Monday, August 27, 2007

Control (2007)

Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)

A continuous stream of black smoke, rising from the chimney of a crematorium only to settle peacefully into a clear British sky, ends Control, concert photographer Anton Corbijn’s first foray into film directing. Ian Curtis, lead singer of Brit rock band Joy Division, killed himself at the age of 23 after insufferable bouts of epilepsy and other inhibiting personal problems. That final image is a fitting ending to a film about a weary soul trapped within the meager boundaries of an imperfect body.

What differentiates Control from other biopics of popular musicians such as Taylor Hackford’s Ray and James Mangold’s Walk the Line is that it’s more a portrait of an artist than that of a cultural icon or object of mass adulation. The dilemmas Ian faces in his life are far removed from those typical of a rock star’s life of drugs, lies and sex. From the start, Ian is already portrayed as a different creature, fleeing the boredom of the typical family banter in the living room or the mundane chemistry lessons in the classroom, instead preferring the seclusion of his bedroom, his collection of music, and folders of poems and lyrics, to the normal grind of the workaday world...

Click here to read the full review.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Censoring the Censors: Challenging the Powers of the MTRCB

from Khavn's Toxic Mango

Censoring the Censors: Challenging the Powers of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board
by Francis Joseph Cruz

“There is no reason to accept the doctrines crafted to sustain power and privilege, or to believe that we are constrained by mysterious and unknown social laws. These are simply decisions made within institutions that are subject to human will and that must face the test of legitimacy. And if they do not meet the test, they can be replaced by other institutions that are more free and more just, as has happened often in the past.”
- Noam Chomsky

“Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.”
- A. Whitney Griswold

Television and cinema represent a mode of escapism for the Philippine nation. The darkened theaters where matinee idols and action heroes are projected to a dirty white curtain become melting pots for Filipinos of different social class, educational attainment, gender, and religion. The soap operas, news programs, and other shows turn into mechanisms that keep Filipino families together with their eager eyes glued on their television sets. It has been rumored that merely three days after the monumental martyrdom of National Hero Jose P. Rizal, Filipinos were rushing to discover the newly arrived cinematograph. The urban legend further enunciates the Filipinos infatuation with the visual medium.

A decade after the tragic execution of the nationalistic martyr, Filipinos are still enamored by the illusionary delights of the motion picture. With the advent of television, even the working class and the have-nots have taken a piece of the new free entertainment. However, such entertainment has been placed with safeguards to assure that such is not abused.

Since the creation of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) through Presidential Decree No. 1986 in 1985, the attitude towards governmental regulation of motion pictures and television has been changing with reference to the passing of different presidential administrations and board leaderships.

In 1994, the MTRCB under the leadership of Henrietta Mendez ordered three cuts on Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List[1] before allowing the exhibition of the film in the Philippines. The scenes that were supposed to be cut included what were described as “breast exposures” and “pumping scenes.”[2]

In 2000, MTRCB chief Nicanor Tiongson approved Jose Javier Reyes’ realist melodrama Live Show[3] to be shown in Philippine cinemas, church groups were outraged claiming that Reyes’ film was pornographic and gratuitous. Due to pressure, Tiongson resigned and was replaced by a less liberal censors chief Alejandro Roces, who subsequently gave the film an X-rating. The censorship controversy hounded the newly established administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.[4]

Several other controversial MTRCB decisions have been made under the leadership of Marissa Laguardia. These include the stamping of the X-rating to a documentary about the life of former president Joseph Estrada[5], a short film about the Guimaras oil spill entitled Toxic Mango by independent filmmaker Khavn dela Cruz[6], and a television public affairs program episode about an indigenous tradition of giant wooden phalluses[7] and the burgeoning Rastafarian culture among Filipino youths[8].

With the board’s seemingly dubious methods in reviewing television programs and films, there arises an issue of legitimacy to its broad powers. This paper seeks to address the Constitutional issues that haunt the existence of the MTRCB by following the history of film and television censorship, and how such has applied in the Philippine setting.

I. History of Film and Television Censorship

The birth of censorship probably coincided with the birth of civilization and government. Governments and religions have suppressed ideas that can be considered threatening or blasphemous. As human civilization progressed and social norms and proper decorum have been institutionalized within the communal unit, suppression has expanded to expressions and ideas relating to sex, violence, and other elements that might threaten social order.

The standard for censorship in the modern democratic world is that of the United States of America. According to Marjorie Heins, there are three landmark cases that are the turning points in America’s history of cultural censorship[9], United States vs. One Book Entitle “Ulysses,”[10] Burstyn vs. Wilson[11], and Adler vs. Board of Education[12]. Adler discusses freedom from censorship in educational institutions and academic pursuits, and does not concern visual media. For the purposes of this paper, the American cases of Ulysses and Burstyn shall be discussed in detail, and will be capped by a discussion of the landmark case of Freedman vs Maryland[13].

