Review of “The Cinema of Manuel Conde”
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Review of The Cinema of Manuel Conde by Nicanor G. Tiongson (Manila: U of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2008), 272 pages.
The tandem that brought us the two coffee-table books of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, Nicanor Tiongson’s writing and editing and Cesar Hernando’s photo research, returns to fill in the gap of an earlier film era.
Folklorist and trickster filmmaker Manuel Conde’s life and work is the subject of the latest book on Philippine cinema. Conde was a director with a lot of firsts on his hand: first to use color in movies, first to compete in the Venice Film Festival, and first to combine international and local, independent and studio funding for his films, among others.
It is an opportune time that the book on Conde is launched at the 4th Cinemalaya Film Festival. An auteur filmmaker who writes, directs, stars, production designs, and executive produces his films, Conde’s multi-faceted life provide lessons and is an inspiration to the younger generation of independent filmmakers. Conde was also a precursor to Kidlat Tahimik’s naïf indigene figure.
He is as relevant to the younger filmmakers as his films are to the nation. Conde knew film and the stories he wanted to tell for a Filipino audience. He drew inspiration from folk tradition and anxieties over social values of the times.
Like the pioneering Russian social realists, he innovated on the film media to create a distinct Conde mis-en-scene (staging the action), unique in framing, rich in production details, and oftentimes shot with movement that interrogates the field of vision. He sourced his own funding, collaborated with artists, and consistently maintained the highest quality of work.
Conde “Filipinized” film, offering audiences a familiar story ingeniously told in the adaptation of a foreign media. Even his most famous work, Genghis Khan was more attuned to the trickster’s tale than to world history.
It is no wonder that he has survived and excelled for four decades. He became a vital bridge in the continuity of Philippine cinema—excelling in the national and international arenas. Up to his death in 1985, Conde was active in conceptualizing newer projects.
With only six surviving films, extant scripts, and mostly popular press clippings, Tiongson reassembled the vital Conde history. Himself a historian with books on the women of Malolos and local theater forms, Tiongson overcame the limitations that confronts all scholars, especially in popular media.
He retold Conde’s resplendent life in all its possibilities. While excelling in funding and collaboration, Conde also directed an anti-communist film The Fire and the Shadow (1956), set in Vietnam, with three language versions.
Tiongson’s erudite writing brings into the light of a nation’s consciousness the triumphs and travails of Conde as a filmmaker. Conde, as readers will find out, is an artist, satirist, folklorist and social critic. Tiongson has sewn a full biography of Conde, periodized his professional development, and analyzed his contribution to the “Filipino National Cinema.”
Hernando’s photo research is also an embodiment of a love for Philippine cinema. Himself a filmmaker, archivist, and cultural worker, Hernando has come up with photos that eloquently map out the rise of Conde among his generation. As films are about images, this book is replete with photos that help encapsulate Conde, his work, and his era.
Conde’s era is not a bygone period. The conditions he faced remain emplaced up to the present. Independent filmmakers especially, dwell on issues of funding, creativity, collaboration, and visioning that could make or break them. It is through an examination of Conde’s life and choices that can inform the present generation of filmmakers.
Conde’s logistical limitations were transformed into artistic decisions. He was able to maximize the limits of what goes into the production process. In the famous anecdote about the tiny local horses used in Genghis Khan because the Philippine Constabulary, at the last minute, denied the use of imported patrol horses, Conde would be praised for authenticity.
He stated, “I had been told that I was a genius. I told him that there was a difference. Orson Welles is writer-director-star because he is a genius. Manuel Conde does it for lack of money.”
Necessity becomes the mother of innovations in Philippine cinema. With the advent of the newer technology of digital filmmaking, Conde’s motivation that lead to decision-making and artistic choices remains the impediment for both constraint and growth of Philippine cinema.
Conde’s “making do” tactics, like the tricksters he emulated in his films, are not only able to tell a familiar story to local audiences but narrativize stories that implicate and bind us to each other.