Awards and Abuses

Promised dinner at a nearby fast food restaurant, around a dozen male street children from the Vito Cruz area let themselves be whisked off to the Multi-Purpose Hall of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) by two young men one April afternoon.

The boys were going to play a game, and the instructions were simple: at the appointed time, the kids would enter a makeshift enclosure in pairs and the objective of each, in emulation of professional wrestlers, was to eject his opponent from the ring. As the children began fighting, the men acted as commentators, egging the combatants on.

Awards and Abuses (Contemporary Art Philippines Magazine Issue 24)

Although the wrestling appeared to be no more than rough-housing at the outset, it quickly escalated: the blows became more forceful; the contenders were suddenly all inside the arena; and one of the boys, twelve-year-old Marco Ramirez (a pseudonym) , found himself trapped in a corner, attacked by several assailants.

Rather than attempt to bring the situation to order, however, the men continued to yell their lungs out.

Alarmed, an audience member jumped into the fray, trying to distract the kids by offering his own body as a target for their aggression. Another hit the lights, plunging the hall into darkness. A third shouted at the commentators, denouncing the proceedings as exploitative.

As the frenzy subsided, someone cried out for a first-aid kit: while all the children were sore, if not bruised, from the experience, Ramirez had sustained a wound on his foot.

Precisely what had the boys gotten themselves into? They have said that it was never really explained to them, but they had participated in Criticism Is Hard Work, a performance piece staged by poet Angelo Suarez and visual artist Costantino Zicarelli for the opening day of Tupada Xing: Social Contract. Organized by the Tupada art collective, it was also known as the Tupada Action and Media Art Fourth International Action Art Event 2007 (TAMA ’07).

Five years later, artist Alwin Reamillo, the viewer who had loudly decried the piece as exploitation, is still outraged. “You don’t do that in a performance,” he said in an interview, believing that Criticism, which he compared to a cockfight or a dogfight, was a case of child abuse. Republic Act No. 7610, the Special Protection of Children Against Abuse, Exploitation and Discrimination Act, defines “child abuse” as the maltreatment of a child, habitual or otherwise, including “any act by deeds or words which debases, degrades or demeans the intrinsic worth and dignity of a child as a human being”.

[Read the rest of the article in Issue 24 of Contemporary Art Philippines magazine or here.]

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.

Journalism as barbarism

The furor that continues to rage around the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, and specifically Mideo Cruz’s installation Poleteismo, one of the works featured in said exhibition, has taken the form of a battle between blasphemy and censorship—an unfortunate development, in my view, as both positions seem predicated on a clear-cut, straightforward duality between how the public has responded to the work and how it ought to respond to the work. Whether the situation will shape-shift into something more capable of accommodating a greater, more complex range of possibilities remains to be seen, but that it has been reduced to such crude terms can be attributed in part to the manner that the mass media thoroughly maltreated the relevant issues.

It is highly likely that this ruckus would not have swelled to its current proportions—might never have happened in the first place—had Pinky Webb, host of the ABS-CBN current affairs show “XXX”, refrained from framing Poleteismo, diminished to its details, as a commentary on the contentious RH Bill. (The sense of the verb “frame” as pertaining to false incrimination is useful here.) As someone who has seen Poleteismo for himself, I find that interpretation completely untenable: the only element of the work that could be said to have a connection to the bill would be the condoms, and I saw no compelling reason to draw that connection—not least because the proposed measure is concerned with more than just prophylactics.

But the burden of the blame for the frenzied character of the dispute is not only for Webb, “XXX”, or ABS-CBN to bear. Understanding, no doubt, that anything related to the controversial piece of legislation would serve as a reliable magnet for rapid, even rabid, reactions, which would then translate into increased ratings, several prominent members of the fourth estate wasted no time jumping into the fray in order to whip the public into a state of hysteria.

[Read the rest in The Pro Pinoy Project.]

Mulling over “Kulô”

Art, all art, as the British writer Jeanette Winterson would remind us, is a foreign city, which is to say that it is fluent in tongues and steeped in traditions that inevitably require no small degree of adaptation and acclimatization on the part of those who seek a meaningful encounter with it. To behave as though art bore the onus of conforming to and confirming beliefs and expectations long held and cherished is to act like the boorish tourist who assumes, nay, demands that the locals speak his or her language, indicating a fatal combination of arrogance and ignorance that ought to be despaired at and deplored. And yet it is that very combination with which the past several days have been marked when one examines the clangorous—I hesitate to use the word “popular”—discourse that has erupted around the now-closed Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) exhibition “Kulô”, which, in addition to 31 other works of art intended to play off the convergence of the sesquicentennial of national hero Jose Rizal and the quadricentennial of the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas, features Poleteismo, an installation by Mideo Cruz that is both fulcrum and field for what been not so much a debate than a protracted shouting match, with terms yanked out of context for maximum incendiary effect: “blasphemy” and “terrorism” on the one hand, and “moralist hysteria” and “religious myopia” on the other.

[Read the rest in Interlineal.]