Nationalism, Contradiction & Identity: Reassessing the Origins of Filipino Cinema

On July 31 (Wednesday), prominent film historian, author, documentary filmmaker, and professor of Film & American Studies from Yale University, Professor Charles Musser visited the University of San Carlos College of Architecture and Fine Arts (CAFA) Lecture Theatre to give a lecture on the early cinema of the Philippines. 

As expounded by Musser, our culture and decisions made by the Filipinos are a reflection of the many synthetic influences that were introduced during the time of the colonization of the Philippines. During the colonial era, the influences of the Filipino film industry played a big part in manipulating identity and culture of the Philippines. This was because films were a mass interest. 


This is well displayed in the effects of screenings of early French cinema in the Philippines around 1898-1900s. The colonization however, gave us Filipinos a peek of the world through the diverse films that were screened in the country. Cinema, as Musser said was the “window of the world.” Cinema became our tool for globalization. 

The main reason for the fascination and attraction to cinema in the Philippine society was the “stardom” factor, which continues to be evident to this day. Musser pointed out example such as the election of Former President Erap Estrada and America’s own Arnold Schwarzenegger. The influence of cinema affects the very structure of politics, as well as the entirety of Philippine superstructure. The reason why cinema was able to appeal to the audience so much was because of the tripartite basic ideas of film, as Musser enumerates, family, nation and state.

Cinema during the US Military Rule, though strictly monitored, was still alive within tents, churches and barns for the consumption of the American soldiers. Cinema was used as an escape during wartimes.

The colonial era in cinema of the Philippines was, as Musser labels, merely “an impoverished product of the American colonial rule.” Although American cinema was considered iconoclastic and expansionist, the Filipino masses accepted the film and its ideas far easier than other countries who to assess and question the film’s content. Whereas the likes of Charlie Chaplin, film was used as a tool for critique, said Musser. Chaplin’s critique is evident in “The Pawnshop”, wherein plays a pawnshop assistant who breaks alarm clocks. The breaking of alarm clocks signified the working class’ protest against the capitalist system. The alarm clock alludes to the everyday obedience of the working class, dictated by the assembly line schedule set by the capitalist system. Another example in Chaplin’s “Modern Times”, when Chaplin throws himself into the machine, it is a protest against the petrified social relation of man and the inherent contradictions of the capitalist system.*

However as much as cinema was an escape and a fad during the earlier years, Musser pointed out that cinema was later on radical, holding political implications. The pop culture psychology of the Filipino operates on many inherent contradictions, a strong anti-Americanism mindset which is masked by excessive appreciation.

Other countries dismissed the films as foreign so they vilified it, discarded it as a form of displaying superiority. This only shows how a piece of film holds such great impact and a change of perception towards “glocalization” in cinema. Soon we were able to push for the advance of the Philippine nationalism.

By 1917, one of the pioneering directors of the Philippine cinema, Jose Nepomuceno started to produce films. By this point in time, cinema became deeply integrated into the Filipino culture as it had already taken quite a critical stance towards the American colonial regime. However, due to the underlying influences of different cultures, our country developed us quite a questionable Filipino identity.

* Journal of the University of York Philosophy Society. “The Culture Industry.” Last modified Summer, 2011. Accessed July 20, 2013.

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