Towards a better cinema

Cinemalaya: Indie na Malaya?
UP Diliman Mass Communicators Organization Applicants Batch 2012-A
24 August 2012, 1:00-4:00 PM
College of Mass Communication Auditorium
University of the Philippines Diliman

Good afternoon to everyone.

Before I proceed to the remarks that I have prepared for today, allow me to read out in full the statement that our group, the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle, issued in response to the controversy that is the reason for this gathering:

We, members of the Film Desk of the Young Critics Circle (YCC), join the film community in condemning the recent disqualification of Emerson Reyes’s entry, MNL 143, from the 8th Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival.

The organizing committee of Cinemalaya, composed of competition chair Laurice Guillen-Feleo, festival director Nestor Jardin, and monitoring head Robbie Tan made the move following a dispute with Reyes over his insistence on casting Allan Paule and Joy Viado as his leads in a love story—these choices, the committee claimed, “were not suitable to the material” and allegedly ran afoul of its concern with “competence, suitability to the role, and greater audience acceptability”.

Given that Tan has stated in an interview that he believes Paule and Viado to be “very competent” actors, the decision he reached with his fellow committee members registers as idiosyncratic at best and disingenuous at worst: Surely persuasive performances would garner precisely the “acceptability” sought after?

The strength of the indignation against Cinemalaya that Reyes’s disqualification has caused would seem to indicate that a number of grievous problems have been festering, unaddressed and unresolved, long before the current conflict.

Run by The Cinemalaya Foundation, a non-stock, non-profit, private entity that professes to be “committed to the development and promotion of Philippine independent film”, the annual Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival supposedly aims to stimulate the creation of “works that boldly articulate and freely interpret the Filipino experience with fresh insight and artistic integrity”. The matter at hand serves to strain the credibility of such projection, illustrating as it does the sad fact that the deplorable, cynical practices of commercial cinema, exercised with an eye on the bottom line, are hardly exclusive to it, regardless of what the legion of evangelists of independent cinema would have us believe as gospel truth.

What this unfortunate incident points up is just how fraught the endeavor of “independent” filmmaking is: production outside the dominant studio system—the main, and sometimes the sole, marker of independence—does not mean production in a space of pure, absolute freedom where lofty artistic aspirations are realized. And certainly it does not mean production that is somehow exempt from being contained and disciplined by the complex matrix of funding organizations, competitions, festivals, and awards, the mechanisms of which can guarantee the makers of a film continuous, ever-increasing flows of prestige and largesse—provided, of course, that the film advances specific agendas, colludes with particular interests, or follows pernicious habits purveyed by reactionary quarters who have managed to cling to power.

In view of the foregoing, the inability of much independent cinema at present to proffer a plurality of viable visions for remaking both cinema and society may well be telling.

Lest the situation devolve into unproductive name-calling and hate-mongering, as it has already begun to in social media, the YCC is calling for thoughtful, informed, self-reflexive engagement with the issues so that the necessary and arduous process of change can begin to take place. Cinemalaya as an institution must find the will to hold itself to the highest standards of transparency, integrity, and accountability if it wishes to remain relevant, but it is not indispensable to filmmaking. Neither does the responsibility of transformation belong to it alone: rather, it belongs to all of us who care about cinema and wish to cultivate an environment where emergent filmic and critical practices can flourish with vigor.

Taking into consideration the briefing that I was given for this forum, I understand the task before my fellow speakers and I to be that of grappling with two interrelated critical terms, the first being “independent cinema”, and the second being “creative freedom”, and in so doing, I seek primarily to contribute questions to what I hope will be constant processes of rigorous, challenging, and exciting exchange between and among us, travelers all in and through the dream-worlds of film.

A Manila Times article, published shortly after the dispute between Reyes and the Cinemalaya organizing committee flared up, quotes The Cinemalaya Foundation chairman Antonio “Tonyboy” Cojuangco, Jr. as saying, “Cinemalaya was organized in 2004 when the regular movie industry was in the doldrums. I remember the numbers—an average of 15 locally produced commercial movies down from about 50 or 60 [on] average during its peak. Most of these movies had predictable plots and people were kind of avoiding [them in favor of] the foreign films, [of] the blockbusters. Now you have to give credit [to] the organizers as they came up with Cinemalaya to change the approach to movie making here in the Philippines.”

