During the 1990s, documentaries were an unheard of genre in the Philippine broadcast industry. The usual melodramas, talk shows and news magazine programs dominated the airwaves, raking in ratings and awards for TV networks.
Before the decade ended, GMA News and Public Affairs thought it was already time to produce a weekly documentary show. On January 18, 1999, I-Witness, the country’s first documentary series, aired on Philippine television.
However, before I-Witness even aired, its one-topic presentation and style of storytelling was deemed too slow and boring. Some even said that Filipino viewers were not yet ready for this kind of program.
I-Witness proved them all wrong.
After more than 500 documentaries, I-Witness is now the country’s longest-running late night program still airing. It has already received numerous recognitions from both local and international award-giving bodies, including the Philippines’ first ever George Foster Peabody Award, Gold and Silver World Medals from the New York Festivals, the Asia-Pacific Child Rights Awards and the Asian TV Awards, among others.
I-Witness also prides itself with having once had as its hosts many of the finest journalists and broadcasters in media including Jessica Soho and Mike Enriquez. Following their footsteps today are GMA Network’s most experienced senior journalists, namely Howie Severino, Kara David, Sandra Aguinaldo and Jay Taruc. Every Monday, these award-winning documentarists give viewers a new way of looking at and understanding the world we live in.
“I-Witness has made documentaries a part of mainstream television, and inspired similar formats for other shows. It has inspired many to aspire to make documentaries and tell their own stories, because our show has demonstrated what a powerful medium the documentary is,” Howie relates.
For Howie, I-Witness is his “outlet and creative space for non-fiction stories that need time to be produced and air time to be told. It has made my career deeply satisfying. ”
The word “innovation” has been attached to I-Witness since its inception. Through the years, the program has introduced new techniques in video presentation and used fresh styles of storytelling, sometimes even bordering into the “avant garde.”
“I-Witness is not called television's finest hour for nothing.” Sandra Aguinaldo explains. “I can say every episode is one step towards excellence since we are constantly challenged by management to set the pace for late-night shows and always be creative in presenting our reports to the people.”
Howie added that compared to other public affairs shows, I-Witness gives them more creative freedom in producing stories. “Most of our episodes don't even have spiels by the hosts and go straight into the story, like most classically done documentaries. That alone makes I-Witness unique among public affairs shows where hosts introduce and end each show with on-camera spiels. We are not required to do that.”
Because of its radical approach to documentary production, I-Witness has always been a talk-of-the-town after each airing, sometimes even irking the attention of the censors. Howie’s documentary Lukayo, which is “a dance by old women dressed like clowns and wielding phallic symbols in Laguna, got the program suspended by the MTRCB, simply because the censors deemed an age-old tradition practiced by grandmothers to be obscene, along with other fertility rituals from around the country.” Instances like this, however, do not stop the program in producing ground-breaking documentaries.
“I-Witness has become bolder and more ambitious in its subject matter, sometimes testing the limits set by government regulators. It aspires to lead in building a documentary movement in the Philippines by organizing documentary festivals with free screenings in popular theaters, sponsoring student documentary competitions, conducting annual seminars as well as more frequent talks and screenings on campuses, and by setting an example with its own work, often using small camera equipment similar to what ordinary, non-professional producers can use,” adds Howie.
Lives have changed, laws have been created, and viewers were compelled to act. More than the awards and innovations, the impact and influence that I-Witness has made to its viewers and case studies is what makes it a stand out among late-night public affairs programs in the Philippines. Laws on organ donation, for example, were approved in Congress because of Jessica Soho’s Kidneys for Sale. Kara David’s “Gamu-gamo sa Dilim” paved way to the installment of solar panels in Little Baguio, a small town devoid of electricity in Oriental Mindoro. Many of the case studies featured in I-Witness were given financial aids and scholarships by viewers.
Kara David, widely known for her documentaries about children, attests to the privilege of giving service to the public that I-Witness carries. “I’ve always believed that the role of I-Witness is to give viewers a new pair of eyes with which to see the world. Through the show, I have found my lifetime advocacy as a journalist -- to use my medium as an instrument of empathy, an instrument to instill compassion to the powerless and voiceless. I-Witness not only opened the eyes of many viewers to the realities of life, but it also awakened their compassion, iyung malasakit na matagal nang nahihimlay sa kanilang puso. Because of I-Witness, I have started a small scholarship project for poor but deserving children, at plano kong palawakin pa ito in the future to become a legitimate foundation. I feel I became a better Filipino because of the program.”
This Novermber, I-Witness will celebrate its 10th anniversary with four special documentaries that are expected to change the broadcasting landscape. This time, I-Witness will air documentaries that were produced over a longer period of time than any other series of documentaries done for any TV program in the Philippines.
“As early as April of this year, we have been shooting for the anniversary episodes--something that we don't usually do, or any other late night television programs have done, for that matter. The more time you spend in producing your story, the closer you get to the truth, and with these documentaries, we hope to bring out the truth in our specific topics,” reveals Jay Taruc, who starts the anniversary month on November 9 with his documentary “Kristo,” a graphic feature about the Senakulo, or the dramatic presentation of the Passion of the Christ in Cutud, Pampanga. Jay discovers that the person who presently plays “Christ” is quitting his oath next year. However, residents and officers are opposing the move to pass on the title because the town’s supposed successor is a self-admitted gambler and drunkard.
Sandra Aguinaldo’s anniversary episode airs next on November 16. Her documentary “Bigatin” tackles the growing problem of obesity in the Philippines. Sandra follows the plight of two obese women and documents their struggle to bring their weight down through various ways of weight reduction. Sandra joins them in their fight as she subjects herself to arduous exercises and strict diets in order to prepare herself for pregnancy.
On November 23, Kara David delivers the third installment of the anniversary celebration with a follow-up documentary on pediatric tuberculosis. Kara revisits her case studies in “Hingalo ng Bunso,” an I-Witness episode she produced a few months ago, and reveals whether or not their conditions improved after their stories were aired on the program.
Ending the anniversary month on November 30 is Howie Severino’s remarkable documentary about a transsexual’s journey to realizing her dreams of becoming a woman. Howie documents how Vincent Christar Ibardolaza, a.k.a. Plates, pulls all strings in order to become a “Trans-Pinay.” However, Plates still needs to pass a battery of tests which will determine if she is mentally and emotionally prepared to undergo the sex reassignment operation.
Join Sandra, Kara, Jay and Howie as they celebrate ten fruitful years of ground-breaking documentaries on I-Witness, airing on four Mondays of November over GMA, after the late night newscast Saksi.