The history behind the problems of the Metro Manila Film Festival

Feasting on films can be a tricky business. Setting up a festival of films can play tricks with one’s consciousness. 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 its critics questioning its validity and worth.

Part of the criticisms are not just aimed at the festival itself. A good share of it is directed towards the Philippine film industry. Despite recent developments, the country’s film industry has long been criticized for its commercialism.

In this article, we discuss the background of the MMFF, there is perhaps much to uncover and much to discuss before we can finally see what has happened and what should happen to film festivals in the Philippines.

What is the Metro Manila Film Festival: A Brief History

As we know it today, the MMFF is a yearly showcase of locally produced films. The film festival features a selection of local films from various studios and producers, most of which are from big production companies. Of course, indie films are also present–but not every cinema shows them.

The MMFF that we have now is a vestige of the martial-law era and the powers that ruled those dark years. The position of First Lady, that is usually an ornamentation, then became a pillar of unsalted strength. First, the already messy city of Manila was expanded to cover a massive spread of towns and cities. The Ministry of Human Settlements ruled over the metropolitan commission that oversaw settlers, most of whom were living in inhuman habitation. But the First Lady was also the Minister of Human Settlements, and directly under her was the vast metropolis.

It was a matter of time before the mayors of towns and cities became technically the prosecutor, the jury and the critic. This beast called the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) that was running the city and running it down with traffic systems that were the ultimate oxymoron soon was deciding which films to show and what not to show in the lively and lovely month of December. This piece of history, more than anything, is what probably shaped the MMFF today.

The MMFF Problem: Good vs Bad Films

The Metro Manila Film Festival is one happy occasion that cannot find the real source of its satisfaction. In other words, ever since people started groping for the criteria for what makes a Filipino cinema, the heart of this festival has been snatched from its breast by the witches of misplaced values, ignorance, miseducation and greed of the bad capitalist kind. We have tried to eliminate this malady but to no avail.

Film festivals in the country have a dark past. Politicians, and not movie people, saw the need to exploit the most popular and most populist of art forms. As with any artistic endeavor, it did not take long for the government to see that cinema is a mine waiting to be excavated and sourced. They, perhaps, didn’t realize that it was also a minefield just waiting for the bad feet to hit it before it exploded in the face and bellies of those who didn’t recognize the multi headed beast that is called filmmaking, in its neutral sense, and show business, in its most extractive form.

Politics is dirty because of the politicians. This is common, local knowledge. Think of 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 even more exemplified by the MMFF. Unlike other festivals, the MMFF has a history of prioritizing films that are more likely to garner commercial success. This move has been heavily criticized in the past, with many film enthusiasts saying that the MMFF is more like a farce than a movie festival.

There is nothing wrong with an event that focuses on financial success; films, in fact, should have audiences who would contribute to the coffers of the producers so that more films could be made. The current MMFF has developed a notoriety of preselecting films that are expected to bring in lots of moolah. There is a strong anti critical perspective that seems to be dominant with the MMDA stance. A case in point was the film Thy Womb (2012), which experienced losing theaters to “more successful” film entries.

This is where the Metro Manila Film Festival problem lies: the movie selection. Philippine cinema continues to grow and with it are the pool of producers, writers, directors, and artists. Yet every year we see the standard lineup of “box-office” names fill the cinemas. More disappointingly, these names rarely bring something new–much less intellectual–to the table.

Is the MMFF even any good?

There have been proposals from politicians again to hold a separate festival for independent cinema, which is their label for films that make sense. From there, have the annual December festival be devoted to these so-called blockbuster films, the same kind of films which studios have generated for the public for many long years, fattening the wallets of producers in the process.

This brings us to two questions:

The first one is if it’s fair and the second one is if it’s an acknowledgement that the MMFF is no good.

To answer the first one, many film enthusiasts would say that it’s unfair. In a capitalist world, there’s no need to celebrate capital. The capital celebrates itself. This is exactly the point of a festival not being devoted to the mighty armies of cinematic products that earn money in thunder, lightning or rain. These enterprises have enough money to support the illusion that feeds fandoms. The same capitalist funds have created actors and actresses whose values are seductively intertextual; they are appreciated not because of what they do in film but for what they do outside the frame. The gossip and the ads have already lured the audience into knowing them and knowing them further in whatever form in a film is a formula.

Many indie films will have a considerably lower budget than mainstream films. This puts them at a disadvantage altogether, whatever film festival they go to. While the MMFF has the benefit of publicity and anticipation, lesser known film festivals don’t.

The second question is even trickier to answer. The merits of Philippine cinema in itself is being questioned–and no matter how we answer this, it is bound to raise eyebrows. However, the Metro Manila Film Festival’s problem extends beyond just the qualities of the film they show.

The problem presently is that there aren’t any clarification of programs and goals involved in the MMFF. Unless terms are explicitly articulated and cleared, the same problem will occur. This is the crisis of having a film festival or gathering where a government isn’t honest enough to face up to the power of the producers, who will always find the chance to earn more profit; and where there aren’t enough artists interested to share their vision, their new ways of seeing, which are wealth in themselves.

The problem with our film community is that capital has remained monetary. It’s about time to consider the other forms of capital—the social, cultural and political capital. These are things that make a nation rich in another way, in ways that don’t make out of our children a mindless mob who will grow to become citizens favoring films that can give quick gratification but are as vapid as a stint before a pachinko or pinball machine.

For this film festival to become a true representation of Philippine cinema, it is a necessity for the MMFF to expand its selection. Metro Manila alone has a large pool of talented directors and artists. Some are even recognized internationally! If the MMFF truly wants to move forward and become culturally relevant, it must make ways to become a true film festival and not a way to simply cash in more money.

Making the MMFF Relevant

The MMFF has a history of problems that sprung from decades of corruption–but this doesn’t mean that it cannot be a good avenue for cultural change and revolution in the film industry.

Changing the Filipino taste isn’t the goal. Rather, it is expanding the selection of movies that suit the audience. We have plenty of talent to showcase. Perhaps, it is time for them to shine, rather than the memories of old. Only then can the MMFF be truly free from its dark past.


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