Figures of Empire: American Documentaries in the Philippines

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In Barbarian Virtues, historian Matthew Frye Jacobson writes of a modern American nationalism that, strange as it may sound, had its ‘coming of age in the Philippines’ (Jacobson 2001: 261). Then as now, ‘dominant notions of national destiny and of proper Americanism draw upon charged encounters with disparaged peoples whose presence is as reviled in the political sphere as it is inevitable in the economic’ (Jacobson 2001: 9). Americanness, as we know it, ‘took shape within an international crucible of immigration and empire-building’ (Jacobson 2001: 4). That process of overseas empire building began and was then developed in the Philippines, the US's first colony, from 1899 to 1946 and, since then, an important site of the US informal empire. The maturation of the US Empire in the Philippines also coincided with signal moments in the development of documentary cinema. Throughout America's colonial occupation of the Philippines, numerous types of non-fiction films were utilised in programmes of screenings established by the colonial state to serve various ends. Private individuals and organisations also made documentaries to educate, entertain and promote their concerns. While very diverse in their forms and aims, these films collectively established a transnational imaginary of American presence overseas and chronicled the Filipino experience of living under empire.

This chapter explores the parallel development of documentary cinema and US imperialism in the Philippines during and shortly after colonial occupation. The chapter aims to show how non-fiction cinema shaped the ways in which American imperialism was realised in the archipelago. At the same time, the chapter will sketch out an account of how American imperialism utilised and reconfigured the form and style of documentary cinema. The chapter will also argue that, more often than not, the documentary's affordances functioned to reconcile the contradictory goals of empire, namely, to assert American influence while hiding its imperial face; to invoke history while actually trafficking in myth; and to aggrandise empire's benevolence while promoting conditions of inequality for the native population. These sharp contradictions were mitigated by recourse to the representational mode of realism, the rhetoric of facticity, the prestige of scientific discourse and the power of sentiment – elements that developed variably as the documentary became more deeply implicated in the project of imperialism.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Colonial Documentary Film in South and South-East Asia
EditorsIan Aitken, Camille Deprez
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9781474407229, 9781474407212
ISBN (Print)9781474407205, 9781474431965
StatePublished - 2016


  • Philippines
  • colonial documentary film
  • American imperialism


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