The disqualification of Honor Thy Father from the 2015 Metro Manila Film Fest (MMFF) Best Picture award has once again shown the true state of Philippine cinema, it being a moneymaking venture and not an artistic expression. And every year, movie critics are prowling for top-grossing entries to lambast and low-earning “artistic” films to praise and lament on.
The true spectacle of MMFF goes beyond the colorful floats, gala opening, and awards night. Beyond being the time of the year when Filipino film companies can earn big bucks, the MMFF is a clash between corporate and artistic filmmaking. The former, as critics allege, cash in the masses’ low consciousness and set the agenda, by making films with shallow plots, to reinforce such consciousness. The latter, on the other hand, suffer from low sales because the masses, allegedly, do not appreciate art.
Hence, some critics echo Mao, screaming “cultural revolution” against an institution that has “killed” Philippine cinema with its move on Honor Thy Father. And throughout the years, well-meaning artists desire to create more art to change people’s minds, and in a social scale, change Philippine culture.
But then again, how can artists change culture? By romanticizing poverty? By “agitational propaganda” (agit-prop in activist parlance)? By having mainstream actors like John Lloyd Cruz play lead roles in socially-relevant flicks?
The best attempt to put an artistic film to the mainstream was last September’s Heneral Luna, which earned hundreds of millions in two months. However, Heneral Luna had to employ mainstream elements like Marvel-like cinematography, sitcom-like humor, and elaborate battle scenes to attract a wide audience who would later go out of the cinema and utter Luna’s expletives as fashionable expressions, without fully understanding how to change Philippine society. (Of course, Heneral Luna can do enough, but that’s another discussion)
Going back, how can artists really change culture?
The precondition to answer that question is to recognize that culture is a mere reflection of the economic base of society. In the case of the Philippines, it is backward capitalism that lacks real industry, agricultural/countryside development, economic planning, and political maturity. Ours is a society ruled by elite dynasties that rely heavily on foreign investments and market fluctuations resulting in lack of regular daytime jobs and sources of income. And for as long as society stays that way, can we expect a worker who works on a routinary job for eight hours, travels for four hours round trip, and sleeps for eight hours to think about appreciating art?
Corporations have robbed the Filipino worker much of their time to develop themselves as thinking, feeling human beings. Work (that is, for eight hours a day on meager wages) to provide for one’s family and self is a rule of life under capitalism. The system provides only two breaks each year for the Filipino worker—Lent and Christmas—with the latter being the only festive time. And only during Christmas can a working-class Filipino family to have their leisure time. With their minds and bodies numbed for the entire year because of hard, routinary work, can we expect a Filipino worker to belabor her mind to reflect about her society, by watching a socially-relevant film?
At the end of the day, watching Yaya Dub and Alden fall in love with their wacky expressions, or Vice Ganda and Coco Martin fight criminals can temporarily free a worker’s mind from all the hustles and bustles of work because such films can offer a good laugh. For at least two hours inside the cinema, the worker is free.
This is the kind of backward society that the Filipino artist must confront. A society with a decaying, but strengthening capitalist economy that alienates the working masses from her humanity, and detaches her from society.
To allude a German wise man, the artist can interpret the world in a thousand films. The point, however, is to change it.
Photo by Jet Leyco