Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka, Lav Diaz, And More: 12 Filipino Film Directors That Have Shaped Philippine Cinema
Celebrating its 100 years, Philippine cinema has been shaped over time by the ingenuity of legendary filmmakers. With their masterful direction, they catapulted the careers of iconic actors and actresses into stardom and, more importantly, showcased Filipino culture and the struggles of our nation. Their films, some of which have been restored and reintroduced to the younger generation, continue to be relevant today.
From local awards like FAMAS and Urian to prestigious international award-giving bodies like Cannes, Berlinale, and the Venice International Film Festivals, these filmmakers have conquered the film industry and made sure that the doors would remain open for their protégés and the budding film directors they have inspired:
1/12 MANUEL CONDE
Notable works: Genghis Khan (1950), Ibong Adarna (1941), Ang Ibong Adarna (1955), Juan Tamad film series (1947 to 1963), Prinsipe Teñoso (1954), Siete Infantes de Lara (1950, and remake in 1973), Molave (1961)
As one of the biggest names in the film industry during its golden age in the '50s, Manuel Conde was the first to bring Philippine cinema to the international stage with his epic film Genghis Khan at the 1952 Venice Film Festival. Cited for its technical achievement, the film was also well received at the 1952 Edinburgh Film Festival. It showcases Conde's resourcefulness and the creativity of his co-director and co-actor Lou Salvador and his production designer Carlos "Botong" Francisco, who was eventually conferred as a National Artist.
Manuel Conde (born Manuel Urbano) had initially used the screen name Juan Urbano in the 1930s. He came from Daet, Camarines Norte and released his first film entitled Mahiwagang Biyolin in 1935. He was a prolific actor, director, and producer, and was known for successfully finishing films of epic scale in terms of production design despite shoe-string budgets.
He died in 1985 and was conferred the title of National Artist for Cinema in 2009, among his other prestigious accolades.
2/12 GERARDO DE LEON
Notable works: Noli Me Tangere (1961), El Filibusterismo (1962), Sisa (1951), Banaue: Stairway to the Sky (1975), Dyesebel (1953), Pedro Penduko (1954), and American-financed cult horror films in the 1960s like Terror is a Man (1959), Brides of Blood (1968), and Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1969), among others
Gerardo de Leon, born as Gerardo Ilagan, was a medical doctor by profession but his passion for film arts led him to his prolific career as an actor and director. His first job was as a pianist at the Cine Moderno in Quiapo, Manila, where he played musical scores for silent films.
During World War II, he was one of many directors who made propaganda films commissioned by the occupying Japanese forces, which led to his arrest for charges of treason after the war. When evidence of his assistance to Filipino rebels came forth, he was pardoned and eventually became one of the most successful directors during Philippine cinema's golden age.
Besides his award-winning films based on books and serial comics, he was also known for American slasher films in the '60s, two of which he co-directed with another prolific director, Eddie Romero. When sexy films were the craze during the '70s, he was hired by "The Pope of Pop Cinema" Roger Corman to direct Women in Cages (1971) which featured iconic actresses Pam Grier and Sofia Moran.
De Leon died in 1981 and immediately a year later was conferred as National Artist for Cinema.
3/12 LAMBERTO AVELLANA
Notable works: Anak Dalita (1956), Badjao (1957), Kandelerong Pilak (1954), Kundiman ng Lahi (1959), A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (1965), and international films that had worldwide releases like Sergeant Hassan (1958), Destination: Vietnam (1968), The Evil Within (1970)
Nicknamed as "The Boy Wonder of Philippine Movies", Lamberto Avellana was known to be the first Filipino director to use film cameras to establish a point-of-view. He started his prolific career in theatre with his future wife and National Artist Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana. His first film Sakay (1939), showcased his unique filmmaking style imitated by subsequent directors.
His distinctive achievements started with Anak Dalita, which received Grand Prix at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Hong Kong. He also earned the Best Director of Asia award in Tokyo for his film Badjao. Most notably, Avellana was the first film director in the country to have his film shown at the Cannes International Film Festival with war romance film Kandelerong Pilak.
With his international success, credited to his treatment of stories with three-dimensional characters that at the time was unheard of in Philippine cinema, he was hired by big studios from Hollywood and other Asian countries to do films. The list includes Sargeant Hassan, a Malaysian film with actor P. Ramlee, The Evil Within, a James Bond-inspired film he created with Indian actor Dev Anand, and Destination: Vietnam, the first Filipino film in CinemaScope.
In 1976, Avellana was conferred National Artist for Theatre and Film. He died in 1991.
