The Philippines has sent Foreign Language Film entries since the category started in 1956, when Italy's La Strada won. Why have its films never been nominated?Since its inception in 1956, the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars has been among the most exciting, anticipated, and controversial races every year. Many still question the need for a category that separately honors the best of non-English language films, but it is here where the heavyweights of international cinema have been rightly cited. Federico Fellini's La Strada was the first competitive winner, and after that Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel, Francois Truffaut had their names and those of their films on ballots that were supposed to represent the best of world cinema. In more recent years, the category has been hounded by controversies, mostly regarding the selection process involved in whittling down the list of submitted entries to five nominees. But until the Academy devises a better way to honor non-English language films (if ever they do), many will continue to see a Best Foreign Language Film nomination as the highest possible honor that such projects could achieve.
Just as it has in every major international beauty pageant, the Philippines has been sending a film submission to AMPAS on a fairly regular basis since 1956. But unlike in those pageants, glory has so far eluded the country in this highly competitive Oscar category. This has even prompted The LA Times Envelope's Tom O'Neil to lament the nomination-less record of such countries as the Philippines that have diligently sent representative films in the hope of gaining the Academy's approval for their nations' best.
Which begs the question: are the films sent by their respective countries or finally approved by the Academy necessarily the best that those countries had to offer during the eligibility year? How do the countries select their film champions? Is it racial prejudice, wrong selection, or simply "wrong film for the wrong time" that handicaps the chances of a country getting its film a nod from Oscar? These are questions worth asking as we examine why the Philippines has never received and likely will not receive in the near future a Best Foreign Language Film nomination.
Filipino filmmakers and cineastes remember fondly--and with a certain amount of regret--that there was a time when Philippine cinema was among the most respected in the Asian film industry. Directors like Eddie Romero, Ishmael Bernal, Gerardo de Leon, and, of course, Lino Brocka got major ink from international critics and film viewers, with many of their films being showcased and honored in major festivals like Cannes and the Berlinale. Manuel Conde's Genghis Khan won a major award from the British Film Institute and, interestingly, was under consideration for the Honorary Foreign Language Film Award in 1953 (the 26th Academy Awards). It was not for lack of quality or reputation that the Philippines was passed over for Oscar glory.
The Philippines did not actually send many of its seminal local films for consideration (or, for one reason or another, they were declared ineligible). Prior to the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) taking charge of the task of submission and sending their first official entry (Karnal, or Of the Flesh, Dir: Marilou Diaz-Abaya) in 1984 (57th), four organizations had that responsibility. The bodies were the Film Society of the Philippines, the Film Institute of the Philippines, the Philippine Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences, and the Philippine Movie Producers Association. The statistic: four submissions in 28 years. These were Anak Dalita (Dir: Lamberto V. Avellana) in the inaugural year (29th); The Moises Padilla Story (Dir: Gerardo de Leon) in 1961 (34th); Dahil sa Isang Bulaklak (Because of a Flower; Dir: Luis Nepomuceno) in 1967 (40th); and Ganito Kami Noon...Paano Kayo Ngayon? (As We Were; Dir: Eddie Romero) in 1978 (51st).
Ganito Kami Noon...Paano Kayo Ngayon?, one of only four submissions during the First and Second Golden Ages of Philippine cinema
Those 28 years covered what are generally considered the First (1950s) and Second (1970s to early 1980s) Golden Ages of Philippine cinema. Why only four submissions? Just a few of the unsent jewels: Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting; 1980), Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Brightness; 1975), Insiang (1976), and Jaguar (1979); Ishmael Bernal's Manila By Night/City After Dark (1980) and Himala (1982); Mike de Leon's Kisapmata (In Just the Wink of an Eye; 1981) and Batch '81 (1982); and Peque Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (1982). Many of the aforementioned, particularly the Bernal and Brocka projects, enjoyed popularity and critical acclaim inside and outside the country. De Leon's Kisapmata, Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata, and any number of Brocka's and Bernal's have been called genuine masterpieces of Philippine cinema. Where were these films in the Oscar race?
