Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Conversation with Ed Cabagnot

While doing my research on digital cinema in the Philippines, it was inevitable that I talk to Ed Cabagnot. Here's an excerpt of our conversation where Ed shares his experience with the ECP and the early years of Gawad CCP.

I worked with Ed in the early 1990s, he's at the CCP Film while I was with the CCP Visual Arts and then CCP Outreach. I learned a lot about films and photography from him. One afternoon, passing through Ed's office I saw him watching a film, I stopped and joined him. I was enthralled, completely awed and fell in love. The film was Raise the Red Lantern by Zhang Yimou. Unfortunately, I had a meeting to go to and I was not able to finish the film. But the images stayed with me. I was fortunate to finally finish the film a few years back. I am still in love with it. Thank you, Ed.

EH: I’m very interested in your first-hand experience in the GAWAD CCP, Freefest and Cinemalaya. Please take us back in time.

ED: My first statement is that Cinemalaya is one of the most successful projects of the Cultural Center of the Philippines to date in the sense that audience-wise even if we did not have press release, people came and the screenings get filled up. So audience-wise, every year people flock to watch Cinemalaya films. Number two, revenue-wise it is also one of the most lucrative CCP projects. In the past year Cinemalaya earned 27.5 million pesos in ticket sales, compared to the first year which was barely 5 million -- so you can see the trajectory. And I’m not saying “kasi ang galing- galing ng CCP,” I’m just saying that the time is right. We have a lot of people making new films. We have a lot of audiences who are looking for films and then we have a venue like CCP which is giving these people the space.

My statement there is that the success of Cinemalaya wasn’t overnight. The road to Cinemalaya was a long, long road and I think if you will allow me, I think it even goes beyond CCP. For me, from my experience, I think the first stirring of this movement was called Philippine Independent filmmaking which started as early, even before the 80’s. My first hand experience with the indies was working under the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. So I can bring you back -- this was created by the Marcos administration in February 1982 to be the managing organization of Imelda’s Manila Film Center. So the ECP was created to create film-related events that can push Philippine cinema forward. So on one side of the ECP was Imelda’s MIFF - Manila International Film Festival – whose main goal was to make Manila the Cannes of Asia, the Cannes Film Festival of Asia. On the other side of CCP was Imee. Imee was tasked by Marcos to create the other incentives. And what were the other incentives? Other incentives included a film fund which means if you have a film in production but cannot finish it due to financial difficulties, you can show your rushes and then the ECP would give you the balance. And then there were film production which was responsible for four of the best films I know – Oro, Plata, Mata, Himala, Soltero, Misterio sa Tuwa. And then you have the archives headed ni Ernie De Pedro. It was a beautiful archives below. And then you have Film Education of Ward Loarca but that did not really take off.

And then where I was, was the Alternative Cinema. Alternative Cinema’s job was just to fill up all the theatres of the Manila Film Center and we had more than 13 theatres with regular screenings. The main theatre of the Manila Film Festival Center could seat approximately 1,800 people. The 2 smaller theaters were big; they were as big as the Little Theater – 450-seater and a 350-seater. And then you have the mini preview rooms which could sit 100 people to 300 people. So that was our job.

My boss before was Boy Noriega. So doon sa Alternative Cinema, I was handling the classic films - the Renoirs, Truffauts, Kurosawas, the Fellinis, etc. And then somebody else was handling the Filipino titles. And then somebody else was handling the independent films. For me, it all started with the ECP Independent Film and Video Competition. It started, if I’m not mistaken, in 1982. Bienvenido “Boy” Noriega Jr., the playwright, inspired it. He was also a bank vice president for PNB, but at the same time he was an officer of ECP, and he was an author. He loved short films, he loved classic movies, so he was the one with Imee, who thought of coming up with a competition. So the ECP Experimental Cinema and Independent Film & Video competition became the first ever regular competition sponsored by the government that gave young Filipino filmmakers awards for the best documentary, best short feature or narrative film, best experimental and best animation - so the 4 categories were there. The likes of Nick Deocampo, Raymond Red, Joey Agbayani, Rox Lee and a host of other people who many consider as the pillars of Philippine Independent Cinema became known here. And I remember we were all young then, they were programming the festival, we were all joining the festival, and it was fun.

