Cinema Paradiso

(This article was first published in print in issue 21 of the Philippine Collegian on 17 January 2013.)

Artwork by RD Aliposa

Artwork by RD Aliposa

The beauteous watery landscape of Tawi-Tawi was not enough to keep the movie afloat. Even the hallowed presence of a Superstar did not merit it due consideration. When the scales have been tipped, it is always the highest grossing fare that gets a longer run in the cinemas.

“I was saddened by this unfortunate turnout of events in the festival. I had to speak up through the media and during the awards night not to pull out ‘Thy Womb’ from the theatres and give it a chance to be seen by the movie going public,” said director Brillante Ma Mendoza.

More than an issue of art versus commerce, what remains is the lack of avenues for independent film makers to thrive. As with other art forms, cinema needs its own space, one where it can showcase its virtuosity and foster a passionate audience.

Movies and a Memory

The Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) has dramatically changed since it was first envisioned by Antonio Villegas, then Mayor of Metro Manila, to be an avenue to showcase the finest works of Filipino filmmakers back in the early 70’s. Perhaps, this is no longer the same festival that introduced Filipino viewers to the profundity of Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala,” to the harshness of Lino Brocka’s “Insiang,” or to the depraved ecstasy of Celso Ad Castillo’s “Burlesk Queen.”

Since the early 2000s, when the MMFF has started awarding the best picture trophies to the top-grossing films in competition, it seemed like its whole paradigm shifted—this no longer served as a festival for film makers but a festival for producers.

This still proved to be beneficial for the local film industry, for the heightened sense of competition propelled major studios to produce more palatable films for the public. A decade hence, there has been an onslaught of films with wise-cracking fairies, amulet-bearing macho men, and child-centered fanfare that graced the festival.

Yet, this shift ultimately displaced the independent film makers whose basic intention was to showcase their films. “I just want a fair share of the opportunity to be one of the films that will be allowed to be shown without the fear of being pulled [out] at least within the duration of the festival,” Mendoza adds.

By comparison, national cinemas of other countries try to accommodate both mainstream releases and arthouse films. Not only are dedicated venues for cinema state-sponsored, but also the actual film making itself.

In the Philippines, there remains a sizeable audience for arthouse cinema yet the dedicated venues where they can foster this passion remain limited. Even though film appreciation is slowly gaining ground in the country,  the idea of local cinematheques still seem rather foreign, perhaps as foreign as its French predecessor.

An Old Man and His Projector

“An art form requires genius. People of genius are always troublemakers, meaning they start from scratch, demolish accepted norms and rebuild a new world.” It is from this method of madness that Henri Langlois gave birth to the first cinematheque in France, a testament to the French people’s insatiable love for cinema.

The cinematheque is a cinephile’s paradise. Langlois, being a voracious cinephile himself, knew that a dedicated venue is needed for the perpetuation and higher appreciation of cinema. At once a screening house for classic and contemporary films, the cinematheque also serves as a film repository and a breeding ground for film enthusiasts and aspiring auteurs. The likes of Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and Resnais were once called “children of the cinematheque,” always at the front row of packed screenings at the Cinematheque Francaise.

“The very concept of cinematheques is different from [that of a cineplex]. In order for cinematheques to work, it must be run like a church. It must be a church, where people flock religiously to experience cinema. Cinema needs a church, and that essentially is the cinematheque,” says Lav Diaz, a prolific Filipino film director.

Truly, for the most passionate of film collectors and viewers, cinema is already a religion, one imbued with its own valuable artifacts, sacred rituals, infallible doctrines, and sites of pilgrimage. Perhaps it is every cinephiles dream to traverse the aisles of the Cinematheque Francaise, in the same vein that they might want to possess the entire Criterion Collection for their personal stash.

This higher appreciation for cinema is yet to be cultivated in the country. As it stands, the Philippines is the last country to have its own national film archive.  Through the efforts of the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP), local cinematheques have recently been established in Baguio, Davao, Iloilo, and Marawi. In two years’ time, it will have grown to 16 cinematheques in 16 regions in the Philippines.

By showing a wide range of selections, from classics to contemporary mainstream releases, arthouse to animation, the cinematheque tries to move beyond its elitist stigma to create a venue-centered activity that fosters film viewing as a communal experience. Rather than seeing movie going as a luxury afforded by a select few, it should be seen as a shared experience that helps define and strengthen our culture.

Beyond Nostalgia

More than an object or a commodity, cinema is an event and an experience. The cinematheque reduces cinema to its bare essentials of having a set time and space, projection equipment and, most importantly, an audience. As with churches, cinematheques also desire to be a common fixture in our communities. The lack of dedicated venues for the experience of cinema addresses not a gap in the local film industry, but a gap in culture.

“This system needs visionary leadership, one that fully understands the importance of cinema in our culture. If there is no great love for culture there, then that would be problematic. It would just be a patched-up project,” Diaz adds.

Perhaps it is a leadership as mad as Langlois’, who collected, restored and showcased every kind of film regardless of taste. As he famously stated, “to love cinema is to love life, to really look at this window on the universe.”

At this point of having a global, virtual cinematheque, where films are easily accessible online and through portable digital devices, the relevance of the cinematheque as a dedicated venue stands contested. The potency of the cinematheque to foster communal and cultural awareness in the Philippines is still not fully explored.

The cinematheque, at its core, holds the connection between the past and the future of cinema. The archiving and showcasing of films gone by and films to be are never for its own sake, but for the sake of the imagination. More than collecting traces of the past and textures of the present, the cinematheque can ultimately shape the future of cinema, one rife with artistic potential and revolutionary aspirations.

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