The FAP's subsequent submissions were not necessarily the right choices, at least not all the time. It is a given fact that no one film in a given year would be considered the "best" by everyone. But being the official submitting body for the Philippines, the FAP should be cognizant of which of the Philippines's "best" films for a year would be most likely to net an Oscar nomination. Let's take a closer look at each of the country's submissions since 1984:
-1984 (57th): Karnal (Of the Flesh; Dir: Marilou Diaz-Abaya). Karnal was among the strongest and most awarded films of that year. It is a powerful film about lust and murder amidst love, set in a rural Filipino village in the 1930s. It was also a condemnation of then President Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship, as many important films of that era were. However, another critical anti-government film came out that year: Sister Stella L. (Dir: Mike de Leon), which starred cinema icon Vilma Santos. Ultimately, it is the latter that is considered by many cineastes as among the country's best productions, and one of the consistently excellenet de Leon's most prominent.
-1985 (58th): Kapit sa Patalim, Bayan Ko (My Country--In Desperate Straits; Dir: Lino Brocka). Another easy and adequate choice. Aside from winning major local prizes, it also garnered the late Brocka, the country's premier filmmaker, his second nomination for the Golden Palm in Cannes. It would be interesting to see how close this film got to snaring an Oscar nomination, as it is probably the best choice for a submission that the country has made since it began participating in the race.
-1986 (59th) to 1994 (67th): No submissions. It could not have hurt to have submitted something, if only to make the Philippines a regular presence in voters' minds, but the FAP cannot be completely blamed: these were relatively weak years for strong Filipino films that could possibly garner favorable Oscar attention. Insubstantial erotic films (then called "TF" or "titillating films), action pictures, and projects based on actual massacres and other heinous crimes dominated the cinemas during this period. These were also times of great social change in the Philippines, with the 1986 EDSA Revolution throwing Marcos out of office and the new Aquino administration being saddled with the responsibility of rebuilding the nation amidst constant coup de etat threats. However, the failure to submit Lino Brocka's Orapronobis, a 1989 film that got major play in international festivals, is glaring. Other essential Filipino films that could have been sent for consideration: Macho Dancer (Dir: Lino Brocka; 1989) and Sakay (Dir: Raymond Red; 1993).
-1995 (68th): Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin (Harvest Home; Dir: Carlitos Siguion-Reyna). Siguion-Reyna was to make a name for himself in later years as the filmmaker of choice for sensual dramas. But before that, a rather conventional drama got him a possible ticket to the Oscars. To say that this is an odd choice for a submission would be a severe understatement. It was not nominated for the top prize by two of the major award-giving bodies of the Philippines (the critics of the Urian, and FAP itself). Aside from that, there was no lack of options. Significantly more important and more awarded that year was The Flor Contemplacion Story, Joel Lamangan's timely film on the trial and conviction of a Filipina domestic helper in Singapore, played by respected veteran actress Nora Aunor. The film is very dramatic, as many Filipino films tend to be, but it's a biopic and raises questions on foreign relations and cultural differences. Siguion-Reyna's film started the trend of submissions being melodramatic pieces set in rural or destitute conditions.
-1996 (69th): Segurista (Dead Sure; Dir: Amable Aguiluz). This film was the most critically acclaimed and awarded of its year, so it was likely also the obvious choice then for FAP. Of the other popular melodramas that year, Gil M. Portes's Mulanay: Sa Pusod ng Paraisoand Antonio Jose Perez's Mumbaki would have been the only other sensible choices, both being culturally sensitive pieces of good cinema.
-1997 (70th): Milagros (Dir: Marilou Diaz-Abaya). Diaz-Abaya's second submitted film is another traditional Filipino drama that, like Segurista before it, is about a woman in the escort service. However, it was penned by revered Filipino writer Rolando Tinio, so it was a cut above the others of its kind. Siguion-Reyna's erotic Ligaya ang Itawag Mo sa Akin (They Call Me Joy) would have been a more controversial choice. Aguiluz's Rizal sa Dapitan, a film about the Philippine national hero Jose Rizal, would have been an adequate choice had it been well received by critics and awarding bodies.
