Thursday, May 19, 2005

Philippine films at Cannes

Four films from the Philippines are showing at Cannes in the non-competition "Cinemas of the World" category.

Agence France-Presse has an authoritative article covering the current state of the beleaguered Philippine film industry:

In the three decades after World War II, Philippine cinema revelled in its glory years as one of the world's largest movie industries, packing out cathedral-sized cinemas and creating the country's biggest and most idolised stars.
By its heyday in the 1970s, the local industry regularly was churning out 200 feature films a year, mostly gangster and romance flicks in Tagalog language for domestic movie-goers in the world's 12th most populous state.

But a brutal tax regime, creeping mediocrity and later piracy drove the industry into the ground the following decade and, despite a short-lived upswing in the late 90s, it remains in a poor state.

Laurice Guillen, head of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, said realised how far the local film industry had fallen behind as she wandered around the huge global film bazaar at the Cannes festival last year.

There was not a single booth for Filipino films.

"We felt so sad," she says. "It's the biggest film festival and market in the world. If you don't have a film there they forget about you."

One of the most heavily-taxed industries in the world, Philippines film production shrank to 53 last year, down from an average of 82 films yearly between 2000 and 2003 and 164 films annually between 1996 and 1999, according to Espiridion Laxa, head of the Film Academy of the Philippines.

Hollywood films are now more prominently featured at huge movie houses in Manila and other cities.

Guillen says high taxes, piracy, cable television, and low-quality films drove many of the moviegoers away, while fading movie stars are taking their acts elsewhere by running for public office, giving the word "entertainment" a whole new dimension in the Philippines.

"There are fewer people with jobs now because there are fewer films being made," says Guillen. "They say that first, they do films. And then when their films don't do so well anymore they go into television. And then when their TV stints end they go into politics," she chuckles.

At its nadir in the 1980s, soft-porn films that were shot in seven days were practically the only productions making money.

"The local film industry is dying and will make way for something new," says independent Filipino director and film distributor Tony Gloria of Unitel Pictures. "I think we just lost the audience because our films were not evolving. People got sick of the 'hero, shoot 'em up, bang bang,' and the 'hero gets the girl'-type films. And the low budget, star-led, B-grade sexy movies."

Yet amid the gloom, the industry has high hopes this year could see a turnaround. Four of its better-quality releases of the past four years, along with two short films, are to be screened at Cannes.

Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Bagong Buwan (Crescent Moon), Dekada '70 (Seventies) by Chito Rono, Olivia Lamasan's Milan and actor-filmmaker Cesar Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba (Cry of the River) were among four films from seven countries invited at the inaugural Tous les Cinemas du Monde (Cinemas of the World) screenings.

The films provide a socio-political tableau of the impoverished former US colony, which exports millions of citizens abroad to earn hard currency as its government grapples with social unrest and bloody communist and Muslim separatist rebellions.

Guillen says Cinemas du Monde official Serge Sobczynski told her he was "very impressed by the originality and the quality of the films".

These films present "something specific to the Philippine setting, something that they (Cannes organisers) are not accustomed to seeing," French embassy cultural attache Martin Makalintal says.

The plight of Filipino maids in Italy is the subject of the drama Milan, while Bagong Buwan has the rebellion-wracked Muslim regions of the southern Philippines as its backdrop.

For Robbie Tan of Star Cinema, which produced three of the Filipino entries, Cannes offers the mouth-watering prospect of a global market. "We will not only be depending on the Filipino market anymore," he says.

"The only way we can sustain the industry is if we market outside," Guillen agrees.
If filmmakers depend on the local market alone, turning a profit would require two-week box receipts that are more than three times the capital outlay, she says, because the producer, moviehouses, and the government split the proceeds equally.

Under these conditions, few businessmen are willing to risk the 10-30 million pesos (about US$180,000-550,000) capital to produce a film, while of those that are made even fewer make money.

"We are paying the highest taxes in the world," says Film Academy chief Laxa, who estimates the total levy to be at least 50 per cent of gross receipts. On top of a 30 per cent amusement tax, there is a 10 per cent value-added tax on film companies plus a 10 per cent tax slapped on the moviehouses.

By contrast, Hollywood only has to deal with corporate income taxes, he says. "Our counterparts from other countries tell us we are geniuses because we're still alive," he added.

The film sector saw a false dawn when one of its own, Joseph Estrada, became the first movie star to be elected president in 1998. The hard-drinking action star's short rule brought more entertainment than what the people bargained for, at least in the political arena, and he was toppled in a military-backed popular revolt in 2001.

