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Someone Unearthed Old Films That Give a Rare Glimpse of Pre-War Manila

See the old ‘skyscrapers’ of Tondo.
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Old Manila is often the stuff of legend—we’ve all heard our grandparents wax nostalgic about how beautiful the capital was before it was decimated during World War II. Nick Joaquin’s A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino mourns the passing of the city’s former glory, and anyone who’s read or watched this masterpiece has probably longed for a glimpse of the city in its heyday. 

While there are plenty of photos of pre-war Manila, we don’t often get to witness the hustle and bustle of the city on film. Thankfully, videos uploaded to Youtube by Travel Film Archive show us what Manila was like in the 1930s. 

The 1938 film Manila: Queen City of the Pacific was created as part of filmmaker André de la Varre’s Screen Traveler series. Given this travelogue was filmed by an American, be prepared for a lot of commentary in which our colonizers pat themselves on the back for turning what was once a “sleepy Spanish town” into a “modern city.” 

Imperialist perspective aside, it’s fascinating to see Intramuros as it once was, along with Filipinos making their way to mass in baro’t saya and white suits. Unlike the somber subjects we see in old portraits, these people are laughing and smiling, and it’s easier to see our forebears as ordinary people just like us. The film also depicts Tondo as a “modern business area” and shows the trams and kalesas that used to be common modes of transportation. The film takes viewers around Escolta, Ermita, and the Manila Bay area as well.

The narrator of Castillian Memoirs - Manila by Dean H. Dickason sounds bored to tears, but that doesn’t make this film any less interesting. Released in 1930, it features El Officio de San Jose orphanage along with Bilibid prison, Escolta, and a cigar factory. Just brace yourself for comments on how the most beautiful Filipinas are mestizas.

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Battle of Manila, a documentary produced by the US Army, includes heartbreaking footage of Manila’s destruction at the hands of the Japanese and Americans. The film shows the liberation of the prisoners of war at the University of Santo Tomas as well as the fighting at Rizal Memorial Stadium and Bilibid Prison.

The Manila of our grandparents’ memories may be long gone, but through these films we can get an idea of what it must have been like to see the city in all of its grandeur. At the same time, the documentaries’ imperialist tone reminds us that while it’s nice to dwell in nostalgia, viewing the past with rose-tinted glasses can make us forget why our ancestors fought for independence in the first place. 

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Angelica Gutierrez
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