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(Essay) Empowerment of Filipina Filmmakers Towards the Digital Revolution: From Silent Dominance to Breaking the Glass Ceiling?

An essay for my Media Theory class on the empowerment of Filipina filmmakers towards the Digital Revolution

Digital filmmaking brought about a number of significant changes in both the artistic and business aspects of filmmaking. This coincides with the sustained increase in the number of Pinay filmmakers making their marks locally and internationally by the time of the digital revolution. In significantly making film production less expensive compared to producing films in celluloid, the digital revolution democratized the filmmaking process (Hernandez, 2014) – providing more opportunities to more people at a time when evolving platforms opened up for more films to screen. Considering the feminist views in film and the lack of literature in this particular topic of women’s empowerment in Philippine cinema, this paper intends to spark the intellectual groundwork on two fronts: if the digital revolution really had a significant impact on the rise of woman filmmakers in the country; and if Pinay filmmakers are now finally breaking the glass ceiling.

This study demands more than just readily associating the current increase in woman filmmakers and female voices in film narratives with the industry’s transition to digital technology as the digital revolution may have the effects similar to the Gutenberg Myth, which was discussed in the S.D. Noam Cook essay Technological Revolutions and the Gutenberg Myth where the appearance of new technology, in its case the invention of the printing press, led to alarmingly faulty histories misleading the society from “understanding a historically and conceptually more accurate understanding of the structure of technological revolutions” (Cook, 2006). It is also worth noting that, since the 1930s, generations of matriarchs have run the major studios (Pareja, 1998) of the now more-than-a-century-old Philippine film industry. Yet, prior to the digital revolution, the number of Filipina directors turned out very few (Valiente, 2018) and Filipino films generally supported the assumption of a universal patriarchal order (Acosta, 2004). All these require analyses of power, ideology, culture, and representations of women and examining the industry’s economics.

Filipinas: The Matriarchs and the Marginalized 

The term “matriarch,” which is often used in the Philippine setting, has long been confounded with controversy due to the concept of matriarchy lacking clear scientific definition and how it is often misunderstood as “rule by women,” provoking an ideologically distorted prejudice against it. However, Heide Göttner-Abendroth and Barbara Alice Mann argued that reorienting modern matriarchal studies with “precise definitions, an explicit methodology, and a theoretical framework” would allow matriarchy to reclaim itself worthy of further studies (Göttner-Abendroth & Mann, 2018). Meanwhile, Peggy Reeves Sanday argued for a reconfiguration of the term matriarchy “not as a construct based on the gendered division of political power, but one based on gendered divisions in the sociocultural and cosmological orders.” She added how “matriarchy becomes relevant in societies where the cosmological and the social are linked by a primordial founding ancestress, mother goddess, or archetypal queen” and how these mythical and/or real figures are channeled through social practices. In the case of the Philippines, the concepts of “Inang Bayan,” the pre-colonial priestess “babaylan,” the creation story of “Si Malakas at si Maganda,” and the purse keeper role of the wife/mother in a family (Aguilar, 1989), to name a few, manifest in the country’s social and cultural practices. Sanday also noted that “the ethnographic context of matriarchy does not reflect female power over subjects or female power to subjugate, but female power (in their roles as mothers and senior women) to conjugate-to knit and regenerate social ties in the here-and-now and in the hereafter. Because this approach stresses the connection between the archetypal (or cosmological) and the social, rather than between power and politics it can not be interpreted as the female equivalent of patriarchy” (Sanday, 1998). Using this lens is very much applicable in this study of woman leaders of the film industry.

In the Philippines, the term matriarch generally refers to powerful Filipinas leading businesses, as well as women in leading roles in families, groups, and communities (Chua & Lazatin, 2017). In the case of Philippine cinema, these matriarchs are often the movie studio heads and top executives. It can be traced that Narcisa “Donya Sisang” de Leon of LVN Studios, Donya Azucena “Nene” Vera-Perez of Sampaguita Pictures, Emilia “Aling Miling” Blas of Lea Productions, “Mother Lily” Monteverde of Regal Films, and Charo Santos-Concio of ABS-CBN/Star Cinema produced dozens or even hundreds of films under their studios during their heydays. These matriarchs maintained their “silent dominance” at a time when Filipino films were only produced by mainstream studios that prioritized profit than addressing women’s issues or the empowerment of their gender. Indeed, these women led a “man’s club” (Dalena, 2020) because the structure of the film industry has been male ever since.

