Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro in Brides of Sulu, from http://www.gmanews.tv
A lot of us will know the commonly accepted figure of 80% of all films from the silent era as being considered lost. The figures varies for different territories, however (and whether you are counting fiction films only or all kinds of production). For America there is an estimated a survival rate of 7-12% for each year of the teens (feature films only), moving to 15-25% for the 1920s, but for China the figure is 95% loss, and for Japan the figure is between 95% and 99% loss. For the Philippines the figure is even worse – 100% loss of all native silent film production. Or at least that was what was thought. But silent films can lurk in some surprising places.
Brides of Sulu is an obscure American B-movie, made anywhere between 1933 and 1937 according to assorted sources. It’s included in the American Film Institute’s catalogue for the 1930s. The film tell of two lovers from the Philippine islands, one a Mohammedan princess (Venita), the other a pagan pearl diver (Assam). To escape her aranged marriage to a local chief, the couple flee to a remote island only to be pursued by her tribe, determined to kill Assam. It was filmed in the Philippines, though there is apparently no written account there of its production, and has an American narration (the country was still a colony of the USA at this time). The film was directed by one John Nelson, of whom nothing else (according to IMDb) is known, and stars two Phillipines film actors, Adelina Moreno and Eduardo de Castro, as well as local Moro tribesmen.
Now Brides of Sulu is to feature at Manila’s International Silent Film Festival, because recent scholarship indicates that the film was made out of one, if not two, Philippine silents. According to the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film:
There were two late silent-era Filipino films made in 1931 about the Moros of Sulu – Princess Tarhata (Araw Movies) and The Moro Pirate (Malayan Movies). The first was produced by the forgotten cinematographer Jose Domingo Badilla, while the latter was produced and directed by Jose Nepomuceno, acknowledged as the Father of the Philippine movie industry. Tarhata‘s lead actress is Adelina Moreno, while main actor of Moro Pirate is Eduardo de Castro …
… Coincidentally, both Moreno and De Castro, are the main starring actors in Brides of Sulu. The film also looks like it has two separate parts- the dramatically acted scenes and the documentary portions. Which raises the the intriguing possibility- is Brides the mutant offspring of the re-cutting and reconstitution of two earlier local films via the editing room? Then dubbed in English and re-editorialized for U.S. release with the intention of making it look like an American production so it would be easier to sell abroad? And who is director John Nelson? … Why are his initials the same as those of Jose Nepomuceno’s? So is the nationality of the film American or Filipino?
For the exciting conclusion, please attend the opening of the 5th International Silent Film Festival on Aug. 26 at the Shangri-la Mall Cinema …
Well, given that they promise an exciting conclusion, and given that the film is to screen at a silent film festival, I think we are safe in declaring that the Philippines has found one, or maybe two, films from its silent heritage, the first such films known to survive. Brides of Sulu has circulated on assorted obscure video labels for many years, and you can view the whole film on YouTube.
Extract from Brides of Sulu, in which Assam (Eduardo de Castro) faces up to Datu Tamboyan, father of Benita (Adelina Moreno)
Viewing the film undoubtedly suggests a silent film cannibalised by some opportunistic American producer with some actuality footage and narration to make an exotic B-movie release. Maybe Jose Nepomuceno, a revered figure in Philippine film history who directed their first fiction film, Dalagang Bukid, in 1919, is ‘John Nelson’, though there doesn’t seem much reason why this should be. No doubt all will be revealed at the International Silent Film Festival, which is now in its fifth year. The festival takes place 26-28 August at the Shang Cineplex (Cinema 2), Shangri-La Plaza, Mandaluyong Manila. Brides of Sulu will be screened with musical accoompaniment by Armor Rapista and the Panday Pandikal Cultural Troupe, which suggests that they will be dropping the American narration, which will be no bad thing. Other films screening at the festival are Nosferatu (Germany 1922), Akeyuku Sora (The Dawning Sky) (Japan 1929), L’Inferno (Dante’s Inferno) (Italy 1911), The Greek Miracle (Greece 1921) and Pilar Guerra (Spain 1926) – an impressive eclectic selection.
When certain information is reported on the provenance of Brides of Sulu, we will report it. Meanwhile, you can discover more about Jose Nepomuceno in a thesis by Nadi Tofighian of Stockholm University, The role of Jose Nepomuceno in the Philippine society: What language did his silent films speak? (2006), which shows what a rich history early Philippine filmmaking can boast, even without the films themselves to refer to.