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­­­The parting of the audience

Art by Sean Eidder

The Metro Manila Film Festival and why we watch what we watch.

MANILA, Philippines — If you’ve ever watched movies in the Philippines, you’ve probably had an opinion on the Metro Manila Film Festival. The annual exhibition takes time away from foreign releases to fill cinema schedules with local productions, hoping to give Filipinos something closer to home during the Christmas season. Depending on whom you ask, the MMFF can be either a fun, family-friendly festivity, or proof of the country’s disappointing film industry. It does raise the question as to what Philippine Cinema is at all.

Months before the 2016 installment of the Metro Manila Film Festival, the internet was set aflame with news of “big changes” coming to the administration and selection of films for the holiday season. Committees once populated by members of the mainstream film industry now found themselves comprised of filmmakers and professors. The once maligned criteria of “commercial viability” was removed. The distinction made between “mainstream” and “indie” was cut down with the removal of the New Wave category. Movies had to be submitted in full. Suddenly, it appeared as though the festival, long seen as a cash grab by some sectors, was en route to become an actual showcase of local cinema on a wide scale unseen before.

Christmas of that year came and went. Of the eight films selected, only one film from a mainstream studio made it to exhibition. While critics and filmmakers praised the well-made efforts that came with the newly-revamped festival, box office earnings were reportedly half what they were a year before. Without its mainstay of stars to pull in mass market audiences, the festival, in the eyes of some, was a failure. The experiment hadn’t paid off, and things settled back to how they used to be. Commercial viability returned as a criteria for selection (albeit at 40 percent instead of 50), and now mainstream films dominate the lineup for this year’s MMFF.

There is a divide in Philippine cinema that is well-known but relatively unaddressed. Often, filmmakers from either “mainstream” or “indie” cinema rarely intersect, and if they do, they stick to the conventions familiar for either side when possible. Mainstream practitioners hold humor and family-friendliness in high regard, aiming more to entertain audiences. Indie filmmakers often evoke social realities and hard truths, claiming to make films that would educate the common man. Such views temper our expectations regarding Philippine cinema, and often we as audiences “choose sides” to lend our support. Some tend to even berate the opposing side, either for being “uneducated” or “too serious.” We sit on opposite ends of the spectrum we created for ourselves.

The Metro Manila Film Festival seems destined to remain in its current state as long as success is measured by box office success. Supply must inevitably follow demand, and as it stands, the market demand for escapist entertainment far outweighs the call for bleak looks at social reality. It doesn’t even matter if indie films do only make dark, poverty-laden films, because as far as the viewing public is concerned, that’s all indie films are. There is of course nothing stopping an indie film from being fun and family-friendly, nor is there anything stopping a mainstream film from tackling real-life hardships. But there is a wall that has been built between the Filipino people, dissuading them from even considering finding value in one another’s work.

Older viewers harken back to when the festival was truly a star-maker, when filmmaking was taken seriously. Names like Brocka, Bernal and De Leon are brought up as examples of when the Metro Manila Film Festival truly lived up to its name. Many decry the festival’s administration underneath the MMDA, and point out the many allegations of corruption existing within and around the festival. Many viewers simply cannot stand the ad-filled, un-cinematic nature that many MMFF films have adopted in the past decades. These points are valid, and I believe it is worth stating again that the audiences cannot be blamed for the quality of the films being showcased during the festival.

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Jessica Zafra, in a review of the 2012 festival, wrote this: “Contrary to what you’ve been led to believe, 'entertainment' and 'commercial appeal' are not synonyms for 'garbage.' There are good commercial movies, and there are bad commercial movies. The bad outnumber the good because the studios think the viewers are idiots.” As much as we feel there’s a wall between us as Filipino moviegoers, the truth is that a love for going to the movies is universal. In film school, we are often taught to trust our audience, that no matter the background, any person is intelligent enough to understand what they are watching.

As filmmakers, then, we should not cater to a “lowest common denominator” that simply does not exist. At the same time, we cannot tell ourselves that we are making films for a “thinking audience” that exists only in our imagination, lest we become slaves to the standards set by foreign film markets who impose their concept of “Philippine cinema” onto us. Let us believe in our audiences and in each other. And if we go to the movies this December and hate what we see, we shouldn’t point fingers at our seatmate in the cinema and blame them for a bad movie. Art by Sean Eidder

 

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