Former President Marcos’ daughter Imee talks candidly about her family’s cultural vision, her role in the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, the nature of Filipino humour, and her love of a two-foot-nine agent named Weng Weng
Imee: That’s a really generous statement. I think it may be that my mother always had a very big interest in the arts, and funnily enough, reviewing my father’s speeches, even his inauguration declaration and stuff like that, he talks about “culture” with a big and a little “c” very often, almost more than he spoke about politics. It comes as a surprise to me but in a way it doesn’t, because it was government policy at that time, and this newfangled concept that there should be “cultural infrastructure” provided by the government. Hence the building of the Cultural Centre (CCP), the Film Centre, the Folk Arts and so on. That became a big part of the budget, which in many cases became very controversial within the political realm, being that we never had enough funds for basic utilities. And why were we gallivanting around and insisting that there should be anthropology and architecture, and museums and performing arts… In the end it stems from a belief in my family that the Filipino’s competitive edge is actually his artistry, his soul, his determination and greatness of performance. I think that’s what we believed – that in the end, Filipinos will be known for art, and for making art, because that is what we are. I think in the end, Filipinos are really Asia’s artists.
In the film industry, particularly in the Fifties and Sixties, there was a static and quite parochial approach to film distribution: make your money back in Manila, reap profits in the provinces. It’s a very insular vision for a country’s cinema. It changes in the Seventies when filmmakers like Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka were taking their films to the world. Many say the Seventies is when Filipino cinema comes of age and takes on an international perspective, if only for a while.
Yes, I think that’s absolutely correct. In many cases, as you know, the Filipino cinema is the oldest in Asia. It was part of American colonialism, and really came in with Hollywood and the rest of that, and Washington was very insistent that every fifth camera needed to be sent to Manila, hence we had a very old tradition. And yet that old tradition remained local; it only became global in the Seventies. Curiously, during the time of Martial Law! (laughs) I am not about to attempt an explanation, merely to say that even autobiographically my father felt that he owed film his presidency. There are those that explained that when the incumbent president then, the father of Mrs Arroyo today, President Macapagal, banned and issued a restraining order against the opening of a film about my father’s life called Iginuhit Ng Tadhana (“Destined By Fate”, 1965) [the full account of the film’s controversy can be found here]. It was a very melodramatic premiere with no showing at all! And many have explained that that was in fact the turning point. Certainly my father recognized the power of film. Also he was running very low in the surveys until 24 hours before election, when he conducted something called a Telethon, when he received live for almost eight hours straight on TV, all kinds of questions from callers. He had the sense that also allowed him to win in urban areas where he wasn’t immensely popular.
So my father’s handle on the media has always been that it was a platform for politics, for education, for culture. He never had a nervousness about the media that we see today. It may have something to do with the fact that he himself was extremely telegenic and quite cinematic, and spoke extremely well, and that my mother couldn’t have been prettier on camera! (laughs)
It’s true, everyone said she brought glamour to the palace, and was the perfect focus.
Yes, my mother was an icon in politics, that was almost an icon as well in film. She actually took a screen test for Sampaguita Pictures, and I was told she was very good. Of course! Is there any surprise? But she decided to marry my father eleven days after that, so that was hardly a film career for her.
Your life would have been remarkably different.
I imagine so…
Yes! And she was also a singer, a very good jumping point for any Filipino performer.
I’m not a real authority simply because I was very young then, so it is a real problem remembering exactly where the lines were drawn. I remember basically there were changing values at each point. I think at the very beginning there were very serious restrictions on the news for example. But in fact in film it was quite broad-ranged. There was also a great deal of sensitivity about violence. Hence the rather controversial banning of animation like Voltes Five. I remember as a child thinking that was horrific (laughs), we were really angry about that. But my father insisted, because there were a series of child-related crimes that psychologists theorized had something to do with this dreadful animation that we adored. Later on there were some arguments between Lino and my mother about the depiction of Manila and what later became known as the ‘poverty aesthetic”. My mother is a real cheerleader for “the good, the true and the beautiful”, certainly classical in its definition and Greek in its sentiment. But Lino, who became a dear friend of mine, thought that he had to show what was occurring in the slums. In fact his films did very well. And curiously there was this little dance between censorship and Martial Law, and the fundamental belief of both my parents that Art was Art, and that it should be left alone.
There were also restrictions on how much could be shown, after the bomba era?
