The Myth of Cinemalaya and the Myth of the Artist

06 Mar 2012 (Tue) at 10:21 am 2 comments

Cinemalaya - Reform Now poster

Cinemalaya--was it really ever free? Lest we forget, it's a Cojuangco grant, not a universal right.

After a firestorm of criticism regarding the disqualification of MNL 143 on the basis of poor casting, the opinion that Cinemalaya heads should be ashamed is a pretty unanimous one. Lawyer and film critic Oggs Cruz, who resigned from the selection committee in protest, argues rightly that the prerogative of casting is “within the ambit of the creative freedom provided to a filmmaker who is making [a film] as an independent artist and not as a hired craftsman.”

Simply put, the organizers deserve to be criticized for striking a pose of “freedom,” but operationalizing the opposite. Independent spirit that is not. To trully allow filmmakers the freedom to put forward their own ideas necessarily entails that they also be allowed to calculate their own risks, wager their own gambles, and as screenwriter Raymond Lee says, “make their own mistakes.”

It is right to sympathize with the scorned filmmakers. If I recall correctly, it is the first time in the festival’s history that a filmmaker was outrightly disqualified because of his directorial choices. (The previous years only saw filmmakers being pressured into voluntarily withdrawing.) Cinemalaya’s handling of Emerson Reyes’ MNL 143 is objectionable for sure, and truly in bad taste.

However, on the other end of the spectrum, I also find many cinephiles’ valorization of “the artist” very naive, at best reactionary. While the lofty ideals of a “free artist” and a “free cinema” are indeed noble and worthy of championing, there is something amiss in how easily these phrases are being thrown around these days.

In the wake of the controversy regarding Tikoy Aguiluz’s Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story, for example, we saw a director pitted versus the producer and editors–and the community demanded that the director’s cut be shown, raising the banner of artistic freedom. Strategically, and to the film’s benefit, the debate was positioned as The Greedy Businessman versus The Inculpable Artist, as if producer-director relations were not tricky and Aguiluz is not guilty of having his way with other artists’ works in the past.

But that is beside the point. The point is, it’s easy to raise the idealized specter of The Artist, pure and sacrosanct, a spoiled and fragile dove whose unsullied soul must be insulated at all costs from harsh realities. And many of today’s filmmakers and film enthusiasts demand for artistic freedom the way a spoiled brat expects from his parents the latest gadget or haute accessory. Where does one get this sense of entitlement?

In the 80s, filmmakers like Bernal and Brocka also actively campaigned to “Free the Artist”–but that was rooted in the fact that 1., many artists and filmmakers were literally thrown in jail by the dictatorship, and 2., they were also struggling, outside of cinema, to change society. This kind of comprehensive commitment is evident in their films (both “commercial” and otherwise) as well as their personal lives. Their high level of political engagement manifested not only in their filmic characters, but in their lifestyles as well. For them, the artist is not a delicate rose in a bell jar, but a trailblazer who works in the dirt to cultivate the seeds for change. And when these directors spoke of “freedom,” you knew that they were not just referring to their freedom to tell love stories their way.

Cinemalaya - The Rose in a Bell Jar

A tale as old as time: is this the artist who must be freed? (Image from Walt Disney Pictures)

In our time, however, in the face of a repressive film industry in both mainstream and independent spheres, the calls for freedom are largely limited to a narrow-minded valorization of The Artist. Today’s fight for a “free cinema” seeks justice, not for an oppressed people, but an oppressed film; the fight seeks to reform not society, but only a film festival.

Sure, one can argue that these are specific battles. But artistic freedom on its own is such a weak framework if not grounded in a broader, more encompassing agenda. There can be no movement without ideology, without a unity of hearts and minds. There would be no Brocka or Bernal without their communitarian ideals. The question that thus hounds our generation of filmmakers: what are ours?

Cinemalaya - Lino Brocka circa 1985

Filmmaker at the frontlines: Lino Brocka was active in filmmaking and politics. He is shown here in a 1985 rally against Marcos's Preventive Detention Action orders, which were used to imprison, among others, him and colleague Behn Cervantes. (Photo by Dado Saturay, from Prometheus Brown)

Convinced of their own brilliance, some filmmakers and enthusiasts respond to repression with a glorification of “talent.” As if by simply becoming an “indie” filmmaker automatically makes one brilliant and authoritative, as if indie films are naturally better than those from the mainstream. A look back at Philippine cinema history will show that the mainstream is capable of producing strong films in the same way that indie filmmakers are just as capable of producing crap. This brand of self-deluded egotism has no place in an industry that is ultimately about serving the mass audience.

The true power of cinema is that it can enlighten minds. “Art must be allowed to be free,” says Reyes in an interview, “because [it reflects] social realities.” The battleground that is the screen supplements the battleground that is real life. We should constantly remind ourselves that the genius of cinema is its accessibility; it should not be treated as a piece of untouchable “art” on a high pedestal. Neither should a filmmaker, no matter how great or veteran, be treated as above criticism, above suspicion, above mediocrity.

The latest Cinemalaya fiasco firmly demarcates the limits of the much-lauded “alternative” venue for Philippine cinema. Since its inception, the festival has given rise to many controversies and discontinued projects, a history which belies its much-mythicized “malaya” name. While one cannot discredit Cinemalaya’s positive contribution as a producer of many notable films, one cannot also ignore its clear limitations, among them its strict exclusivity to the narrative format and the inadequacy of its cash grant.

Within and beyond the inadequacies of Cinemalaya, the atmosphere for Philippine cinema is stifling. “The economics of our country pushes Filipinos not to prioritize local movies in our budget, much more socially responsible movies,” says Enrico Santos, head of the concept development group and new media for ABS-CBN Film Productions. “The industry will have to live by the dictates of the capitalists,” says Reyes, “because it is business.” The repressiveness of studio heads, the greed and foreign dominance in commercial cineplexes, the inefficiency of the government and the backwardness of its economic and cultural policies. We know the problems, the roots of which are embedded in a deeper social malaise that affects not only filmmakers and productions, but all ordinary citizens.

Our task, says filmmaker Jon Lazam, also an ex-Cinemalaya grantee, is “to create a cinema that has deep and genuine regard for its audience and a cinema that does not sacrifice truth in the name of commerce.” Indeed, the challenge to the film community is that it is up to us to build an alternative society–and the cinema that goes with it. After all, while films can merely reflect social realities, filmmakers can change it. Only a more just and humane social order free of capitalist chains can beget a free cinema that is not burdened by the need to earn big bucks in return, not commandeered by commerce, a cinema that is focused on sharing and discussing ideas as creators see fit.

In the end, we cannot genuinely campaign for a free cinema without simultaneously struggling for a free society.#

Cinemalaya - Robbie Tan

Anti-Robbie Tan graphic circulating on Facebook.

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Reform Cinemalaya petition

Though I find it weird that it’s filed under “economic justice,” interested supporters may sign the Reform Cinemalaya petition here.


Entry filed under: Edgar Allan Paule, Filipino films, Full length films, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Skin Deep Genre’s Not Dead

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lupang Hinirang  |  07 Mar 2012 (Wed) at 9:02 am

    Very incisive and truthful. I like the part that says “the artist is not a delicate rose in a bell jar, but a trailblazer who works in the dirt to cultivate the seeds for change”. Some filmmakers do not walk their talk but also have become exploiters themselves.

  • 2. Spartacus Fan  |  23 Mar 2012 (Fri) at 2:10 pm

    good luck to your battle

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