The Story Behind the First Filipino Movie and Its Legacy
The country’s favorite trope of the downtrodden probinsyano boy pining for a girl out of his league could be mostly blamed on movies. In fact, the very first Filipino movie has this exact narrative. The film, called Dalagang Bukid, was directed by Jose Nepomuceno, whose life was just as exciting as the movies he made.
Jose, the pioneer
Nepomuceno grew up amid revolutions—both political and industrial in nature. Born on May 15, 1893, he was still a child when the Spanish-American war broke out and Uncle Sam took over the Philippines from Spanish rule. In 1897, just a year before the start of the revolution, the chromophotograph was introduced to the Philippines. The same year, the cinematograph reached the country.
As a young boy, he was fascinated by these inventions, especially since his family lived near Teatro Oriente. At four years old, it was said that he cut out paper figures to use in his own shadow dramas. As a teenager, Nepomuceno and his family frequented Teatro Oriente to watch Spanish dramas or zarzuelas, as well as European films. This set him on the path to the arts. In college, he studied Fine Arts at San Beda College and Electrical Engineering at Ateneo de Manila.
As avid fans of the cinema, Nepomuceno and his brother Jesus decided to open their own photography store. The brothers gained popularity and they saved enough to buy their own movie equipment. They also purchased books and magazines about filmmaking.
Around this time, Nepomuceno was also said to be moonlighting as a subtitler in English and Spanish for French and Italian films. When he had enough capital, he opened Malayan Movies. Its first film, Dalagang Bukid in 1919, made him a household name.
Interestingly enough, Nepomuceno also had the instincts of a journalist. He used his equipment to capture important events such as the funeral of the first wife of House Speaker Sergio Osmeña Sr. in Cebu. He also filmed the wife of the boxer Pancho Villa as he became the flyweight champion. Other important events he captured were the signing of the Philippine constitution and the signing of the country’s fundamental law. He also happened to produce the first newsreel taken by a Filipino outside the Philippines, which is the great Kanto earthquake in Japan of 1923. These newsreels were shown abroad as he became an accredited correspondent of Pathé and Paramount News.
Ever the multitasker, Nepomuceno also accepted the offer of the government to make short documentaries about the different industries of the country. From 1921 to 1923, he used 14 reels of film to shoot the production of tobacco, hemp, coconut, hat and button-making.
This is also the reason why Malaya Movies did not produce a lot of films this time despite the success of Dalagang Bukid. Unfortunately, since the nitrate films were made up of highly flammable materials, there were a couple of times that the studio of Malayan Movies burned down. The first time was in 1921 and the second in 1923. The battle of Manila did not spare whatever remained, including the newsreels, equipment, and prints of early films. Until recently, it was widely believed that none of Nepomuceno’s work survived the destruction of the city.
Sadly, this includes Dalagang Bukid, the culturally significant piece of art that is recognized as the first true Filipino film.
Of lovebirds and landlords
Why did Nepomuceno choose the story of Dalagang Bukid, a zarzuela, for the film? Back then, zarzuelas and moro-moro were the main forms of theater. The appeal of the zarzuela could be attributed to its comedic and musical elements which made for a livelier kind of entertainment. Moro-moros, on the other hand, depicted battles between Christians and Muslims. In the early 1900s, as zarzuelas became popular in the city, moro-moros drew in the crowds in rural areas.
This wasn’t the first zarzuela to be adapted into the big screen. American filmmaker Albert Yearsley, who earlier made a film about Jose Rizal’s life and execution, directed the screen adaptation of Severino Reyes’ Walang Sugat. Coincidentally, it was from Yearsley and colleague Edward Meyer Gross that Nepomuceno bought his first equipment from.
Dalagang Bukid was adapted from Hermogenes Ilagan’s widely popular zarzuela of the same name. Hermogenes was already the most prominent zarzuela writer at the time and the zarzuela was a box-office hit. The choice of Dalagang Bukid was a low-risk investment.
Consisting of three acts and 18 songs, Dalagang Bukid tells the story of Angelita, a flower vendor, who meets Cipriano, a poor law student who comes from the province. The two fall in love against the wishes of Angelita’s parents who wanted her to marry the wealthy haciendero and loan shark Don Silvestre. Angelita’s parents were portrayed as lazy and consumed by gambling, while Angelita and her brothers toiled away outside the church, selling flowers and shining shoes.
