Arts & Entertainment

We've Lost Many of Dolphy's Films. This Restoration Project is Trying to Save Them

Sagip Pelikula preserves and restores lost Filipino reels, and also exposes millennials to classic films.
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The world's first feature movie, The Story of the Kelly Gang, came out in 1906. It was not long after when moving pictures became an industry of their own. With the cost associated with making a film, you would think filmmakers would make sure to preserve their creations.

But that is not the case. The Philippines alone has lost hundreds of original films from as recent as the ‘70s. Reels, especially those made of nitrate negatives, can decompose very rapidly, and the tropical climate in the Philippines accelerates this process.

Recently, the film restoration project Sagip Pelikula was awarded the prestigious International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Gold Quill Awards in Vancouver, Canada. The film restoration project aims, to not only preserve and restore lost reels, but also expose millennials to classic films.

“We have a rich cinematic legacy that is at par with the other world greats and we owe it to those creators to preserve and honor their work, so that future generations can learn and be proud of them,” said Leo Katigbak, head of ABS-CBN's Film Restoration that directs Sagip Pelikula.  

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Precious Films that Cannot Be Restored

Katigbak revealed that Philippine heritage suffered a huge blow because of the number of films that are beyond rescue. 

“A lot of Dolphy films cannot be restored anymore.” 

He admitted that a lot of Dolphy films are now lost to history, or are in such terrible state that restoration is simply unthinkable. The same is true for numerous other classics, which are now only preserved in the memories of those who have seen them. 

“They’re either incomplete or the damage is too heavy. Sometimes, you encounter films in these conditions. It would be nice if we could get films from Lea Productions or others, but copies are just gone. If there are copies, they’re usually beyond repair,” he said.

How Films for Restoration are Selected

“When we started the restoration project, one of the criteria was for the selection to be director-focused, so that we won’t be biased on a certain kind of movie or genre. We have a list of directors and we have a list of their projects,” explained Katigbak.

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“Obviously, we don’t always get all the films that we want to prioritize. Selecting films for restoration depends on many factors, such as the availability of materials, or the completeness of materials, or even legal issues. Based on this list of titles, we will look at what we can prioritize.”

According to Katigbak, they would have wanted to restore the iconic works of Celso Ad. Castillo, such as Burlesk Queen, but unfortunately, nobody can produce a copy of the movie. 

“It’s the same thing with [Director] Mike de Leon. The first film that we were able to access was Hindi Nahahati ang Langit. But obviously, we were also looking at Kisapmata, and Itim, and all of his other films, but again, you have to work with limitations in this particular field,” he said.

Restoring a Film Can Cost as Much as P40 Million

Katigbak admitted that one of the factors that affect film restoration is the cost.

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“You have to understand that we’re also a private business. In the restoration project, we would also look at titles and consider the cost of restoration. If it’s too expensive, we will de-prioritize it until such time that it becomes more affordable to restore,” he said.

The movie Misteryosa Tuwa, for example, suffered extensive damage. When they sent it for restoration, it was estimated to take 30,000 hours to restore.

"The most difficult films to restore are from the Philippines."

“At the rate at that time when we were starting, it would have cost us something like P40 million,” said Katigbak. “But you know, there are things that you have to be creative about. Are there costs you can absorb? Are there costs you can split? Is there work that you can separate? So you look at ways for you to be able to bring down the cost and still be able to come up with the output.”

The Most Challenging Aspect of Restoration is Finding a Complete Film

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According to Katigbak, the most difficult aspect of restoration is actually finding a film to restore, as they are exceedingly rare.

“First of all, the most challenging aspect is finding the materials that are in a restorable condition,” he said. “Film restoration is a very big challenge for us in the Philippines because of the kind of weather that we have. The Philippine weather is really not conducive to preserving films, that’s why there are numerous damaged films here.”

“A lot of our problems tend to be unique to us by virtue of the kind of weather we have. When we were bringing materials to Ritrovata and other companies, they all kept saying that some of the most difficult films they have ever restored came from the Philippines."

“Even when they’ve done complicated restoration, they usually have the advantage of working with multiple negatives—they have internegatives, interpositives. But with films coming from the Philippines, they usually work with the only surviving copy.”

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How Long Does It Take to Restore a Film?

Depending on the damage, restoring a film can take two weeks, or as long as 10 months, if not longer.

Sagip Pelikula’s latest project, Misteryosa Tuwa, has been a work in progress for five years.

“The initial cost was so high, so it was delayed,” said Katigbak. “When we sent it to Italy, they told us that if we hadn’t sent it within that year, it would have deteriorated to a point that it would be impossible to restore.” 

Sagip Pelikula has restored nearly 180 films since the project began in 2011.

"Some creators are not very happy with what we are doing because we had to change the music in the film..."

What Happens After a Film is Restored?

According to Katigbak, Sagip Pelikula is a distinct project because it is the only one that promotes repeated and public viewing of films even after restoration.

“With other archives, they would only show it once or twice, and then return it to its vault—but you know it’s preserved,” said Katigbak.

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"...A lot of the movies we’re restoring were created at a time when people had little regard for intellectual property."

“With ours, part of our thrust is making restored films available for public viewing after restoration.”

However, there are some prices to pay because of it. “Some creators are not very happy with what we are doing because we had to change the music in the film. In our defense, if we’re not able to clear the music rights, what are you going to do? You spent resources on it and then store it away?"

"A lot of the creators that we’ve talked with, including Chito Roño and Laurice Guillen, perfectly understand the situation. A lot of the movies we’re restoring were created at a time when people had little regard for intellectual property. If you really want to see the films restored, there are certain compromises that we will do."

Katigbak further explained that replacing certain music in a film that is being restored is not unheard of. “In America, in shows like Dawson’s Creek, before these came out in Blu-ray and DVD, a lot of the songs in the series were replaced because they couldn’t clear [the rights for] the original music,” he said.

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Classic Films Restored by Sagip Pelikula

Some of the most important films restored by the project include titles such as Himala (Miracle), Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death), Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos (Three Godless Years), and Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw (Rainy Days in Summer), which are movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s.

“We’ve been able to preserve some of the works of Dolphy, works from the ‘70s which are a lot trickier to preserve because of the condition of the materials,” said Katigbak.

Is There Still Hope for Films that Are Beyond Restoration?

When a film’s condition is deemed to be in a state that is beyond rescue, the team simply keeps it or preserves it for future uses.

“I don’t want to say categorically what titles are beyond restoration,” said Katigbak. He explained that there is still a possibility that someone could be keeping a better-preserved reel.

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“For the longest time, we thought that Moral could not be restored, but it was. Sometimes, it’s because we have no available print, but there’s a chance that one will suddenly surface somewhere.”

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Mario Alvaro Limos
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