Jose Rizal, Cinema and the Filipino Nation

A Film Lecture/Presentation by Nick Deocampo (Center for New Cinema)

jrThe coupling of Dr. Jose Rizal and the Filipino nation has traditionally been regarded as our way of memorializing our sense of nationhood. Add to these two the popular film in the way it captures in the public imagination the couple’s significance. What results is a triad of iconic figures with their own distinct personalities embodying what may be regarded as “Filipino.” This could not have been shown more publicly than during the centennial celebration of the Philippine Republic in 1998. Three films on Rizal were made carving as it were a niche for the “First Filipino” to be the fitting embodiment of our celebration of the birth of the nation. But before there were the centennial films, film history shows us that filming the life of the country’s foremost hero had been a staple fare in the local movie industry. In my book, Film: American Influences on Philippine Cinema, it is claimed that the country’s first feature-length film was about Rizal made in 1912 by an American, Edward Meyer Gross, signaling the inauguration of what would one day turn into the Tagalog movie industry and what would be presently known as Philippine cinema. The so-called Father of Tagalog/Filipino cinema, Don Jose Nepomuceno, also paid homage to Rizal filming his two novels, Noli and Fili—sadly now part of our lost film heritage.

The long history of local cinema would be further enriched by films made about the Great Malay and his works. Among these gems is Gerardo de Leon’s Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961), a monumental tribute to the great work of Rizal; a novel which, with El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster, film version made in 1962), set fire to a revolution for which we in the present owe our independence. De Leon’s film is epic as it is thought-provoking. It brings back, with fidelity to the original text but with much cinematic elan to spare, the anguish of a people wanting to be free from their colonizer. The film, as it is the novel, is about freedom. The film resurrects the undying yearning of a people to attain their independence. But since the time the novel, as it was the film, was made and seen, what do we in the present democracy make out of what Rizal, through de Leon, labored so hard in order to immortalize on print and in celluloid the origin of being Filipino? Are we worthy of their legacies? Do we not fail them with every corruption committed in government, slaying of our own kind, or allowing the church to abuse our secular lives? Looking at our present society in 2011, it is a shame to think that the present is still haunted by the past, with Filipinos doing harm to fellow Filipinos this time. How could we have lost our sense of critical view of our society, and of ourselves! This is why we are watching this film again—and re-reading the novel—during the sesquicentennial celebration of the birth of the man and the legend—in order to remember and not to forget what sacrifices were made to set us free.

In this lecture-presentation, I will begin with the screening of film excerpts to include the 3D animation which I have produced about the birth of cinema in the Philippines (Rizal was shot two days before motion pictures were shown in Escolta). This clip will prepare the students for the lecture by providing the context of the themes of cinema, the notion of “revolution” and the twin births of cinema and nation. This will be followed by a powerpoint presentation of the Rizal films made by two Americans which inaugurated the country’s local feature-length film production. This happened in 1912. The rivalry between the two Americans, Yearsley and Gross, unwittingly resulted to the popular installation of Rizal as a “national” hero in the public imagination, implicating film in the act of “nation-building,” which ironically happened in the heat of American colonization.  Then, I will fast-forward to a hundred years ahead during the Philippine centennial when our way of celebrating our notion of nationhood was to produce three Rizal films. This is where I can show video excerpts showing scenes from Marilou Diaz Abaya’s and Mike de Leon’s Rizal films, Gerry de Leon’s Noli Me Tangere, and other films on Rizal and his works. I will bring to the discussion contemporary issues surrounding Rizal and how we in the present frame issues like nation and nationalism.