4/12 EDDIE ROMERO
Notable works: Ganito Kami Noon... Paano Kayo Ngayon? (1976), Banta ng Kahapon (1977), Aguila (1980), Kamakalawa (1981), and the television series Noli Me Tangere (1992) commissioned by the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Like Gerardo de Leon, Romero also created American films in the '60s and '70s, most memorable were "women in prison" films like Black Mama, White Mama (1972) and Savage Sisters (1974), to name a few
Eddie Romero started as a screenwriter before becoming one of Philippine film industry's most influential directors. Ambitious, yet practical, Romero's distinctive style is cited as simple and minimalist yet carry enormous depth with precise execution.
His film Ganito Kami Noon…Paano Kayo Ngayon?, set during the turn-of-the-century revolution against the Spaniards and Americans, follows a naïve peasant through his leap of faith to become a member of an imagined community—the Philippine nation.
Aguila situates a family’s story against the backdrop of the country’s history. Kamakalawa explores the folkloric literature of prehistoric Philippines. Banta ng Kahapon, his ‘small’ political film, is set against the turmoil of the late 1960s, tracing the connection of the underworld to the corrupt halls of politics. His 13-part series of Noli Me Tangere brings the national hero’s polemic novel to a new generation of viewers.
Romero was also known for his cult horror films in the '60s, oftentimes showing in drive-in cinemas in the US. His "Blood Island" film trilogy was co-produced by Hemisphere Pictures, but Romero was quoted in an interview in his twilight years to having hated doing those.
He was conferred National Artist for Film in 2003 and died in 2013.
5/12 LINO BROCKA
Notable works: Wanted: Perfect Mother (1970), Tinimbang ka Ngunit Kulang (1974), Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag (1975), Insiang (1976), Jaguar (1979), Bona (1980), Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim (1984), Orapronobis (1989)
Catalino "Lino" Ortiz Brocka was a director for film and broadcast arts who was known for his social activism that was heavily reflected in almost all of his films. His movies depicted the marginalised sectors of society and he showcased his passionate efforts to fight for the rights of workers in the theatre, film and television.
His masterpieces garnered him local and international recognition. Following Avellana's footsteps, his works have been showcased at the Cannes Film Festival. Considered by many film critics and foreign filmmakers as the best Philippine film, Maynila Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag sheds light to a young provincial man's awakening to the harsh realities of the life in Metro Manila, which is drenched in poverty, corruption, and prostitution. The film was under the cinematography of Mike de Leon, another notable Filipino filmmaker. Insiang, another film of Brocka depicting the poverty-stricken metropolis, was the first film since Kandelerong Pilak to be shown at Cannes. Jaguar, another Cannes entry, was nominated for the Palme d'Or and locally bagged the highest awards in FAMAS and Urian.
Read also: Critically Acclaimed Filipino Films You Ought To Know
His provocative films like Bayan Ko and Macho Dancer (1988), during the dictatorship of the late President Ferdinand Marcos were deemed by the regime as subversive, but still made it to the big screens and earned praise from critics. Bayan Ko was shown at the Cannes and nominated for the Palme d'Or while Macho Dancer's uncensored 35mm film print was smuggled to the Museum of Modern Art.
Brocka died in a fatal car accident in 1991 and was posthumously conferred National Artist for Film / Broadcast Arts in 1997.
6/12 ISHMAEL BERNAL
Notable works: Himala (1982), City After Dark / Manila by Night (1980), Pagdating sa Dulo (1971), Nunal sa Tubig (1976), Ikaw ay Akin (1978), Hinugot sa Langit (1985), Working Girls I (1984) and Working Girls II (1987), Broken Marriage (1983), Relasyon (1982)
Ishmael Bernal is known for his melodramatic depiction of feminist and moral issues. His films ranged from sensible independent films to mainstream box-office hits. He finished a Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of the Philippines and worked with Lamberto Avellana in his documentary film studio. He later studied French literature and philosophy in France and received a diploma for film directing in India. When he returned to the Philippines, at the time when the so-called "bomba" and action movies were bankable projects in the industry, he changed the game with his debut film, Pagdating Sa Dulo, which depicted the harsh realities of the lives of celebrities and the film industry itself.
His broad range of film genres and themes gave him opportunities to create experimental masterpieces like Nunal Sa Tubig and Himala, sophisticated comedies like Pabling (1981) and the two Working Girls films, as well as contemporary dramas like Ikaw Ay Akin and Relasyon, among others, that shaped Philippine drama in film, television, and radio way after his prime. Like Lino Brocka, he was also known as one of many artists who tried to defy the regime with their craft. Most notable of his social commentary films was City After Dark (originally titled as Manila By Night) that explored the problems of the city and the Marcos regime from personal point-of-views of interconnected characters.