The hated amusement tax stayed and Estrada remains under house arrest while standing trial for corruption.

Even then, a second actor and Estrada's friend, Fernando Poe Junior, came within a million votes of unseating President Gloria Arroyo in last year's polls. Poe died of heart attack in December.

Industry players note that the local television industry, which is not subject to amusement tax and where stations earn money through advertising revenues, is not doing as badly.

"TV has had an impact on the local film industry. Some of the TV stories are even better than film," Gloria says.

"People just migrate to television because it's free, and our telenovelas (soap operas) are doing well regionally in Malaysia and Indonesia," Guillen adds.
The late Lino Brocka, widely considered to be the greatest Filipino film director, broke ground at Cannes with the showing of Insiang in 1976. Four of his other films were shown over the next 13 years, some in competition.

Mike de Leon's Batch '81 and Kisapmata (Blink) followed in 1982, but there was to be a long drought before Filipino director Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman at the Breakwater) was given an out-of-competition screening at Cannes last year.

And here's more from the director of Crescent Film, who talked to Cecil Morella of Agence France-Presse:
"When a Filipino goes to the movies," Philippine film director Marilou Diaz Abaya says, "he wants to be healed."

Abaya, director of Bagong Buwan (Crescent Moon) will learn Friday if this notion is universal as she makes her debut at the Cannes Film Festival in the non-competition showcase, Tous les Cinemas du Monde (Cinemas of the World).

It is a politically tinged drama set in Mindanao, a lush, tropical southeast Asian island mired in decades of Muslim separatist rebellion.

"Cinema is only one of the many, many tools in the vocabulary of peace," Abaya, 49, said. "I think filmmakers ought to use it more for peace, which is a challenge to obtain not only in Mindanao but even in our own home. I prefer it to a military instrument for political change."

When Bagong Buwan was being shot in 2001, the New York's World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists. The polemical filmmaker Michael Moore would later use the fallout of the attack to make Fahrenheit 9/11, which won the Golden Palm award for best picture at Cannes last year.

"As you know France is vigorously against any kind of aggression in response to 9/11," Abaya says. "They were hospitable to host films not only from Iran but also other Muslim nations, but I don't know that they will look at [Bagong Buwan] as a political film."

"They don't have the Philippines really in the equation of terrorism," she says. "I think they are going to be surprised that there are Muslims in the Philippines."

With nearly two dozen films to her name the multi-award-winning Abaya, one of an emerging breed of Filipino directors who has had formal training, is a local rarity because of her knack for making films with daring subject matters that also reap box office success.

Her filmography tackles violence against women, incest, gender issues, environmental damage and child labor, among others.

A 1998 release, the historical drama Jose Rizal broke new ground as the most expensive Filipino film ever and introduced the tragic Philippine national hero, executed by firing squad by Spain a century earlier, to a new generation.

"You can make [the Filipino filmgoer] laugh, you can make him cry, but I think that for 90-110 pesos (US$1.66-2, the price of a movie ticket) he'd like to feel a little better about himself. He'd like to feel a little bit more hopeful."

Abaya has said Bagong Buwan was inspired by what she saw in the camps for tens of thousands of displaced civilians amid a bloody military campaign launched by the government against the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front guerrilla group in Mindanao in 2000.

"I actually saw people die the way the are shown in the movie. The people died like flies," she said in one press interview.

After graduating from the Roman Catholic Church-run Assumption College in Manila, Abaya honed her craft at the Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where she obtained a masters degree in film and television.

From the United States she pursued her post-graduate studies at the London International Film School.

Her career flourished amidst a general decline of the Filipino film industry, once one of the largest in the world outside of Hollywood and India's Bollywood.

"I'm not surprised that we've been producing fewer films, but we're also producing better films," she insists.

Of the 53 films produced in the Philippines last year, "I'm willing to stake my reputation that more than half have raised the level, on both creative and technical merits, [to one] which happens to coincide with what the international market demands or expects from an imported film," she says.

"You can't expand without raising the quality. You raise the quality, you automatically expand. We are now at the very least a regional product. We're a very good regional product."

Abaya urges Filipino producers to "put their money where their mouth is" and "take risks" by investing in films designed for the foreign markets.

Seven countries have been invited to participate at Cannes' Cinemas of the World section. The others are Peru, Mexico, Austria, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Morocco.

(Image via AFP: Cesar Montano during the filming of Panaghoy sa Suba (Cry of the River); cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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