Finding the Oldest Film on Cebu

Ever wondered what Cebu was like through old black and white films? But have you ever seen the oldest film on Cebu at all? Why is it difficult to find

Women and children weaving abaca fibers (c) Daang Dokyu

We know that Cebu has a rich historical and cultural heritage as it's arguably the oldest city in the Philippines. Yet despite its stature, there seems to be a lot of blanks when it comes to the visual records of the city's past unlike Manila, which has become the capital of the country and center of commerce and politics.

Looking back to the past, you will see that most old photos were taken by the Americans by the early 1900s and it's even rare to find a visual representation of what was life like once when the Spanish were still in charge. That said, it is even next to impossible to find really old films showing what Cebu was like from the 1900s to the 1920s.

If there were films about Cebu, they would have been destroyed during the war or by themselves since old films tend to degrade very very fast if they are not properly stored. What makes it worse is that these were also volatile and highly flammable. That's why many old films from the Philippines were lost for good and even if some still exist, many are locked in storage in various film archives in the United States and other Western countries. It's sad that we don't get to see actual moving images of people, places, and events more than a century ago.

Until now...

Uncovering the Lost Gems

In 2020, the "Daang Dokyu" film festival hosted a fundraising event with the aim of saving money to fund the preservation of some of the oldest documentary films in the Philippines. These films are locked inside the British Film Institute for safekeeping and restoration. However, it never saw the light of day until it was discovered by the Philippine Studies program of the SOAS University of London.

The rare 35mm films that are to be restored or remastered include two 1911 silent film documentaries "Industrie De L’abaca A L’ile De Cebu" (Abaca, Its Culture and Use in the Philippines) and "Fabrication Des Chapeaux De Manille" (Making Manila Hats). Two other 1920s films were also included: "Manila Street Scene" (1926) and "Glimpses Of The Culion Leper Colony And Of Culion Life" (1929).

The Cebu documentary was produced by French film producer Pathé Frères (Compagnie Genérale des Établissements Pathé Frères Phonographes & Cinématographes) and distributed in the United States under General Film Company. When it was shown in the US  on April 30, 1912 (and perhaps some of the movie houses in the Philippines including Teatro Junquera), it would have been a split reel along with the comedies "À la française" (1912) and "Betty Is Worse Than Ever" (1910).

Aside from the French film, another lost film to have featured Cebu was made by Herbert Wyndham when he made a travelogue on a typhoon that hit Cebu in 1912. It was made shortly after the abaca documentary.

Why Preserve These Films

As mentioned above, these rare films give us an insight into what was life like then. These are windows to the past to help us understand how people lived and what were their dreams and aspirations. Life was simple then yet the problems they faced are still the same problems we have to solve over and over again.

According to organizers, the films don’t come cheap so they have to collect those that are in good condition. Some of the other films also need restoration and would require another fundraising effort. Once we lose all these films, it would be like a piece of you gone forever.


Some of the films are so degraded that it's almost unwatchable. Finding ways to restore it would probably need expert film archivists and even advanced AI technology to restore the damaged parts, particularly in the case of the Culion Colony documentary.


However, I can't seem to find someone posting the film on YouTube or any other video-sharing sites. I even search some of the mentioned film archives, the National Library, or the US Library of Congress to see a video of the film but can't seem to find it.

Man placing abaca fibers on a drying rack (c) Daang Dokyu

There are screengrabs of what the film looks like posted somewhere and these are the only glimpse that I can find about this elusive and hard-to-find century-old film. It's not even posted on Daang Dokyu's website or YouTube channel yet. For now, we will probably have to wait until these are shown to the public soon.

It's good to know that they are currently in the process of curating old documentaries on the Philippines so that we can see for ourselves some of the 'lost and forgotten histories of documentary film and video in the country.'

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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: Finding the Oldest Film on Cebu
Finding the Oldest Film on Cebu
Ever wondered what Cebu was like through old black and white films? But have you ever seen the oldest film on Cebu at all? Why is it difficult to find
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