Yes. I spent a great deal of time overseas, particularly in Europe, so I didn’t quite get it. But I know that the MTRCB [Movies and Television Review and Classification Board], as it continues to be, was the board of censors. One of the ladies was Maria Kalaw Katigbak, who was also at the time in the Catholic Women’s League, so I suppose that’s self-explanatory. She was very strict about sex, and it became a bit of a game in the ECP [Experimental Cinema of the Philippines] when I headed it up later in the Eighties, when she was still the chairperson. It became a little bit of a game to try and figure out which bad words she didn’t know, so it was really wicked, and how long she would allow breast exposure and kissing scenes. It was very funny. She would actually time these things, and then we’d sneak them in… It was very naughty but fun. Sometimes I felt things were very unreasonable, so we’d have large arguments, then I’d go marching off to complain. But in the end the ECP got an exemption from censorship for certain so-called “artistic” or “culturally important” films, and we luckily got away with murder pretty much.
Those films were restricted to play within the four walls of the Film Centre?
That’s correct. That was the single venue for uncensored films. It became the single venue also for the Manila International Film Festival [MIFF], where Indian, Japanese, American and European films were shown in their entirety. Pretty much the directors’ cut.
I believe Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) was the first controversial film shown?
That’s right. It was one of the films I remember Lino Brocka watching – he used to watch six films a day during MIFF. I remember he beat Ishmael Bernal, he beat all of us. We’d get quite groggy, but Lino was a diehard. I don’t know how many times he saw In The Realm Of The Senses, maybe four or five times. He was quite fixated on this Brocka-esque melodrama.
There were other filmmakers also watching Realm, and I guess this ignites a new kind of approach to filmmaking in the Philippines…
That’s right. I think In The Realm… was significant to that degree, but I think even more importantly was the fact that people like the Indian directors were coming over, the Italians and so on. We had been brought up on a diet comprised almost entirely of American films, so this initial exposure to World Film was a real eye-opener for so many of the directors. Later on, of course, I took a major risk and made what was then the most expensive film in Philippine history, under a director who’d never been heard of before, who’d never directed any film before, and that was Peque [actually Peque Gallaga had directed one film, Binhi/“Seed”, in 1973]. Because Peque Gallaga had submitted a winning script, I said, “Let him direct.” And of course that’s Oro Plata Mata (1982), which still today is being studied for its meanings (laughs).
It’s curious – in the ECP, although it was called “alternative” cinema, I made it very clear to everyone that as Director General I wasn’t specifically interested in “art” or “artsy” or “arthouse” films. I was interested in good commercial pictures. And curiously, these good commercial pictures like Oro Plata Mata and Himala (1982) not only became extremely successful commercial films, they’ve also continued to become part of the syllabus for most of the film schools in Asia.
I always found it fascinating that Filipino filmmakers like Peque, Elwood Perez, Lino Brocka, Ishmale Bernal etc, could straddle the divide between art and commercial cinema.
I don’t think Filipinos know the difference! There are no venues for art films, we have this single indie film theatre in Robinsons which basically doesn’t fill up unless there’s gay porn showing (laughs). We really don’t know the distinctions simply because there is no venue for adult entertainment, no venue for art films, no venue even for short films. So there’s this happy mix, pretty much micro-Philippines in its cuisine, its history, its culture – it just mixes it up. We don’t really draw too many categories. And I suppose that’s the reason why actors and directors and scriptwriters will operate in so many categories quite happily.
I also find it amazing that someone like Maria Isabel Lopez, one of the most respected actresses of her generation, could also have a successful stint as a bold actress!
Yes, it’s curious. Today we see all of these developments where extremely successful commercial blockbuster directors are trying to go to Sundance to make an independent film or vice versa – unheard-of ethnic directors go to Sundance and try to make it big in Hollywood. We’re always perplexed by this effort, because we don’t know the difference! It’s ignorance, I think. And simply the lack of distribution for anything else except for commercial films.
What was your background before stepping into the Director General spot in the ECP?
Actually I had a background in theatre, and I just had lots of friends in the film industry. I don’t know if that was any sort of qualification. Of course I was the distant daughter of the appointing authority, and that may have had something to do with it. I ended up as usual being some sort of compromise candidate, simply because there were so many film distributors and importers who were present in the ECP; I think a lot of the local studios requested my dad that somebody please go over and have the clout to represent local film against all the imported stuff coming out of the United States. Johnny Litton, for example, at that time – they were the biggest importers of film. And so somebody had to go and represent local film. I don’t know, maybe because I hung out with a number of them, I became the one, and I guess they figured I had my dad’s ear or something. So I came in entirely without credentials!
How long did the ECP last?
Well it lasted pretty much from 1981 to 1986, until the EDSA Revolution. I’d say it was successful to a certain degree, in as much as the film development, the ratings board, that’s still there, and I was actually the author of the law that institutionalized it when I was a congressman. So that’s there, it’s been there for a while. Alternative cinema doesn’t exist any more, but so many of the directors have since become among real institutions in the Philippines scene, including crowd directors like Joel Lamangan; the general gadabout for the ECP at that point, who is one of the most prestigious directors now, Chito Rono; Peque, of course, and many others. It was great fun, it was a wonderful period, everyone was in the same building, and there was a wonderful energy, a buzz that we were doing something that would be fun, but maybe, MAYBE also significant later on.