Self-congratulatory remarks aside, the statement of Cojuangco encapsulates rather neatly the problems that are often said to plague the Philippine film industry—ones that are supposedly caused, or at least exacerbated, by “mainstream” production companies, and ones that “independent” film artists and groups, formally organized or otherwise, claim to be able to address and resolve. That the label “indie” continues to be uncritically bandied about in certain circles as though it were a covetable badge of honor would seem to require that the obvious be stated, if not underscored: working beyond the walls of the decadent city of cinema founded and guarded by commercial outfits and media conglomerates is a guarantee of absolutely nothing insofar as the results of one’s labors are concerned, no matter how sincere the desire to create something of worth—or, in the case of the Cinemalya festival, a joint activity by The Cinemalaya Foundation and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), to encourage efforts at such.

Beneficiaries of the growth in support mechanisms, which include workshops and competitions, and of advances in digital technology, which have reduced the costs of production, “independent” filmmakers have certainly been wildly prolific over the past several years: during the previous year, for instance, more than a hundred films were released all over the country; only 29, about a quarter of the total, were “mainstream” productions. Melodramatically pronounced by director Joel Lamangan as “clinically dead” in 2006 owing to the steep decline in the number of movies being made, the state of the industry as a whole could probably be said to have changed since then, but whether the change is a positive one is another matter altogether: “independent” titles are not necessarily less trite, less formulaic, or less self-indulgent than “mainstream” ones; the pervasiveness of works that appeal chiefly to prurience—these digital productions, which can be classified under the categories of “adult romance” and “same-sex romance”, made up over a third of all the films that were exhibited in 2011—does not appear to be an inspiring development, for example.

Mere separation—geographical, professional, or economic—from “mainstream” infrastructures does not automatically exempt an individual or an entity from reinforcing and perpetuating the assumptions and relations of power that allow these infrastructures to function as they do, because the aforementioned assumptions and relations of power are hardly exclusive to the studios of Star Cinema, Regal Entertainment, and the like; instead, they are diffuse, constitutive of the entire deeply fraught and hotly contested social world that we call cinema. If there is anything to be learned from the ruckus that erupted around the barring of MNL 143, I suggest that it is this: there is no space of pure film into which we can conveniently escape. Regardless of how “malaya” or benevolent a specific structure and its gatekeepers purport to be, there will always be material and symbolic boundaries that cannot simply be transcended, and recognizing this is vital if we, as creative agents, are to fully and fruitfully use our energies and exercise our faculties in defending cinema against instrumentalization—the fantasy of utter “creative freedom” is attractive, but absurd.

It is not enough to take The Cinemalaya Foundation and the CCP to task and insist on reform—in the interest of fairness, representatives from both institutions have mentioned that they are exploring the possibility of making changes in how the festival is run, though I cannot say that I am especially optimistic about it at this juncture. We must demand as much from ourselves: as students, teachers, critics, artists, scholars, and patrons of film, as participants in the production of knowledge and legitimization, we are always already implicated in, and therefore responsible for, the situation of cinema—there is no “outside” where we can carve out and take up a tenable critical position. The burdens that we must prove equal to are that of restlessly and relentlessly re-viewing, re-imagining, and re-making those conditions and practices that debilitate, oppress, and repress, including our own current understanding of the enterprise of “independent” filmmaking, and the roles that we play in it.

The recently concluded eighth installment of the Cinemalaya festival bore the title, “Full Force”, and the combative connotations of such an appellation, flimsy though they were in the face of the gusts and rains brought by Typhoon Gener on the night of the awards ceremony, were buttressed by a statement that Guillen-Feleo gave to the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the fourth day of the event: “I wonder why all these people who called for a boycott, who protested festival policies, are all here at the CCP right now.”  Whatever she meant by this, to my mind, she made a point worth reflecting on, repeatedly and at length.

Other questions that I would like to propose for further thought and discussion, now and later, here and elsewhere, are as follows:

  • What is “independent” cinema?
  • Who and/or what is it independent from, and to what extent, if any?
  • Why does it require such independence in the first place?
  • For whom and for what purpose does one engage in the production, distribution, and reception of “independent” cinema?
  • What is the difference that “independence” makes?
  • Can, does, and should “independent” cinema perform the function of a foil or an alternative to “mainstream” or “commercial” cinema?
  • What other purpose or purposes does it serve, and why?
  • What are the values that we uphold, the forms of filmic and critical practice that we reward, and the sorts of rewards that we aspire to acquire as members and stakeholders of the film community?
  • What are the complicities and compromises required by such aspirations, and at what costs do they come?
  • What kind of cinema do we want, and how can we work together in order to attain it?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and any answers we can come up with will only ever be provisional; I trust that the ethic and the imperative of incessant self-inquiry are clear. As significant as this symposium might be, we will have just heated the otherwise cool air circulating through the present venue, in which we have voluntarily confined ourselves for three hours, if the dialogue—which ought to encompass not only the wrongful disqualification of MNL 143, but also the difficult, intricate predicaments that such a flash point illuminates—ends here: the distinct danger of lapsing into silence and complacence, particularly because the pertinent issues have lost the mediagenic immediacy that is regrettably valorized in our milieu of instants, is one that we should be aware of and guard against in our quest for a better, more robust cinema: “independent”, “mainstream”, or otherwise.

