‘Cinemata Features’ is a series highlighting film practitioners in the Asia-Pacific – filmmakers, film groups, curators, critics, and archivists – who create and disseminate social and environmental issue films in the region.
This eighth feature spotlights Herwin Cabasal, an advocacy filmmaker and the chair of the Department of Communication at Far Eastern University in the Philippines. He has taught communication, film, and media courses at various universities such as Centro Escolar University, Mapua University, and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. He obtained a Master of Arts in Media Studies (Film) from the University of the Philippines Diliman. Prior to joining the academe, he had previously worked at ABS-CBN Corporation.
EngageMedia [EM]: How did your interest and journey in filmmaking and film studies start?
Herwin Cabasal [HC]: Before joining the academe, I already had this passionate interest in cinema. Like all others, I started as a cinephile who is fond of motion pictures by collecting DVDs, watching both canon and art films, attending film festivals in the city, reading books on filmmaking, and participating in various film workshops [in the Philippines] by Celso Ad. Castillo, Raymond Red, Bing Lao, Surf Reyes, and Ricky Lee, among many others. That interest grew deeper when I enrolled in the Asia Pacific Film Institute to take the Motion Picture Production Program in 2010. There I met other esteemed mentors from the film industry such as Jade Castro, Emmanuel dela Cruz, Moira Lang, Manny Morfe, Mads Adrias, and Nap Jamir. I learned the skills required in filmmaking that led me to the production of short films such as Motion Picture (2010), Viscera (2011), Pieta (2012), and Resurreccion (2012). My thesis film Viscera bagged recognitions such as Best Screenplay and Best Director from the Art Film Festival and Indie Un-Film, respectively.
In 2015, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in media studies that focuses on cinema at the University of the Philippines Film Institute where I immersed myself in a media scholarship. From there, I also produced and directed a number of award-winning short films such as The Signature Mustache, Mr. Postman, and Incubo which won Best Director and Best Cinematography at the Singkuwento International Film Festival 2016. In 2020, I finally obtained a Master of Arts in Media Studies (Film) degree from the University of the Philippines Film Institute. I am now a tenured faculty and assistant professor at the Far Eastern University (FEU).
EM: As a filmmaker and educator focusing on social advocacy cinema, what prompted you to pursue this topic?
HC: It prompted me to pursue this kind of media and film production when I co-founded Hagonoy Young Leaders Program (HYLEAP), a youth-led organisation on servant-leadership in my hometown in Bulacan, [Philippines]. From 2008 to 2015, I headed its media productions unit that aims to utilise audiovisual content as a tool in advancing social advocacies. That little seed that the organisation planted in me started to grow when I [joined] activist and human rights-themed film festivals like Pandayang Lino Brocka Political Film and New Media Festival by Tudla Productions and Active Vista Film Festival by DAKILA. From there I learned that film productions could not be limited to the dominant and conventional narratives and aesthetics that we usually consume from the big film studios.
That cinema can also serve as a powerful instrument to raise awareness, stimulate discourse, and influence people to take action. That cinema has the capacity to present alternative ideologies and film practices that do not necessarily conform to what is considered standard by the mainstream.
That passion for counter-cinema was nurtured well when I met my professors from UP Diliman such as Nick Deocampo, Rolando Tolentino, Diosa Labiste, and Patrick Campos. Professor and film historian Deocampo has been the most influential, especially when I took his Alternative Cinema class which prompted me to focus on social advocacy cinema as a research topic for my graduate thesis, with Deocampo himself as my thesis adviser. My MA thesis titled “Social Advocacy Cinema: Progressive and Political Filmmaking of Alternative Multimedia Collectives” received the Best Thesis award. Out of that thesis, two papers on social advocacy cinema were already published by the Plaridel Journal and Pelikula Journal. A book chapter on this topic that I authored will also be released soon.
EM: What is the importance of teaching social advocacy cinema to young filmmakers?
HC: Teaching social advocacy cinema to young filmmakers is significant as this type of film equips them to amplify the advocacies of underrepresented sectors of society. They will learn that social advocacy filmmaking bravely foregrounds the neglected narratives from the margins – the urban poor communities, poor working class, peasant farmers, indigenous peoples, and victims of all forms of oppression, exploitation, and human rights violations. They will eventually have this realisation that young filmmakers like them can already resist the dominant social order or the status quo in society, culture, politics, and ideology. That as young as they are as artists, their voice matters and deserves to be heard.
EM: What was one of the biggest challenges you encountered in teaching social advocacy cinema to students? How did you overcome it?
HC: One of the biggest challenges that I encountered in teaching social advocacy cinema also comes from its characteristics of being counter-cinema. Students at first enrolled in film school to learn the art and craft of filmmaking and aspire to also profit from it someday. While it is not really wrong for them to think of filmmaking as a business venture in the future, it is still a challenge for me to shift their attention to a kind of film culture that deviates from the profitable endeavour. I have overcome it by making them realise that all types of films – be they mainstream, independent, or alternative – are being taught in our film school. It is now up to them which path they will take after leaving the academic institution. As long as they are equipped with fortitude, excellence, and uprightness, I am confident that they will utilise cinema to serve the people by bringing with them the program’s mantra “may alam, may pakialam” [socially aware and involved].
EM: As the director of the annual student film festivals Likhang Mulat Film Movements Festival and TAM DokyuFest, tell us more about these initiatives. What is your goal in providing these opportunities to student filmmakers?
