“Actually, that’s why we started the independent film movement of the 1970s and 1980s – to circumvent the Marcos regime’s crackdown on anything they thought was sensitive. So we made these small films and we kept pretty secret about screening them – you had to,” Juan added.
It’s now some 30 years since the restrictive reign of Ferdinand Marcos came to an end and Juan fears that history might soon repeat itself.
The acclaimed filmmaker and playwright said that like many in the country’s artistic community he is still coming to terms with what might be allowed under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, and what might be forbidden. And coming to terms with some of the more controversial initiatives, including the “crackdown” on drug dealers, which has left an estimated 6,000 dead.
“He is wildly popular,” Juan says. “But he is wildly opposed. The country is divided across all sectors.
“You can’t stop a malaise like drugs by killing off people – like they are the warts of society. There has to be a systematic healing that is both spiritual and material. It has to be based on the killing of poverty. Poverty needs to be addressed, first and foremost.”
Juan has recently returned to the cinema after two decades during which time he has established himself as a professor at the College of Arts and Letters at Indiana’s Notre Dame University. His new film, Woven Wings of Our Children, made its world premiere at the 21st Busan International Film Festival in October and is now touring festivals across the globe.
Read: Asia Times coverage of the region’s film
Read: More on Duterte’s war on drugs
In it the director focuses on the loves of slum children, with central characters including one young girl who sells her body for scrap metal, and a boy who sees street fights as a way to lift himself out of poverty.
Woven Wings of Our Children is a lyrical and often moving look at the day-to-day struggles of these street kids – but not one that leaves its audience without hope for the future.
“It’s a vision of struggle instead of this sort of poverty porn,” says Juan. “I want to speak to the world about these children. Not as victims, as such, but the realities of their lives on the street.
“There’s no doubt we are facing a difficult time. I am speaking in my film more about children because they are the victims, but in a country like the Philippines, so many times they are also the saviors of their families. They are the ones who work.”
Under the martial law of the Marcos era, Juan altered the focus of his work – and he believes artists who focus on social and political themes today may soon face the same decision.
“You have to choose – again,” he says. “When Marcos came to power I shifted to theater because I could do traditional things – and be left alone – but I would transform them so they had a modern message, like presenting Jesus as a modern person.
“Or I could look at what was called the seditious plays, which emerged when the Americans came, and featured characters who were by one side treated as heroes, while from the other they were considered traitors. Maybe it is time to look at these again.
“What my country needs is a vision of humanity and a vision of themselves. There have been so many ruptures in our history and now we are divided again, perhaps more so than ever before.”