The Metro Manila Film Festival is one of those annual exercises where the public can be guaranteed some displays 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 (warning, in fact) ourselves that 2016 has been a year of incivility, the exchanges even reached the level of name-calling on the social network. 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 (as we did during the election). On the one hand, the producers complain that this year’s batch of entries has no family-friendly fare, by which they presumably mean genre films, especially children’s movies. On the other hand, the indie-supportive group (including the selection committee) 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 pre-festival exhibition, which in effect mimicked the previous 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 life-or-death struggle, art (like ideals) won’t stand a chance. In fact, for a too-long spell about a decade ago, “commercial appeal” was introduced as a major criterion for selecting the best-film winners. You can bet that if all the other non-commercial standards could be safely eliminated, the MMFF’s administrators would have done so yesterday.
One would have to peer far into the mists of history to see that this all-or-nothing perspective was not always the case. In fact, nearly four decades ago, the MMFF (then only on its third year) featured works 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 critique of family values, a coming-of-age narrative, a cautionary tale on addiction, a crime-of-passion saga. Yet these films had the era’s top stars, sufficient doses of sex and violence, feel-good moments still remembered fondly by those who’d 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 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 MMFF editions 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 next-to-impossible to recapture; non-MMFF crossover cases like Aureus 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, I would suggest that we look at the political economy of the festival itself. The MMFF is 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. (To give credit where it’s due, the Marcos administration valiantly resisted pressure from the Motion Picture Association of America to dispense with this arrangement.) Thus Philippine releases experience a schizophrenic situation, from zero protection during the rest of the year to full protection during the festival’s ten-day run. If we think in terms of producers, not only in maximizing personal profits, but also in sustaining companies where entire families depend on the regularity of assignments, then the impulse to take hold of this opportunity becomes more rationalizable.
But once more, we have to ask: why settle for such a polarized system? A year-round screen quota like that of Korea, where theaters are required to exhibit local films at a 20-percent rate (or 73 out of 365 days), is acknowledged by observers as the primary reason why Korean movies continue to feature the very same property that we once enjoyed, where films with serious themes and messages still had the objective and the potential to connect with broad sectors of the mass audience. Local Korean products compete with foreign imports all the time, but since they’re guaranteed a long-enough run to make their mark, they seek to outdo the (mainly Hollywood-sourced) foreign films in terms of purveying sense and pleasure, and take advantage of the filmmakers’ homegrown orientation. The filmmakers as well make an effort to figure out the audience’s concerns and anxieties, instead of dismissing local screenings in favor of Western (especially European) film festivals.
This then may be an area where both producers and artists in the Philippines can see common ground: a revival of film-protectionist efforts. Yes, a revival: believe it or not, right after the aforementioned 1977 MMFF, a bill was introduced during the Marcos-era legislature by Assemblyperson Gualberto Lumauig (now a retired professor). It proposed, among other things, a modest screen-quota system, but was predictably shot down by the intervention of the MPAA’s Jack Valenti. It might even be worth giving up the 100-percent Pinoy-film quota of the MMFF, if this dynamic of oscillating between not-for-profit indie filmfests and the for-profit-only MMFF can be moderated (once more) into the year-round pursuit of audience-accessible prestige projects.
 These descriptors refer respectively to the following 1977 entries: Joey Gosiengfiao’s Babae… Ngayon at Kailanman, Augusto Buenaventura’s Bakya Mo Neneng, Eddie Romero’s Banta ng Kahapon, Mario O’Hara & Romy Suzara’s Mga Bilanggong Birhen, Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen, Lino Brocka’s Inay, Mike de Leon’s Kung Mangarap Ka’t Magising, Gil Portes’s Sa Piling ng mga Sugapa, and Ishmael Bernal’s Walang Katapusang Tag-araw.
 See Nestor U. Torre Jr.’s “Lumauig Bill: Pro and Con,” in The Urian Anthology 1970-1979, ed. Nicanor G. Tiongson (Manila: Morato, 1983): 86-93.
[First published December 22, 2016, as “MMFF: A Festival in Flux” in Philippine Daily Inquirer]