Metro Manila Film Festival

[OPINION] Is the MMFF ready for rebirth of Philippine cinema?

John Leo C. Algo
[OPINION] Is the MMFF ready for rebirth of Philippine cinema?

David Castuciano

They say movies reflect the realities and the identity of a society, from their political preferences to moral values. If the MMFF is any indication, then truer words have never been spoken about the Filipino of today.

“Balik Saya” has emerged as the tagline of the 2022 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF). After what has been a difficult past two years, festival organizers and participants are hoping for a renewed public interest in the annual Christmas tradition, a return to normal of sorts for the local movie industry.

But much like many aspects of our society, a return to the “old normal” for the MMFF will not be beneficial in the long run.

Not a joyous history

Unknown to most Filipinos is that the MMFF was started during the first Marcos administration, a cultural project that also doubled as a distraction from the wrongdoings of the government and a way to spread its Bagong Lipunan ideology.

Instead, directors saw it as an opportunity to creatively criticize the regime through films that provide commentary on issues like poverty, sexual abuse, and torture. It also helped usher in the second Golden Age of Philippine cinema, with MMFFs of this era featuring some of the most iconic Philippine films such as Himala and Insiang.

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After this period, movie companies began to go for Hollywood-style local films designed to maximize profits. This triggered the commercialization of MMFF and the de-emphasis on artistic style and social relevance, trends that remain rampant today.

The “rinse, repeat” nature of most recent festival editions have only propelled many of the issues observed not just with the MMFF, but the local movie industry as a whole. The same set of actors headline most of the entries, a perpetuation of mostly favoring good looks and marketability over acting ability that has dominated Philippine show business, especially in recent years.

Yes, profits are needed to keep the businesses going, but until when should the whole industry rely on “easy money” before it becomes too unsustainable?

In addition, news of corruption within the selection committee, award-winning entries being pulled out of theaters, and online complaints of local movies being inferior to foreign films have become an annual tradition much like the festival itself. And most of these criticisms are valid.

Yet the truth is as of now, many Filipinos simply do not care. For these people, all they want is to find something familiar, have fun and make fun of, forget about their problems, and leave the more serious matters to those who care enough to face them.

Who cares about the corruption, the Manila-centric branding, pseudo-monopolies, or the socially-relevant messages, as long as they have a good time with their loved ones for just a day or two? And why should they be blamed for their choices?

They say movies reflect the realities and the identity of a society, from their political preferences to moral values. If the MMFF is any indication, then truer words have never been spoken about the Filipino of today.

A bright future?

Sooner or later, audiences would get tired of relying on nostalgia and pure name value; the Enteng Kabisote and Shake, Rattle, & Roll series are examples of that. It has been long overdue for Philippine cinema and the MMFF to evolve. And despite the negativity surrounding them, there are several signs that this change can still happen in the next few years.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped pave the way for the emergence of streaming services that exposed Filipino viewers to other styles of storytelling. Local filmmakers should not be discouraged by this competition, but rather be inspired to come up with movies that either provide fresh takes on familiar themes or dare to challenge existing national or local conventions in an entertaining manner.

It is unfair to use the 2016 MMFF, considered by many as the best line-up in the past decade, as proof that Filipinos do not like non-mainstream movies. Changing the film viewing culture takes more than a year to accomplish, especially when those who are benefitting from the current setup will actively resist it.

Of course, popularity should never be automatically associated with high-quality films. Just look at the list of the highest-grossing Filipino movies of all time, and it features films ranging from laughably awful to outright distortions of the truth.

Yet even using the arguments favoring bankable films, the likes of That Thing Called Tadhana, Heneral Luna, and Kita Kita stand as proof that indie movies can have both critical praise and commercial success. They simply need to be given a space to be consistently shown to the public every year during the MMFF, among other platforms with a wide audience reach.

Meanwhile, buried under the same-old faces, formulaic mediocrity, and annual controversies are truly good MMFF entries that deserve more recognition and public support. Off the top of my head from recent years are films like Ang Larawan (2017), Rainbow Sunset (2018), and Kun Maupay Man It Panahon (2021), each featuring recognizable names yet offers something relatively original and entertaining, while also offering some insights into Filipino culture linked to history, gender, or even the climate crisis.

In films, politics, or anywhere else, going for the “same old, same old” for too long is evidently harmful, whether many Filipinos want to accept it or not.

The key to renewing public support for the MMFF is presenting a diversity of choices from which Filipinos can choose. This year’s line-up features an interesting mix of the familiar flicks, famous names in new roles, and a few under-the-radar movies that might end up being sleeper hits. In short, it is still the same as in previous years.

To each their own of course, but for our local film industry to not only thrive but perhaps even enter another Golden Age, the MMFF should refocus its emphasis from the actor to the acting. –

John Leo is a climate and environment advocate who enjoys watching movies. He has habitually watched multiple entries of the Metro Manila Film Festival for more than a decade. He has previously published film reviews under Rappler.

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