A. United States vs One Book Entitled “Ulysses” (1933)

In 1892, the English courts in the case of Regina vs Hicklin[14] defined criminally punishable obscenity. According to Regina vs. Hicklin, “the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall.”[15] American courts later on adopted the doctrine. Trial and appellate courts would rule on obscenity cases based on the Hicklin doctrine.[16]
Several opposed the Hicklin doctrine. Judge Learned Hand, in the case of United States vs. Kennerley[17], wrote that American literary writers, readers, and publishers should not "reduce our treatment of sex to the standards of a child's library in the supposed interest of a salacious few."[18]

In the 1920’s in the United States, a burgeoning of new literary methods caused uproar with the moralists of the community. When a literary magazine published an excerpt from James Joyce’s novel entitled “Ulysses” wherein the novel’s hero was described pleasuring himself, it forced the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to initiate to prosecute under the state’s obscenity laws. The court ruled upon the literary magazine as obscene and Joyce’s novel was subsequently banned, despite several expert witnesses declaring that the work has several literary merits.[19]

Random House attempted to release Ulysses in the United States but the United States Customs seized the books and filed a forfeiture application in federal court. Judge Woolsey was assigned the case, and ruled that the novel did not violate any federal obscenity laws. Woolsey abandoned the Hicklin doctrine, and stated that the proper test for obscenity is whether a literary work would lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts to a normal adult[20], and not merely that of a child’s, as suggested by Hicklin. The appellate court ruled for Ulysses, furthering the opinion that the Hicklin doctrine would suppress “much of the great works of literature.”[21]

The Ulysses cases opened the doors of America to mature literature with an obscenity test that was not inexplicably restrictive to more modern narrative styles and presentations.

B. Burstyn vs Wilson (1952)

When The Great Train Robbery[22] was first screened in 1903, Americans were introduced to a novel way of storytelling, the cinematograph. Unlike written literature, the cinematograph merged reality with fiction by adding a visual and later on, an aural element to storytelling.

Nickelodeons where short films of mostly racy and bawdy materials were shows spread throughout America’s cities and neighborhoods. Filmmakers also started to explore larger and more adventurous themes such as corruption, sexuality, politics, crime, and violence. American moralists tried to mediate the threat of the popular new form of entertainment by enacting several censorship laws in several communities.[23]

The first case regarding film censorship to reach the United States Supreme Court is Mutual Film Corporation vs. Industrial Commission of Ohio[24]. The Supreme Court decided that the exhibition of films is a business, conducted for profit like other spectacles. As such, censorship was justified since the medium has a potential appeal to prurient interests.[25]

The Mutual Film decision paved a way for stronger censorship in America. Several films were banned or cut, while others underwent several lawsuits. Hollywood, in an effort to save face while many studios are being prosecuted for releasing lewd films, formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). The MPPDA, through its first chairman former Postmaster General Will Hays, created the Hays Code. The Hays Code is a list that disapproves on several sensitive portrayals such as profanity, violence, drugs, sexuality, and blasphemy.[26]

The problem with the Hays Code is that it merely controlled the conceptualization and production of American films. In the late 40’s and early 50’s, an onslaught of foreign pictures paved their way to American cinemas. One of these foreign films is Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle[27], which was released in America in 1948.

The Miracle was considered by American bishops as blasphemous because of its portrayal of a dimwitted peasant who was lured into sexual intercourse by a vagabond she mistook for St. Francis of Assisi. The film was accused of being insulting to the Christian faith and Italian womanhood.[28] New York’s Board of Regents subsequently revoked the film’s license. This prompted the film’s distributor to launch a trial challenging the existence of movie licensing.

The trial court ruled against the distributor using the 1915 Mutual Films doctrine. However, the Supreme Court overruled the decision overturning the Mutual Films doctrine by stating that cinema is protected by the First Amendment. Furthermore, the Court said that setting the censor “adrift upon a boundless sea amid a myriad of conflicting currents of religious views, with no charts but those provided by the most vocal and powerful orthodoxies.”[29]

C. Freedman vs Maryland (1965)

The problem with the Burstyn ruling was that it left the question of whether a state can impose prior censorship under a statute that is made to “prevent the showing of obscene films.”[30] Despite the Burstyn ruling, several censorship and licensing boards were still banning the releases and exhibitions of several foreign films, with vague standards for doing such.
With the dismantling of the Hays Code in the 1960’s, Hollywood and other independent studios were freed from the constraints of filmmaking under a set of dos and don’ts.

