If you’ve seen any Tagalog movies dubbed in English, you’re likely to have heard his voice, and even without translation, he pops up often as a heavy in action flicks. The resume of Jess Ramos reads like a capsule history of postwar Filipino film and broadcasting. He’s been a screenwriter, a director of a tear-jerking television series, a radio sound effects man and a character actor in both TV and movies since he began his career in Manila, circa 1949. Ramos’s biggest role, however, is as one of the first Asian documentary film-makers.
As film researchers begin to write the book on Asian film, it’s important to remember that Lino Brocka attended Jess Ramos’s seminars in the sixties and that Ramos worked with Lamberto Avellana, whose career dates back to the beginnings of Filipino cinema. I was fortunate enough to have several conversations with Jess during his visit with family in the Chicago area. Those conversations yielded an appreciation of the impact of his life’s work.
The celluloid image of the Filipino for international (ie Western) audiences created by the populist potboilers of the late Lino Brocka and the faux-bakya critique of imperialism of Kidlat Tahimik often belie the rich and problematic history of Filipino film in particular and Asian film in general. Playing a major role in both, Ramos exemplified a recipe of hard work and vision, stubbornness and compromise – and a requisite pinch of collusion with Western institutions – that was necessary for an Asian film-maker to get work done his way to international audiences of the sixties.
People’s Power advocates of the seventies and eighties owe Ramos and his generation a debt for the indigenous film industry in which they found their voice, and for the cultural identity they constructed particularly with Ramos’s most important film, Mangandingay: A Place of Happiness.
Shot on location in Nueva Ecija by cinematographer Remigio Young, Mangandinagay provided an early model for subsequent representations of a specifically Filipino ethnicity in its depiction of communitarian village life. In Mangandingay, grass roots economic development peacefully co-exists with tradition.
Lucresia Kasilag’s soundtrack for Mangandingay had put to use the extensive ethnomusicological knowledge she’d acquired while researching accompaniments for the Bayanihan Dance Troupe. While the score in itself represented a major breakthrough, the images it accompanies are, too, scrupulously tipico.
Enthused by the discovery of cinema veritas by British and American film-makers on the battlefields of WWII, he and Lamberto Avellana founded the Philippines’s first private documentary film enterprise. Jess used the Eye-Mo, a portable, hand-cranked 35mm camera for his initial film efforts and experimented with frame-by-frame animation. Some of his early projects included promotional clips that extolled the joys of detergent and the setting up of Proctor & Gamble A-V units, which eventually brought feature films and consumerism to the bukid (rural areas).
During the Magsaysay administration, he broke precedent and began to shoot government documentaries on location. Jess purged his work of all remaining traces of the zarzuela (the model for early Filipino cinema had been Spanish light opera) and insisting on rigorous standards of authenticity for all objects shot by the camera. Jess shot films on location in the provinces – films such as Biyaya ng Dagat (Fisherman’s Bounty) – filled with a new perspective of Philippine rural life, a documentary-like realism that would feed an optimistic, post-war nationalism.
By 1956, Jess’s credibility as a chronicler of Asian life attracted the attention of the U.S. propoganda machine, and he found himself on assignment for the U.S. Information Service in Lao, Indo-China. His job was to make a documentary on their first general election, but broke with the project after discovering that the agency’s pressure to provide glowing reports to Washington had the tendency to interfere with the pursuit of truth twenty-four times a second. While in Laos, Indo-China, he observed some of the fatal misreadings of Asian values that proved disastrous for U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. The American tendency to throw money at problems, according to Ramos, backfired in a Buddhist culture that gives no status to a giver who admits the need for atonement in the very act of giving.
By 1959, Ramos found himself on the receiving end of a very big gift from a very big giver. The legendary British Shell Film Unit needed a director for a new Southeast Asia division and the nod went to him. For a documentarian, the Shell Film Unit was the top of the mountain. The Shell Oil Group had funded the work of key members of Britain’s documentary film movement since 1934, when film theorist John Grierson – who coined “documentary” in the previous decade – wrote the report that convinced the multi-national to fund non-fiction film, thereby kicking off the long and tangled relationship between corporate sponsorship and international modernism. Establishing a pattern of official neutrality and disinterested philanthropy for PR practice, Shell maintained a hands-off policy with regards to directors, and Ramos’s creativity flourished beneath this benign neglect. In 1960, he released The Boat People, which depicted life in the Hong Kong harbor. The next summer, he began preparation for the production of the gem of his documentary career, Mangandingay (a few months later, he directed the Philippine segment of Julian Spiro’s Golden Lands).
Mangandingay became a showpiece for the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, a program inspired by the Utopian theories of Chinese education Dr. James C. Yen. It won awards in both Asia and Europe, and helped define the Filipino people to the world and to each other. Following the international success of Mangandingay, Ramos served as a media consultant to the presidential campaign of Ferdinand Marcos, but refused to serve as administration propagandist after Marcos declared martial law. Throughout the seventies, he worked on projects for U.N. agencies and established a career in the Filipino entertainment industry.
In the eighties, his CeyPhil International opened a commercial film pipeline between the Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka, binding two peoples together in practice. Jess created a synthesis of tradition and modernity that gave coherence to an Asia struggling for self-definition, and mapped a filmic space onto which future generations could project.