In 1999, three of his films were shown at the Lincoln Centre in New York in celebration of the 100 years of Philippine independence. His masterpiece Himala was awarded in 2008 the Viewers Choice Award for Best Asia-Pacific Film of all time by the CNN Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Bernal died in 1996 and was conferred National Artist for Cinema in 2001.
7/12 KIDLAT TAHIMIK
Notable works: Perfumed Nightmare (1977), Turumba (1983), Why Is Yellow The Middle Of The Rainbow (1989 and 1994), Balikbayan #1: Memories Of Overdevelopment (Redux III, 2015; Redux VI, 2017)
Although mostly known by today's generation for his socially and culturally relevant installation art masterpieces, Kidlat Tahimik is first and foremost considered as the "Father of Philippine Independent Cinema". Born as Eric Oteyza de Guia, Kidlat Tahimik has written, starred in, and directed independent short and full-length films since the '70s. Born and raised in Baguio, some of his earliest films were critical of globalisation, urbanisation, and the quintessential exploration of the Filipino identity.
Kidlat Tahimik attended the University of the Philippines and eventually at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. His experiences living in Baguio, which had a heavy presence of US military bases during his childhood, influenced his film, Turumba, and a semi-autobiographical Perfumed Nightmare, which won Best Documentary Film at the Berlinale.
His Balikbayan #1: Memories of Overdevelopment depicted the colonisation of the Philippines from a different and somewhat mythic perspective of the character Enrique of Malacca. The latter part of the film explores themes of industrialisation in the country that has lost its sense of history. This film took decades to be completed and with the help of his friends, wife Katrin, and children Kidlat Gottlieb, Kawayan Thor, and Kabunian. He also acted in few films (some his), like Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Jose Rizal (1998).
He has garnered various accolades locally and internationally, including recent conferment of the title National Artist for Film in 2018.
8/12 MARILOU DIAZ-ABAYA
Notable works: Brutal (1980), Moral (1982), Karnal (1983), Milagros (1997), Sa Pusod ng Dagat (1998), Jose Rizal (1998), Muro-Ami (1999), Bagong Buwan (2001)
Multi-awarded film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya is just one of many female directors that have left an indelible mark in Philippine cinema. She was also the founder and president of the Marilou Diaz-Abaya Film Institute and Arts Centre in Antipolo and has taught some of the best filmmakers of today's generation.
After graduating from the London International Film School in 1978, Diaz-Abaya entered the film industry as a feminist director. Distinctive of his films are themes of women empowerment, the marginalised sector, and the oppressive social system of the Marcos regime. Perhaps her most famous work, after having earned almost all awards from the Metro Manila Film Festival, was Jose Rizal which was a biographical film of one of the country's national heroes. It was a testament to her body of work that comprises films being entertaining yet socially conscious and highly artistic.
Diaz-Abaya died in 2012.
9/12 MIKE DE LEON
Notable works: Batch '81 (1982), Kisapmata (1981), Aliwan Paradise (1993), Itim (1976), Sister Stella L (1984), Bayaning 3rd World (1999), Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980), Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising (1977), Hindi Nahahati ang Langit (1985)
Miguel Pamintuan de Leon, popularly known as Mike de Leon, started his interest in filmmaking while pursuing Art History at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He served as producer and cinematographer for Lino Brocka's Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, which gave him best cinematography award from FAMAS. Today, that film is internationally recognised and praised.
His first major full-length work was Itim where he explored themes of guilt and violence with such delicate balance of cinematic elements. He also made romantic drama films like Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising and Hindi Nahahati ang Langit, which was based on a serial comics and eventually remade for television. He was also known for his experimental filmmaking, as seen in the musical Kakabakaba Ka Ba?.
But his best works are the critically acclaimed Kisapmata, Batch '81, and Sister Stella L, for delving primarily on taboo subjects at the time. The first two were presented during the Directors' Fortnight at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, and the third was entered to the 1985 Venice Film Festival. Like Ishmael Bernal, two of his films were showcased as well at the Lincoln Centre in New York for the same celebratory event.
He eventually took a step back from the limelight during the '90s, making only two films: Aliwan Paradise, a 20-minute entry to the multi-national four-film anthology Southern Winds, and Bayaning 3rd World, a mockumentary about Rizal and his novels. Almost two decades later, de Leon returned to directing with Citizen Jake, a political thriller film that re-echoed themes of the Martial Law years.
