Jamie Uy June 16 2021

Archipelago of Tongues: Climate Change and Philippine Cinema

Films

Disappearing shorelines, Duterte's drug wars, and Disco Manila. Purple yams that are turning white and bamboo houses toppled by typhoons. Cornucopias of mangoes, coral reefs, coconuts, and corruption. Landscapes of volcanoes, jeepney junkyards, beach resorts, rice terraces, and megamalls. These films showcase prawns and pancit and Pinoys alike, cataloguing a small sample of life on the Philippines’ 7,640 islands, which hosts two-thirds of the Earth’s biodiversity.

While explicit portrayals of the global warming are still few and far between in mainstream Philippine cinema, the history of Philippine cinema is deeply embroiled with the twin disasters of colonialism and the climate crisis. The first movies were shown during the revolution against Spanish rule, and the first locally-produced film, La Vida de Rizal, showcased the life of Filipino writer-nationalist and martyr José Rizal. After Spain sold the Philippines to the United States, Americans established military bases in the harbors of the country, exploiting the archipelago’s natural resources. American filmmakers like Albert Yearsly flocked to the islands, shooting documentaries like The Cebu Typhoon of 1912 and The Eruption of Taal Volcano. As Filipino novelist Gina Apostol writes in her New York Times article on the tragedy of Typhoon Haiyan, “History is our tsunami, and in our seaside shelters, we keep watching the tide return, waiting for our cleansing as bodies drown.” The successive waves of colonization did little to cultivate an organic, sustainable infrastructure for the governance of the Philippines.

Much of Philippine cinema revolves around stories of resistance and perseverance, whether against Western colonial masters, dictators, or ecological catastrophe. According to the Global Peace Index 2019, the Philippines is one of the countries most at risk from global warming due to its cyclone-prone climate and island geography. Since there are no natural barriers between the sea and land, the Philippines is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, extreme temperatures, and bizarre weather. The rampant corruption and seedy underbelly of the Philippine government have only worsened disaster response and preparedness. A Pew Research Center survey in 2015 indicated that Filipinos identified climate change as the biggest concern for the country's development. 

How have Filipino filmmakers re-examined their local ecosystems, politics, and histories? This Spotlight is designed as a weather report on representations of the environment in Philippine cinema. Here are four films from the Philippines that go beyond flora and fauna to respond to the climate emergency in all of its elements.

Bakit Dilaw Ang Kulay ng Bahaghari [Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?]

Baguio-born auteur Eric de Guia, better known as Kidlat Tahimik (“Quiet Lightning” in Tagalog), is famous for spearheading independent filmmaking and the Third Cinema movement against neocolonialism in the Philippines. He often appears dressed in the tribal loincloths of the Ifugao people with his favorite bamboo camera in tow (a symbolic non-functioning camera made from a fish trap, a traditional wooden statue, and bamboo spools). A vocal advocate for homegrown films, Tahimik’s essayistic, fictionalized autobiographies and low-budget collage aesthetics eschew conventions of Western filmmaking. His video diary magnus opus, Bakit Dilaw Ang Kulay ng Bahaghari [Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?] (1984/1994) is a moving account of his son’s childhood set against the political storms and sea changes of the People Power Movement. Tahimik blends news reports, home videos, travel documentaries, myths, and historical accounts to cover everything from the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, to the protests against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, to the seemingly endless Moro conflict in Mindanao, to the explosion of Mount Pinatubo. While the film spans the tumultuous politics of the 1980's-1990's in the Philippines, sequences like Tahimik sitting with his son in the ashes of the volcanic eruption stand out as particularly critical of environmental devastation.

Bakit Dilaw Ang Kulay ng Bahaghari (Why Is Yellow the Middle of the Rainbow?)

Bontoc Eulogy 

Much like how the personal becomes political in Kidlat Tahimik’s films, photographer-filmmaker Marlon Fuentes’s tour de force Bontoc Eulogy (1995) is a rare gem of Southeast Asian experimental documentaries from the 1990’s. The film recounts the life of the narrator’s grandfather, Markod, an Igorot warrior shipped to Chicago for the notorious “human zoo” at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. The narrator, a Filipino now living in the United States, mines American colonial histories to exhume a portrait of his grandfather that resists the racist anthropology of the “Philippine Village” where 1,100 natives were trapped and ogled by tourists. Fuentes’s hybrid docu-fiction film repurposes archival photographs from the Library of Congress, present-day recreations, and the direct narration of cinéma vérité to expose the Othering of Filipinos as lesser, more primitive life forms. Bontoc Eulogy leaves the viewer questioning imperialism, empiricism, the neutrality of science, and the animalization of non-White persons. In his director’s statement for the 1997 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Fuentes writes that the complex auto-ethnographic film shows how “spectacle meets ideology and science” with “the Philippine specimen ... displayed as malleable raw material for the inevitable project of Empire.” 

Bontoc Eulogy

Mga Anak ng Unos [Storm Children: Book One] 

Lav Diaz is globally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Slow Cinema movement, and although the runtime of Mga Anak ng Unos [Storm Children: Book One] (2015) is noticeably shorter than his usual features, it’s no coincidence that the filmmaker choose the climate crisis—a tragedy on a time scale unimaginable to humans—as the subject of this painfully raw black-and-white film. One can make a connection between Slow Cinema and ecocritic Rob Nixon’s theory of climate change as slow violence, or invisible increments of destruction that defy our sense of of “spectacle/apocalypse now.” Through Diaz’s excruciating focus on suffering that may otherwise go unnoticed or unreported, Mga Anak ng Unos stays in the rubble, tracing the day-to-day routines and traumas of three children living in Tacloban in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. The absence of narration and unbroken, long takes of children sifting through debris or framed in the gargartan, collapsed houses forces us to reckon with the realities of a world where Typhoon Haiyans will only become more frequent.

Mga Anak ng Unos [Storm Children: Book One]

Our Islands 11°16'58.4 N 123°45'07.0 E 

Dutch-Filipino artist Martha Atienza actively fights for environmental justice in her seafaring community of Bantayan Island, Philippines. Her video art, often created in collaboration with the residents of Bantayan Island, focuses on documenting coastal decay and traditional ways of life facing extinction. Atienza’s 72-minute soundless film Our Islands 11°16’58.4_N 123°45’07.0_E (2017) showcases an underwater parade featuring several distinctly Pinoy characters such as boxer-senator Manny Pacquiao, the child Jesus Santo Niño, and Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), and Typhoon Haiyan survivors on loop. Our Islands is a submerged, vaguely post-apocalyptic version of the Ati-Atihan Festival, a Filipino animistic celebration Christianized after Spanish rule. The floating Filipino figures in Atienza’s procession simultaneously evoke rising sea levels, disaster displacement, and waves of sociocultural revolution. The installation is an eerie reminder of research projecting that the Philippines will be underwater in just thirty years. The effect is uncanny and palpable: act now before we lose our land and become unmoored.

Our Islands 11°16'58.4 N 123°45'07.0 E

About the author

Jamie Uy is an incoming M.A. English student at Nanyang Technological University. She graduated from New York University Abu Dhabi with double B.A. degrees in Literature and Film Studies. A Filipino-Chinese Singaporean, Jamie now calls Singapore home.