In 1964, the Court of Appeals of Maryland affirmed the decision of a Criminal Court in Baltimore convicting Ronald L. Freedman under the state censorship laws.[31] Freedman publicly exhibited a film without submitting such film to the State’s censorship board.

Freedman raised the issue to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision. The Supreme Court stated that there are three safeguards against undue inhibition of protected expression that should be met by any licensing or censoring board:

(1) The censorship law must place the burden of proving that a film is obscene on the part of the censoring body.

(2) If the censoring body should find that a film is obscene, the body should go to the court to apply for an injunction to prevent the film from being exhibited publicly.

(3) The censorship law must have a provision stating that the court may review the decision of the censoring body, and that the court has the final say in the determination if such film should be prohibited.[32]

The Freedman ruling was followed by several other decisions that declared illegal the actions of several State censorship boards. In the case of Byrne vs. Karalexis[33], the United States Supreme Court overturned the anti-obscenity laws of Massachusetts when the state refused to allow the exhibition of Vilgot Sjoman’s I Am Curious – Yellow[34] for the reason of the film having pornographic depictions of nudity and sex.

The Freedman ruling has not yet been overturned. Today, the motion picture, television, and radio industries have become self-regulation. The motion picture industry has the Motion Picture Association of America (MPPA), which rates all the films that seek exhibition in America.

II. History of the MTRCB

Being an America colony, the Philippines followed American statutes and jurisprudence when it came to regulation and censorship. When the Philippines gained independence from the Americans, it created its own censorship board by enacting Republic Act No. 3060, which created the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures (BCMP). Television also became part of the jurisdiction of the BCMP.

On September 29, 1977, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Letter of Instructions No. 13, which effectively amended the BCMP, making its censorship powers more restrictive, especially with regards to socio-politically themed films.[35]

Under Executive Order Nos. 585, 745, and 757, the BCMP was replaced by the Board of Review for Motion Pictures and Television (BRMPT). Marcos tried to expand the powers of the BRMPT through Executive Order No. 868, which expanded the BRMPT’s jurisdiction to include live performances such as theatrical presentations.

To ease the tension created by artists who have banded together to form the Free The Artist Movement (FTA) and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP), Marcos created the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP). Moreover, Marcos removed the controversial and restrictive provisions of Executive Order No. 868 through the enactment of Executive Order No. 876 and 876-A.

When the BRMPT refused to allow the exhibition of the Lino Brocka film Bayan Ko: Kapit Sa Patalim[36] in 1984, the producers of the film went to the Supreme Court to assert its rights. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled to deny the petition of the producers of the film, based solely on “the ground that there are not enough votes for a ruling that there was a grave abuse of discretion in the classification of Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim as "For-Adults-Only."”[37] Moreover, the BRMPT already has revoked its questioned resolution, and has already given the producer of the film a license to exhibit Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim.

The meat of Gonzalez vs Katigbak is not the disallowance of Kapit sa Patalim to be exhibited in public but the fact that the Court, to a certain extent, diminished the power of the BRMPT when it stated that “the power of respondent Board is limited to the classification of films.... Freedom of expression is the rule and restrictions the exemption. The power to exercise prior restraint is not to be presumed; rather the presumption is against its validity.”[38] The Court continued to state that “Censorship, especially so if an entire production is banned, is allowable only under the clearest proof of a clear and present danger of a substantive evil to public safety, public morals, public health or any other legitimate public interest.”[39]

Probably reacting from the decision of the court in Gonzalez vs. Katigbak which lessened the powers of the BRMPT, Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 1986 on October 5, 1985. P. D. 1986 abolished the BRMPT and replaced it with the Movie and Television Regulation and Classification Board (MTRCB). The MTRCB’s charter remains unchanged since its creation in 1985.

III. Constitutional Challenges to the MTRCB

According to the preamble of P. D. 1986, the MTRCB was created with the need to infuse “innovative and fresh ideas toward the improvement and development of the film and television industry,” and to “improve, upgrade and make viable the industry as one source of fueling the national economy,” it says nothing about “setting standards for cultural refinement in movies and television,” nor does it give the board the responsibility “to keep society's moral balance.”[40]

With such vision in mind, the MTRCB was granted eleven powers and functions where they may base their rules and regulations. These are:

(1) To promulgate such rules and regulations as are necessary or proper for the implementation of this act, and the accomplishments of its purposes and objectives, including guidelines and standards for production, advertising and titles;