-1998 (71st): Sa Pusod ng Dagat (In the Navel of the Sea; Dir: Marilou Diaz-Abaya). Another film set in the rural Philippines, this time about a fisherman. Diaz-Abaya could have deserved a third Oscar-submitted film that year, but not for this. That same year, she directed Jose Rizal, perhaps one of the definitive and most honored of the projects based on the national hero. It is a costume drama set in the Spanish era of the Philippines and about an internationally recognized historical figure. It could have easily made the short-list of the Best Foreign Language Film category, even though the competition was especially fierce that year (with Brazil's Central Station and Italy's Life is Beautiful among the eligible pictures). This could easily be the most bewildering submission of FAP in all its years of submitting entries. Even Chito Roño's Vilma Santos-starrer Bata, Bata...Paano Ka Ginawa?, a non-conventional drama penned by respected novelist Lualhati Bautista, would have been a better choice than Navel.
-1999 (72nd): Saranggola (The Kite; Dir: Gil M. Portes). Yet another melodrama set in the squalor of Manila; somehow FAP failed to realize that the Academy does not go for films like these. Jeffrey Jeturian's Pila-Balde (Fetch a Pail of Water), possibly the only other choice, is similarly themed, but at least it had major representation in international festivals, an aspect of selection that FAP has not been able to utilize fully to date.
-2000 (73rd): Anak (The Child; Dir: Rory Quintos). For a country that supposedly takes great pride in its heroes, it is very telling how it could neglect to send for consideration yet another film on Jose Rizal. Mike de Leon's Bayaning Third World had the additional advantages of being utterly unconventional and post-modern in its approach, and having as its director Mike de Leon, one of the major contributors in the Second Golden Age. Instead, FAP opted for Anak, an overly dramatic film elevated by Vilma Santos's bravura performance and its touching on the plight of Overseas Contract Workers. It is not a bad film, but it is undoubtedly one of FAP's weakest and most unenlightened choices for a submission.
-2001 (74th): Gatas sa Dibdib ng Kaaway (In the Bosom of the Enemy; Dir: Gil M. Portes). Here's the statistic: this film did not win a single citation from any award-giving body. In fact, its only nomination was one for its lead actress. How did it get FAP's nod as the official submission? First, practically all of the other major players that year were known more for their eroticism than for anything else (Hubog, Live Show, La Vida Rosa). Second, the film that got most citations that year was a challenging five-hour opus based in the United States. Never mind that it won a number of international awards. Looking back now, however, Batang West Side by iconoclast Lav Diaz should have been the ONLY logical choice, whatever its length.
-2002 (75th): Mga Munting Tinig (Small Voices; Dir: Gil M. Portes). FAP undoubtedly loves Portes, enough to give him a third chance at an Oscar nomination. Inspirational, saccharine, and multi-awarded (including three major wins at the Palm Beach International Film Festival), it is perhaps Portes's only truly justified entry. Too bad this melodrama is not the type of film that voters go for, particularly not in a year with Hero (People's Republic of China), El Crimen del Padre Amaro (Mexico), The Man Without a Past (Finland), and eventual winner Nowhere in Africa (Germany) among the competition.
-2003 (76th): Dekada '70 (Dir: Chito S. Roño). Based on an award-winning book by respected novelist Lualhati Bautista, it would be difficult to argue the selection of this film as the country's entry. It is a powerful family drama set during the regime of the dictator Marcos, and it won major local awards.
-2004 (77th): Crying Ladies (Dir: Mark Meily). This whimsical dramedy was well loved during its release for the affecting performances of Sharon Cuneta and Hilda Koronel, and for its unconventional style. Sleek and polished, it was ready-made for an international audience. At least technically. The story, about professional mourners in burials, is difficult enough for many Filipinos to relate to. What more for foreigners? Ken Rudolph, a member of the foreign film committee of AMPAS, says just as much in his blog. Maryo J. de los Reyes's Magnifico, a heart-tugging drama that won honors in the Berlinale, might have been a better choice in retrospect.
-2005 (78th): No submission, supposedly because of FAP's failure to inform AMPAS of its change of address. Cesar Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba (The Call of the River), a film shot in the Visayan dialect, and Lav Diaz's 10-hour Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family) would have been good choices, though Panaghoy may have had a better shot at being short-listed.
-2006 (79th): Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros; Dir: Auraeus Solito). This is perhaps one of FAP's better choices. An endearing film that is one of the stalwarts of the Philippine digital movement, it played well in international festivals and even scored a nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards. It had some amount of buzz coming into the race. But did the digital format hurt its chances? Rudolph says in his review that the video transfer was fuzzy and made watching it difficult. Or was its homosexual tone detrimental to its chances?
One of the best Filipino digital films. But did that hurt the film's Oscar chances at the end?
