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The 2nd International Documentary Congress: At One with Nick Deocampo

By Tom White

Nick Deocampo is one of the leading exponents of Philippine independent cinema in the post-Marcos era, and his presence at the IDC underscored one of its predominant themes: the recent evolution in the documentary aesthetic from historical to personal films. In Decampo's case, the evolution is more of a symbiosis. "During the revolution in '86, there was a great element of risk; no one really knew how long the revolution would last, but you're there and you're living the moment," he told his "At One With ..." audience. "And I was capturing those events. In 1987, I made Revolutions Happen as Refrains in a Song, which was actually a personal confession. I was looking at the revolution from a very personal point of view, growing up as a homosexual, and while I was reflecting on my personal history I was trying to relate to the bigger reality that was out there as a national history. The kind of repression I was undergoing was also the same experience that my country was undergoing. So the whole welding of the personal and the political came out beautifully in this particular work." This work was part of his Super-8 trilogy, which touched on such topics as homosexuality and child prostitution in an effort to examine revolution and social change in the Philippines. He eventually moved from Super-8 to 16mm and 35mm film.

Deocampo soon discovered that in order to continue make films about his country, he had to leave it. "As a media worker, I'm no different from the domestic helpers and laborers who have to leave the Philippines to find jobs outside," he explained. "I can't find producers in my own country because I don't want to make the films that they want me to make. I want to make films that are socially engaging, touching on topics that I want to explore."

He made Sex Warriors and the Samurai for Channel Four in London as part of a series that the studio developed entitled The Secret Asia. Sex Warriors, which he screened during his "At One With ...," examined the life of Filipino male prostitutes and drag queens, many of whom seek out more lucrative, if not dangerous, opportunities to ply their trade in Japan-and support their families back home. Deocampo mines the geopolitical undertones of this situation: Japan, which once controlled the Philippines, is now the primary source of revenue for many Filipinos. In addition, he challenges the macho/patriarchal society of his native land by presenting gay men providing for families whose fathers have abandoned them. "This film was an opportunity for me to talk about exactly what's happening in my country," Deocampo said. "I'm putting a face on what otherwise would be a general item in newspaper."

Recently, NHK-Tokyo commissioned Deocampo to make a film that would reflect on 50 years since the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. He proposed to tell the story of his family, whose devastating history perhaps bespeaks that of his country: his grandfather was beheaded by the Japanese, and his father, who joined the resistance movement, succumbed to the trauma of war. He continued to live in a state of war for several decades, and his family became his imagined enemy. One day, he disappeared. Deocampo's film was the search for his father.

"It's a contradiction," Deocampo mused. "Japan gave me $100,000 to make a film about how my family was butchered by the Japanese. I' m making peace with my past, with my enemies, but it doesn't mean I'm going to compromise my position. The challenge for me now is, how do I sort these things out and come up with an understanding? I just want to make peace with my past and let all the souls who died here have peace. The Japanese war may be over for 50 years, but the war is still being fought."

As he wrapped up, he reflected on a moment of doubt in his career, in the darkest days of the Marcos regime. "I said, 'Let me just make one film,' but then I saw that life force: you don't have anything to eat; you don't know what's going to happen the next day, but there's a driving force within that brings you to a level of survival. I was able to get up the courage to fight because we were all caught up on this web. I was able to get the courage to be angry and do something creative about it."

The 2nd International Documentary Congress Special