Philippine Daily Inquirer
MMFF: A festival in flux
The Metro Manila Film Festival ( MMFF) is one of those annual exercises where the public can be guaranteed of controversy. The 2016 edition is distinctive, in that the controversy has started this early, before the event itself has commenced.
As a way of reminding ourselves that 2016 has been a year of incivility, the exchanges even reached the level of name-calling in social media. Moreover, reminiscent of this year’s presidential election, the sector that felt marginalized in the past is the one now raising a hue and cry.
This kind of controversy has an immediate benefit, in the sense that the public’s attention has been focused on the issue of worthiness. But since mostly extreme sides of the issue are being articulated, we wind up with polarized perspectives once more.
On the one hand, producers complain that this year’s batch of entries has no family-friend- ly fare, by which they presumably mean genre films, especially children’s movies. On the other hand, the indie-supportive group asserts that the festival had abandoned the pursuit of quality for too long, so this year would be as good as any to provide an opportunity for “serious” cinema to have a fighting chance in mainstream venues.
It did not take long for what we may call the commerce side (as opposed to the arts side) to strategize in favor of their own releases, which were excluded from the 2016 MMFF lineup.
First was their announcement of a prefestival exhibition, which in effect mimicked previ- ous MMFF editions: sequels of the usual franchises (“Enteng Kabisote” and “Mano Po,” though no “Shake, Rattle and Roll”), a horror film, a melodrama and the latest bromantic outing of the reliable Vice-Coco tandem.
Another blow came in the form of exempting non-Metro Manila theaters from exhibiting only 2016 MMFF entries during the festival period.
The lesson here is that when art and business, like ideals and politics, are forced into a lifeor-death struggle, art won’t stand a chance. In fact, for too long a spell about a decade ago, “commercial appeal” was introduced as a major criterion for selecting the best film winners.
This all-or-nothing perspective wasn’t always the case. In fact, nearly four decades ago, the MMFF ( then only on its third year) featured films that were regarded as entirely prestige projects: a literary anthology, a social-problem film, a contemplation on the consequences of violence, a period political drama, a critique of performing arts, another cri- tique of family values, a coming-of-age narrative, a cautionary tale on addiction, a crimeof-passion saga.
Yet, those films had the era’s top stars, sufficient doses of sex and violence, feel-good moments still remembered fondly by those who had watched the screenings, plus at least one stone classic and definitive performance in the same entry, Vilma Santos in Celso Ad. Castillo’s “Burlesk Queen” (1977).
That the MMFF also happened to be the first controversial one, but the firestorm had more to do with the awards process than with the selection of entries. The best film winner also became the top-grosser, a trend that has persisted in more cases than we care to remember, since most of the more recent editions of the fest made a spectacle out of outdoing each previous year’s box-office performance.
In a sense, we can lament that that period, where commerce and prestige could coexist in the same project, may be nextto-impossible to recapture; nonMMFF crossover cases like Au- raeus Solito’s “Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros” (2005) or Jerrold Tarog’s “Heneral Luna” (2015) would actually be so rare (in relation to the substantial number of indie releases per year) that these would be exceptions that prove the rule.
Before we conclude that there is absolutely nothing to be said for producers, we should look at the political economy of the festival itself.
The MMFFis the only period in the Philippine calendar when local productions are guaranteed protection from foreign competition—and this protection is the highest possible, 100 percent. Thus Philippine releases experience a schizophrenic situation, from zero protection during the rest of the year to full protection during the festival’s 10-day run. INQ
(The author was the Gawad Lingap Sining winner of the 2016 Filipino Arts & Cinema International Festival in San Francisco. A professor at Inha University in Korea, he was founding director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute.)