Then of course the Bold Explosion would emerge from the ECP, and a freedom, a freshness…
We didn’t see it quite like that at the time, not having had any perspective. We just knew that we were being very busy, and trying very hard to find financing, or at least incentives in terms of tax and other rebates for many of these films that wouldn’t have been produced otherwise. Many of the films were actually beneficiaries of quite hefty tax rebates, if they were considered “A” or “B” quality films. Others were direct recipients of government loans which sadly, in the main, were not paid – producers in the Philippines are not noted for their brilliant accountants. That didn’t work out too well (smiles). I think in the future, should there be a film fund it should be operated perhaps by a bank, and not by government because too many people have a sense that they pay taxes anyway, so why should they pay for the loan? Which really isn’t the way to have a sustainable film industry! But we’ve learned those lessons now. It’s still my hope that some venture capitalist or private equity – of course in America there are all those hedge funds. I still pray for the day that they discover our scene in the Philippines where we, after all, tread the middle between the huge Western audience and this immense desire for Asian content, and the burgeoning Asian market. Let’s hope we can translate between the two.
It was great fun actually. I was very sceptical to be quite honest. I always thought film festivals involved Europeans, and I didn’t think anyone would come over to Asia, despite the fact that of course we had Indian and Japanese directors. And still I think there was a stunning turnout, and suddenly the spotlight was focused on Philippine film. Even we discovered that the Philippine film industry was the second largest in the world at the time. It was a revelation to all of us; we were just scurrying about doing our business, and didn’t quite realize how big it had become. Whether it was rubbish or whether it was bomba, whether we had all these idiotic action flicks which were so popular and were being churned out, goon cinema forever, and really toilet humour – the point really was that so many films were being made. And of course that high of just under three hundred films a year has never been achieved again. I think last year only thirty eight films were premiered in theatres, with several more opening in specialized locations in universities and so on. So it’s a real meagre harvest compared to what used to be.
And of course, For Y'ur Height Only was the biggest selling film of the 1982 festival!
Weng Weng! Yes.
What was the general reaction to that?
Of course everyone passed out! We had begun to assume all kinds of artistic pretensions, and what we saw as a very low budget, low humour sort of thing, suddenly gets bought in Cannes above all of our rather self-important films from the ECP and so on. But the point I suppose was that my parents were determined to open the door to Filipino films – we may not have agreed with the final product (smiles) but we were certainly determined to open the door and showcase to the rest of the world. Of course to our amazement it was Weng Weng that got bought.
Weng Weng of course is a typical Filipino phenomenon of transforming what is horrific and frightening and prevalent in Filipino culture into something silly, humorous and ultimately manageable in human terms. So I suppose we shrank the Goon! It makes perfect sense; it’s exactly what Filipinos do. We transform our pain into ridicule. It’s something that we always do. I suppose it’s the reverse impulse of the Medievalist, where the Devil is always the most seductive woman, always the funniest, most attractive character. This is sort of the reverse. The bad guys always become laughable and somehow pathetic. So Weng Weng epitomizes all of that. Why the rest of the world got it, I will never know!
I understand your brother was quite taken with Weng Weng, and that he was a frequent guest at the Palace.
Oh yes, he sure was. Not just my brother, everyone was. He was the cutest thing! He was such a sweetie.
At one point he was given a badge and a gun.
Are you serious? I didn’t know that.
I think Ramos was a General at the time.
Yes, he was the head of the police.
He was used on infiltration missions…
That’s so funny. I was at school, I don’t remember, but I do remember that everyone loved him dearly, and thought he was the sweetest thing.
So he was a frequent visitor?
I suppose so. I did see him at several parties, and that he was introduced everywhere. And that we spoke to him and tried to understand where all that special energy was coming from. We did immediately fall in love with him like everyone else. He was adorable. He had a natural sweetness about him, that made the goon characters that surrounded him, and that he ultimately played, infinitely ridiculous. It became so funny.
For some reason overseas audiences also fall in love with him.; It’s not just a Filipino phenomenon – the rest of the world gets it.
For some bizarre reason! Right.
You know his parents believed he was Santo Nino?
Yes, I think there was a little bit of that. We have this fascination with the Christ child, and there was a little bit of that, I think not only with his parents but with everyone else. There continues to be a strong schtick in many of our stand-up comedians, saying that the Filipinos have no superhero, and that in fact our superhero is the Santo Nino. Because almost every Filipino household has one, and that the globe and the sceptre and the crown transforms, as well as the cape, into superhero magic. I think there was a sense that this translated into films starring Weng Weng in some extremely irreverent and hysterical way. It’s been decried time and time again that we have no Superman or GI Joe or Batman and so on, but instead we have the Santo Nino, and all the children identify with him, grown up with the Santo Nino, in the same way a whole generation grew up with Weng Weng!
