By Paul Douglas Grant.
Saying goodbye to this luminary figure, we know his legacy endures through the flourishing diversity and dynamism within the Filipino film landscape, in all its vernacular forms.”
On November 1, 2023, the Filipino film community faced a profound loss as Teddy Co, a powerful influence on the industry, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Co not only stood out as a staunch supporter of independent Filipino cinema but also played a pivotal role in preserving the nation’s artistic heritage through his dedicated involvement in film conservation and archiving. One of Teddy Co’s lasting contributions was his co-founding of the Cinema Rehiyon film festival—a significant gathering of filmmakers from across the Philippines. The festival served as a flagship project of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), solidifying Teddy Co’s enduring legacy.
Co, born on November 10, 1958, came from a Hokkien-speaking merchant family that was deeply rooted in the garment industry, specializing in shirt manufacturing from the 1950s to the 1970s. Along with figures like Nick Deocampo and Lav Diaz, Co is part of a generation of filmmakers and scholars in the Philippines that navigated the Martial Law period and its afterlives, going on to significantly mark this national film history. This was also a generation that came of age during the Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema.
As a young cinephile, Teddy Co immersed himself in American and Filipino films, usually dubbed in English or occasionally in Hokkien. He fondly recalled attending martial arts film screenings with his father, emphasizing the lasting impact of one film in particular—King Hu’s Come Drink with Me, which he rediscovered later in life at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. While initially drawn to filmmaking, Co explored his passion further in the late 1980s by creating a couple of short films at Mowelfund (Movie Workers Welfare Foundation). However, Co had taken to writing for Movement (the Mowelfund film magazine) and ultimately felt more of an affinity for critical and historical writing. During this period at Mowelfund, Co and filmmaker-historian Nick Deocampo crossed paths and had a reciprocal influence on each other. Co credited himself with having convinced Nick Deocampo, who had a scholarship to study filmmaking at New York University, to opt for film studies instead of film production, as at that time film studies were not widely undertaken in the Philippines.
During his time at Movement, Co wrote what is likely the earliest sustained text on regional Philippine cinemas, “In Search of a Regional Philippine Cinema.” The text looked to Iloilo, Baguio and especially Cebu for instances of this other, lesser-known cinema. This text came about as Co began talking to Luis Nolasco, a film producer, director and editor of two movie magazines, Manila Movies circa 1931-32 and then Literary Song Movie. Nolasco lived close to Co and Teddy would visit him and go through his magazine collection, which eventually was sold to Mowelfund. Following the acquisition of the collection Deocampo, who was the editor in chief of Movement, asked Co if he could write something for an upcoming issue. Co recalled an early article he had seen in Popular Movie News entitled “Cebu Invades the Movies” and he set out to write about this little-known phenomenon.
At the time that Co was writing his article, the inhouse photographer for Mowelfund was a man named Luis Chong. Chong had been the cinematographer for a number of Cebuano movies and Co would go to Chong’s dark room and discuss the early days of the Cebuano film industry. Luis Chong, who was from Cebu City, was the first cinematographer to be nominated for a FAMAS (Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences) award for a Cebuano film, Talyux Bacalso’s 1955 Salingsing sa kasakit. Chong had been a part of movies in Cebu from the beginning of the talkies, hired as a still cameraman for Virgilio Gonzales’ Estudio Americo-Filipino, he was brought on to replace the cameraman for Bertoldo ug Balodoy (likely the first Cebuano talkie), and successfully shot a several sequences for the film. He went on to shoot a number of films in Cebu and began working in the Tagalog film industry as well.
With those two sources, access to Luis Chong and the magazines, Co was able to sketch out an early historical narrative about cinema in Cebu, but he also began to think beyond Cebu. In Nolasco’s collection Co found a reference to an Ilokano film directed by CR Gorospe entitled Karayo (1941), which had been shot in Hawaii and shown in Manila. With this he then included a more, then contemporary, iteration of a film made outside of Manila, Kidlat Tahimik’s Mababangong Bangungot (Permfumed Nightmare). While Tahimik’s film had a Tagalog title and was largely in English, Tahimik was based in Baguio, and thus constituted at least a production process that took place away from Manila.
This focus on vernacular and regional cinemas in the Philippines became a lifelong pursuit for Co. He traced his interest in cinemas beyond Manila to two distinct factors. Firstly, he identified as racially Chinese, specifically non-Mandarin, sharing roots with approximately 90% of Filipino Chinese from Fujian province and speaking Hokkien. The second, important component was his encounter with the concept regional Filipino literature. Works such as Resil Mojares’ Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel: A Generic Study of the Novel Until 1940 or Bienvenido Lumbera’s essays on regional literatures in the Philippines, served as nascent templates for his own thinking about regional cinemas. This reflection on non-Tagalog language filmmaking in the Philippines made up the first tentative steps towards a national consciousness of regional cinema that would find its eventual celebration in the Cinema Rehiyon Film Festival.