It was there that Angelita caught the eye of Don Silvestre, who offered Angelita’s parents a chance for her to win the "La Vanguardia" beauty contest in exchange for her hand in marriage. Her parents naturally accept and she was set to be wed after her coronation as queen.
Cipriano, however, hear about this plot and raced to Angelita’s house just in time to stop her from going to the coronation ceremony. They go to the church instead where they marry. In the final scene, Angelita is still crowned as the winner of the beauty contest and she and Cipriano announce they are married.
In the original zarzuela, Don Silvestre concedes to Cipriano. In the film version, he merely faints at the end upon hearing the news, giving way to a sequel, The Vengeance of Don Silvestre, shown in 1920.
Dalagang Bukid was officially released on September 12, 1919. The silent film came with English, Spanish, and Tagalog subtitles. The masterpiece starred the original ensemble, including leads zarzuela queen Atang de la Rama and Marceliano Ilagan, the brother of writer Hermogenes.
It was said that during Dalagang Bukid’s theatrical run, the singing parts, including the iconic "Nabasag ang Banga," had to be performed live by de la Rama and the violin, cornet, and piano players. They had to repeat this for every screening in Metro Manila.
The day after the premiere, newspaper Manila Nueva wrote a review that stated: "The home of Angelita, the pretty heroine, is a correct picture of many Philippine families, although it somehow exaggerates the negative tones."
At that time, Dalagang Bukid was considered a box office success for earning P90,000 from a budget of only P25,000.
Why did a simple love story gain so much fame and set the standard of Filipino films to follow? According to Patrick Campos of the UP Film Institute in his paper “Rural Landscapes and the Formation of Philippine Cinema,” it is because the movie responded to the pulse of the masses.
“The narrative of Dalagang Bukid is anchored on certain culturally acceptable images of the relationship between classes, but, at the same time, it harbors the desire to subvert the social order,” Campos wrote.
“This desire is expressed in the narrative’s disdain for the figure of the landlord, who moves in and out of the rural space to disrupt it—or to irreversibly ruin or redeem its inhabitants, especially its young and beautiful maidens,” he added.
Eventually, films overshadowed zarzuelas. In 1940, there was an attempt to revive zarzuelas by staging Dalagang Bukid at the Grand Opera House with Atang de la Rama as the lead actress. However, it couldn’t compete with the local and foreign films that entertained Filipino audiences.
Behind the scenes
It was Vicente Salumbides, a contemporary filmmaker of Nepomuceno that dubbed him the “Father of Philippine Movies” in his 1952 book, Motion Pictures in the Philippines.
“It was he, more than anybody else, who built the movie industry from its infancy to the present state of maturity. His success proved that the Filipinos could make their own movies without the help of foreign technicians,” he wrote.
The early years of Philippine cinema was marked by directors-producers. There was Jose of Malayan Movies, established in 1917, Vicente of the Salumbides Film Corporation, built in 1927. Another contemporary was Julian Manansala of Banahaw Pictures, established in 1929.
These directors were very hands-on and took on the roles of producer, cameraperson, and even technical advisor. Nepomuceno founded more production houses, including Malayan Pictures Corporation in 1931, which was also described as a “Moving Pictures Producer–Importer & Exporter–Pictures Show–Film Exchange–Cine Advertising– Portraits & Views–Photographic Supplies.” In comparison to Malayan Movies, it offered a much wider array of services. During its heyday, Malayan Pictures Corporation produced 12 out of the 23 silent films in a year. Nepomuceno also established Nepomuceno Production in 1932, Nepomuceno-Harris-Tait Partnership in 1933.
With enough capital for a new sound studio, he built the Parlatone Hispano-Filipino Inc. in 1935. However, Nepomuceno and his partners did not agree on artistic versus business matters. This is why he formed X’Otic films in 1938, and Polychrome Motion Picture Corporation in 1946.
Nepomuceno continued directing and producing movies until his later years until he passed away on December 1, 1959.
What many people don’t know is that the man behind the camera had a woman supporting him as a partner in business and partner in life. This was Nepomuceno’s wife Isabel Acuña, who deserves recognition for her own work.
The couple met on the set of Nepomuceno’s third film, Un Capello Marchito or The Wilted Rosebud in 1920. Isabel was only 16 years old at that time and her younger sister, Luisa, was the star of the film. It was a whirlwind romance and they married just a few months later, on June 6, 1920, at Quiapo Church.
