A worldwide audience of cinema lovers know very well the works of directors like Igmar Bergman, Kenji Mizoguchi, John Ford, Alessandro Blaseti, Rene Clement, Federico Fellini, Howard Hawk, William Wyler, and Charlie Chaplin. Check the indexes of film studies textbooks, catalogues on karagarga.net, or MUBI “must see” lists, and you’ll find endless references to these directors and their films.
And what of Manuel Conde? Alas, only a critical mass of film enthusiasts and specialist in Southeast Asian or Philippine cinema appreciate the director of the historical-epic Genghis Khan, the first-ever film about the grand Mongolian conqueror, starring Conde himself. It turns out that it competed for the Golden Lion at the 1952 Venice Film Festival against Bergman’s Summer with Monika, Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu, Ford’s The Quiet Man, Blaseti’s Altri Tempi, Fellini’s The White Sheik, Hawks’ The Big Sky, Wyler’s Carrie, and Chaplin’s Limelight and had the honor of being the first Filipino film ever to have premiered and competed in an international film festival.
Conde and his close friend Carlos “Botong” Francisco, the great Filipino modernist painter, shared an affinity for the historical figure of Genghis Khan. After intensive self-directed research, they collaborated on the script about Temujin, the young Genghis Khan, and his rise to power in the Gobi Desert of Mongilia. Conde directed and starred in the title role while Botong headed of the production design. Working on a shoestring budget, they improvised when they lacked in resources, shopping for the costumes at the Divisoria (an open marketplace in downtown Manila famous for selling wholesale) and using the headlights of a jeepney (an open aired mini-bus made from American military jeeps) in the absence of studio lights.
The film premiered in Manila’s prestigious Quipao Theater as the first-ever Tagalog-language film to screen there. Despite mixed reviews, Conde won Most Popular Male Star and Most Popular Director in a local newspaper’s popularity polls. Awarded with a trip to Hollywood, he brought along Genghis Khan. By chance, Conde nabbed a screening of his Mongolian epic, catching the attention of Hollywood big-wig, film critic James Agee. Soon, they collaborated on preparing Genghis Khan for submission to the 13th Venice Film Festival.
It isn’t clear how much input Conde had in the touch-up of his film. The revised version was re-edited to an hour and a half, and they added Agee’s English narration read by John Storm, dubbing over the original Tagalog. The Pacific Film Association produced the Hollywood-ized Genghis Khan, and soon it was set for Venice. Conde may have not won the Golden Lion, but Venice opened the doors for the director to the world. Genghis Khan was selected for film festivals in Rome, Salzburg, and Edinburgh, and was soon bound for worldwide distribution by the American company United Artists and dubbed into sixteen languages.
These accomplishments are quite dizzying for just one film and director to have achieved. Now that the Venice Film Festival, the Film Development Council of the Philippines, and L’Immagine Ritrovata have restored Genghis Khan, it seems a ripe time as any to remember Conde and his lost works.
The restoration of Genghis Khan defies its being lost to the ravages of time and erasure from our collective memory. But because of its glorious 2K restoration, the film offers also us glimpses of what was—whether it’s the faint Tagalog dialog, the potentiality of the original offering an alternate narrative, locations of Metro Manila that have since transformed irreversibly. It has left us visible traces of the past, reminding us that the film medium itself is a tool of perceiving the passage of time, confronting us on what it means to forget.