(2) To screen, review and examine all motion pictures, television programs; including publicity materials such as advertisements, trailers and stills, both for theatrical and non-theatrical distribution, for television broadcast or for viewing, imported or produced in the Philippines, whether for local or export;

(3) To approve or disapprove, delete objectionable portions from and/or prohibit the importation, exportation, production, copying, distribution, sale, lease, exhibition and/or television broadcast of the motion pictures, television programs and publicity materials which in the judgment of the Board based on contemporary Filipino cultural values as standard, are objectionable such as:

a) those which tend to incite subversion, insurrection, rebellion or sedition against the State, or otherwise threaten the economic and/or political stability of the State;
b) those which tend to undermine the faith and confidence of the people in their government and/or duly constituted authorities;
c) those which glorify criminals or condone crimes;
d) those which serve no other purpose but satisfy the market for violence or pornography;
e) those which tend to abet the traffic in and use of prohibited drugs;
f) those which are libelous or defamatory to the good name and reputation of any person, whether living or dead; and
g) those which may constitute contempt of court or of any quasi-judicial tribunal, or pertain to matters which are subjudice in nature.

(4) To supervise, regulate, and grant, deny or cancel permits for the importation, exportation, production, copying, distribution, sale, lease exhibition, and/or television programs and publicity materials, to the end that no such pictures, programs and materials are determined by the Board to be objectionable shall be imported, exported, produced, copied, reproduced, distributed, sold, leased, exhibit and/or broadcast by television;

(5) To classify motion pictures, television programs and similar shows into categories such as "G" or "For General Patronage" (all ages admitted) "P" for Parental Guidance Suggested, or "R" or "Restricted" (for adults only) "X" or "Nor for Public Viewing," or such other categories as the Board may determine for the public interest;

(6) To close the moviehouses and other similar establishments engaged in the public exhibition of motion pictures and television programs which violate the provisions of this Act and the rules and regulations promulgated by the Board;

(7) To levy, assess and collect, and periodically adjust and revise the rates of fees and charges for the work of review and examination and for the issuance of the licenses and permits which the Board is authorized to grant in the exercise of its power and functions and in the performance of its duties and responsibilities;

(8) To deputize representatives from the government and from the various associations in the movie industry, whose main duties shall be to help ensure compliance with all laws relative to the importation, exportation, copying, distribution, sale, lease, exhibition and/or television broadcast of motion pictures, television programs, advertisements and publicity materials.

For this purpose, the Board may constitute such Regulatory Council or Councils composed of representatives from the government and the movie and television industry as may be appropriate to implement the purposes and objectives of this Act. The Board may also call on any law enforcement of its decisions, orders or awards;

(9) To cause the prosecution on behalf of the People of the Philippines, of violators of this Act, or anti-trust, obscenity, censorship and other laws pertinent to the movie and television industry;

(10) To prescribe the internal and operational procedures for the exercise of its powers and functions as well as the performance of its duties and responsibilities, including the creation and vesting of authority upon sub-committee of the Board for the work or review and other related matters; and;

(11) To exercise such other powers and functions as may be necessary or incidental to the attainment of the purposes and objectives of this Act, and to perform such other related duties and responsibilities as may be directed by the President of the Philippines.[41]

It is quite clear that despite the board’s title saying that it is a “regulatory and classification board,” it still has functions that are censorial in nature. The Board has the authority to “approve or disapprove, delete objectionable portions from and/or prohibit” the exhibition of a film. Moreover, the Board also has the statutory authority to ban the exhibition of a film deemed to be unfit for public viewing.[42]

More interesting are the standards that the MTRCB utilizes as guidance in its classification and regulation duties. The “dangerous tendency” is the test used by the MTRCB, despite the Court ruling in Gonzalez vs. Katigbak wherein the “clear and present danger” test was the one prescribed by the Court in the determination of the permissibility of censorship.

In the words of Chief Justice Fernando in Gonzalez vs. Katigbak, “The test, to repeat, to determine whether freedom of excession may be limited is the clear and present danger of an evil of a substantive character that the State has a right to prevent. Such danger must not only be clear but also present. There should be no doubt that what is feared may be traced to the expression complained of. The causal connection must be evident. Also, there must be reasonable apprehension about its imminence. The time element cannot be ignored. Nor does it suffice if such danger were only probable. There is the require of its being well-nigh inevitable. The basic postulate, wherefore, as noted earlier, is that where the movies, theatrical productions radio scripts, television programs, and other such media of expression are concerned — included as they are in freedom of expression — censorship, especially so if an entire production is banned, is allowable only under the clearest proof of a clear and present danger of a substantive evil to public morals, public health or any other legitimate public interest.”[43]

