Reel Resistance: TIFF’s Newest Programme Explores Filipino Cinema

they call me joy

After 400 years of colonization, dictatorship, and rebellion, resistance has been written into every page of Filipino history. Spanish/American/Japanese occupations have had an impact in ways still being unpacked today, ways that have manifested in the Filipino people’s own governance of the country.

This fall, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Bell Lightbox is bringing a series called People Have the Power: Resistance in Filipino Cinema to Canadian audiences. The series is a journey through nine films, illustrating the myriad ways of resistance embodied by the Filipino people. None of these films are easy to watch, but don’t take that as discouragement–quite the opposite. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Filipino cinema over the years, it’s that they ask just as much of the audience as they do of their actors and characters, and the result is a masterpiece.

TIFF Programmer Steve Gravestock agrees. In a short conversation, he explains the catalyst for the series: “We’ve been actually talking about doing a series on the Philippines for a while. I think I suggested to Jesse Wente [Head of Film Programmes, TIFF] a couple years ago, and he finally got space in the calendar and I think things had changed politically [in the Philippines] since we started discussing it. I don’t think that that really changed the nature of the series, I think that was always the thread we were gonna look at, given that for many people outside the Philippines, the real birth of Filipino cinema starts with [director] Lino Brocka and the politically charged melodramas that he made.”

Insiang Lino Brocka 1976

Brocka’s films are known for their melodramatic narratives and commentary on poverty and social norms, led by Cannes Festival finalist Insiang. As an opening film for the series, Insiang not only establishes the tone for the rest of the films, but makes a pretty unforgettable impression on its own. Introduced to the audience by professor Robert Diaz, the film stars a hardened Hilda Koronel against the harsh slums of Tondo. The titular character is a young woman caught between the deeply ingrained cruelty of the society around her and her own instinctual need to survive.

I’d never seen Insiang before, though I had heard of the international acclaim that it won forty years ago. Widely considered to be Brocka’s ultimate masterpiece, Insiang is a gut-punch of a story, revealing some of the secret scars on the Filipino collective psyche from poverty, discrimination, and of course, the effects of colonization.

Robert Diaz, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, introduced the film with a short talk on the roles of power and pleasure in Filipino cinema. Prior to his lecture, I spoke with him about his own appreciation for Insiang. “If you look at all the films of this period, poverty can be seen as ‘look at all the terrible things happening in the Philippines,’ but if you look at Insiang and other films like it, there’s a particular way that characters are pursuing different types of pleasure, looking for different kinds of identity, creating different kinds of community and belonging that can’t be captured,” Diaz explains. “They resist these particular ways–during the [Marcos] dictatorship, our relationships to each other were very much disciplined by the state.”

Hilda Koronel and Mona Lisa in Insiang (1976)

Insiang is one woman’s story, reflected against the country’s own struggle against cruelty and poverty–many of the films in this series follow similar lines. Erik Matti’s Honor Thy Father positions John Lloyd Cruz as a father who finds himself trapped between greed and protecting his family. Dark is the Night brings the horrific reality of Duterte’s drug war to a mother’s (Gina Alajar) door. In Evolution of a Filipino Family, Lav Diaz brings his signature slow burn filmmaking to the story of a family living under Marcos’ dictatorship.

Clearly, the influence of films like Insiang can’t be overstated, though Diaz does acknowledge that “modern representations of women in Filipino cinema don’t push the boundaries as much as the cinema of the 1970s and the 1980s. I think that has something to do with the notion that precisely because we’ve progressed, we don’t need to push these boundaries anymore.” Women like Insiang are still caught in the middle of debates about reproductive rights or the recognized ability to divorce a partner. Will these issues be further dissected in films going forward? Perhaps, and perhaps they will be the subject of future TIFF series–I certainly hope so.

If Gravestock has any say in the matter, this won’t be the last bit of spotlight Filipino cinema will have at TIFF. “There’s lots of great cinema, every year, we don’t have enough space to show all the Filipino cinema,” he laments. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.

Angel Cruz

Angel Cruz

Angel Cruz is a writer and boy band scholar. You can also find her at Book Riot for endless discussion and flailing over all things literature. Ice cream, Broadway musicals, and Arashi are her lifeblood.