Today marks the 46th year since Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law throughout the country. It was a period fraught with violence and unrest, though not everyone subscribes to this truth. Today, we still hear arguments in favor of Marcos’ dictatorship, citing a sense of law and order as well as economic stability. But I think, one thing that’s inarguable, is that that period gave birth to many artistic masterpieces, including films. Directors like Lino Brocka, whose genius is recognized all over the world, produced their greatest works amidst that period of chaos.
These films are a part of our identity as a nation, and something that I think every Filipino should be exposed to, especially since they say movies,like other forms of art, are considered valid historical references, as they mirror the people’s experiences. So one way to educate yourself about that controversial time and understand Martial Law is to watch films exploring this period. I’m sure you’ll see a dominant theme will emerge. Though this isn’t an exhaustive list, I recommend you start with these films to properly commemorate the declaration of Martial Law.
Manila by Night
Capturing Manila in all its raw squalor, acclaimed Filipino director Ishmael Bernal made a cinematic masterpiece out of the city’s underworld, featuring disenfranchised characters—women, the poor and impoverished, and the LGBTQ community—amidst that period’s alarming setting; one that’s ridden with issues of unemployment, prostitution, and vice and drug addiction. Unsurprisingly, it was banned from export at the time. Imelda Marcos had it renamed to City After Dark to avoid maligning the country’s capital. She was, after all, obsessed with showing the rest of the world how beautiful we were as a nation, and this showed anything but.
Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag
This 1975 film by National Artist for Cinema Lino Brocka tells the story of Julio Madiaga, a young fisherman who leaves his province to look for his long-lost beloved, Ligaya Paraiso, in the city. In his search for her, he became exposed to the harsh reality of what it takes to survive in the city. It is considered as one of the greatest films from around the world by The Criterion Collection, making Brocka join the ranks of Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard, and Martin Scorsese. It is also the only Philippine film listed in the best-selling book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
Directed by Chito Roño, this film explores the dictatorship’s effects on a middle-class Filipino household. It circles around the lives of parents Amanda and Julian, who view themselves as apolitical, and their five sons, who turn to various forms of activism or simple teenage rebellion during the repressive Martial Law. After the family becomes the victim of extremist violence, things changed in the household.
Despite censorships, bomba or sexy films became prolific in this period. Peque Gallaga’s Scorpio Nights stood out for elevating the genre into an art form. Under the guise of an erotic thriller, it served as a commentary on Marcos’ New Society and its repressive policies. Its plot was inspired by an actual news story during that time about a police officer who killed his wife when he found out that she was having an affair with a college student who was living with them. Gallaga effectively tweaked the narrative to make it a reflective statement about the country’s condition rather than a specific story.
Mike de Leon’s noir film is a chilling account of how the apathetic youth eventually gets sucked into outright fanaticism, something deeply relevant today. Here, we see the protagonist, a fraternity pledge, eventually lose his sense of self and become a mere follower to the organization’s leaders and beliefs. The story takes a more haunting turn as it is revealed that a blood sacrifice is required, which was used as the basis for an all-out frat war. Some analyze this as an allusion to the Plaza Miranda bombing, which, as we know, was cited as the reason for the declaration of Martial Law.
Art by Marian Hukom
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