After having his 1976 film Itim (English title: Rites of May) screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, renowned Filipino director Mike De Leon’s works are again headed overseas — this time to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
MoMA will be holding the retrospective film series, “Mike De Leon: Self-Portrait of a Filipino Filmmaker” throughout November. It will feature all of De Leon’s feature films and shorts from his career as both a director and writer, making it the first time such a comprehensive screening of his works will have been held in North America.
MoMA’s website describes De Leon as “one of Filipino cinema’s most fiercely political and dramatic storytellers in his own right”. It also notes De Leon’s storied history with the Philippines movie industry — his grandmother, Doña Sisang, founded the once-prestigious LVN Pictures — as well as the influences of Hollywood and European cinema on his work.
“De Leon’s own films mix the genres of melodrama, crime, supernatural horror, slapstick comedy, and the musical with blisteringly critical stances toward his country’s history of corruption and cronyism, state-sponsored violence, feudalist exploitation, and populist machismo: the festering legacies of the nation’s colonial past made even more purulent by the dictatorships of Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte,” it wrote.
MoMA’s retrospective includes Itim (1976), De Leon’s debut feature; Kisapmata (1981); AKΩ Batch ’81 (1982); Sister Stella L. (1984); and Citizen Jake (2018). The retrospective will also feature Signos, “the defiantly subversive anti-Marcos short he made in 1983 with an underground collective of filmmakers and activists,” as well as rare behind-the-scenes footage from the 1975 Lino Brocka masterpiece Manila in the Claws of Light (where De Leon served as producer and cinematographer), Itim, and Moments in a Stolen Dream (1977).
De Leon was unable to attend the screening of Itim at Cannes earlier this year but delivered a powerful anecdote through his international distributor, Carlotta Films:
“The title of the [book] section that I read is ‘Surreal Mix of Horror and Politics.’ It is still appropriate, but Horror has now acquired a more sinister meaning. It is no longer about a ghost but about the monsters of Philippine politics, monsters that, after a long wait in the subterranean caverns of hell, have returned to ravish and rape my country all over again. The crazy thing is that we invited them back.”
“I am happy that my film is participating in this great festival, but I feel utterly humiliated to be a Filipino today.”