EDSA People Power happened in 1986 and one of the first things that the new administration did was shut down most of the Marcos’s machineries. Unfortunately, I felt it was very relentless. They should have kept the ones that worked and I felt that the ECP was one of the best efforts of the government, but unfortunately they shut it down. Manila Film Center was closed. CCP changed its thrust. You know that Eloi, you were from here - decentralization, etc. They opened CCP to include the non-performing arts so the VLMA (Visual Literary Media Arts) was formed and Hammy Sotto became the head for Film. They wanted the CCP not just a venue but also a Coordinating Center.

So when Hammy came in, he asked me to join him. To be honest, I did not want to work with government anymore but Hammy is a nice guy and said. “Don’t worry Ed, we’ll have as much fun as you did in ECP.” When I joined CCP, most of the projects/programs that we did at the ECP were adopted by the CCP. But of course, CCP’s budget is much smaller than ECP’s - you know all of a sudden arts and culture fell into nothingness. You were here, you know how our budgets were, but we did very good projects. One of the projects that had a reincarnation was the ECP Independent Film and Video Competition that was renamed GAWAD CCP para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Video.

Hammy was so wise. He didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so the Coordinating Center for Film in 1987 was patterned after the ECP but on a very, very small scale. I managed World Cinema. Lyn Pareja managed Filipino Greats. And then you had Jon Red who was managing the Indie film. So Jon Red was in-charged of GAWAD CCP para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Video. And what was nice even though there was one or two years gap between the end of ECP and the start of Coordinating Center for Film, when we started the GAWAD there was a smooth transition. A lot of people joined like Mark Leily, they all joined. To be honest with you, even the exact rules and regulations of the GAWAD was based on the ECP.

EH: So this was about ‘88?

ED: ‘87. The good then thing is we felt that the ECP pattern was good, so why re-invent it? That’s the problem with Filipino, when there’s a change in management, everything changes. That’s why I like Hammy because he is not like that, for him it was “let’s just do this because it was good in the first place.” So the categories survived up to now.

The GAWAD CCP para sa Alternatibong Pelikula at Video is one of the longest running GAWAD of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. But Eloi, please help me with this research, it’s my claim that “it is the longest running Independent Film Festival in Asia.” There’s no other independent competition, especially for shorts, that I know existed in countries including Japan or even India. So if you could help me with that claim. But at least for Southeast Asia I know we were first and we’re still there.

So yung Independent Cinema scene I think, if you just look at all the winners of the GAWAD, you would see the trending, you would see the themes and technologies that were the trend for certain periods.

EH: Were you able to keep the films?

Ed: No. We only started archiving the films between 20 years, during the 10th or 11th year. But the nice thing is most of the entries of the GAWAD CCP came from Mowelfund, UP, Ateneo, La Salle and most of these schools would have their archives. Unfortunately, I just found out from Ricky Orellana that even Mowelfund is having a hard time archiving their shorts. They still have but they need the funding and the people to maintain it, digitize it - so that’s the problem.

EH: What about your catalogs?

ED: The catalogs are almost complete in the CCP library. And for the 20th anniversary (of CCP), Ricky and I had been talking about having some of the Mowelfund shorts digitized using CCP equipment. Because we feel that we own it partly because they’re GAWAD winners. And as I’ve said, young people nowadays especially they’re going into independent filmmaking, it’s nice for them to realize that they are not alone - a lot of people started before them.

EH: That they’re not “putok sa buho?”

ED: Exactly. For me, that’s one of the ways we can help them. There are a lot of independent filmmakers who are big-headed; they think they are always the first to do things, which I don’t mind, it’s nice to have a big ego but if you feel like you’re a part of a tradition, then that’s better.

Part 2 to follow.

Cultural Center of the Philippines May 14, 2009


  1. Hi .. naka attend din ako ng ilang sineclub sessions sometime 1999, thats why I came to know Ed Cabagnot. It was sad that I have to leave. I still remember that after sessions, we will still go out for food and drinks and talk more about movies and film making as if we won`t get tired with this topic forever. I miss this ever since everyday. It`s nice that there is this Usapang Pelikula that you open, sana this will go on like we are being in a Pub or a Cafe na kahit na kaming nandito sa abroad can hear.
    Since I came here to Japan, I am trying to create an atmosphere where people who have interest in movies and film making can join, like the sineclub. So far nakagawa na rin kami ng dalawang projects
    Salamat po.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Al. You're welcome. Yes, I'll try my best to keep this up. I have a lot of conversations to share. :)