Feasting on movies can be tricky business. Setting up a film festival can play tricks on your conscience. This is especially true for annual festivals, like the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) which has a lofty history. The MMFF, however, has its fair share of critics who question its validity and value.
Some of the criticism is not just aimed at the festival itself. Much of it is destined for the Philippine film industry. Despite recent developments, the country’s film industry has long been criticized for commercialism.
In this article we discuss the background of the MMFF, there may be a lot to discover and a lot to discuss before we can finally see what has happened and what should happen to film festivals in the Philippines.
What is Metro Manila Film Festival: A Brief History
As we know it today, the MMFF is an annual showcase of locally produced films. The film festival showcases a selection of local films from various studios and producers, most of which are from major production companies. Of course, independent films are also present, but not all cinemas show them.
The MMFF we have now is a holdover from the era of martial law and the powers that have ruled those dark years. The position of First Lady, which is usually an adornment, then became a pillar of strength without salt. First, the already messy city of Manila was expanded to cover a vast expanse of towns and cities. The Ministry of Human Settlements ran the metropolitan commission that oversaw the settlers, most of whom lived in inhumane housing. But the First Lady was also Minister of Human Settlements, and directly below her was the vast metropolis.
It was only a matter of time before city mayors technically became the prosecutor, jury, and mouthpiece. This beast called the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) that ran the city and roamed it with traffic systems that were the ultimate oxymoron was soon deciding what movies to show and what not to show during the bustling and charming month of December. This piece of history, more than anything, is what has probably shaped the MMFF today.
The MMFF Problem: Good Movies and Bad Movies
The Metro Manila Film Festival is a happy occasion that does not find the true source of its satisfaction. In other words, ever since people started groping for the criteria of what makes a Filipino cinema, the heart of this festival has been torn from its bosom by the witches of misplaced values, ignorance, bad education and the greed of bad capitalism. We tried to eliminate this disease, but in vain.
Film festivals in the country have a dark past. Politicians, not moviegoers, saw the need to harness the most popular and populist art forms. As with any artistic endeavor, it didn’t take long for the government to see that cinema is a mine waiting to be dug and sourced. They may not have realized that it was also a minefield just waiting for the wrong feet to kick it before it exploded in the face and stomach of those who didn’t recognize the beast by several heads that we call cinema, in its neutral sense, and show business, in its most extractive form.
Politics is dirty because of politicians. It is common and local knowledge. Think of the actors and actresses entering politics. Imagine politicians entering show business and you have the dismal situation we have now – a film festival that celebrates economic success at the expense of artistic integrity.
This is further illustrated by the MMFF. Unlike other festivals, the MMFF has a tradition of prioritizing films most likely to achieve commercial success. The move has been heavily criticized in the past, with many moviegoers saying the MMFF felt more like a farce than a film festival.
There’s nothing wrong with hosting an event focused on financial success; movies, in fact, should have an audience contributing to producers’ coffers so that more movies can be made. The current MMFF has developed a notoriety of pre-screening movies that should bring in a lot of moolah. There is a strong anti-critical perspective that seems to be dominant with the MMDA position. An example of this is the film Thy Womb (2012), which lost theaters to “more successful” film admissions.
Therein lies the problem of the Metro Manila Film Festival: the selection of films. Filipino cinema continues to grow and with it the pool of producers, writers, directors and artists. Yet every year we see the standard lineup of “box office” names fill cinemas. More disappointingly, these names rarely bring anything new – much less intellectual – to the table.
Is MMFF even good?
Politicians have again proposed to organize a separate festival for independent cinema, which is their label for films that make sense. From there, the annual festival in December will be devoted to these so-called hit films, the same kind of films that studios have generated for the public for many years, fattening the wallets of producers in the process.
This brings us to two questions:
The first is if it is right and the second is if it is an acknowledgment that the MMFF is not good.
To answer the first, many moviegoers would say that’s unfair. In a capitalist world, there is no need to celebrate capital. The capital is celebrated. That’s exactly the point of a festival that isn’t about mighty armies of cinematic goods making money in thunder, lightning or rain. These companies have enough money to sustain the illusion that fuels fandoms. The same capitalist funds have created actors and actresses whose values are seductive and intertextual; they are appreciated not for what they do in the film but for what they do outside the frame. Gossip and advertisements have already brought the public to know them and to know them more in any form in a movie is a formula.
Many independent films will have considerably lower budgets than mainstream films. This puts them at a complete disadvantage, no matter what film festival they attend. While the MMFF has the advantage of publicity and anticipation, lesser-known film festivals don’t.
The second question is even trickier to answer. The merits of Filipino cinema per se are being questioned – and whatever our answer is, it’s sure to raise some eyebrows. However, the Metro Manila Film Festival’s problem goes beyond just the qualities of the film it presents.
The problem currently is that there is no clarification of the programs and objectives involved in the MMFF. Unless the terms are explicitly articulated and clarified, the same problem will arise. It is the crisis of having a film festival or gathering where a government is not honest enough to deal with the power of the producers, who will always find the chance to earn more profit; and where there are not enough interested artists to share their vision, their new ways of seeing, which are a richness in themselves.
The problem with our film community is that the capital has remained monetary. It is time to consider other forms of capital, social, cultural and political capital. These are things that make a nation wealthy in another way, in a way that doesn’t make our children a stupid mob that will become citizens favoring movies that can give quick gratification but are as tasteless as a passage in front of a pachinko or pinball machine.
For this film festival to become a true representation of Filipino cinema, it is necessary for the MMFF to expand its selection. Metro Manila alone has a large pool of talented directors and artists. Some are even internationally recognized! If the MMFF really wants to move forward and become culturally relevant, it needs to find ways to become a real film festival and not a way to just make more money.
Make the MMFF relevant
The MMFF has a history of problems that have arisen from decades of corruption, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a good avenue for cultural change and revolution in the film industry. Changing the Filipino taste is not the goal. On the contrary, it widens the selection of films that are suitable for the public. We have a lot of talent to showcase. Maybe it’s time for them to shine, rather than the memories of yesteryear. Only then can the MMFF be truly free from its dark past.