Color as It’s Meant to be Seen: the World Cinema Project
Why is it that the director Lino Brocka is spoken of as a “rediscovery”? When he died in a car crash in 1991, he was 52 yet already had more than 60 films under his belt, and was even then acknowledged as the most important director the Philippines ever produced. Ah-ha! There’s your answer: the Philippines, a country better known for exporting people than films. It saddens me to say it, but there’s really no two ways about it – Brocka’s genius continues to be neglected largely because even art house crowds don’t have a conception of what Filipino cinema is about (as if any country’s film output has a single guiding thematic or stylistic trait).
There’s another reason too. In New York in the 1990s, when I first saw his Manila in the Claws of Light (screening here at ADFF on Sunday), the print’s color had faded into a sickly pink. In fact, almost all the color films shown at the Filipino film retrospective back then had lost their tonalities, looking as if they’d been bathed in Pepto-Bismol. It was distressing to see Brocka’s carefully calibrated hues degraded by cheap film stock less than 20 years after it was made, but I well remember how amazed I was on discovering him for the first time, despite the celluloid's compromised state. Granted I was still young (well, in my 20s), but why didn’t I know about him before? The titles alone were enough to intrigue: not just Manila in the Claws of Light, but My Father is My Mother; Your Body is Mine Experience; and my favorite, You Have Been Weighed and Found Wanting.
Unfortunately, where a film comes from too often impacts its after-life. Cinema from the USA, or France, Germany, Italy, Japan, all have a powerful industry behind them, not just in terms of production and distribution but media and academic attention; DVDs are put out, You Tube clips proliferate. But what about movies from Sri Lanka, Morocco, Senegal or indeed The Philippines? That’s why the World Cinema Project’s restorations are such an important force in today’s film world: major films which have fallen out of the public eye are brought back after careful restoration, to be properly appreciated in all their glory. Restoration is expensive work – I don’t know how much it cost to get Manila in the Claws of Light looking as it did when first released in 1975, but the challenge isn’t just finding the money. It’s also having the distribution and publicity network behind it so the films can be seen by as large a public as possible.
Since they started in 2007, the World Cinema Project brought back to life such important yet neglected classics as Shadi Abdel Salam’s Al Momia, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and Lüfti Ö Akad’s Law of the Border. For the most part all these movies fall outside mainstream interests, which make them especially difficult cases for funding. That something like the WCP, with Martin Scorsese’s name behind it, engages in this work is vital to film heritage, a birthright that’s never restricted to a particular country but to the whole world. Opening ourselves up to international cinema means opening ourselves up to other cultures, and there’s truly no better way of fostering understanding not just of artistic production but life in general.
My colleague at the Village Voice, Inkoo Kang, recently called Brocka’s masterpiece “morally urgent yet beguilingly sensual,” an excellent summation of a film that needs to be experienced exactly as the director intended. Now it’s possible, thanks to the WCP. Not to be forgotten and also playing here at ADFF is Sergei Parajanov’s luminous and equally beguiling The Color of Pomegranates, a stunning reverie which also suffered for decades from degraded prints. Parajanov was one of the greatest colorists of all time, on a level with,master Renaissance painters, so to experience Pomegranates, playing on Saturday, in all its sumptuous tonalities, is to appreciate how many great films are out there deserving of our attention.
Manila in the Claws of Light Screening: Sun 10/26/2014 18:00 Vox 6