‘Utterly humiliated to be a Filipino today’: ‘Itim’ director Mike de Leon shares strong statement ahead of Cannes screening of his horror classic

Veteran Philippines director Mike de Leon shared a powerful anecdote from his days as a young filmmaker during the country’s Martial Law era on the occasion of his 1979 ghost horror film Itim (English title: Rites of May) being selected to be screened as part of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival’s Cannes Classics program.

Paris-based Carlotta Films, which handles the distribution of de Leon’s restored films across Europe, shared the director’s statement online as de Leon could not make it to the internationally acclaimed festival.

“It’s an honor that my first feature film, Itim, produced 46 years ago and whose restoration has just been completed, has been selected to participate in Cannes Classics,” de Leon wrote.

The director began by sharing an excerpt from his upcoming book in which he details his experience of having his film screened in the United States for the first time in 1979.

“It was my fate to get dragged into politics even with a genre film like Itim,” he wrote, sharing that the movie was screened at the Los Angeles International Film Exposition in California and was well-received by the American audience.

De Leon then delved into a specific memory at a question-and-answer session with press and guests after the film had been screened. “At the [question-and-answer] session that followed, I was asked if the government was doing anything to support films like Itim. I was young and I had an attitude. I said that the government’s sole commitment to filmmaking was documenting the daily existence of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos,” he shared, writing that he had not realized until after the event that Philippine Consulate officers were among the audience.

“One of [the officers] told my cousin, ‘We didn’t know Mike was an activist.’ I wasn’t. I was just being a smartass,” he wrote.

The filmmaker then shared that, because of “this flippant remark,” his passport was ordered pulled by a newspaper columnist who had close ties to the Marcoses and he was warned not to even try leaving the country because he would be stopped.

De Leon said that his father managed to intervene as he was old friends with the columnist, who agreed to get the filmmaker’s passport released on the condition that he apologize to the Board of Censors and explain his remark.

“I bluffed my way out by saying that I was taken out of context. After all, Itim wasn’t remotely a political film; it was a ghost story.”

De Leon, who had previously been detained overnight by Marcos-controlled military in 1972, said that the whole affair was intended to intimidate him.

“It was made clear that nobody had any right to criticize the reigning couple, not even in jest. So I was made to apologize to this panel of government bureaucrats puffed up with undeserved power. And apologize I did. What choice did I have under those conditions? Besides, I wanted my passport back,” he wrote.

Toward the end of his statement, de Leon made an observation about the current state of the Philippines, 43 years after his film’s first screening. “The title of the [book] section that I read is ‘Surreal Mix of Horror and Politics.’ It is still appropriate, but Horror has now acquired a more sinister meaning. It is no longer about a ghost but about the monsters of Philippine politics, monsters that, after a long wait in the subterranean caverns of hell, have returned to ravish and rape my country all over again. The crazy thing is that we invited them back.”

“I am happy that my film is participating in this great festival, but I feel utterly humiliated to be a Filipino today.”

Filipino filmmaker Mike de Leon released a statement ahead of the screening of his 1979 film “Itim” at the Cannes Film Festival. Images: Carlotta Films

In last week’s May 9 elections, presumptive President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., won in an apparent landslide victory, with nearly 60 percent of the vote, over his closest opponent, Vice President Leni Robredo.

Marcos Jr.’s impending win brings full circle his family’s return to glory and power after the 1986 People Power Revolution toppled the Marcos dictatorship and forced the family out of Malacañang.

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