Filmmaking The Philippines

Top Documentary Film Examples in the Philippines

A gruesome truth about the Moro conflict and its victims is unraveled in director Adjani Arumpac’s impact documentary War Is a Tender Thing. Her film features family members and uses the impact documentary style to draw empathy.

Motherland uses immersive verite observation at Manila’s busiest maternity ward to examine the country’s glaring health crisis. It also follows the heroism of a journalist, coroner, and street kid to reveal the crippling fear of dictatorship.

Batch ’81

The Philippines may not be as well-known for their history classes as Europe, but that doesn’t mean the country isn’t a rich source of history-related films and documentaries. Especially since former President Marcos’ authoritarian rule ushered in Martial Law, Filipino filmmakers have taken the opportunity to highlight the country’s painful past through movies and documentaries.

Mike de Leon’s 1982 hazing drama Batch ’81 is an unflinching study of sadomasochistic college fraternities that serves as an effective metaphor for the cruelty of Ferdinand Marcos’ regime. Its tone never veers into leering exploitation, with the closest the film comes to levity being when the Alpha Kappa Omega neophytes perform in drag during a school presentation that references songs from Bob Fosse’s decadent classic Cabaret.

In a similar vein, Jerrold Tarog’s biopic Heneral Luna tells the life story of the Philippines’ first national hero and independence leader. The movie stars Paulo Avelino and Cristine Reyes. The film was also nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Maynila: sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag

It is a common consensus that Lino Brocka’s masterpiece Manila in the Claws of Light (Maynila: Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag) is the best Philippine film ever made. This was given legitimacy with its inclusion in the prestigious Criterion Collection of the world’s greatest films alongside Renoir, Hitchcock and Kurosawa. The film’s story follows Julio Madiaga, who wanders the streets of Manila in search of his lover Ligaya Paraiso. Her name literally translates to Joyful Paradise, a clear symbol of the hope of many Filipinos who venture into urban Manila.

The movie depicts the harsh realities of life in Manila and combines popular melodrama, political import and intense realism with a vivid style. It is a tragic study of lost innocence that shows the desperation of third world poverty and how it can drive people to extreme measures. It is also an apt examination of how one can lose their identity and become a mere cog in the machine of society.


While it is easy to imagine that a film about the world’s busiest maternity ward would be horrifying or depressing, Motherland is anything but. Ramona Diaz takes the cinema verite approach, with no narration, to capture the chaotic day-to-day life of the patients at Manila’s Jose Fabella Hospital, where the staff oversees 60 births a day.

Initially intending to make an issue-driven documentary, US filmmaker Diaz found herself drawn to the organized chaos and heartbreaking humanity she encountered at the hospital. The result is a lively and engaging glimpse at a Manila maternity ward where overcrowding and limited technological resources have forced solutions that may not be ideal, but are admirable nonetheless.

It is also a telling portrait of a Third World culture beset by poverty, overpopulation, and a powerful religious stranglehold on women’s bodies and sexual choices. Even as the film shows these women struggling with the effects of patriarchy and misogyny, they are portrayed as resilient, resourceful and full of life.

Dekada ’70

As a Filipino film of all times, Dekada ’70 is one that is not only educational but also deeply touching. It tells the story of a middle class family whose life is thrown into turmoil as the Martial Law regime under Ferdinand Marcos is declared. The mother, Amanda Bartolome (Vilma Santos), searches for what is true to her while her sons fight against the dictatorship’s oppressive forces.

The movie focuses on the NPA, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its rank and file members are not portrayed as henchmen but as people who struggle to survive. Nevertheless, their existence is not tolerated by the dictatorship and they are persecuted in various ways.

The film is directed by Chito S. Rono and adapted from the book by Lualhati Bautista. It stars Vilma Santos, Christopher de Leon and Piolo Pascual. It is a must watch for every Filipino. You can check it out on iWantTFC.

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