This was originally published in the December 2015 / January 2016 issue of Esquire Philippines.
It’s probably best to get this out of the way: there is nothing particularly sinister going on in the selection of films for the Metro Manila Film Festival. There are probably some potential conflicts of interests here, given the relationships between some of producers and the committee members, but any accusations of graft or patronage are ultimately barking up the wrong tree. The problems of this process are much more basic.
No, the process is too absurd to be sinister. There’s no room for corruption when nothing actually matters.
There isn’t really much to the selection process. The committee meets a grand total of two times. The first meeting is solely for the purpose of explaining the rules of the selection, which are hardly followed. We are told that while there are rules, we can’t too rigid about them. In the end, what matters is that the right films get in. The second meeting happens after all the scripts have been read. In theory, this is a deliberation session, with the committee discussing the merits of each script in detail, hoping to ascertain what film is worthy of the coveted position as one of the eight films exclusively shown in our cinemas during Christmas time.
In practice, it’s about an hour’s total of talking about nothing. It’s an exercise in empty rhetoric. The committee hardly seems to care about what’s actually inside these screenplays. Hardly any of the scripts are discussed. The largest chunk of the discussion is devoted to classifying each of the films under a specific genre. This is meant to ensure that the committee doesn’t select too many similar films. A good long time is spent arguing whether a certain film is a horror/comedy or a comedy/horror. The debate over that distinction goes on for quite a while.
But this doesn’t really matter, either. If the committee really wants a movie in the lineup, then it’ll be in the lineup. The committee will go through all sorts of semantic gymnastics to argue that one romantic comedy is actually more of a comedy while the other romcom is more of a romance.
Because all that matters is what the committee believes will draw. It probably should be mentioned that the interest most represented in this committee is that of the theater owners. Their representatives seem to dominate the discussion. And this is reasonable to some extent. The theaters are burdened with a lot of the risk that comes with the MMFF. If they are to give up screening Hollywood's big holiday releases, then it follows that they should have some say in what gets screened. They stand to lose a lot of money if no one comes out to see these locally made productions.
They will happily cop to how the MMFF is a commercial exercise, and how their goal is to raise revenues year after year. And this selection process really is all for show. The theaters are part of corporations, and corporate thinking tends to favor known quantities. It doesn't matter what's in the script. All that matters are the names attached to those scripts. Vice Ganda, Kris Aquino, and Vic Sotto are automatically accepted, regardless of how good or bad the scripts are. Some of the committee might opine, even, that the Kris Aquino script is really terrible. But it has to go in, because Kris Aquino is a known quantity.
And so there is no real incentive to submitting a quality script to the MMFF. In fact, most of these screenplays feel like placeholders. They are first drafts at best, and just loosely assembled garbage at worst. And this committee doesn't really care. In the first meeting, it is explicitly said that the potential profitability of a film trumps the quality of the script. We are told that even if we get a script that isn't technically completed, it is okay to let it through if it's got the right stars.
Where this should actually get more interesting is in the selection of the bottom four films. Since these films aren't expected to do as well as the others, then the pressure should be off to find the most "profitable" picture.
But the discussion here is equally as pointless. At one point in the process, the committee is made to decide between two historical pictures. It is actually in the rules that the committee should try to find films of cultural value, and this has been interpreted as a basic quota for historical period films. There has to be just one.
On one side, Lakambini, a film about Gregoria de Jesus by Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil and Jeffrey Jeturian. On the opposite corner, Hermano Pule, a film about Apolinario de la Cruz by Gil Portes. Lakambini is by far the better script, and I fought for its inclusion. I was told that Lakambini is just a small film, and that Hermano Pule, with its battles, is the film more deserving of inclusion.
I argued that the largeness of the production is a point against Hermano Pule. Since these films aren't expected to make any money, it would be better for the festival to pick a film that has a lot less to lose. And then it was pointed out that Gil Portes has a history of not completing films, which was inexplicably put forward as an argument for Hermano Pule and not against it. It was suggested that Lakambini, since it was already in production and likely to be completed, should be placed as a backup in case Portes repeated history.
Baffled, I argued that we should probably just pick the film that’s going to be completed. Rather than discuss this further, the matter was put to a vote. I was the only one who voted for Lakambini. As predicted, Gil Portes did not complete Hermano Pule. Lakambini did not replace it, because they weren’t able to complete the film, either. Lakambini might have gotten the money they needed to finish production if it was included in the lineup. But it wasn’t, so it didn’t. So after all that hullabaloo, there isn’t a historical period film in the lineup. Given how the theaters have treated historical period films in the MMFF, this might have been the plan all along.
Because right now, there is no incentive for anyone to put in their best effort in submitting a film to the MMFF.
After about an hour into the second meeting, the committee has a full lineup of eight films. It is then that the process gets truly absurd. The rules of the selection outline a procedure for voting. We are to score each of the submitted scripts individually, broken down into several criteria. An accounting firm is even hired to tabulate the scores, maintaining the legitimacy of the process. But of course, this is all nonsense. The committee has already decided what the films are supposed to be, and are just told to score accordingly. I ask what would happen if the scores didn’t reflect the list that was already written, and I’m told it would be unlikely, unless someone on the committee was trying to sabotage the process.
This is the reality of the MMFF. It isn’t that people are trying to put together a bad festival. It isn’t that we are trying to pick bad films. It’s just that the only thing this committee as a whole cares about is repeating past success. There is a lot of talk about how much money this festival makes, how the revenue targets are growing every year. There is not much talk about which of the scripts are actually good. There is no arguing for quality, or against a script with a star attached, no matter how dismal it is. Selection is a matter of numbers. The committee’s got it down to an absurd science.
The MMFF could be a good thing. It could be a place to showcase the best of Filipino cinema. It could launch careers and foster a healthier, more competitive film industry in this country. It could be the place to raise the discourse of Filipino cinema. But that would require thinking in the long term. That would require letting go of the numbers for a little while, and trusting that Filipino audiences will gravitate towards quality in the end. Because right now, there is no incentive for anyone to put in their best effort in submitting a film to the MMFF. Without the right names attached, there’s a good chance it won’t even factor into the discussion.
I died a little in that room. I had no illusions coming in of being able to change anything, but I still emerged disappointed. To be in that room is to stare into the void, to understand that nothing means anything, and that all action and passion are ultimately useless. We are up against an entrenched absurdity. There is no fixing it. To save the MMFF, we must destroy it. We have to start over.