In praise of cinema verité

BLITZ REVIEW - Juaniyo Y. Arcellana - The Philippine Star
In praise of cinema verité
Photo shows the Cinema Evaluation Board members at Manila Polo Club in March 2020.
Bum Tenorio

Faster than the speed of light, we were off to the other side of town, at a posh restaurant with large pictures of horses and jockeys for what we didn’t know then was a last gathering of reviewers of Filipino movies before the pandemic struck and render us all strangers once again.

For 16 years, I was a member of a quasi-government body classifying locally made films for possible tax breaks, the Cinema Evaluation Board (CEB) under the Film Development Council, which unceremoniously if unofficially disbanded in early 2020, just before the lockdowns began.

Over pizza, wine and beer, we wondered whether all those screenings and subsequent discussions, indeed if there were any worth debating, because some movies were obviously a cut above the rest while others not, had led to the betterment of the Philippine movie industry.

During that time, we watched an estimated 30 movies each year, including most of the entries in film festivals like the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), making December even more harried whether or not you had a day job.

Before a festival like the MMFF or the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (PPP), screenings sometimes stretched all afternoon into the early evening, marathon viewings that would test the endurance of the most intrepid reviewers, fortified by excellent meals and snacks, plus the occasional bottle of wine or two, there was no doubt we were well taken care of if not verging on being a brat pack.

First the board reviewed films at the My Cinema mini theater at Greenbelt 3 Makati, then in its last years at the Cinematheque screening room of the FDCP at its main Manila office off TM Kalaw. Tuesdays were the chosen day for screening at My Cinema, and Mondays for Cinematheque, which explains why some were often tardy Tuesdays for day jobs in Manila during the Greenbelt years.

Originally known as the Film Ratings Board during the Marcos regime, the CEB was reconstituted under the Arroyo administration and had at one time or another, members such as Eddie Romero, June Keithley, Zenaida Amador, Chinggoy Alonso, Nestor Torre, all deceased, as well as Pete Lacaba, Roy Iglesias, Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Lourd de Veyra, Dolly Ann Carvajal. Also briefly a member was the late director Mario O’Hara, who simply walked out of one awful movie and was never seen near My Cinema again.

Only a Supreme Court ruling that local films need no longer be graded for amusement tax exemption did the board itself cease and desist, although de facto, and so a couple of weeks before cinemas and movie theaters were closed down due to pandemic restrictions, the CEB members went their separate ways, and to this day never step into a screening room or movie theater again, much like the rest of the country.

Much of the industry has migrated online, with even the usually raucous MMFF also going virtual, as well the PPP where viewings could be scheduled at one’s convenience, while productions proceeded within so-called bubbles for everyone’s safety protocol, and box-office takings took a severe hit as did most of the entertainment sector.

These days the cinemas are used as vaccination sites for COVID-19 jabs and registration for national ID, the movie posters and popcorn stands like relics from a distant past, God only knows how long the painters of movie billboards along Recto have been idle. The last time the board met in March 2020, we did not know that theaters and multiplexes were soon to close, as something wicked was on its way, like the scourge that afflicted the characters in the movie Culion, the last the board watched for the metro filmfest in December 2019, even if grading of A (100-percent amusement tax break) or B (65 percent) was already deemed superfluous.

Yet modesty aside, as Yorme so plainly put it, the disassembled board would like to think that all the hours we spent in a darkened theater were not for naught, and maybe even helped raise by a notch or two the quality of local movies Filipinos watch. We may never be able to live down the B grade given to Magnifico, or the A given to Trip Ubusan, or the no grade to Gusto Ko With All my Hypothalamus. Still The Woman Who Left, Patay na si Hesus, Birdshot and Verdict, all got A.

Not that the grade was the be all and end all for the movie, but it surely must have helped, especially for the producer’s finances. We also saw the rise of independent outfits like Centerstage and Tuko Productions and IdeaFirst, as well the slow fadeout of Unitel. The latest, of course, is that the movie houses are prepping for a return to actual live screenings, complete with distancing and carefully planned ventilation, which can only be good as the virus is slowly put under foot.

Sineng-sine na ako is an expression overheard at the office, which can only be akin to speaking truth to power. Who’s that coughing in the front row? Doesn’t matter as long as we can let the images wash over us again in real time.


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