By JULIAN BATO
There is an untold story that movies in the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) cannot tell. Backed by their Christmas bonuses, families brave the long lines of theater houses in exchange for the assurance of fleeting two-hour happiness.
Somewhere in the urban jungle, media moguls toast with the festival organizers as the numbers shoot up to six-digits. Unaware of this, the audience allows the dark expanse of the cinema to consume them with every frame.
Ganito Kami Noon, Ganito pa rin Ngayon?
Amid the turbulence of the Marcos Regime, the most known local film festival emerged. To provide aid to an ailing local film industry that suffered major losses from competing with foreign films year-long, then First Lady Imelda Marcos initiated the formation of the MMFF—an ostentatious façade to cover up a repressive government through cultural projects.
The MMFF, like any cultural product at that time, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera says in his essay “Problems in Philippine Film History,” was an apparatus machinated by the Marcos regime to propagate its Bagong Lipunan ideology and strengthen the dictatorship.
Though devised by the Marcos regime for its own purpose, MMFF films experienced a creative spike in their production quality as it coincided with the second Golden Age of Philippine cinema, characterized by avant-garde films and filmmakers’ assertion amid censorship.
Young directors such as Lamberto Avellana, Lino Brocka, and Celso Ad Castillo, who could not directly express their opposition to the dictatorship, portrayed their subversion through metaphors and other filmmaking techniques that are critical of the Marcos regime. These filmmakers tackled themes of poverty, sexual abuse, religious hysteria, and torture through MMFF films like Ishmael Bernal’s Himala, Brocka’s Insiang, and Ad Castillo’s Burlesk Queen.
After the collapse of the Marcos regime, a frenzy for profit forced film companies like Viva and Regal to produce commercial films patterned after Hollywood films. MMMF encouraged an influx of this kind of films by changing its criteria for selection, putting larger emphasis on commercial viability over artistic execution or social relevance.
Recent developments such as this year’s addition of new awards and sections showed the festival’s ostentatious attempt to revive cultural value to MMFF. The “Gender Sensitive Award,” whose recipient is Wenn Deramas’ Girl, Boy, Bakla, Tomboy, did not reach its full potential of further engaging the discourse on sexuality. The “New Wave” section for independent films received the least amount of publicity from the festival. These attempts served only as cultural embellishments in a commercial institution whose main goal—even from its inception—was political and profit-driven.
Though commercial material in films is not a new phenomenon, its dominance in the most known local film festival is at an alarming rate. The amount of space given to advertisements in films such as Marlon Rivera’s My Little Bossings emphasizes, without any pretense, the profit-driven motives that penetrate cultural works.
Film, adds Lumbera, is not only a cultural product but also a consumer item and an end product of the producer’s interests. Upon watching a film, the audience is not just a spectator, but also an active consumer of the blatant display of product placements. Media and capital work hand-in-hand; businessmen benefit from a showcase of their products to a great audience as their media partners amass great revenue from these advertisements.
Being launched every Christmas season when the culture of excess and consumerism is at its peak, the MMFF possesses the biggest audience market among other local film festivals. It also receives the highest press publicity through the government ban of foreign films during this season. Additionally, the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board rates most MMFF films with a “Rated PG,” encouraging a whole family—not just an individual—to “consume” these cultural offerings.
A large percentage of MMFF audience comes from the middle and lower class who have been in a despondent state all year-long, and are not so inclined to purchase tickets for films that make them see the harsh realities they encounter everyday, Professor Glecy Atienza of the UP Diliman Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature explained. This rationale gravitates MMFF filmmakers towards creating formulaic films: shallow take on themes, predictable plot, and popular actors, among others.
In Girl, Boy, Bakla, Tomboy, the possible discourse on gender emancipation only led to gay sexism and gender commodification. The preference for marketable genres such as horror film clearly manifests itself, even with the noticeable absence this year of the commercially- successful horror movie series Shake, Rattle & Roll—though replaced with another film of the same genre, Frasco Mortiz’s Pagpag.
Other elements the popular audience may deem palatable are evident in the MMFF entries such as the revival of the action genre in Joyce Bernal’s 10,000 Hours, gangsterism in Chito S. Roño’s Golden Boy, and the Roman Catholic religious propaganda of Francis Villacorta’s Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir.
The culture industry takes advantage of the lower economic classes by making cultural materials’ contents superficial but widely appealing, thus demoting the value of culture, says cultural theorist Theodor Adorno in The Culture Industry. Filmmakers aiming entrance to MMFF utilize the stories, concocted or co-opted, of farmers, prostitutes, and even of members of the New People’s Army to create a mask of a relevant cinema but clearly fail in pushing the issues on the frontier.
Instead, they end up presenting these issues in romance plots or a comic treatment to yield profit. Jose Javier Reyes’s Katas ng Saudi in 2007 reduced the harsh issues on Overseas Filipino Workers by employing comical lines. In 2012, instead of exploring ways to further enlighten the audience on Philippine history, Mark Meily’s El Presidente only distorted it by succumbing to the exaltation of historical figures to a ready audience.
Diligan mo ng Dugo ang Uhaw na Lupa
Recycled themes resurrected by the same directors, producers, and actors from previous festivals make MMFF a big recycling center of mediocrity and commercialism. In allowing excess commercial intervention in the government-sponsored MMFF—which has a great potential for mass education through the art of filmmaking—the government actively allows the bastardization of the art in exchange for profit gained through ticket taxes.
The masses deserve a cinema that empowers, says Dean Roland Tolentino of the UP Diliman College of Mass Communication in an interview. For a semblance of a cultural revolution to happen, nationalist filmmakers should create a collective effort in putting to the silver screen important socio-political issues that stall the masses’ social advancement.
By doing this, the masses take one step further towards liberation. In addition, an educational reform is necessary, that which includes film education on awareness of how movies have been used to manipulate the minds that play on the masses’ need for escapism and idealism, Lumbera adds.
In producing a better film industry, devoid of the oppressive political and economic interests of the few, there is a need for a fresh roll of film that hopefully records the faithful storyline of the masses and the vision of genuine social emancipation. ●
This article was first published in print on January 21, 2014, under the title “Box officed cinema: A critique on the Metro Manila Film Festival.”
Nov 12, 2023
Simply put, journalism is a human endeavor of reporting for and by the people that can be aided through AI but can never be replaced by it.
Nov 10, 2023
When dehumanization and genocide become the law of the land, resistance becomes a moral imperative.