Ishmael Bernal’s ‘lost’ Marcos-era docu evokes nostalgia

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Cultural activist Carlos Celdran stresses a point during the open forum that followed the recent screening of Ishmael Bernal's 45-minute documentary, 'Manila'. Among the attendees was Irene Marcos-Araneta (far left, center row, apple green blouse) (Photo courtesy of Jerome Gomez)

In 1980, acclaimed filmmaker Ishmael Bernal stunned the general public and ruffled the feathers of the powers-that-be with a riveting drama called “Manila By Night.” Hailed by critics for its realistic depiction of Manila’s underbelly, the multi story arc film unapologetically tackled social issues like drug addiction, prostitution, homelessness and unemployment.

“Manila By Night,” however, was not very popular with the Marcos administration, particularly former First Lady and then Metro Manila governor Imelda Marcos and was not shown in local theaters until it was heavily censored and its title changed to the more ambiguous “City After Dark.”

Not too many may be aware of it but prior to the release of his controversial masterpiece, Bernal was also commissioned by Metro Manila Commission headed by, yes, Imelda Marcos to direct a travelogue documentary simply called “Manila” that presented the nation’s capital in a far more favorable light.

According to film archivist Teddy Co, “Manila” was often shown on the local television channels (there was still no cable TV back then) usually around midnight before signing off. Over the years following the EDSA People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos regime in 1986, the film, however, has remained largely forgotten.

That was until recently. Juan Martin Magsanoc, owner of Archivo 1984 art gallery in Makati, who together with lifestyle journalist Jerome Gomez, has been organizing a series of screenings of largely obscure Filipino films (including another Bernal film, “Pabling” from 1981) at the unlikely venue recently unearthed a copy of “Manila” from the videotape collection of renaissance woman Tats Manahan who once wrote for Philippine television. The film was presented as part of Archivo’s way of celebrating 100 years of documentary filmmaking.

“It hasn’t been shown in quite possibly 38 years. The film promises to be a 45-minute joyride across ‘the true, good, and the beautiful city’ that is Manila in 1980,” noted Gomez in a Facebook post to promote the June 27 screening of “Manila” at Archivo.

Paraphrasing a quote he does not know who to attribute to, Gomez added a description of the documentary where it is described as “the antiseptic antithesis of Ishma’s 1980 masterpiece ‘Manila By Night.’”

During the well-received screening of “Manila” that attracted a full house crowd that included indie filmmakers Raya Martin, Pepe Diokno, Sherad Sanchez, Babyruth Villarama and her husband, Chuck Gutierrez, it was the presence of former presidential daughter Irene Marcos-Araneta that surprised everyone. Marcos-Araneta quietly stayed in the background and just smiled when “Manila” was referred to as a propaganda film or “puro paganda” in the words of cultural activist Carlos Celdran who introduced the film together with Teddy Co.

The glossy documentary depicts Manila as a progressive city with a booming economy and filled with posh dining options, lifestyle and entertainment haunts and a vibrant night life. It showed
everyday people like a jeepney driver, a construction worker and a school teacher pretty much offering testimonials on how contented they are with their life here except all three are really actors (Odette Khan was the teacher) playing those roles.

It shows how the recurring problem of floods cannot be solved but can only be managed even as children were shown cavorting in flooded areas. But perhaps the most evident takeaway of “Manila” lies in the numerous cameos of Filipino actors like Gloria Diaz, Tommy Abuel, Elizabeth Oropesa, Ernie Garcia, Chanda Romero, Sandy Andolong and even some cast members of “Manila By Night” like Cherie Gil, William Martinez and Charito Solis. This suggests that “Manila” was not in any way a budget production.

Bernal even added stock footage from the “Kasaysayan ng Lahi” parade at the CCP Complex in 1974 which was said to be organized by Mrs. Marcos and according to Co, was directed by another National Artist for Theater and Film, the late Lamberto Avellana. There were shots of the former First Lady and former President Ferdinand Marcos but they were few and far between as Bernal, perhaps wisely, minimized the political flavor of his commissioned work.

Title card of Ishmael Bernal's 'Manila' (Screenshot from video clip posted by Jerome Gomez)
Title card of Ishmael Bernal’s ‘Manila’ (Screenshot from video clip posted by Jerome Gomez)

Even with the usual artifacts, the videotape of the film was surprisingly in very watchable condition and retains much of its slick and colorful palette. While it is not known whether or not Bernal was already starting work on “Manila By Night” even while he was still doing “Manila,” his documentary coincidentally starts at around sunrise where “Manila By Night” ended and ended at nighttime where “Manila By Night” began.

Even more intriguing is the fact that there were also shots of Manila’s night life including sexy dancers in what looked like a seedy bar that also perhaps served as a precursor to “Manila By Night.”

Another takeaway that can be hypothesized from watching “Manila” is the fact that before, after and despite “Manila By Night,” Bernal had good relations with the Marcos government, if not the Marcoses themselves. At the time, he also directed another governmment-produced lifestyle TV series, “Metromagazine” hosted by Jaime Fabregas. Two years after the release of “Manila By Night,” Bernal went on to direct what was arguably his greatest work, “Himala,” a film produced by the now defunct Experimental Cinema of the Philippines headed by Imee Marcos.

According to Joel David, founding director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute, Imee’s ECP would later grant permission for the screening of “Manila By Night” at the Manila Film Center. This was after the film was shown in theaters as “City After Dark.” David said the ECP not only retained the original title, it even “restored” the parts cut by the censors board.

As for the documentary, “Manila,” what does the future hold for this lost but now found Bernal gem which incidentally is not even included in the director’s Internet Movie Database (IMDB) entry? If nothing else, the nostalgia factor that “Manila” evokes makes it a worthy addition to Bernal’s cinematic canon. And given the largely amused and fascinated reaction of everyone that came to its “initial” re-screening at Archivo, Gomez said there is a plan to screen “Manila” again, this time side-by-side with yes, “Manila By Night.” Now that should be something to look forward to.

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