Claiming Our ‘Own’ (Asian) Film Avant-Garde

By Nick Deocampo

Roxlee. Juan Gapang (Johnny Crawl), 1987. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

With the body for its theme, the curated Filipino program in the first Asian ‘Avant-Garde Film Festival’ at M+ offers a cartographic survey of bodies, showcasing exemplary works from a generation that survived a period of military repression in the Philippines. Oliver, a documentary shot in 1983, is a film which redefined Philippine documentary by working on taboo themes of homosexuality and prostitution, showing the potency of the body as a semiotic index cutting its way through an era of bigotry and censorship. Its arachnidal character maps out socially marginalised spaces from slums to gay bars, where the forsaken and the forbidden could be found. Roxlee’s Juan Gapang (Johnny Crawl, 1987) follows a nomadic body crawling through the interstices of Manila’s urban jungle, revealing the crevices of abject spaces. The body offers a sentient carcass of living matter as it roams a city that is devoid of compassion. Victoria Donato, rightly claiming her stature as the Philippines’ pioneer female experimental filmmaker, challenges male-centered desire with her film’s thwarting depiction of sexual fantasies in Hubog (Body Form, 1989). Film theorist Laura Mulvey will be happy to see her taunting film.


Aestheticising and politicising the body offers an occasion to reveal Philippine society’s continued marginalisation of genders, classes, and identities. The body offers a sentient object living an itinerant life found in three films that speak of the human body warped by the politics of a militarised society. The films were made after the period of martial law (1972–1981) under the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos, surviving the grim era of alingering fascist rule. The films come from three filmmakers who did not shirk away from the dark side of their times, mastering the power of signs—indexical, iconic, symbolic—to leave behind slivers of images bespeaking of their courage to depict in cinematic images their troubled times. All made by a generation that withstood the dark years of a military regime, the films made by these avant-filmmakers trace marks of repression and corruption, revealing the struggle of bodies to survive, and the courage of filmmakers to speak their truths.


How can these three films coming from a cinematic past distil the Philippines’ counter-cinematic heritage? The program offers a lens, call it avantgarde, that views one of Asia’s rich film cultures in abstracted, torn, slivers of cinematic expression. The nature of these films is to compose as they are to dismember, expressing their creative impulse as they reinvent cinema after years of suppressed creativity. Their adherence to cinematic form resorts to their subversion of filmic convention and tradition. They point an accusing finger at dominance and oppression. Forming a bricolage, they assemble bodies as they also fragment them, speaking of the nature of cinematic pattern—from the avant-gardism of Luis Buñuel and Maya Deren of the distant past to the present period of reinventing cinema in the face of technological obsolescence and disruption.


Philippine Alternative Cinema

The films share aspace in cinema that is marginal. They belong to the camp of the Philippine alternative cinema. At other times, this cinema has been called underground, political, experimental, other. We who made the films were children of a troubled past,when repression and sexuality oddly mixed to produce a cinema that could only show the perversity of the society we once lived in. With this cinema of struggle, we broke new ground to advance cinematic expressions that defied the conventional and the hegemonic. We were thrust into the borderline and the peripheral. We struggled for our space that could be found in workshops and in festivals through media varied in style and form—experimental, documentary, performance art, political, queer, ethnographic, Super 8 film, analogue video, digital, virtual—anything to embody a multiplicity of our desires in cinema.  

Victoria Donato. Hubog, 1989. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The three films belong to the Philippine alternative cinema that helped define the struggle our generation made in the Eighties. We found in the rhizomatic paradigm the kind of cinema we sought to have. It came in a network of film forms—from documentaries to experimental, animation to music video, student films to virtual art. They form an alternative cinematic reality to traditional Filipino entertainment films. These alternative film forms span the entire breadth of motion picture history in the Philippines. The three films are mere fragments of a greater upheaval that challenged the monolithic movie industry. They form a subterranean flow of counter-cinema that sought new cinematic forms to express the dissent a generation felt towards an old system that failed to address the heterogeneous and multiple traits of an archipelagic reality definingour character as a people.


Looking at the pattern of growth of this alternative cinema, its development has been shaped by the nomadic journeys of filmmakers in search of a new relevance for thecinema they created.  Their borderless travels create a cartographic pattern not just of itinerant cinemas but of wandering bodies which offer the freedom to explore the many possibilities in both screens and selves. Like the ‘bodies without organs’ mentioned by the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, alternative cinema has a more fluid, borderless organisation, similar to the islandic configuration of the Philippine archipelago. There is no formal organisation to control its growth, no central authority to command its development. Each film is an individual expression. A model of an organ-less body, alternative cinema offers a path to cinema’s own liberation, a way forward to its continued emancipation. From it comes the blossoming of cinemas never imagined before. The age of a thousand cinemas has dawned with the emancipation of the moving picture image.

Nick Deocampl. Oliver, 1983. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The significance of this marginal cinema is in its redefinition of the Philippine national cinema.For a century, Philippine cinema has been defined to mean only the ‘mainstream, popular, cinema’, hardly including in the definition of the ‘national’ marginalised and non-commercial forms like short films, documentaries, and experimental, to name a few. By recognising the rhizomatic nature of cinema, Philippine cinema can benefit from the richness of expressions, forms, and uses that motion pictures can bring to Philippine culture. Alternative cinema provides a heterogenous field where its ecology and practice produce a variety of films that best suit the archipelagic nature of the Filipino nation. This could only happen by allowing real people to take control of the cinematic medium, granting them the freedom to express their desires on screen. It is forthe filmmakers-yet-to-come to see in their own desires their own nomadic journeys and chart a cinema that will best define the nation—and the cinema—they seek to have: a cinema that is free and emancipating. A people’s cinema.    


Personally, my own career as a filmmaker and a proponent of alternative cinema has been sustained for decades despite political, technological, and social upheavals. I would like to think that creating a space for experimental and documentary cinemas during the early Eighties merited the recognition that will be given to us in the festival. Furthering the cause, writing alternative cinema’s history inbooks and curating film festivals celebrating Philippine experimental cinema bothcreate space for marginalised cinematic expressions, when previously there were none in our country’s history of cinema. With other curated programs coming from China, Hong Kong, and other countries, it is reassuring to know that similar nomadic artists have been carving their own similar spaces in their respective cinemas for the odd and the bizarre, even the ugly and the taboo, and telling our own truths in the process. The spirit of the avant-garde lives on in Asia! We write our own history.        


About Nick Deocampo

Nick Deocampo (b.1959) is a historian, filmmaker, and pioneering advocate of queer cinema inthe Philippines. He studied under filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, among other radical artists in Paris. Since the early 1980s, he has beenactively engaged in enriching the cinematic landscape with perspectives that are at once challenging, lucid, and loving. As a prolific writer on the political and cultural history of the Philippines, he creates new reference points in alternative Filipino culture with works that portray members of his community, including personal friends, in a generous light.



This original piece is written for M+’s inaugural ‘Asian Avant-Garde Film Festival’ in accompaniment with the screening of Oliver (1983) in the ‘Slivers of Desire’ segment co-curated by Deocampo and M+.

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