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6 Filipino Documentary Filmmakers to Keep on Your Radar

Documentaries are no longer textbooks in motion. Filipino documentary filmmakers have helped solidify the medium in the age of online streaming platforms.

Documentaries are media frequently consumed in the Philippines. Many of us grew up watching television shows such as “Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho,” “Reporter’s Notebook,” “i-Witness,” and “Investigative Documentaries,” which used various documentary types to narrate their stories.  The accessibility of these documentaries allowed us to recognize the value of the medium and has led to a growing appreciation for documentary films beyond TV screens.

The State of Documentary Films in the Philippines

In 2020, the Filipino Documentary Society launched Daang Dokyu, a film festival showcasing Filipino documentaries from the 20th century to the present. The event aimed to provide Filipino films a space to be highlighted and celebrated as a stand-alone medium, not a subgenre of fiction film. Daang Dokyu was founded by filmmakers Jewel Maranan, Baby Ruth Villarama, Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala, and Monster Jimenez.

Documentary films have also populated online streaming platforms in the last two years. A 2021 TIME Magazine article dubbed the rise of documentary films as “docu-mania.” For instance,  Tiger King (2020) ranked 5th among the most streamed shows on Netflix in 2020. The Great British Baking Show also ranked 7th. Others worth mentioning are Amy (2015), Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017), Miss Americana (2020), and Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry (2021). The medium allowed music icons to show the intimate parts of their lives beyond what is aired on mainstream media.

Filipino Documentary Filmmakers

As documentary films grow in popularity, Filipino filmmakers from different backgrounds continue to experiment with the medium through video journals, exposés, or biopics, among many others. We list down six Filipino documentary filmmakers you should keep on your radar.

1. Adjani Arumpac

Portrait of Adjani Arumpac, a documentary filmmaker.
Photo source The Movie DB

Filmmaker Adjani Arumpac is most notable for her documentary film about the war in the southern Philippines: War Is a Tender Thing (2013). Narrated through the lens of her family history, Arumpac unravels the gruesome truth of the Moro conflict featuring the director’s parents, uncles and aunties, cousins, and neighbors. Using the impact documentary style, the filmmaker aims to draw empathy for marginalized communities affected by war. This unique filmmaking approach humanizes the Moro conflict, its victims, and its perpetrators. It is also worth noting how rarely the situation is talked about in mainstream media.

Arumpac is also known for Nanay Mameng (2012), a biopic of a Filipina urban mass leader, and Count (2021), a 13-minute documentary that plays with the idea of internalized historical misalignment.

War Is A Tender Thing by Adjani Arumpac | Trailer

2. Kristoffer Brugada

Portrait of Kristoffer Brugada, a documentary filmmaker.
Photo source Logan Nonfiction Program

Director Kristoffer Brugada is known for his 2019 documentary film Elehiya sa Paglimot, a personal documentary about life, love, and loss. The film opens a window for the audience to witness how he dealt with his father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Using the participatory documentary style, Brugada allows his viewers to see through his vulnerability as he finds solace in his father’s passing.

His courage in sharing his personal story is a testament to the value and power of documentary films. The medium allows us to find empathy in circumstances we have yet to experience–our mortality.

Brugada is also known for his TV documentary Dreaming of My Homeland and the short film Bullet-Laced Dreams, which the Tribeca Film Institute and In-Docs supported.

Elehiya sa Paglimot (2019) by Kristoffer Brugada | Trailer 

3. Alyx Arumpac

Portrait of Alyx Arumpac, a documentary filmmaker.
Photo source 3Continents

If you’ve heard of Aswang, you are probably familiar with Alyx Arumpac

Aswang (2019) was Arumpac’s debut film. When it was made public last July 12, 2020, by advocacy group DAKILA, public discourse on Duterte’s war on drugs rose on various online spaces. The film documented the lives of suspected drug users, pushers, and small-time criminals, whose fates intertwined with the first two years of extrajudicial killings in Manila. Through the lens of the victim’s families and communities, we could picture the gravity of the crisis. Arumpac’s fearless approach to filmmaking unraveled stories the mainstream media seldom discussed.

Aswang won four awards at the Gawad Urian 2021: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Documentary. It was also the first documentary film to achieve Best Picture at the Gawad Urian. At the FAMAS 2020, Aswang bagged four awards: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Documentary Film.

Aswang (2019) by Alyx Arumpac | Trailer 

4. Baby Ruth Villarama

Portrait of Baby Ruth Villarama, a documentary filmmaker.
Photo source Chevening

Filmmaker and producer Baby Ruth Villarama has been in the filmmaking industry for over ten years. Her filmography spans international borders, platforms, and mediums. From writing and producing television documentaries to championing Filipino documentary films internationally, her body of work is truly impressive. 

Villarama is known for her 2016 film Sunday Beauty Queen, which follows the lives of Filipino domestic helpers as they dream of becoming beauty queens in Hong Kong. The documentary captures the struggles of being an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW), the various private and public institutions that hinder their livelihood and employment, and the families they have left behind in the Philippines.

Sunday Beauty Queen won Best Picture at the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival, being the first documentary to bag the prestigious award. It also won Best Documentary at the 2017 Gawad Urian.

In 2019, Villarama was invited to be a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the Academy votes for the winners of the annual Oscars.

Sunday Beauty Queen (2016) by Dir. Baby Ruth Villarama | Trailer 

5. Pabelle Manikan

Portrait of Pabelle Manikan, a documentary filmmaker.
Photo source Pabelle Manikans LinkedIn Account

Filmmaker Pabelle Manikan is known for directing Dreaming in the Red Light (2019), an intimate look into the lives of two women: a former sex worker and her half-German daughter. Dreaming in the Red Light tells the story of how the two navigate their mother-and-daughter relationship amidst poverty and troubled pasts. The film started production back in 2016 when Manikan noticed the high number of mixed-race children in Angeles City, Pampanga. She then went on to follow the lives of the two women as they struggled to turn their situation around for the better.

Manikan’s filmmaking approach allowed her to capture moments only the female gaze could glance at. In her Daang Dokyu introduction video, Manikan emphasized the importance of showing the lives of women outside of bars and strip clubs to reveal who they truly are without the bold lipstick, eyeliner, and fear of not landing a customer for the night.     

Dreaming in the Red Light (2019) by Pabelle Manikan | Trailer 

6. Demie Dangla

Portrait of Demie Dangla, a documentary filmmaker.
Photo source Demie Danglas LinkedIn account

Director Demie Dangla is a photographer and filmmaker whose artistic identities revolve around her discussions on personal memories, social realities, and collective experiences. She received the National Geographic Explorer grant for a documentary photography project that explored the effects of urban development and tourism on indigenous communities. In 2023, she was one of the Berlinale Talents from the Philippines.

As of writing, Dangla is in the late development stage of her documentary film Magnetic Letters. The film is a participatory documentary wherein she examines her distant relationship with her OFW father. Magnetic Letters is a compilation of fragmented memories woven from audio and video cassette tapes recorded in the late 1980s and 1990s.

The unique and intricate approach to the medium makes Magnetic Letters an exciting film to see on the big screen.

It’s a Wrap

Documentary films remain an essential part of the media diet amidst emerging online media consumption. With various known brands and corporations playing with the medium, the future of documentaries is bright in the country.

By supporting the works of Filipino documentary filmmakers, we also support the arts, the filmmaking industry, and the stories we tell and continue to share.

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