Cinemalaya: then and now

Erik Matti
Filmmaker Erik Matti asks whether Cinemalaya is still true to its ideals on independent expression

Erik Matti(Editor’s note: This previously unpublished entry, a portion written in 2006, is filmmaker Erik Matti’s current opinion of the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival. The Cinemalaya is now at the center of controversy, after its board disqualified filmmaker Emerson Reyes during the production of his film “MNL 143.” Reyes claims the disqualification was due to his refusal to put name stars in his roster of actors.)

MANILA, Philippines – I am bothered by the grumblings I hear around the indie film scene about the forthcoming Cinemalaya.

To some, these grumblings may seem very petty.  But when you put all these petty little grunts, sighs and whimpers together it amounts to a really gaseous, guttural and booming burp.  

It does not paint a good picture of the festival, at all.

Uggh…Festival committee meets with the 15 finalists and gives them suggestions on how to improve the script for it to be considered in the top 10.

Aahrggh…Festival committee asks participants to try and avoid using indie favorites Ronnie Lazaro and Pen Medina.

Uumph…Festival committee wants the filmmakers to use named, established stars in their films as much as possible.

Ihnakhuup…Do a full-length film script but within 50 sequences and not more than 60 pages.

Waaah…Change Jet Pangan as the lead actor because he does not know how to act.

Cinemalaya can run their festival however they want to. Who am I to complain about it?  After all, it’s them who’s giving out five million pesos and risking it to independent filmmakers.

Cinemalaya even made 2005 an interesting year for movies with such noteworthy films like “Maximo,” “Bigtime,” “Sarong Banggi,” “Baryoke” and “Pepot Artista.”

When mainstream producers weren’t doing anything to bring fresh and exciting works in the theaters, Cinemalaya gambled on these “indie filmmakers to bring new cinema” to the ailing Philippine film industry.

So why should I complain?  Why shoot down a worthy endeavor with petty misgivings?  For all we know, all these nitpickings may even be the festival committee’s way of improving last year’s Cinemalaya.

***

Awards in film festivals all over the world are based primarily on the finished film, and not the written script.  If it were a literary contest like the Carlos Palanca Annual Writing Competition, then the screenplay on paper can be considered, as it is a judgment of the literary voice.  But with regards to film festivals, the judging should be the medium of film, how the filmmaker tells the story, because in the end, it is the cinematic voice that is judged and not the words written on paper.

I don’t really know if the mechanics of Cinemalaya were based on the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) or the now defunct Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP). But using the screenplay as a deciding factor to a half a million seed grant to produce a film leaves the festival open to a lot of problems once the film on paper is interpreted for the big screen.   

This is where trouble begins.

Isn’t there a lesson to be learned in the way the MMFF conducts its yearly festivals?  Let’s say, hypothetically, that the scripts approved by the MMFF committee are of high standard. Why do we keep seeing a multitude of mediocre films come showcase in December? MMFF could not blame “Lapu Lapu” or “Terrorist Hunters” for being bad films, because the mechanics of the MMFF itself gave room for these movies to be bad films.

ECP also started with a competition based on the screenplay, and the festival eventually produced the classic “Oro, Plata, Mata.”  Lucky them that the film was a masterpiece, because it could have been a really bad movie in the hands of an inept filmmaker.

Filmmaking is not about the written page. It never has been and never will be.  The screenplay is the foundation, yes, but it is not yet the film. It’s a big leap from the script up to the finished film.

Now, if the organizers want to hold the competition using only the scripts as basis for the grant, then they should stand by their competition and be ready either to get a classic like “Misteryo Sa Tuwa” or a bomber like “Ang Alamat Ng Lawin.”

A lot of films get grants using scripts or just storylines. That’s how Lav Diaz got his funding for “Heremias.”  But it also comes with reputation. A pitch from Lav Diaz gives the grantor an idea what kind of movie he’s going to get, because of the string of movies Lav has under his belt.

MMFF claims to use the system, but a script is not enough to get you into the festival. To be noticed, the script has to have a well-known director, a big star and a major studio, not to mention commercial viability. If it’s by Joel Lamangan, then it must be good. More so if it’s a Joel Lamangan movie starring Maricel Soriano and backed by Regal Films. Or a Tony Y. Reyes flick starring Vic Sotto and backed by M-Zet.

That system is somewhat feasible, because beyond the script, there is the track record of either the director, the star or the studio to back it up.  But even that does not assure the MMFF organizers or foreign producers a good film in the end.  

This is not the case for Cinemalaya. The competition is built on giving a break to a budding filmmaker who has good material for a movie. The competition has only the script for a basis, and maybe a short film or two by the applicant filmmaker. But there is no track record, or the promise of a big star attached to the project, or a big studio’s financial backing—except maybe the retirement savings of the filmmaker’s parents.

Cinemalaya hinges its selection solely on the basis of the screenplay.    



***

Cinemang Malaya. The Philippine Independent Film Festival.