This was the start of a beautiful partnership, in which both shared a common vision and passion for film as an art form. Isabel then became heavily involved in the filmmaking of Malayan Movies.
At first, she worked as a scouting agent, costume designer, and make-up artist. It was reported that she spent hours on the streets, in bazaars, and in movie houses just to research and get ideas about set designs and costumes.
It was also Isabel that insisted that Nepomuceno uses simple words in the dialogues for everyone to understand the story. At the same time, she was also a censor at the production house and made sure there were no dirty language or inappropriate scenes in the movies.
As a casting director, she was in charge of recruiting young actresses and convincing their parents to allow their daughters to be part of the film. This was during the time when films were still considered an inferior art form to the theater. Her role in casting is one of the reasons why she is also considered to be one of the first if not the first casting director in the Philippines.
Isabel had long workdays and it was said that she did most of the preparatory work before any actual shooting started. In journalist Joe Quirino’s book, she described Isabel as Nepomuceno’s “right hand and left hand.” In 1927, she was credited by actress Eva Lyn to getting her role in The Filipino Woman as Isabel suggested she wear a wig instead of her usual bob. Later on, Isabel also developed screen ideas and commissioned scripts, such as Punit na Bandila in 1939, written by Dr. Fausto Galauran.
While she hasn’t always been credited for all her work as journalists at the time were much more focused on the director as the personality behind the films, she was listed as the Vice-President of Malayan Pictures Corporation in the 1932-33 edition of the Rosenstock’s Manila City Directory. This was telling that at least, behind the scenes, she had gotten the respect she deserved and was recognized as Nepomuceno’s equal in their partnership.
The Nepomucenos had eight children, all of whom appeared in their films. Their son Angelito even became a popular child actor. Another son named Luis became a film director and producer. He made films such as Dahil Sa Isang Bulaklak/Because of a Flower (1967), Igorota (1968), The Pacific Connection (1974), among others.
In a 1981 interview for Jingle Magazine, Isabel narrated in detail her role in the film production process alongside her husband.
“He had always wanted me to work side by side with him in our film projects. So he taught me the rudiments of casting, scriptwriting, production design and even art direction,” she said. “The film projects we undertook were really husband-wife venture, or call it team.”
Recognition and celebration
Sadly, none of the over 80 films, including 38 silent films that the Nepomucenos made are intact. It was only in 2011 when the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (Sofia) got a lead that some scenes in the 1934 American movie Brides of Sulu were actually cut from Nepomuceno’s 1931 silent film, Moro Pirates.
Members of Sofia investigated this possibility and also arrived at the theory that the director of Brides, a certain John Nelson, could be Jose Nepomuceno himself. It could be an alias used by the director since no other information could be found on John Nelson. The fact that they also shared the same initials could be a clue.
In an interview with the Inquirer, members of Sofia said that Brides could be a re-edited movie putting together scenes from Moro Pirates and another 1931 film, Princess Tarhata. To give recognition to this potentially important find, Brides of Sulu officially opened the 2011 International Silent Film Festival in Manila.
This discovery opened the possibility that more pre-war Filipino films could exist in the archives of other countries such as Spain or Mexico, according to Sofia.
While the search continues for remnants of the couple’s films, they certainly haven’t been forgotten. In fact, the period of September 12, 2019 to September 11, 2020 has been declared as the Centennial Year of Philippine Cinema as per Presidential Proclamation 622. This was mainly because Dalagang Bukid premiered on September 12, 1919 and would thus be celebrating its centennial year on September 12, 2019.
The Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) was designated to lead the celebration, together with relevant government agencies and institutions, including the National Commission on Culture and the Arts, Cultural Center of the Philippines, MTRCB, Optical Media Board, Film Academy of the Philippines, UP Film Institute, De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde and local and regional film festivals in the country.
This united group, which forms the Sandaan National Organizing Committee, will focus on activities such as “knowledge production, education, exhibition, and international events.” One of which is the Sandaan Conferences, a series of lectures and talks during local and regional film festivals in the country.
FDCP Chairperson and CEO Liza Diño said in a statement published in their agency’s website that the One Hundred Years of Philippine Cinema is a once-in-a-lifetime celebration in honor of the journey of this incredible art form and cultural marker.
“Film is a part of every Filipino as one of the most accessible and effective mediums that tell our stories, struggles, victories, and our growth as a people," she said.
"We encourage each and every Filipino to join us and continue the legacy of our Cinema and look forward to the next hundred years.”