Like several films appearing in the 26th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival’s Philippines retrospective, Eyesore (dir. Arturo Boncato Jr., Cesar Hernando, Mario Guzman, Mylene Segundera, Joseph Fortin, and Ditsi Carolino, 1990) has a broken body. Its heartbreaking scenes of children forced to live on the streets of Manila survive without sound, relying on burnt-in English subtitles to convey the experiences of solvent reliance, prostitution, and rough sleeping. The film’s colors flicker between a desaturated state and hints of what the film stock may have originally looked like. But this is an important film that surpasses its cosmetic state, and one of many highlights in Ji.hlava’s program, which weaved through early documentation of the country, local responses to the Marcos dictatorship, and contemporary work.

Eduardo de Castro’s 1937 Zamboanga (Fury in Paradise) — the first film produced by a Filipino production company — wears clashing subtitles made for English-speaking and Filipino audiences. It’s a visual marker of the geographical movements of the film, which was rediscovered outside of the Philippines by filmmaker and scholar Nick Deocampo. These fragmented experiences are exemplary of how parts of the cinematic history of the Philippines have survived — as celluloid prints in need of preservation and restoration, or as low-resolution and compressed files that have passed between viewers over time, constituting a “poor image” that Hito Steyerl’s essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” conveys so astutely. These viewing experiences are far different to those of other so-called national film histories and highlight how much we take for granted the high-definition, meticulously restored body of other — largely Western — countries’ cinematic heritages.

Still from Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song (1987), dir. Nick Deocampo

The Philippines’ film history is one intrinsically linked to colonialism, with the cinematic apparatus quite literally invading the country through American and British actions at the turn of the 20th century. In Advance of Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan (dir. James H. White, 1899), American soldiers are seen pushing against Filipino troops, and when a stars-and-stripes-waving soldier is shot, another begins waving it in his stead. This minute-long clip is one of the earliest surviving documents of the Philippines on film, and one that openly depicts damage brought by the United States. Elsewhere in Dean C. Worcester’s Native Life in the Philippines (1913), island tribes are put on display and made to perform for the camera, with a white colonial figure often seen lingering in frame, guiding the performances and handing out rewards.

Much of the footage from Worcester’s documentary is recontextualized in Marlon Fuentes’s famous docudrama Bontoc Eulogy (1995), where the filmmaker reflects on his relationship to the Philippines from his position in the United States, presenting a fictional yet plausible narrative about his grandfather’s appearance and disappearance as an attraction in the St. Louis World Fair. In Fuentes’s film, archival images are assembled in a way that makes what they don’t depict and what they could have depicted just as unsettling.

A decade prior to Fuentes’s film, local filmmakers in the Philippines began grappling with the effects of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship, which would finally collapse in 1986. Deocampo’s Revolutions Happen Like Refrains in a Song (1987) captures not only scenes from protest movements during that period, but how the newfound sense of freedom felt for the country’s queer community. But these are still tragic images; in “Let This Film Serve as a Manifesto for a New” Cinema (1990), Deocampo returns to the footage and signposts the presence of a student protestor who would later be killed.

Still from “To Pick a Flower” (2021), dir. Shireen Seno

Prior to the revolution, Deocampo built a reputation for depicting subjects on the fringes of society, namely with his film Oliver (1983), a character study of Reynaldo “Oliver” Villarama, a dancer in a gay nightclub who impersonates Liza Minnelli and performs a “Spider-man” routine involving pulling a long lead of string out of his anus. The film carefully balances its social commentary with a genuine interest in Villarama as an individual. There is an active embracing of the spectacle and confidence of his performances, and delicate interviews with the family members whom he supports financially.

The Philippines’ economic destabilization at the hands of the Marcos family is reflected in a string of films from the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Eyesore. “In Manila” (dir. Ricky Orellana, Josephine Atienza, and Mike Alcazaren, 1989) turns its eye toward the disparity between Manila’s boom of building construction and the poverty on its streets, often using puddles and mirrors to frame people and buildings. The film’s soundscape of scraping metal and grinding machinery is matched by the pace of its editing, creating a distorted city symphony. “Child of Manila” (dir. Dange Desembrana and Emmanuel Dadivas, 1993) combines animation with live action to explore the same themes, with the formal qualities of the hand-drawn, paper-surfaced woman and child highlighting their precarious status and the hidden-in-plain-sight nature of the city’s homeless inhabitants.

Experimental animated forms can convey the anger around dictatorships in more visually abstract yet powerful terms. Two films by artist Roxlee — “ABCD” (1985) and “The Great Smoke” (1984) — succinctly capture the sensations of rage and suppression, the former asking why the Philippines remains a poor country despite its abundance of natural resources, and the latter exploring the consequences of nuclear attacks like Hiroshima. These animations move through collage and archival photographs as much as they do hand-drawn forms, with a sense that historical documents can never just be stagnant. The power dynamics of photographic representations are something many Filipino filmmakers explore, as seen in Shireen Seno’s recent essay film “To Pick a Flower” (2021). The short uses images taken during the United States’ occupation of the Philippines to probe the colonial associations of photography and the visual language of presenting mastery over nature.

Seno and other contemporary filmmakers including Lav Diaz round out the Ji.hlava retrospective with contemporary examples, many of which address the continued impact of political turmoil — the same turmoil that makes producing and collating work from the Philippines a challenge, but necessary. Eyesore and In Manila alone feel like city portraiture works that need to enter the “official” canon that is largely Westernized and Eurocentric, and the quality of the selection of films overall demonstrates why these fragmented cinematic histories need to be championed and supported alongside more established ones.

The 26th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival took place in Jihlava, Czech Republic, October 25 – 30, 2022.

Andrew Northrop is a writer based in London, UK. He works in restoration and on film festivals and often writes about essay films, uses of archival footage, and coming of age/“slacker” narratives.