle these recent developments. One colleague, the very astute and very acerbic Noel Vera, is holed up in West Virginia, where he maintains a long-running weblog on current Philippine Cinema, Critic After Dark. On a more somber note, the timing of this screening and presentation comes nearly two years to the day that up-and-coming film critic/advocate Alexis Teoseco was murdered in his Quezon City home, the victim of a burglary/robbery that also claimed the life of his companion, film programmer and critic Nika Bohinc. In his own way, Merv Espina is taking the torch of Philippine film criticism/education and running with it, to Los Angeles, to Ho Chi Minh City, to Kuala Lumpur, to wherever the wind (and his work) takes him. I hope it takes him a long way.