Con+tagion – Keynote Address

Bliss Cua Lim
University of California, Irvine

Contagion, Making-Do, and Other Keywords for Philippine Cinema’s Archival Survival

Friday, October 20: 4:15 – 6pm

This talk transposes the conference thematic of “contagion” from the realms of epidemiology and pathology to the archival management of audiovisual collections, with a particular focus on endangered works of Philippine cinema migrated from analog to digital form. Contagion bears on archival film preservation insofar as standard preservation practices prescribe the segration of such degraded films to avoid contaminating the rest of the collection. In found-footage compilation films of ruined nitrate footage such as Decasia (2002), diegetic figures appear engulfed in fungal blooms. Such archival blight risks future contamination of proximate works due to the fumes emitted by their chemical decay. The quarantine of deteriorating audiovisual elements is an attempt to control contagious decay, to prevent archives from becoming de facto tombs.

The impoverished film image and the yawning gap between what we see today in comparison to what original audiences watched connects nitrate compilation films with decayed works in under-resourced government film archives in the Philippines. The contours of archival crisis in Philippine cinema are alarming: of over 350 films produced before the outbreak of World War II, only five prewar Filipino films survive and only one nitrate film remains. The audiovisual collections of today’s state-funded film institutions—the National Film Archive of the Philippines (NFAP) and the Philippine Information Agency (PIA)—are themselves surviving remnants of prior institutional catastrophes, namely, the closure of the first NFAP in 1986 and the shuttering of the PIA’s Motion Picture Division in 2004. Inspired by Hito Steyerl’s defense of the “poor image” and Ackbar Abbas’ conception of “poor theory,” this paper explores bootstrap practices of making-do, creative workarounds that have emerged to ensure the archival survival of Philippine cinema, a variant of what we might call “poor archiving”. In response to my research request for access copies of 16mm propaganda films made in 1971-72, on the eve of the Marcos dictatorhip’s declaration of Martial Law (PFM’s Declaration of Martial Law, The Threat…Communism, The Enemy from Within, and From a Season of Strife), a handful of archivists collaborated to produce rushed digital access copies of these films in 2015. The result of our collective efforts were undoubtedly poor images. Yet the makeshift digitization itself exemplified non-idealized archival practices of making-do (paggawa ng paraan) that marshal meager resources to buy time and keep things going. Given that both the snail’s pace of bureaucratic red tape and histories of prior state film archives’ collapse caution against the costs of inaction, making-do and enduring in order to ensure access, if not preservation, are striking traits of Philippine archiving cultures called-forth by conditions of archival precarity.

BLISS CUA LIM is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies and Director of the PhD in Visual Studies at the University of California– Irvine. She is the author of Translating Time: Cinema, the Fantastic, and Temporal Critique (Duke University Press, 2009). Her research and teaching center on Philippine cinema; temporality; postcolonial feminist film theory; transnational horror and the fantastic; and taste cultures. She is currently working on the crises of archival preservation in Filipino cinema.