The marginalization of women from the birth of cinema to the 1990s was very clear with the limited number of female film professionals, particularly woman directors, working in the industry (Valiente, 2019). If there was one particular aspect of cinema where some women consistently thrived in terms of visibility and paycheck for all these years, it’s in the acting department. However, this was also where the critical issues on misogynist and sexist content burst forth in Filipino culture. For many decades before the digital revolution, women were primarily objectified in films (Acosta, 2004), while men often top billed these films. Female characters should be Maria Claras (often raped, if not sexually, physically, or verbally harassed) instead of Joan of Arcs (and if they revolted, they typically had to be sinful Magdalenas). Indeed, gender stereotypes in films continue to exist until now. Madonna Tarrayo categorized the on-cam roles of women in contemporary Filipino films as: the homemaker/the homewrecker; the catalyst/the enabler; the wallflower/the sex symbol; the underdog/the independent; and the leading lady/the antihero (Tarrayo, 2020). 

Women’s Space in the Film Industry’s Structure

In referring to the digital technology that revolutionized filmmaking as the term widely used in the industry called the “digital revolution,” this paper examined the notion that this became the precursor to the breaking of the silent dominance of women in Philippine cinema and even the notion that Filipina filmmakers are finally breaking the glass ceiling. I also preferred using the term “women’s empowerment” instead of “gender equality” for this paper, even though they’re often used interchangeably, in the same manner as the term “matriarchal” is often expected to be the direct opposite of “patriarchal,” which is now being contested, as supported by the studies of Göttner-Abendroth, Mann, and Sanday. Considering the scope of this paper, I acknowledge the limitations on digging much deeper into the concept of matriarchy, cultural studies, and feminist economics, but hopefully, this can spark future studies to more effectively determine their impacts on the empowerment of women in the industry. 

In finding out if digital filmmaking led to women’s empowerment, I first looked into the timeline of the development of digital technology and compared it with the significant changes leading to the present status of Filipina filmmakers. Its development logically coincided with the increase of Pinay filmmakers in the industry and the breaking of the then persisting misogyny and sexism in Philippine cinema when older films often featured women as passive and/or objectified characters. This is not to say that such oppressive roles are non-existent at this point, but there is a clear decline on their numbers with more gender-sensitivity initiatives in media.

I also looked into other factors that could have contributed to the rise of women in Philippine filmmaking. Digital technology found its way to the Philippines during the late 1990’s, although the film industry and related sectors such as TV and advertising started adapting to the digital format by the mid-2000’s. My 2003 thesis film at the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI) was the university’s first thesis film in 35mm format with supplemental analog submissions using VHS tapes. It took a few years after that when a good number of film students began digitally filming their works in high-definition (HD) format. With more practical access to digital filmmaking equipment, more film schools and communication and arts programs offering film as students’ major flourished after the digital revolution, as I personally encountered most of them being part of the academe. Meanwhile, Cinemalaya spearheaded the rise of independent cinema when it began funding digitally filmed projects in 2005 (Cinemalaya, n.d.). In the years that followed, more local independent film festivals of diverse niche and markets proliferated in various platforms. Movie theaters began transitioning from 35mm projectors to HD projectors by the 2010’s (Mendoza, 2012). This allowed more independent films to be theatrically exhibited nationwide. In analyzing all these events and milestones, they turned out related to the effects of the digital revolution and they contributed to more opportunities for filmmakers, including women who found their ways in film schools and filmmaking workshops and buying their own equipment and/or renting equipment at more reasonable rates to produce their films. Before the digital revolution, these opportunities were only available to a chosen few (mostly men) by the limited number of movie studios operating because producing and distributing films in celluloid generally required millions of pesos. Clearly, the film projects back then needed big capitals, entailed great financial risks, demanded much financial accountability, and opened very limited, very competitive opportunities for film workers.

Considering the limited literature about this subject matter, I had to focus on getting data from academicians, industry experts, feminists, and legitimate online resources. Taking the position of women now breaking the glass ceiling earned more bearing with the 2020 Cinemalaya where the winners of most of the awards including the top awards were women (Best Film, Director, NETPAC Jury Prize, and Special Jury Prize) and the 2020 Gawad Urian where the big winners were women as well: (Best Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Music, and Short Film). For many years, Filipinas have also been locally and internationally making big waves in documentary filmmaking with powerful, critically acclaimed, and award-winning works. The case of Star Cinema that continues to employ a good number of female directors for their blockbusters is worth mentioning as well. However, statistics still show that woman filmmakers still have a long way to go. 