“In the spirit of independent expression, the Cinemalaya Awards seeks to discover, encourage and honor the cinematic works of Filipino filmmakers that boldly articulate and freely interpret the Filipino experience with fresh insight and artistic integrity.”

Such vision.  Such noble intentions. Such bold labels. It takes a lot of conviction to stand by those ideals. Independent expression. Freely interpret. Artistic integrity.

It is with that vision that brought me lining up to CCP last year to watch the entries of Cinemalaya. It was an invigorating feeling to see that the entries were highly anticipated. Clearly, there is a hunger for movies other than what we usually have in the mainstream cinemas. And above all that, there is definitely an honest and sincere support for the filmmakers trying their first hand at moviemaking. There is no doubt a strong feeling of a community coming together sharing their love for films.   

It is with that vision of Cinemalaya that colleagues in the industry flocked in the theaters each night to witness the birth of a baby brother or a sister. The aura in those festival nights were different from movie premieres of major studios. The spirit of family was present. The participants and the filmmakers, even the audience themselves, had a general feeling of ownership and of claim on the movies unfolding before them.

The event was so successful in achieving its vision that I even almost forgot the real reason why the festival was put up in the first place.  

Dream TV/ABC 5 lacks content for movies. When all is said and done, it still boils down to economics. What Regal Films and Viva Entertainment are to ABS-CBN is what Cinemalaya is to Dream TV/ABC 5. Instead of Dream TV/ABC 5 buying movies for their network at 2 million to 3 million (depending on the star of the movie) from producers, they staged a film festival for ten movies amounting to just 5 million. Aside from saving P15 to 25-M, they also get 10 movies instantly in just a year’s time.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with their intentions. The business side of the festival has nothing to do with its grand plan of giving opportunities to aspiring filmmakers. If one can marry lofty intentions with making money, as long as they stand by the vision they started with, then good for them.

As long as they stand by the vision they started with.  

But the question is, what vision does Cinemalaya stand for?  Do they know what vision they are really trying to pursue?  Is it “…to discover, encourage and honor the cinematic works of Filipino filmmakers that boldly articulate and freely interpret the Filipino experience with fresh insight and artistic integrity” or to fill-up movie programming for a TV/Cable network?

If the vision of Cinemalaya is one of artistic pursuits as was initiated last year and as stated in its mission vision, I don’t see any reason why there is a demand for named stars, a suggestion of how to revise the script, a fixed number of pages and sequences or having Ricky Davao in lieu of Jet Pangan.

That’s why there are all these grumblings.  

The competition promised independent expression, artistic integrity and freedom in interpretation.  Certainly, people who want to join would expect that. There was a precedent. Last year was a success. Why can’t it be like that now?

Maybe Cinemalaya is thinking that, “Yes, last year was a success but…hmmm…the other films were too rough…aah…they’re too long…I keep seeing Ronnie Lazaro…uuhh…”.  But that’s the risk you have to take when the competition for filmmaking is judged from the script. Much as some gems will stand out of the pack, there will also be some that will hide in the shadows.

I once read Isagani Cruz discussing how he judges the writing submitted to Palanca.  He said that he starts reading the first page.  Any wrong grammar or spelling gets thrown out immediately.  Now, after the first page, if the writing arouses his interest whether by the subject or by a character, he continues. We may not always agree with the choices of Palanca for its winners but all these years they have managed to maintain their integrity as the most prestigious award-giving private foundation.  Precisely because if the writing does not cut it, the judges throw them out. It’s as simple as good writing or bad writing. No revisions, no suggestions. “We like your premise but there is a problem with the structure.” Again, we go back to the vision.  How sincere and honest the intentions are. Is it really to help out budding filmmakers or is it really a mini-studio disguised as a foundation?

My dark, evil soul lurking within me keeps setting aside the idea that Cinemalaya might actually be exploitative. That in the guise of independent cinema, artistic freedom and a measly seed money, it lures aspiring filmmakers to a shot at bringing their heart and soul to the big screen when in all intents and purposes, the work is really a cost-efficient way of filling up the late night movie slots on the boob tube.  

Cinema One Originals has a much honest structure to it. We give you a grant, do whatever you want with our approval and we own your movie for ABS-CBN. No lofty ideas, no Oprah-esque slogans. We’ll give you the money to do something for us because we will use it for our channel. Simple.

If, in the first place, Cinemalaya announced that it will be doing this independent film festival for its network and that Cinemalaya Chairperson Laurice Guillen is the mini-Malou Santos or Mother Lily, and Monitoring Head Robbie Tan is their little Olive Lamasan or Roselle Monteverde, then anyone interested in joining knows what he’s really getting into.  

And the terrifying part of it is that Cinemalaya is partnered with the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the same government agency that’s supposed to look after cultivating the arts and the artist. And to be part of such exploitation with no conscience or shame or accountability is downright disgusting. The arts have been corrupted just like road buildings and pork barrels.



***

Using the clear and present weakness of a prey, the predator strikes.  

The lack of opportunity for these filmmakers provided the opportunity for Cinemalaya to use these filmmakers to their advantage. It provided a way for these so-called patrons of film to start acting like the big studio producers they all hated in the first place.

