MANILA, Philippines – Whether you like them or not, you can’t deny the Oscars’ cultural and economic power. Oscar nominations and wins have boosted revenues of films, helped actors and filmmakers secure higher paychecks and artistic independence, and have even catapulted creatives out of obscurity into the mainstream discussion. Outside of these, awards are starting points for budding cinephiles, drivers for the production of more daring, arthouse films, and a game through which people can participate in a year-long engagement with the film industry.
As the years have passed, the Oscar race has shifted towards a more globalized race – with more Oscars voters from outside the US and more Best Picture entries debuting at international film festivals. These festivals, once accessible to only a few privileged press and industry professionals, have also opened up internationally due to the logistical limitations caused by the pandemic, despite the struggle with adopting the hybrid model. More recently, Academy members have now been able to view entries from the comfort of their own homes through a secure, members-only Academy screening room app.
Most relevant to the Philippines is the race for the coveted Academy Award for Best International Feature. The Philippines has submitted entries inconsistently since 1956: amassing the fourth highest number of submissions for a country without a nomination or win (31, behind Egypt, Portugal, and Bulgaria. But with the recent expansion of the shortlist from the initial 10 to a staggering 15 films, the increased accommodation for films on streaming services, and an online jury voting process, our chances of getting shortlisted have never been higher.
Interestingly, there have been a bevy of Filipino films that had a strong international tailwind behind them. Two in particular stand out: Carlo Francisco Manatad’s Whether the Weather is Fine, which is having its Philippine premiere later this week at the Metro Manila Film Festival, opened to glowing reviews internationally and won the Junior Jury Award at Locarno and Special Jury Prize at the Guanajuato. Meanwhile, Erik Matti’s On the Job 2: The Missing 8 had its wide release on HBO Go and famously won John Arcilla the Volpi Cup for Best Actor, beating out the likes of Oscar frontrunner Benedict Cumberbatch.
But when the list was announced on December 22, the Philippines, once again, did not have an entry on the shortlist. Not because we did not qualify but because, for the first time in 15 years, we did not submit an entry. What happened? Why does it matter? More importantly, what now?
The cost of participation
Established in 1981 following the approval of Executive Order No. 640-A by Ferdinand Marcos, the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) is the Philippine equivalent of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Composed of member guilds and guided by director general Vivian Velez, it spearheads two yearly tasks dedicated to honoring Filipino filmmaking and the workers and artists behind these efforts: the Luna Awards and the process of selecting the country’s entry into the Academy Awards.
FAP has, on an irregular basis, submitted entries into the Academy Awards. But when the November deadline passed and no announcement had been made, their non-submission was considered a shock, even more so because of the recent push by the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) towards more of an international presence. On December 3, the Directors’ Guild of the Philippines, Inc. (DGPI) released a statement on Facebook expressing their disappointment at the non-submission, listing down possible candidates, and calling for a reassessment of the country’s process of submission of Philippine entries.
In response to this, FAP released a statement (more of a non-apology) three days later citing the lack of funds and the pandemic as the reasons behind the non-submission. Velez and the rest of FAP have been public about chasing after uncollected P82-million amusement tax from the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA), which handles the annual Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), of which FAP is entitled to 20% of amusement tax during the two-week run.
However, there are inconsistencies in the statement. FAP claims to have had its funding stream dry up early in 2020, but it was still able to submit Brillante Mendoza’s Mindanao last year and still hold the Luna Awards. Additionally, there are no entry fees for submission to any category in the Oscars.
However, it’s true that the process of campaigning and marketing a film is expensive. Films require an estimated minimum of $100,000 for a good campaign, with studios spending up to $10 million for a successful campaign. In the past, the country’s previous entries — such as Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Ploning, and Bwakaw –were unable to make it to the shortlist not because of artistic merit, but because of budget limitations. The Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) established an Oscar Assistance Program in 2016, and though its allocation of P1 million (around $20,000) is still insufficient compared to the deep pockets in Hollywood, it is still something.
Strictures of submission
The Film Academy of the Philippines’ lack of transparency, especially in its selection process, has always been in question: with many industry professionals still unaware of who is involved, what the process is, and why a film is ultimately selected. It’s not as if transparency is impossible for such an artistic process. Many countries such as France and Bhutan have made the identities of their selection committees and the process of selection publicly available to assure accountability.
While the Best International Feature category has been a way for nations to introduce themselves to the world, the lack of transparency in the selection process has resulted in some countries such as China to promote films that serve as nationalistic propaganda instead. Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson sums it up in her critique of the category, saying: “…the rules also allow authoritarian regimes and politically troublesome governments to exert pressure on how Americans, who frequently use the Oscar nominations as a starting point for what to watch, will view those countries.”
Both of the Philippines’ strongest candidates this year have elements of sociopolitical commentary and critique of institutional incompetence and corruption. Whether the Weather is Fine peers into the lives of those affected by the government’s mishandling of Typhoon Yolanda through the lens of an absurd tragicomedy, while On the Job 2: The Missing 8 borrows details from the Maguindanao massacre to illustrate the culture of impunity that keep government officials in power and journalists struggling and fearful for their lives.
While Wilkinson’s proposed solutions for an Academy-led selection of representatives has its own problems, this important detail asks us why this whole process and why the Film Academy of the Philippines is important in the first place. Media critic Qingyang Zhou has already spoken out about how, in placing this kind of importance on foreign award-giving bodies and international festivals, there is a danger of reducing countries to nationalist representations, reaffirming Western hegemonies in cinema, and devaluing great work locally created because it lacks ‘international’ appeal or recognition.
The lack of an Oscar nomination this year matters not because we had a shot at the Oscars but because it is symptomatic of larger, more important inequities that need to be addressed: the lack of financial transparency and accountability, miscommunication between institutions, government cronyism, and the existence of contradicting laws that govern filmmaking in the country, among others. When Filipino taxpayer money goes into maintaining a body that is unable to perform its executive functions and when that money can be redistributed towards efforts that will directly benefit filmmakers and audiences, discussions must arise and decisions must be made.
In the 2020 issue of Pelikula Journal, Wilfredo C. Manalang – board member of the DGPI and the Creative Content Creators Association of the Philippines (SIKAP) and former executive director of the FDCP– expressed the need to dissolve the Academy to save the guilds, in the hopes of giving rise a new Academy that actually caters to the interest of its constituents and to the development of the art form. The rise of the Inter-Guild Alliance – composed of professionals from nearly all aspects of filmmaking and television – indicates a serious move towards this improvement and self-sufficiency.
If FAP cannot step up to the plate or at the very least do its job, the least it can do is make way for others to do theirs. – Rappler.com