Thank you very much.

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Notes on ‘Rosario’ (2010)

Rosario. Dir. Alberto P. Martinez. Perf. Jennylyn Mercardo, Yul Servo, Dennis Trillo, Sid Lucero, Isabel Oli, Dolphy, Philip Salvador, Eula Valdez, Ricky Davao. Cinemabuhay International, Inc. and Studio 5, 2010.

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It must be said that this movie does not open auspiciously, as it starts with what might well be an awkward—and rather narcissistic—attempt at metafiction: Jesus (Dolphy), finding himself and his wife in dire straits after their house gets flooded, decides to swallow his pride and approach a wealthy nephew who has long been a stranger to him in order to ask for assistance. This nephew turns out to be no other than corporate mogul Manuel “Manny” V. Pangilinan, the owner of the studio that co-produced Rosario, and the source of the “true story” on which the film is based. Jesus and Pangilinan’s father are half-brothers, while the titular character, Rosario, is mother to Jesus and grandmother to Pangilinan. Pangilinan, who knows little about his lola, asks Jesus to tell him about her life.

[Read the rest in Interlineal.]

The media and the Manila hostage crisis: Preliminary notes

In the 2003 film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Merry takes Pippin to task for stealing the palantír of Orthanc from a sleeping Gandalf and gazing into it, an act that sets off a terrifying encounter with Sauron and places the Quest in peril. “Why did you look?” Merry rails. “Why do you always have to look?” When Pippin says that he cannot help himself, Merry retorts, “You never can.”

The eye may be helpless, as the poet Jorie Graham says, “when the image forms itself, upside-down, backward,/driving up into/the mind,” but when “the world/unfastens itself/from the deep ocean of the given”, ought I/eye resign myself to helplessness, content myself with merely looking on? Ought I/eye not to attempt a refastening, however small or ultimately futile the gesture?

*

Newly arrived with a companion in Ayod—a village in the famine-stricken country of Sudan—and distressed by the sight of people starving to death, even as he sought to lend his efforts to an overwhelmed feeding center, the young man wandered into the open bush in order to try and calm himself. A soft, high-pitched noise caught his attention, prompting him to seek its source.

He traced the animal-like sound to a clearing, where he found an emaciated toddler—a little girl who was no more than skin and bones—whimpering pitifully. She was too weak to stand, and was crawling toward the very center he had just left. As he crouched before her, a vulture landed a short distance away, perhaps recognizing that, with a bit of luck, a meal was soon to be had.

The man would later recount that, in the wake of the appearance of the bird, he had waited about 20 minutes, hoping in vain that the scavenger would spread its wings.

Then, taking the utmost care not to disturb the tableau, the man raised his camera to his eye, meticulously framed his shots, and took several photographs.

Once he had finished with his pictures, he chased away the raptor, sat under a tree to smoke cigarettes, and talked—he claimed—to God, as he watched the gaunt little girl resume her struggle. He cried as well—according to his companion, when they reunited, the man was still wiping the tears from his eyes, saying he could not wait to go home, to see his own daughter, to embrace her.

The name of that man was Kevin Carter, and he was a South African photojournalist.

A little over a year after one of the images of the toddler and the vulture that he had taken was published in the New York Times, and subsequently reproduced in other publications around the world—becoming, in its way, an icon of Sudan, and, more generally, of the extreme hunger and poverty that many still suffer from—Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

As for the Sudanese girl, whom Carter had abandoned, her fate remains unknown.

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Sudanese girl and vulture by Kevin Carter

Photograph by Kevin Carter, courtesy of BBC h2g2. No copyright infringement intended.

I have encountered this, the most in/famous of Carter’s photographs, several times, but whenever I look at it, I feel a sense of horror: horror not so much at what it depicts, or at its formal, even sublime, beauty as an image, but at the fact of its existence. Carter’s picture does not merely re-present a long-gone moment—like all other visual records, it re-presences a particular way of seeing the world: in this instance, the kind of gaze that lights upon a famished child being eyed by a vulture and recognizes an opportunity—not to come to the aid of another, but to distance oneself from that other by retreating behind the lens of the camera and taking the best possible shot.