HC: Likhang Mulat had a humble beginning, being a classroom activity in 2019 that aimed to showcase the work of my Visual Communication students through an exhibit. That already included an omnibus of one-minute short films (cineminuto) that are socially-relevant. When the COVID-19 pandemic happened in 2020, we launched an online edition of Mulat 2.0 by virtually displaying the photographs, posters, print ads, and short films produced by the students of FEU Department of Communication through a Facebook page. Since all classes shifted online due to lockdowns, the 2020 edition of Likhang Mulat served as a platform for discourse and protest amid the public health crisis. In the same year, the visual arts exhibit shifted to become a human rights film festival and was conducted every December during the commemoration of international human rights day. Now known as Likhang Mulat Film Movements Festival that advances the discourse on social issues and human rights through progressive media content, it has consistently partnered with human rights organisations in the country such as In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND), and now EngageMedia for platform distribution through Cinemata.
Meanwhile, TAM DokyuFest recently launched last May 10 as an annual documentary film festival of the FEU Department of Communication that aims to feature documentaries in the form of cinema and television programs. TAM, which stands for Truth, Advocacy, and Media, advocates for truthful storytelling by giving premium value to the voices and narratives of the people in Philippine society.
Organising these two film festivals aims to provide platforms to screen the social advocacy cinema of our students and to spark discussions on various social issues that matter for the Filipinos and/or the Asia-Pacific region. The content, narratives, and issues raised by the films are deliberately anchored to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. From fictional narratives to non-fiction filmmaking, students have a safe space to be empowered as responsible citizens and artists who can stand and fight for their advocacy such as reduced inequalities, gender equality, quality education, peace, and justice, among many others.
EM: Cinemata partnered with the FEU Department of Communication on both initiatives. Why did you choose Cinemata as one of your platforms for distribution? How has the collaboration supported your initiatives?
HC: The Cinemata platform shares the same educational philosophy with the FEU Department of Communication of utilising media for the greater purpose – for the service of the people. Cinemata also advocates for a film culture that presents social realism and themes on human rights and dignity of life. Cinemata also believes that the critical and progressive voices of filmmakers and artists deserve to be heard and to gradually influence viewers to take positive actions towards the continuous development of our nation. The platform allows the social advocacy films of our communication students to be screened via online hosting. Our films now are not only limited to the physical venues of our university but can already be accessed by the general public anytime, anywhere. Here, students may also gain constructive feedback from the netizens who watch their films.
EM: Tell us a story on the impact of the two initiatives on student filmmakers and festival viewers.
HC: With its invaluable contribution to promoting human rights through visual media, Likhang Mulat earns recognition from the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA). This is important to us because this is a validation of the impact of the advocacies that our films are raising. It means that we are on the right track.
Furthermore, Likhang Mulat has been a recipient of the Excellence Award from the prestigious Philippine Student Quill Awards for two consecutive years, 2021 and 2022. Quill Awards also aim to assess the impact of the projects or programs of an organisation. This milestone reflects how Likhang Mulat has emphasised the use of excellent communication to make a difference in society.
Apart from these recognitions, the impact of these film festivals is also evident in how our communication students, including festival viewers, have continued their commitment to engage in social advocacies.
EM: How do student films and film initiatives directed towards student filmmaker participation impact the current film ecosystem in the country?
HC: I have frequently observed that our students and viewers share their insights and reflections on social media (or, even in their speeches during the film festival premiere and awards ceremony) about the films that they produced and watched. They share how at first they thought that film is intended only to purely entertain. But now, because of these initiatives, they treat cinema as an ideological tool that has the capacity to organise a movement for social advocacies. They have learned not to escape from the realities of life, but to bravely confront it.
The social films that they produce contribute to the current film ecosystem in the country by promoting alternative cinema. This brings us to the notion that for us, cinema is diverse. From film forms, aesthetics, stories, and purposes, we bring what we believe is liberating, consciousness-raising, and non-conventional.
EM: Networks and partnerships between filmmakers and film educators are vital. What do you think is the role of video platforms like Cinemata in building a community of Asia-Pacific social issue filmmakers and audiences?
HC: Video platforms like Cinemata break boundaries between these countries. We may be literally separated by borders and seas, but because of the stories we tell through films and sharing them through Cinemata and other distribution platforms, we become unified as one big community through our lived experiences and aspirations. They help us realise that these social issues are universal and can only be changed if we. the filmmakers and audiences in the region, work in solidarity for the common goal – to break the chains of social injustices.
EM: What is your advice to young filmmakers who are starting out in their own filmmaking practice?
HC: If in doubt and don’t know what to film, start with self-reflection. What is it that you want to tell and express? What do you observe in your own surroundings that you also want us to notice? Is it something personal or societal? How do you see yourself standing in the midst of all these realities happening around us? If given a chance, is there a particular issue in society that you seek to confront? These are the first few questions we may ask ourselves as we pick up our camera and shoot, or as we learn the art and craft of filmmaking along the way. They can be good sources of narratives or themes that you may be interested in filming. I do not claim that we save the world through cinema, but we film to significantly contribute. Finding your voice may help you start your filmmaking practice. Film becomes a means for you to move.
“We film, we move”, as the mantra of Likhang Mulat teaches us.
Cinemata is a platform for social and environmental films about the Asia-Pacific. Cinemata highlights essential yet underheard stories, increasing filmmakers’ reach, engagement, and impact, helping audiences discover thought-provoking videos.