Celluloid Regression and Sadness

still from Makamisa. Grabbed from producer, Achinette Villamor’s post.

My kneejerk reaction to the trailer of Khavn’s soon-to-be-released film Makamisa is nothing less than disappointment – mainly due to the fact that the work is shot in celluloid. The trailer – and the film – closes the circle among the “trailblazers” of the so-called “Philippine New Wave” of the 2000s who regressed to using celluloid films after championing (or being championed for pushing) digital filmmaking to different ends and extremes.

But thinking about whether this is really a regression or not makes me remember that filmmakers from that scene have – in pockets – gone the celluloid route since the beginning. We can always cite Raya Martin’s Maicling Pelicula nang Ysang Indio Nacional (2005) as an example, if not for its fusion with a DV section. Martin followed his celluloid works with Independencia (2009) and Buenas Noches Espana (2011). John Torres’ Lucas Nino (2013) was shot in 16mm in full – done right after he produced Shireen Seno’s super-8 feature, Big Boy (2011). In between, Gym Lumbera’s debut double feature also had a fusion of celluloid and archival digital footage (Anak Araw & Taglish, both released in 2012). Lav Diaz has gone late with doing films again in celluloid with his features When the Waves are Gone (2022) and Essential Truths of the Lake (2023). 

Contemporary approaches to celluloid have a weirdly cynical character to them. Some of the films mentioned above (Lucas Nino, When the Waves are Gone, etc) use the medium-material as mere vehicles for recording – the more common attitude during the reign of celluloid. In a way, that kind of use made the material “disappear” in front of us to help its audience focus more on the information than the container, all the while retaining some of the characteristics of the medium-material to at least call attention to it (the frame size in Lukas Nino, the film grains in When the Waves are Gone). At most also, these films are not even fully produced through the celluloid means as they are post-produced digitally. 

Other films call more attention to the container by way of the defects, appealing to its very “materiality” as a signifier of creative control. A design by “destruction” in a way. For example, Adrian Mendizabal alludes to the “chemical process” involved in the production of the film-images in Gym Lumbera’s Class Picture (a short film that was also included in Anak Araw) that makes the faces of the people shot in the frame be replaced with a “vacuous” ones. These processes, of course, are deliberately incomplete ones which, I suspect, involve either underdeveloping the prints or mismatching the film stock or the camera settings with the light conditions. Then again, images can be destroyed in post-production, and that post-production process does not need to be analog or mechanical either.  

Class Picture (2011, dir. Gym Lumbera)

By cynical, I mean there’s really not much “trust” placed on the medium-material. The resulting image can be fixed, adjusted or destroyed in digital post anyway (how many of these contemporary celluloid works are NOT manipulated digitally, I wonder). It gets even funnier considering the fuzz that just came from the whole “digital is liberation theology” of Lav Diaz or the filmless manifestos of Khavn. And from these histories, I think, the unironic contemporary use of celluloid is, for the lack of a better word, sad. (That is to say that there’s a potentially ironic use of the material but it’s something we’re probably yet to see.)

This sadness I am referring to is a whole lot of a funny dilemma of several layers. At one point, this makes me sound nostalgic over the time when these trailblazers were punk enough to suggest that consumer-grade video can be, and, at the time, is cinema. But then, this nostalgia is against something that induces contemporary forms of nostalgia. Funnier are the common justifications for celluloid that swing between the procedural (not a new argument that mostly borrows from the Fluxus movement, whose artists interestingly transitioned from celluloid to video for their procedural explorations) and the romantic (again, an even older argument that borders cringe-like nostalgia over the material). 

(What does the celluloid mean anyway? In recent times? As a Filipino? What is there left to say through the decays? The scratches? The anomalies? The artifacts? Archival materials and older films originally shot in celluloid understandably bear them with history. Even those who experimented with it materially during the heyday of celluloid’s hegemony did whatever they did with the medium within the very consciousness of their own time. I suppose it will be even sadder if celluloid “experiments” now are pastiche, in a way that even as pastiche, it’s not even a novelty.)

Going back to the attitude’s cynicism. The idea back then of an “independent cinema” – in the 2000s at least – resides within the digital medium itself. Does the scene feel that the whole cinema industrial complex’s motions towards full digitization in the cinematic assembly line betrayed these digital revolutionary hopes for independence that their recourse is to regress to the very thing they were battling against?

But then, as the subtitle of the Khavn-edited Philippine New Wave book says, the 2000s digital film scene was never a film movement. At the time, the phrase “this is not a film movement” with all its postmodernist posture sounded anarchic with its full idealism that since it does not go marching organizationally, it can foster different paths. But the phrase, stripped off of its postmodernist posh, is just a statement of a fact that resulted tragically in the neoliberal surrender to film labs, film markets, and film grants which funding sources may or may not be tied to genocide, violent displacements of people, or extrajudicial killing. 

There may be even worse of this regression where points for “materiality” drag the practice towards the reactionary art gallery whose only contradiction for cinema is whether it belongs to the black box or the white cube. Whether holding on to celluloid is the last grip of the romantic towards acknowledging film as art (in a pre-modern sense) or not is something left to be discussed. But I’m guessing that the answer will be the saddest of all, by way of a facepalm.

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