10/12 LAV DIAZ
Notable works: Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (2013), Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (2014), Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis (2016), Ang Babaeng Humayo (2016), Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (2018)
Perhaps the most famous for garnering almost all of the most prestigious international accolades in the industry, Lav Diaz is greatly revered among the current generation of Filipino film directors. But surprisingly, he did not gain much public attention worldwide until recently with Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan.
Born Lavrente Indico Diaz, he is a filmmaker and former film critic whose career began in the early '90s. His roster of films since the 2000s were praised by award-giving bodies: Batang West Side (Singapore International Film Festival, Independent Film Festival of Brussels, and Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema or NETPAC), Heremias (Fribourg International Film Festival), Kagadanan sa Banwaan ning mga Engkanto (Venice International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival), Melancholia (Venice International Film Festival), Siglo ng Pagluluwal (Venice International Film Festival), and Florentina Hubaldo (Jeonju International Film Festival, Images Festival). His films often tackle the current social and political state of the Philippines, including his historical epics written to be relevant to today's struggles of the nation.
His landmark film Norte was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 66th Cannes Film Festival. This brought his career head-to-head with another internationally acclaimed Filipino director, Brilliante Mendoza, who had been featured at Cannes a decade prior. However, Diaz's filmmaking style was distinct (and could even be easily recognised): black-and-white, with an establishing shot of each scene taking almost more than a minute. With this, he is known as one of the key members of the slow cinema movement, with some of his films marked as having the longest-running time on record.
Diaz's films break genres and are quite experimental, but all stay true to his directorial style. His works are arguably the most ambitious independent Filipino films for touching on themes relevant to the masses, made with low-budgeted productions, but with exquisitely written screenplays that are continuously digested by critics here and abroad.
His most prestigious awards earned were the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis at the Berlinale and the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival for Ang Babaeng Humayo. He also received the Golden Leopard at the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival for Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon.
See also: Lav Diaz's "Ang Hup" (The Halt, 2019)
11/12 BRILLIANTE MENDOZA
Notable works: Masahista (2005), Serbis (2008), Kinatay (2009), Thy Womb (2012), Taklub (2015), Ma' Rosa (2016), Mindanao (2019)
The revival of the Philippine cinema's presence at the Cannes Film Festival may be credited to Brilliante Mendoza's visceral and arresting realist films. His style has influenced other independent filmmakers of the 2000s, where most used handheld cameras while doing long tracking shots.
In 2009, he won as best director at the Cannes Film Festival for his psychological thriller film Kinatay. It was one of his many collaborations with then-budding indie actor Coco Martin, who is now one of the biggest names in show business. He has also worked with premier French actress Isabelle Huppert in the film Captive, which was inspired by true events that have happened in Mindanao during the early 2000s. In 2016, one of the country's veteran actresses Jaclyn Jose received the best actress award in Cannes for Mendoza's film Ma' Rosa, which was critical of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on illegal drugs and the brute police force. Besides Cannes, his films are also well received by other international award-giving bodies.
Mendoza calls his style "Found Filmmaking" where there are three elements: the story based on experiences in real life, the actors' "in-the-moment" lines that come out naturally from the scene, and the directorial choices that shed light on the community and the context of the story.
See also: Brilliante Mendoza Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum
12/12 LAURICE GUILLEN
Notable works: Kasal (1980), Kung Ako'y Iiwan Mo (1980), Salome (1981), Tanging Yaman (2001), Santa Santita (2004)
Another female household name in the Philippine film industry is Laurice Guillen, who started as an actress. A protégé of Lino Brocka, she starred in major Filipino films like Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974), Ina, Kapatid, Anak (1979), Moral (1982), Nagalit ang Buwan sa Haba ng Gabi (1983) and Sister Stella L (1984), to name a few.
She began working as a director with Kasal, a romantic film tackling marriage and former love affairs. Similarly, her body of work is known for poignant storytelling and powerhouse acting, perhaps credited to Guillen's early career in theatre and film as an actress. However, her technical proficiency still stands out in her filmography making it some of the most-watched films today.
Salome, her landmark film, was a critical success and earned her the best director award in Urian. Furthermore, the film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival. Santa Santita was shown at the Bangkok International Film Festival and known to have relaunched the career of then-child star Angelica Panganiban, now one of the leading actresses of her generation.
Currently, Guillen is the president of the Cinemalaya Foundation, Inc. which founded and oversees the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. Just recently, she was included in the executive committee of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the country's longest local film festival.
Read more: Short Films On Spotlight In The 16th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival This August 2020