Have we shed all traces of integrity and principle in exchange for economic survival and fame? Have we gotten used to eating shit in this country that we don’t really mind becoming shit-eaters? We have screening committee members that have participated in allowing these things to happen, respected filmmakers who will not allow to be forced themselves to make changes in their work but are being used as instruments for Cinemalaya to achieve their tarnished and dubious goals. It’s sad.

The mainstream game, no matter how much we sometimes want to change it, is what it is. It’s either you want to play with it or get out. But to claim something like Cinemalaya as a venue to allow artists to freely express their ideas and with the government taking part of it, when it is actually not what it claims to be, is rather alarming.

But in a country of subservience, in a country where call centers are where our children end up after college, who am I to rock the boat?  

For the hungry filmmakers, they may say, the measly crumbs these messiahs of the arts extend to them is already a blessing. That’s bull!

***

I wrote this in 2006 after I heard that Mike Sandejas was having difficulties with the casting of his film. Mike had to defend casting of his lead actor Jet Pangan in his movie “Tulad Ng Dati.” In order to prove that Jet was an able actor, Sandejas had to bring Jet to CCP and present him in a workshop for the approval of Laurice Guillen and Robbie Tan.

I had to go back to all my other files to find this unfinished article/ranting.  I wanted to send this to a broadsheet, but when I asked friends to read it, they told me it was too angry and might just “Jerry Maguire” me from the industry.

In short, sabi nila, “Suicide ‘tong sulat na ‘to, chong!”

I found the unfinished article over the weekend and saw that what I wrote in 2006 exactly still has the same frustrated angst as the one I posted in Facebook over a week ago. I deleted the names of some screening committee members out of respect for these people, thinking they may have been blinded by some sort of loyalty during the time. Also, I was referring to Dream TV/ABC 5 here when it was still owned by Tony Boy Cojuangco and does not refer to the ABC 5 with the present ownership.

And to think that this was written only on the 2nd year of Cinemalaya. Who would think that a festival that since has become recognized worldwide could still carry such a stench?

Since then, after a couple of phone calls and a bit of journalistic research, I found out that beyond the Jet Pangan issue, so many other irregularities happened every year until the last edition.

“Endo” directors like Jade Castro was “suggested” a co-director (Mario Cornejo) because Laurice and Robbie thought he couldn’t direct yet. “Endo” later became one of the best movies of that year’s edition. Jade Castro is now one of this generation’s budding mainstream filmmakers, churning out last year’s sleeper hit “Zombadings.”

Jon Lazam and Edith Asuncion suffered the same fate, as well. Jon was maybe the first Emerson Reyes of Cinemalaya. In a series of emails between himself and Cinemalaya, it was apparent that his film’s delays were brought about not because of his failures but because Cinemalaya kept demanding rewrites extending beyond the deadline for submission.

Ralston Jover was also asked to get a co-director for “Bakal Boys.” He even went as far as giving them a list of possible co-directors but not one from the list was approved. He eventually found out that they were pushing for another director that was not on the list.

Arnel Mardoquio, same story.  Francis Hechanova, same story.  If Laurice Guillen were in their place, would she have allowed a co-director for any of the movies she has done?

And then there is the subtitling issue. Laurice Guillen corners the market for all the subtitling of the Cinemalaya entries bringing it to her small post house called Pixel Grain.  It’s like city mayors bidding for road construction projects and awarding it to their own construction companies. Shameful!

Not to mention selecting her own movie as the opening film in last year’s Cinemalaya. I don’t really know if the movie deserved it.  For all I know, it could have been the best thing since “Citizen Kane.” But to allow it to conflict with her interest as festival head just shows a lack of principle and integrity.

And then there’s Robbie Tan trying so hard to make himself the savior of Philippine cinema knowing full well that he’s trying to make up for all the crappy movies his film company has produced. If Laurice has the subtitling business side of Cinemalaya, then Robbie is the power broker for casting, pressuring filmmakers into casting his preferred talents for each project.

Laurice and Robbie view rushes, suggest reshoots and comment on filmmaking style and language, pushing each filmmaker to make their movie the way they both think it should be made. So much for independent expression and artistic integrity.

The list goes on and on. It’s like looking into a government agency and everywhere there is one irregularity after another that seems to crop up and no one seems to care. We may have become apathetic with the way government conducts itself with all the red tape and the corruption but to see it happening inside the Cultural Center of the Philippines makes you think that this epidemic of ambiguousness and blatant lack of decency has really eroded the entire country.

I am not trying to keep a moral high ground here.  We have our own share of little corruptions in life. But if a position in the arts is assigned to you, the responsibility to live up to a certain level of principle is a must to serve the position well. We all know that power corrupts even the most honest people.

Frodo knows that. I know that. That’s why it is essential to take care of the ring and be always on guard that it does not possess you.  

Cinemalaya, as an idea is good. But it lies in the people running it whether it achieves what it set out to do for the filmmakers of this country. – Rappler.com

 











 

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