Let’s talk about the Philippines’ obsession with parody and its strange relationship with Western culture, where they poke fun at it and revere it at the same time. For almost forty or fifty years, parody seems to be the Filipino way of making the dominant culture uniquely theirs.
I think it’s an Asian thing to a certain degree, because perhaps in the West only happy moments, only triumphs and victory and successes are actually celebrated, whereas in Asia we tend to remember everything, we want it recalled, to become part of our consciousness. Even tragedy, even crisis, and really dreadful things must be recorded. It’s part of our art as well. You see really ugly things; illness and death are almost always in Asian art, and it’s recorded as carefully as beauty and perfection. In the Filipino case we of course need to go one step further, perhaps because our lives are quite melodramatic, simply because of all the calamities, manmade and foisted by nature, because poverty is so rampant and crime continues to hold sway. Perhaps because of all these things we need to deal with life on a daily basis, and our survival mechanism is parody, and humour is our coping mechanism. That’s probably why we do this. We need to transform these disasters, these calamities, these absolutely horrific things into funny stuff. Otherwise we couldn’t go on from day to day.
If you look at Hollywood as a steamroller flattening the cultural landscape of the Philippines, then the way to deal with that is to take Western cinema’s icons and flip them.
Our idea is that we’ve had too many imperialists; there have just been too many colonials. We’ve been conquered by so many big powers. And you obviously can’t fight them, because just when you’re about to win a revolution, here comes another one! So the point is, in order to deal with this is to make fun of it, so that it becomes subversive, and that parody is in fact the ultimate rebellion. Is that it? (laughs) It’s curious – the Filipinos are not ironic. We have no sense of cynicism or sarcasm, I think because humour needs to be a very pointed, bladed weapon against colonialism, against this huge juggernaut that we never have a hope of beating anyway. I suppose that’s why we’re so good at all these dreadful, silly mobile text jokes. I mean they’re endless, and now they have animation and graphics and colour and sounds. Some of them are nothing short of artwork. But they’re all part of the effort to make life manageable, life that’s usually tragic and disastrous.
It’s now a cliché that the Philippines was ruled by Spain for four hundred years, by America for fifty years, and by Hollywood ever since.
Yes, clichés are dreadful things but they have large germs of truth in them, and silly as that one is, many of our South East Asians say that we belong in Latin America, and that we have this South American sensibility that is bizarre here in Asia. Because we have this flair for melodrama, this rampant exhibitionism that is SO un-Asian.
It’s a Catholic country for one thing, where it shouldn’t really exist.
Yes, there are no other Christian countries in Asia except Eastern Timor, which only just was born, and South Korea, which is threatening to turn evangelical every minute. Bur basically the straight-up Catholic country really is the Philippines, and all that wonderful guilt makes for great cinema! (laughs)
There’s also the twin poles – of repressed passion and sensuality, and of that fiery Latino passion – and the constant tension between the two, is very much like Latin America or Spain.
I think Italy more than Spain in a curious way, Italy also being supremely disrespectful of Catholicism. Even if they have the Pope, they never had the Inquisition of the Fifteenth Century like Spain did. It may have something to do with the fact that the largest population of Filipinos in Europe is in Italy – we’re the Asian Italians!
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
I think it’s time for great Filipino film. I don’t know where it’s going to come from, but I’m actively waiting. I stopped running for office – I don’t want to be in politics anymore and I’d like to make a few films. Whether they’re animation features or interactive as they are these days in digital, even with our analogue brains, I’d like to be there. There’s a huge energy now with the interactive and new media, and strangely they are rare but celebrated Filipinos are in that landscape as well. I see burgeoning there somewhere.
Filipinos have always been incredibly talented comic artists.
I think that’s correct. Also in the music scene there will always be Filipinos. Filipinos are especially gifted. With all the earthquakes and the typhoons and the tornados, God made it up with all that music (laughs).
That’s the payoff?
That’s the real payoff. We’re funny and we can sing (laughs again). Everything else goes to Hell.
But without a trace of cynicism?
No cynical edge at all. My father used to call it the “cheap cynicism of the West”. It’s actually really frowned upon. It’s so not on in the Philippines, people don’t like you being sarcastic. I’m English educated and I’m told off all the time for being sarcastic, for being dark, for losing hope. It’s wrongful and even threatening to Filipinos - to lose hope, to be cynical and to say that things will ultimately not work and fail. They need to know that things will be better. It’s a very upbeat, Pollyanna sort of thing, even when there’s no evidence that should be the case.
So Nietzsche and Sartre never made much impact?
No, no mark at all! It’s a determined, learned cheerfulness.