Filipina filmmakers remain underrepresented in major film festivals and award-giving bodies. Between 2013 to 2019, only 27 women out of 148 finalists received full-length production grants from Cinemalaya and Cinema One Originals (18%). For Gawad Urian, founded in 1977, data showed that between 2013 to 2019, 66 directors were nominated for Best Director. Only 6 of these were female (9%). For the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), founded in 1975, data showed that between 2013 to 2018, out of 52 entries, only 9 were directed by women (17%) (Dalena, 2020).

As of 2020, there are more male heads of major movie studios than females: Viva Films, OctoArts Films, TBA Studios, Globe Studios, Reality Entertainment, and T-Rex Entertainment have male heads; while Regal Films, Star Cinema, Quantum Films, and Unitel Straightshooters have female heads. Although the number of prominent female directors have steadily increased through the years with more than 50 from the mainstream, independent, and documentary sectors (regional filmmakers not included) and about 15 prominent female producers handling creative and business components of production, men still outnumber women in these positions. Same goes for roles such as writers, cinematographers, production designers, and production crew (Tarrayo, 2020). 

Analyzing statistics for this paper allowed me to turn my eyes on power, ideology, economics, and culture as crucial elements in the film industry’s structure. Looking into how ideological power and material power intersect and reinforce one another (Klaehn, Pedro-Carañana, Alford, & Godler, 2018), in the case of the film industry being clearly capitalist in nature, it is not easy for women, even those who were already able to break into the industry, to readily break the patriarchal mold of films geared towards making profit. There may be pressure from peers that these women, despite the indications of strong matriarchal tendency in the Philippines (Aguilar, 1989), need to contend with their individual challenges being in their positions, at times even trying to survive these positions in the hierarchy by acting like men and ensuring that the strong patriarchal tendency remains reflected in Filipino films to keep the industry economically afloat. Here, cultural hegemony continues to flourish in its socio-political domination (Gramsci, 2012) by accommodating and naturalizing the existing industry powers and ideologies. To survive and thrive, the film industry as part of the culture industry must keep up with its target market (or what it insists for its target market) (Adorno & Horkheimer, 2012).This may shed light on why generations of Philippine cinema matriarchs didn’t address, or didn’t address strongly, the issues of their gender during their heydays. 

The film industry’s structure mainly relies on the machinery of the greater powers because everything is so tightly clustered within the capitalist system. Although more female voices are now heard, which may also be attributed to the more progressive actions for women’s empowerment on a national scale including gender-responsive policies resulting to the likes of the Magna Carta of Women and the Reproductive Health Law, vestiges of patriarchy in Filipino films are still occasionally, if not frequently, seen both on-cam and off-cam.

Women’s Empowerment in the Film Industry

As more woman filmmakers come into the picture, women’s voices in film narratives naturally follow. However, this is not expected to be an overnight success as those on top of the hierarchy are not ready to risk much beyond the tried-and-tested formula that continue to rake in money for the industry. Even woman filmmakers generally reach their positions in the very competitive industry from positions of privilege – through education, family and industry connections, and other networking gateways. More women should speak up, be heard, and be on the offensive side when needed to put themselves out there because there are tough systems to be shattered and these require continuous vigilance and initiatives.

It is not just the digital revolution that paved the way for the empowerment of Pinay filmmakers, but it had a significant contribution to it. Women’s empowerment in Philippine cinema may have seen some light already, but the glass ceiling is yet to be broken. Despite the progress including the successful shaking of the silent dominance that long ruled the film matriarchs from prior generations, female representation in Philippine cinema remains lacking 20 years after the digital revolution. Despite withstanding and prevailing the patriarchal juggernaut (Mukhi, 2020), Pinay film workers and female narratives are still underrepresented. As current industry powers get further shaken by the effects of technological and cultural developments, more women should find more ways to dismantle the barriers to their empowerment before the powers that be (bringing with them cinema’s patriarchal tendency) push themselves toward an unwarranted direction for further domination.


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Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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