So I was lucky enough to catch thirteen of fifteen full-length features that were shown in this year’s Cinemalaya. In one week, I’ve been catching as many films as I could and I don’t think I can remember a time when I’ve seen so many Filipino films in one week at any given time. I’m so happy that my job involves watching movies. I am so, so fortunate that this is the life I’ve structured for myself.
As the Cinemalaya comes to a close today and the awarding ceremonies will conclude this festival, I can’t help but think about Filipino films and the Filipino film industry. I write film reviews for Juice and I’m soon to embark on my own career as a screenwriter. At some point, I am or will be a part of the industry and I have my hopes for some changes and developments that can bring us back to the former glory of Philippine cinema, when we were producing two hundred films a year, and most of them were good.
My big reluctance/resistance to watching more Filipino films is that based on what I see on the trailers, the films being produced all look, feel, or sound the same. It’s the same actors we see on television and the plots all seem to revolve around similar themes. This is why the Cinemalaya and other independent film festivals are so appealing for me because I have a chance to see other kinds of stories that don’t usually appear in the mainstream cinema.
Filipino films, lately, have a tendency to follow a formula and if a particular hook works (especially love teams, or story points like, say, a love triangle or a mistress), that’s all we’ll end up seeing for the whole year. This is not a diverse selection of films and this does not comprise all the possible stories about Filipinos that could be told. I want more.
This year’s batch of Cinemalaya showed me a whole range of stories that I never saw before. Transit showed me a powerful OFW story that tackles not just the difficulties living abroad (which happens in a lot of OFW stories), but that it tackles in such a delicate manner, how the following generation have lost their connection to the country because they don’t necessarily identify themselves as Filipino. The only contact they have is their parents, but sometimes, that isn’t enough. Without ever having to articulate it, but showing it rather gracefully, the difficulty of these children in identifying themselves as Filipino is shown through their struggles in their daily lives living in a foreign land that they know as home but their parents don’t ever relate to in the same way. The tension is so palpable and real that it’s wonderful to watch a Filipino film tell a story like this without resorting to unnecessary melodrama.
Babagwa gives a fabulous in-depth look into the world of Facebook scammers, and while there are flaws and the ending doesn’t maintain the intensity and gravitas of it’s beginning and middle parts, it is well-told in that it takes nothing for granted in showing us the precise methodology in what they do, the effects it has on all the people involved — victim and perpetrator — and the mindset it takes to do something as foul and depraved as this. It’s an interesting look at greed and desperation, without needing to justify or explain the social atmosphere that brought about the act. In that way, Babagwa is a compelling film. If only they had thought better about casting Alma Concepcion and they ended it on the same level of artistry that they took to set-up the whole movie, it could have been really stellar.
Quick Change, though, is probably my favourite film of the bunch. Not only does it give us a beautiful look into the innermost desires and the workings of a community that is highly discriminated upon and misunderstood; but it does it without any sort of commentary or judgment. Quick Change is not just an excellent look in the world of transvestites and the transgender community, but it is an excellent example of a film that does not try to manipulate you. It lays its story out there for you to see and gives you enough to make your own judgments. It humanises every character without resulting to tawdry narrative tricks and is propelled forward by the amazing performance of Mimi Juareza, who makes you care about Dorina, a pre-op transgender who gives illegal cosmetic implants to the community. It is truly, truly wonderful.
I’ve always been a big fan of Jeffrey Jetturian, and like what he did for Kubrador, Ekstra gives us a look into the world of a professional bit player. Carefully balancing comedy with biting realism, Ekstra manages to entertain as much as it helps us sympathise with these characters and still manages to give us a not-very-far-from-the-truth look into the production of a television soap.
Sana Dati is a great example of how a love story can be told without resorting to archetypes, standard tropes, or cheap emotional trickery. It creates compelling characters by establishing their stories and personalities and then making them go through a very real, albeit an extraordinary situation, and then letting everything fall where they may. Again, it never resorts to melodrama; creating a believable, real world that we can relate and latch on to. Sana Dati does not use gimmicks nor does it expect us to like the characters because they are played by a certain actor or actress. It relies solely on story-telling and a certain confidence that the story will move us and not any particular gimmick. What is nice about it too is that it is unpredictable without being unjustified in its unpredictability. Everything is properly motivated and the intentions are clear throughout the whole film.
I have seen a good share of local films lately and I don’t get to see these kinds of stories, nor are they told this way. This is the kind of diversity that I’m looking for. I’m not asking that we get rid of studio, mainstream films. No, there is a place for all kinds of films. I just wish that I don’t always have to wait for an independent film festival to catch films like these.
2. Rejecting The Cinema of Intent
Oftentimes, a movie is considered good because the intention of the movie is good, even if the film is badly made or conceptualised. It happens often. It is a bad film, but people respond to it because the message of the film is good or because it is trying to teach us something. But, if that’s what the film is doing, print a pamphlet or write a blog entry. A film should be good first; and if it’s good, you don’t even have to articulate the theme or the message, people will get it without you even having to say it.
In the discourse of Lino Brocka versus Ishmael Bernal, I always side with Ishmael Bernal. I can’t help it; I like a film that does not need to articulate its message. Of the Lino Brocka films I’ve seen, I’ve always liked the intensity of his works, but then, there’s always a scene were someone comes up and does a monologue that explains his side. It’s propaganda and it totally destroys the film for me. Ishmael Bernal was always just confident enough to tell a story and leave it to his audience to figure out what his story was trying to say. A film is not propaganda material. It can be, if it’s done well, but it shouldn’t be in its structure and form. The moment a film becomes obvious in trying to teach me something, I resist immediately.