That the language of the camera, which is to say the language of photography and its sister arts of television and cinema, seethes with force is not, I think, a coincidence: moments, situations, and events are invariably caught, captured, shot, snapped, or taken—rather like animals hunted for their meat, while the resultant pictures and clips are the preserved carcasses mounted for display. The acts of seeing, of recording what one sees, and of sharing that record—these can be violent acts, especially when one is confronted with tragedy.

The violence is inherent in the decision to aestheticize, to render spectacular (that is, to transform into spectacle)—pain and misfortune, thereby acquiescing to the power of the structures that inflict them, as well as anaesthetizing whatever sympathy and care might be summoned for the ones who suffer—and such violence is everywhere perpetuated in the name of telling the truth, which, in our time, is no longer the province of prophets or soothsayers, but of reporters.

It may be true that Carter was only there to document what he saw in order that others might be moved into assuming the burden of addressing the problems of Sudan. It is equally true that the feeding center toward which the girl was crawling was only a short walk away, and Carter neither brought the child to the center, nor asked the center staff to rescue her, if, as some have argued, he had been explicitly forbidden by health workers to touch the children, on account of their depressed immune systems.

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Much ink has been spilled and much air has been heated in the debate over the manner in which the local mass media covered the hostage crisis at the Quirino Grandstand last August 23, Monday, and journalists, individually and collectively, have sought to excuse their conduct by wrapping themselves in the flag of their duty to the public, apparently heedless of the possibility that such a duty could be exercised at the expense of the public they claim to serve.

“News blackout is not in our vocabulary anymore,” arrogantly declared Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) National President Herman Basbaño, never mind that Article 6 of the KBP Broadcast Code of 2007 [PDF] specifically contemplates crisis situations, stating that the coverage of such “should avoid inflicting undue shock and pain to families and loved ones of victims” and should not “provide vital information or offer comfort or support to the perpetrators”. In what way, shape, or form did the virtually panoptic, gratuitously detailed, and excruciatingly narrated coverage of the crisis, which some media outfits labeled a “drama”, comply or align with these provisions?

Those who challenge critics of the media to explain exactly how the crisis could have ended less tragically had the reporters on the ground behaved differently are being disingenuous, as one would only be able to respond with a species of speculative fiction. It seems to me that the right question to ask is not, “How would the situation have changed?” but, “Did the media act with due diligence, with integrity, and with compassion during (and after) the crisis?”

Also disingenuous are those who insist that media workers cannot be faulted for succumbing to the professional instinct to report. Are journalists victims of their training and experience? Are they fundamentally incontinent, utterly bereft of the ability to hold themselves in check, to remember that their work is governed by ethical imperatives beyond the injunction to bear witness, to lay bare the capital-T Truth—not to mention guidelines from previous unfortunate experience?

Perhaps the most honest—definitely the most chilling—response to the firestorm of criticism against the media that I have come across was from Maria Ressa, the head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs. During a forum at the College of Mass Communication of the University of the Philippines last August 28, Friday, she said that had ABS-CBN unilaterally stopped or delayed its broadcast, “We would have been criticized by the viewers or what viewers would have done is switch stations.” (She had previously tweeted a similar assertion.)

Based on this statement, the foremost concern of Ressa, and by extension, of her network, would appear to be nothing more than ratings—which is to say, in the final analysis, money, or what might be collected under the general rubric of cultural capital (trust, credibility, prestige), because ratings have no value if they cannot eventually be transformed into one or the other.

Let me be clear: I do not begrudge journalists their earnings. Like many other noble professions, journalism is practiced for money (though probably not wealth, and, in this country, certainly not longevity). The desire to inform and educate is not easily—if at all—separable from the desire to attain financial security and gain status. But has the drive for profit, economic or otherwise, become so overpowering as to erode the media’s sense of responsibility, if slowly and surreptitiously? Has the Fourth Estate become complacent, considering that it has historically received from the general public a level of trust far greater than most other institutions, including the state? Does the press see itself as accountable to its audience in the first place, and if so, to what extent?

What might journalists write about, report on, photograph, film, record, cover, broadcast, or talk about if they ceased to focus on fighting battles for attention, for advertisers, for legitimacy, for the bottom line? What might journalism look like if reportage ceased to involve sensational spectacles of suffering that serve less to stimulate action than to stupefy the mind and steel the heart against pity?

[This also appears in The Pro Pinoy Project.]