MANILA -- Nearly two decades ago, the Philippine film industry was widely considered "dead." Now it is regarded as one of the brightest lights in Asian cinema, with the Cinemalaya Foundation leading a revival of independent movies.
The nonprofit organization, the winner of this year's Nikkei Asia Prize for culture and community, supports young filmmakers and introduces their best works to the world through the annual Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.
Only 54 films in the 35 mm format were produced in the Philippines in 2004, down from more than 200 in the late 1990s. Most were romantic comedies or action movies with cookie-cutter stories that failed to attract audiences.
Renowned actress and director Laurice Guillen, then the head of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, agreed with Nestor Jardin, a council member and head of the Cultural Center of the Philippines at the time, that there was a way to spark a resurgence: fostering independent films.
There were festivals for commercial films, but Guillen and Jardin sought to launch an event for films by young, freethinking creators. In 2005, the foundation was born.
Antonio Cojuangco, who heads the conglomerate that owns Dream Satellite TV, offered funding. He had been looking for content for his TV network and was frustrated with the low quality of domestic films. He did not think twice when Guillen and Jardin approached him for financial help.
"My condition," Cojuangco said, "was that the festival will focus on young people who have produced only one or two films."
The foundation started out with Guillen, Jardin and Cojuangco at the helm and a budget of 25 million pesos ($487,000), including 11 million pesos donated by Cojuangco. It launched a competition for 500,000 peso grants to finance projects. And as this coincided with the gradual shift from film cameras to digital ones, which made it easier to produce films on low budgets, applications flooded in.
The festival is held every August at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the country's premiere venue for the arts. During the event, the CCP bustles with young crowds and cineastes eager to catch Cinemalaya's latest films.
Over the years the festival has introduced nearly 200 directors and screened nearly 300 feature-length and short films. Some have garnered international acclaim. Director Auraeus Solito's "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros" -- a coming-of-age film about sexual minorities, poverty in Manila's slums and Filipino values -- was chosen for the inaugural event and went on to win awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and elsewhere. It was shown in cinemas in over 100 countries.
Pepe Diokno's debut film "Clash," shown at the fifth festival, concerns the extrajudicial killings that are rampant in the Philippines. It later won the Lion of the Future award for a debut at the Venice Film Festival.
Cinemalaya films often tackle themes that mainstream movies avoid, from social inequality, crime and poverty to homosexuality, human rights, drugs and folk tales. The festival itself has expanded beyond the confines of the Cultural Center and has drawn around 700,000 viewers since its inception. Local malls have begun screening Cinemalaya films to expand the audience.
Taking inspiration from Cinemalaya, more than 10 other film festivals have sprouted in the country. Director Brilliante Mendoza, a regular at Cannes and other major international festivals, launched his own to help nurture young filmmakers.
All of this has ushered in what many call the third golden age of Philippine cinema. The first was in the 1950s, which saw a surge in filmmaking for entertainment. The second came in the 1970s, when films touching on social issues were produced under Marcos' martial law.
"We are not commercially profitable," Cojuangco said. "But we want to create a free environment for filmmaking and give people a chance to see what's happening in this country."