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How Filipino Creatives Stay Afloat During The Pandemic

How Filipino Creatives Stay Afloat During The Pandemic
Filipino creatives in their respective fields pre-pandemic. Photos courtesy of Alex Esguerra and Lih Ocampo

Alex, 28, works a day job as an interior designer for an architectural firm. In between, she moonlights as a mural artist, having painted for various establishments like malls and restaurants. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country last year, she had no work for three months as offices were closed under the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) implemented by the national government early that March. 

On top of that, her scheduled mural projects were all cancelled as public spaces also closed to contain the spread of the virus. 

Mahirap siya kasi wala akong (It was hard because I had no) source of income that time,” Alex told Talamitam in an online interview.

The pandemic also took away the source of income of Marben, a 21-year-old college student who does freelance work as a filmmaker. He was wrapping up a concert shoot in Sagada in February not knowing it would be the last time he gets to work onsite in a production.   

Ilang months akong nahirapan kasi walang seguridad na after ba ng [pandemic] makakabalik sa normal ((I was struggling for months because there was no guarantee that after the pandemic things would go back to normal),” Marben said in an interview with Talamitam.

The arts and entertainment sector was the most badly affected by the pandemic: 61% of firms halted operations and 21%  closed permanently while employment was cut down by 48%, according to the July 2020 survey done by the World Bank with the National Economic and Development Authority and Department of Finance which assessed the impact of COVID-19 on Philippine businesses.

The International Labour Organization in their 2020 labor market report also identified the arts, entertainment and recreation sector in the country as a “high-risk sector” or those industries that are least likely to remain operative due to mobility restrictions or are experiencing a decline in demand due to the pandemic.

Consequently, cinemas, theaters, and museums were forced to close down. Music concerts and art festivals were either cancelled or postponed. 

In order to survive, the creative industry turned to other ways and means to do business and promote their art.

Getting creative during the pandemic

Alex started doing digital art commissions for the first time after being exposed to the online gaming community during the first months of the pandemic when she had no work.

She was surprised to find that there was a demand for digital artworks and two months of her doing commissions equated to a month’s worth of salary at her day job.

As a cinematographer, Marben oversees camerawork in a film production. Although onsite shoots were eventually allowed under health and safety protocols, he decided to pivot to more remote roles instead to protect his household.

In his work from home setup, Marben edited and did the color grading of various short films, commercials, and music videos.

Mas nag-lean on na lang ako sa skills ko na pwede kong magampanan kahit na ganitong pandemic (I leaned more on the skills that I can use despite being in this pandemic situation), he said.

Different festivals and exhibitions in the creative industry also looked to digital methods to compensate for the lack of a physical presence.

The annual art fair Art in the Park, whose 2020 edition was originally scheduled on March 15 – a day before the Luzon lockdown – pushed through virtually five months later that August and attracted 30,000 visitors on its first day.

Meanwhile, the 2020 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival was streamed online and even surpassed its benchmark gross of P2 million, according to festival director Chris Millado.

But just when the economy was starting to reopen a year into the pandemic came the threat of more transmissible COVID-19 variants and more strict lockdowns.

Metro Manila was again placed under the strictest ECQ from Aug. 6 to 20 due to a surge in infections tied to the more transmissible Delta variant.

How can the creative industry and its workers thrive?

A thriving industry

To address the plight of Filipino creatives, a lawmaker proposed the Philippine Creative Industries Development Act, a measure that aims to provide opportunities to workers of the sector.

Rep. Christopher de Venecia, chair of the House’s creative industry and performing arts committee and one of the bill’s principal authors, said the bill would not only help creative industries recover from the pandemic, but also accelerate their economic growth. 

“Creativity is also a type of work that gives jobs and livelihood to the people. And if it gets the kind of support it deserves from the government, you are able to make these industries more sustainable” De Venecia told Talamitam in an interview.

In 2019, the creative sector employed 4.8 million people or 11.3 percent of the country’s total labor force, according to Trade secretary Ramon Lopez. Moreover, total creative exports that year amounted to $6.8 billion or 6 percent of total exports while industry investments were at P281 million.

One of the bill’s key provisions is the institutionalization of the Philippine Creative Industries Development Council, composed of members from different government agencies and representatives from the different domains of the creative sector.

“The council will be able to synergize all of these industries together and come up with specific developmental plans for each one,” De Venecia said.

Prior to the pandemic, the Creative Economy Council of the Philippines submitted to the trade department a roadmap which sees the country as the top creative economy in Southeast Asia in terms of size and value by 2030.

Through the passage of this bill, De Venecia aims to boost the country’s creative economy and help more people find work in the creative sector that is commensurate with their skills. 

“We want them to be able to thrive and to live sustainably and not have to suffer and to struggle for lack of opportunities,” he added.

Despite lawmakers’ schedule next year, De Venecia is confident that the proposed Creative Industries Act Development will still be passed. The bill has been approved by the House appropriations committee and is awaiting plenary deliberations. 

While they are facing difficulties, Alex and Marben remain hopeful that they will be able to create art again in the way that they conceived – in open and public spaces where people treat their senses to visual feats without worrying about their safety.

They also aspire to work in a thriving industry, where nothing extinguishes creative ideas, not even a pandemic. 

 Editor's note:

 This article is an output of Talamitam, a network of schools established in 2017 by journalism societies of the University of Santo Tomas, Bulacan State University, Colegio de San Juan de Letran, Lyceum of the Philippines University, Polytechnic University of the Philippines and University of the East. Talamitam aims to empower ordinary citizens through community journalism, focusing on topics not commonly reported by the mainstream media and alternative angles of current issues.

To achieve its goal of raising public awareness about community issues, Talamitam contributes articles to media outlets. News organizations can use or republish the stories for free provided they give credit to Talamitam and the authors.

Talamitam is a Tagalog-Kapampangan word for conversation.