-2007 (80th): Donsol (Dir: Adolfo Alix, Jr.). A picturesque film on love and heartache in the midst of whale sharks in Sorsogon, Donsol is visually appealing and emotional, and it is timely with its environmental slant. For these reasons, it was probably the logical choice among the digital films released during the eligibility period. But just like Pagdadalaga, the digital film transfer proved inadequate (Rudolph's review), and the new style of direction so favored by the emerging crop of Filipino filmmakers may have been too simplistic for the voters. This should be addressed if the digital wave of Filipino cinema is to have a chance at that elusive Oscar gold.
-2008 (81st): Ploning (Dir: Dante Nico Garcia). The entry for the 81st Academy Awards is a small, charming, well loved film starring and produced by Judy Ann Santos, a huge celebrity in the Philippines. Like Donsol before it, Ploning relies as much on the beauty of its set location--a quiet, seaside town in Palawan--as on the more traditional film aspects. The zealous campaign by Santos and her supporters proved successful in convicncing FAP to send it as the nation's entry, and the decision would have been entirely justified had Brillante Mendoza's Serbis (Service) not been released the same year. Unlike Ploning, Serbis had major international recognition; it was a contender for no less than the Golden Palm in Cannes, a feat not achieved by any Filipino film since Kapit sa Patalim, Bayan Ko, the Philippine entry in 1985. It was a bewildering move on FAP's move to dismiss Serbis, to say the least.
There have been good choices over the years, but even in those years when the Philippines seemed to have sent the most logical submissions, the Academy did not look favorably enough upon the entries to nominate them. Quite simply, many of the Philippine entries have themes that are not the Academy's cup of tea. The Academy traditionally prefers costume epics, war films (particularly those that have to do with the second World War), culturally significant movies, intimate interpersonal pieces, or works by renowned auteurs. With a few exceptions (like Dekada '70, perhaps), the country's recent submissions have not played on any of these popular themes.
There is, of course, the question of whether or not the voters actually bother to watch entries from the Philippines. While the nomination for Vietnam in 1993 (The Scent of Green Papaya; Dir: Anh Hung Tran) might dispel notions of prejudice against films from small Southeast Asian films, it is telling that films from the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and their neighbors have not gained traction amidst the usual nominees: film giants like Sweden, Italy, Germany, and Japan. Prior to its getting its Oscar nomination, Scent won attention at Cannes and some other international festivals. Filipino films do not have a strong enough presence in major film festivals, especially in recent years. Since 1995, none of the country's entries has been screened at any of the more significant fests like Cannes and Berlin. A significant splash in Sundance, in recent years a fairly good market for eventual Oscar nominees, would do wonders for a Filipino film. It is also worth noting that Scent was mostly a French production, so the filmmakers had at their disposal foreign funding and technical capabilities and the backing of a big film giant of a country.
Hypothetically, what would then be the Philippines's best shot at an Oscar nomination? A film that 1) is co-produced by a foreign company; 2) is directed by a premiere, internationally known Filipino filmmaker; 3) is about a major historical event or figure, such as the revolution against Spain, the EDSA Revolution, or, the Academy's favorite, World War II (or another film on Jose Rizal, or one based on his "Noli Me Tangere" or "El Filibusterismo"); 4) and gets major representation (actual awards would just be a plus) in Cannes or Berlin. Serbis, the overlooked option last year, was co-financed by French collaborators, directed by a filmmaker who has been making a name for himself in the international film festival circuit, and was up for the Golden Palm in Cannes. At three out of four, it was the Philippines's best shot at a nomination in many years. Much as our directors love making them, family melodramas, particularly those set in the environs of the urban poor, are still unlikely to get the attention of the foreign language film committee. And if the film is to be made on digital, the issue of flawed video transfer raised with Pagdadalaga and Donsol must be promptly addressed.
Of course, Filipino filmmakers should not make films for the sake of getting an Oscar nomination. Despite the general dearth of quality Filipino films in the current era, there are emerging directors with unique visions and statements, giving Philippine cinema an all-new look and welcome new direction. It remains to be seen how this new identity of Filipino films will play out in an ever-expanding international movie scene, and how an evolving Academy would respond to it.
Thanks to Torene Svitil, Awards Department Head of AMPAS, for vital information on the Philippine entries!