The power of art is that it it provokes thought by appealing to the emotional sensibilities of its audience. Personally, when an art form breaks that contract and tries to directly articulate its meaning, I find that it’s weak and ineffective. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but films that fall under The Cinema of Intention school are too rampant in our industry, and they always win awards.
Last year, Diablo won the Cinemalaya Best Film award and I got to see it when it was shown in UP and I was so disappointed. It felt convoluted, the world was unreal to me, and it never struck an emotional cord in me. Instead, it felt like it was working with a checklist of elements that they felt should be in a film so that it would be considered “important.” Main character is a poor, old woman living in the province — check! Give main character a lot of problems financially and with her family — check! Mix religious and pagan images together — check! Be vague and have dark, heavy mood — check! Make sure to discuss the government’s lack in taking care of their constituents — check! So they have all these things and immediately they think they have a good film that will win an award. That’s what I call Cinema of Intention.
It’s more important for them to have a good message because people respond to the message, but not the movie. For me, when it comes to art, the form is just as important as the substance because the form elevates the substance. If it’s just substance and bad form, it is waste of effort. It’s an art work, for goodness sake! The medium is the message. The medium is the fucking message. Don’t give me a shitty movie and then adorn it with an objective for imparting knowledge or good values and expect me to like it.
Go back to film school; or better yet, go and work in a film set with real filmmakers and learn to make a good film from the rank and file. Then you can go and try again.
3. Government Support
I think the government should be able to support the film industry rather than tax it to death. It’s not our fault — the film industry and the viewers — that taxes are not collected and don’t go to where they are supposed to go. The film industry is burdened with a 30% tax, and additionally 12% Value Added Tax, making the total tax on the entertainment industry a whopping 42%; meaning it costs so much to make a movie and the chances for a studio to profit from this is extremely low. It isn’t cheap to make a film and it isn’t cheap to go to the cinemas to watch it.
And this is something that bothers me a lot because films is one of the most democratising aspects of our country. I remember watching Kimmy Dora in the theaters and there we all were, a packed house, and the upper class were watching the same film with the middle and lower classes and enjoying the same film. One look at Twitter and you can see how people of all walks of life and social classes are talking about the films they’ve seen in the Cinemalaya. Here is an opportunity to tell Filipino stories and get the country to be watching the same discourse, and yet, the government doesn’t even try to help the industry and impose this 42% tax on them, which is why we average around seventy-two films a year (as of 2012) when we used to produced two hundred in the eighties.
That’s why there is a lack of diversity; movies are expensive to make and difficult to profit from and so they continue to make formula films just make sure they can get back some of the money they spent on making it. That’s why we see the same things over and over and our producers are scared to take chances with a more diverse choice of films and our local cinemas would rather show a foreign film than a local one.
And, yes, the Film Ratings Board grants tax breaks for certain films, but lately, a lot of the films that receive an A rating aren’t really good movies. Who are these people in the Film Ratings Board?! Why didn’t Quick Change or Transit get an “A” rating? The Liars is one of the films I didn’t get to see in the Cinemalaya but that’s on purpose because I never liked any of Gil Portes’ films and based on what I’ve seen and heard on Twitter, it remains true that Gil Portes still hasn’t graduated from the school of Cinema of Intention. What are the criteria that makes an “A” rated film? Values and morals? What about good story-telling? Let’s review this and evaluate it, if you won’t abolish the entertainment tax totally.
4. Better Film Viewing Habits
It takes a lot of money and hard work to put a film together, even a bad one. It takes a lot of money to watch a movie in the cinema. So, it’s really annoying to find yourself in the theater and hearing two people talk about their day while you are watching a film. It is really infuriating when people answer cell phones and talk to whoever is on the other line during a movie. I don’t care if it is life and death, if it is important, step out of the damned theater and answer your phone outside. I paid two hundred or two-hundred fifty peso to watch a movie, not hear you talk.
I wish cinemas would be more efficient in shutting people up so that everyone can enjoy the film. I don’t understand how some people can go into a theater and talk amongst each other while a film is going on. It’s annoying. I want this stopped.
I want every serious movie-goer to band together and shut people up who are talking and answering cell phones. Often, people are embarrassed or scared to tell these people off, but if all serious movie-goers support and defend each other; then people can tell them to go outside if they want to talk and maybe, just maybe, we can all watch a movie in peace and give all our attention to watching a film. It’s called manners. It is called proper etiquette. It’s called respect.
5. More Screening Dates and Venues for Festival Films
The Cinemalaya this year has been pretty amazing. A great selection of good and bad films, but definitely, a whole lot of diverse films which has found an audience, even the films I didn’t like. It shouldn’t just run for a week. And it shouldn’t just show in Manila. So many people took time and effort to catch as many films as they could and based on what I saw on Twitter, people were packing the theaters and the films were selling out like crazy.
It shows that people wanted to see these films even if they were in only a few selected theatres. So, one week is too short a time for people to catch as many films as they would have wanted and there are so many people in the province who would have wanted to see these movies but don’t even have that chance. Cinemalaya only happens once a year, make it count. Make it last for two weeks and then make it travel all over the country.
Damn! This was a long entry. But I felt very strongly about having seen so many movies and that this is a necessary step for our film industry to level up and improve. So many good movies, it puts everything in perspective, really. This is an industry I grew up in and would love to be a part of.
I want it to change for the better. I’m sure I have more in mind; but I’ll settle for these first. It’s a long read anyway. But I hope that the good movies in this year’s Cinemalaya becomes the trend for all the movies to come and that some of the things I put down are considered and giving some thought. Our industry is growing and developing again; it would be a shame that it only happens during Cinemalaya.