Rumor has it that there’s a lost Martin Scorsese film out there, a crime film shot on the cheap from before Mean Streets, that exists in the form of a grimy bootleg VHS. Lost films are the yeti footprints of film geeks, our ghost stories, our fuzzy UFO photographs, our obscure objects of desire. And there certainly is a touch of the arcane to the notion of an under the radar film few have seen, tenuously held together by the duct tape of failing memory, its potentially vital cultural data hostage to the processes of decay. Exotica like this is the vitamin of geeks. But Scorsese hasn’t gone on record to confirm or deny the film nor has anyone bothered picking up its trail. It’s not as if the world is in desperate need of any more Scorsese films, anyway. We have too much as it is, if you ask me. And it’s not as if we’re talking about Citizen Kane either.

But what if we were? Or something of similar exaltation? The few people who’ve seen Gerry De Leon’s lost film Daigdig Ng Mga Api have unanimously proclaimed its magnificence. It had me with that title, sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it lives up to it and turns out be our Citizen Kane after all. Except we might never know. Just as we might never know, too, if Manuel Conde’s Juan Tamad films deserve the legend they’re freighted with. Or if Ishmael Bernal’s Scotch on the Rocks To Forget, Black Coffee To Remember is anywhere near as tantalizing as its title. No prints have survived. No copies exist. Not even on tape. The number of films we’ve apparently lost out of neglect and indifference is a gut punch that can make even the most stalwart of resolves buckle at the knees. And folded into the context of our film history, the stakes are raised and our lost films become more than mere esoterica, gaining instead a sheen of minor tragedy. And, if anyone from SOFIA could have their way, a throb of emergency, too.

Founded by the late Hammy Sotto and a handful of like-minded colleagues in 1993, SOFIA is the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film, a non-profit task force of volunteers whose station is to salvage whatever lost films of ours they can. It’s not yet too late but time is running out. Entire strains of history are literally and inexorably turning to vinegar. There are piles of films past the point of rescue, and there are piles more getting there even as you read this. SOFIA is not exactly bereft of trophies, counting among their triumphs the rediscovery and restoration of films like Giliw Ko, Noli Me Tangere, Tunay Na Ina, Sanda Wong, Kundiman Ng Lahi, and White Slavery. But this, their members will be the first to tell you, barely scratch the surface. And the work that needs to be done is regularly curtailed as SOFIA are continually beset by troubles that swing from the usual lack of funding to the crippling vacuum of a National Film Archive that should exist but doesn’t. Help has begun to pour in from all sides. Foreign organizations have lent a hand in restoring some films. Even film producers and branches of government are weighing in. But it’s a precarious situation, all told. Still, never say never is their default mantra. Daigdig Ng Mga Api is SOFIA’s Holy Grail. But so were Gerry de Leon's The Moises Padilla Story and Lino Brocka’s Wanted Perfect Mother, both thought forever lost in any format. And if these films can resurface, as they have, suddenly anything is possible.

A few months back, after years of basking curiously in its myth, I at last saw Mario O’Hara’s previously lost noir Bagong Hari for the first time, as part of SOFIA’s Overlooked Films Underrated Filmmakers series of screenings. Cobbled from grungy U-Matic elements, its condition was far from pristine but this was probably the best the film has looked in years. More to the point, though, it surged with energy, felt thrillingly alive - - -dense, ballsy, vigorous. Direk Mario was there and so were the film’s stars Dan Alvaro, Robert Arevalo, Perla Bautista. This was the first of the screenings I attended, and regret missing Jun Raquiza’s Krimen and Danny Zialcita’s Masquerade, regret missing nearly every screening, really. This was how it was each time, I’ve been told. An unsung film retrieved from the fringes, a relatively fervid audience, its director and stars rekindling glory days and meeting new generations of admirers. It’s terribly encouraging. And it makes sense that a generous amount of SOFIA’s energies are now being poured into them.

We are largely a culture who has routinely trivialized, neglected, ignored and vilified our own cinema, elevating our revulsion to a class schism even, while kissing the ground foreign cinema treads. This flippant, often disgruntled, apathy has been more or less crucial to the state our cinema is in now. But, in its own modest way, these screenings embody the almost violent tidal shift in attitude and enthusiasm. And it’s tough not to feel even the tiniest glimmer of hope. The mash-up archaeologist slash detectives slash mercenaries of SOFIA will not shirk from their first mission , sure. The lost films need to be found and restored. But these screenings are, in and themselves, restorations, too, of the very things that bought SOFIA , and those of us who champion their efforts, here in the first place: cinema and the jubilant obsession, keening passion and relentless love we have for it.

Originally published at Lagarista.
Picture courtesy of SOFIA.


Noel Vera said...

Jesus, Dodo, you took my breath away.

dodo dayao said...

Thanks Noel. And incidentally, I thought Bagong Hari was as advertised. That is, superbly fucked-up.:)