The next step in this passion was Co inviting the 1977 film Ang Manok ni San Pedro (St. Peter’s Game Cock) to Nick Deocampo’s International Super 8 Film Festival. Manok was produced by two industrious brothers, Ray (Rey) and Domingo Arong, and directed by Jose Macachor. Ang Manok was an adaptation of a famous Cebuano radio drama and the film starred the popular comedian Julian Daan AKA Esteban “Teban” Escudero. While difficult to classify generically (a peculiar comedy-fantasy-romance-action hybrid), the film is remarkable for its use of alternative modes of production and distribution. The film was shot on super-8 and blown up to 35mm for theatrical distribution. But the film also traveled throughout the Visayas exploiting alternative screening venues, such as fiestas and local barangay (neighborhood) events. By relying on these low-budget production formats and distribution models, the film proved to be an absolute financial success. Co recognized the importance of this project for regional cinema and worked diligently to bring it to Manila and give it a second life.
But the first real manifestation of Cinema Rehiyon can be traced back to the 2005 NCCA/Mowelfund festival “Sine ug Katilingban” in Cebu. The event saw the presence of notable Cebuano film figures such as Caridad Sanchez, Eugene Labella, Nards Chiu, and Luis Chong, as well as the future generation of young Cebuano filmmakers, eagerly observing. Kiri Dalena, with her strong regional ties from Mindanao and Laguna, participated. Kidlat Tahimik discussed Baguio, and Eddie Romero and Peque Gallaga, although primarily working in Manila and creating films with a Manila-centric focus, were also present. Sine ug Katilingban reignited enthusiasm for both regional cinema and Cebu in particular, and the festival was accompanied by the publication of a small booklet on Cebuano cinema by Nick Deocampo.
In reflecting on the profound impact of Teddy Co’s life and work, it is evident that his legacy extends far beyond the boundaries of traditional cinema.”
Then, in 2008 Teddy Co was serving as the vice-chair of the NCCA cinema committee along with chair Dr. Mike Rapatan. In planning the coming year’s NCCA cinema event, Teddy Co submitted a few proposals, one of which was a festival of films from the regions. At that time a fair amount of short animation projects was coming from the regions and the proposal was to develop a showcase for these films. Co had tried to undertake this project in 2006 but the budget was simply too small to be able to build anything of substance. But in 2008, when Co drafted the proposal, the allotted budget had more than doubled and Rapatan was quick to green light the regional film showcase.
The festival took place at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) in February 2009, and was entitled Cinema Rehyion: Alter Nativo (Films from the Other Philippines). The festival showcased films from the Visayas, Mindanao and regions in Luzon outside of Manila. In that embryonic period of organizing what constituted a regional film, Teddy Co had a particularly purist, what he later on would refer to as fascist, way of determining regionalness. Co had four curatorial qualifications:
- The filmmakers must be from the region they are representing;
- The film must be set in that region;
- The language must be the language of that region;
- The most important qualifier: point of view. The point of view must be from that region.
These qualifiers were clearly problematic and Co recognized their limitations, but they did serve as early guidelines, and further announced their mercurial qualities as even in the early iterations of the festival there were clear infractions. For instance, a film representing Cebu was made by British filmmaker Alan Lyddiard, and a film from Bacolod was made by a Polish filmmaker in Hiligaynon. With regards to the language, places like Pampanga or Davao posed interesting problems for these qualifiers as both areas have large Tagalog speaking communities. And certainly, the fourth qualifier is the most difficult, as it raised the question of whether or not there can be an authentic cultural expression of a given place.
Further, many of the filmmakers moved from place to place. For example, Ara Chawdhury, often considered a Cebuano filmmaker is originally from Biliran and Arnel Mardoquio, considered a Mindanao filmmaker, is originally from Samar, but relocated to Davao then Laguna and then Australia. Thus, the concept of region for Cinema Rehiyon, while appearing rigid at first, was immediately faced with its own definitional undoing. The concept was expanding and mutating from the outset due to the continual crossing of cultures, an enduring tradition of international movement, thus these local cultures were being informed by these perennial displacements.
Ultimately, the wrestling with these questions was as important, if not more important, than establishing the answers. Philippine national cinema, which had long been understood as Tagalog, was now being re-assessed, along with all of its attendant complications. And behind this surge of interest, was Teddy Co, who until the end of his life remained a champion of regional cinemas, supporting through multiple venues, festivals and cultural organizations, the under-represented filmmakers from outside the capital region.
In reflecting on the profound impact of Teddy Co’s life and work, it is evident that his legacy extends far beyond the boundaries of traditional cinema. Co’s pioneering efforts in co-founding the Cinema Rehiyon film festival became a transformative force in redefining Philippine national cinema, a redefining that will continue as notions of nation mutate. His commitment to showcasing regional filmmakers, coupled with a purist vision that sought authenticity in representation, challenged and expanded the very notion of what constitutes a regional film. The early curatorial guidelines, though acknowledged as somewhat rigid, paved the way for a broader, more inclusive understanding of regional cinema, acknowledging the complexities of language, culture, and the continual movement of filmmakers across diverse locales. Teddy Co’s unwavering dedication to regional cinemas persisted throughout his life, influencing a new generation of filmmakers and fostering a national consciousness that transcends the confines of Tagalog-centric narratives. Saying goodbye to this luminary figure, we know his legacy endures through the flourishing diversity and dynamism within the Filipino film landscape, in all its vernacular forms.
Lead Photo: Young Teddy Co (Credit: Vince Dy Buncio and Wong Chin Wah).
Paul Douglas Grant teaches film and literature at Kiuna College in Odanak, Quebec and taught cinema studies at the University of San Carlos, Cebu. He is the author of Cinéma Militant: Political Filmmaking and May 1968 and co-author of Lilas: An Illustrated History of the Golden Ages of Cebuano Cinema.