According to Atty. Victor Avecilla, the only reason why the MTRCB charter has not yet been abolished is because of the fact that it hasn’t been repealed by Congress, or has been declared unconstitutional by our courts. He furthers his contention that P. D. 1986 is patently unconstitutional because it does not pass the three safeguards laid down by the landmark case of Freedman vs. Maryland.[44]

He also contends that the presidential decree suffers from being void for vagueness. In the enumerated grounds that the MTRCB charter lists, a curious proviso “such as but not limited to” appears, giving an indication that the list may actually grow, depending on the needs of the State or the administration.[45]

Lastly, Avecilla contends that the standard procedure the MTRCB follows is violative of administrative due process. According to Avecilla, “Administrative due process requires that the standards for the exercise of power must be clearly defined. For example, when a film is judged bythe board as obscene, we must know what constitutes obscenity. The standard for obscenity must be defined.”[46]

In fact, the rules for determining whether a program or film is obscene is continually modified depending on the personalities of those who head the Board. The MTRCB under the guidance of Manoling Morato was seen as ultra-conservative.[47] The Mendez Board, like Morato’s was perceived as ultra-conservative, but opened the Appeals Board for filmmakers and program directors.[48] The Board under Jesus Sison has three objectives, which are: "to encourage the production of more films that depict the innate heroism of the Filipino;" secondly, "to search for ways to install a self regulatory framework for the film industry, where the MTRCB and industry leaders will call upon their colleagues to exercise responsibility in movie making...;" and lastly, "to confer a 'developmental dimension' to the work of the MTRCB so that it will go beyond wielding the censor's scissors and do the spadework image in the public eye..."[49]

With three different MTRCB leaderships, a vast difference can be seen with the way the Board treats censorship and regulation. The MTRCB charter is so easily malleable that there can be no one single standard in the determination for the propriety of exhibition of films and television programs.

IV. Jurisprudential Challenges to the MTRCB

Since the creation of the MTRCB in 1985, there have only been three challenges to its broad powers that have reached the Supreme Court. Interestingly, despite the positive developments that were brought about by the decision in Gonzalez vs Katigbak, it seems that the development in censoring and regulation in the Philippines is backward moving. Probably due to the fact that the Philippine movie industry has been in a decline the past decade, no movie producer has gone up to the Supreme Court to question a dubious ruling my the MTRCB.

The three cases that sought to question the powers of the MTRCB all involve programs aired in the television. Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) vs. Court of Appeals[50] bolstered its appeal to the Supreme Court by arguing that its television program is exempted from the jurisdiction of the MTRCB because of the freedom of religion clause in the Constitution. MTRCB vs ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp, et. al.[51] similarly seeks exemption from the broad powers of the MTRCB utilizing the freedom of the press clause that is enshrined in our Constitution. Lastly, GMA Network, Inc. vs. MTRCB[52] sought to clarify the powers granted to the MTRCB and the exemptions to these powers.

A. Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) vs. Court of Appeals (1996)

1. Facts of the Case

In September, October and November of 1992, petitioner Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.), submitted to the MTRCB tapes of its three episodes of its program that was being aired in Channel 2 pursuant to Section 4 of P. D. 1986. The MTRCB subsequently gave an X-rating to the episodes, ruling that the episodes may offend and constitute an attack against other religions, which is expressly prohibited in the law.

Following the procedure of appeals in P. D. 1986, Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) appealed to the Office of the President, and filed a civil case against the MTRCB with the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City (RTC-QC). The petitioner succeeded in its appeal with the Office of the President. The RTC-QC ordered the MTRCB to grant Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) the necessary permits to carry on its broadcast, but also ordered the petitioner to refrain from attacking or criticizing other religions on its program. Upon a motion for reconsideration filed by Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.), the RTC-QC reversed the second part of the dispositive portion of its ruling.

On March 5, 1995, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the RTC-QC. This urged Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) to bring the matter to the Supreme Court, forwarding the issues of (1) whether or not the MTRCB has the power to review the program of Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) despite freedom of religion clause; and (2) that if the MTRCB indeed has the power to review religious programs, may it prevent the airing of the questionable episodes for the reason that they constitute an attack against other religions.

2. Ruling of the Court

The Supreme Court answered the first issue in the positive, and the second issue in the negative.

In doing away with the freedom of religion argument of Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.), the Court used former Supreme Court Justice Isagani Cruz’s differentiation of freedom to believe and freedom to act on one’s belief. The former is considered to be absolute as long as it stays in the realm of thought. The latter may be subject to regulation where the belief is turned into external acts that may affect public welfare.[53]

With that, and the provision in P. D. 1986 giving the MTRCB the power to screen, review and examine “all television programs.” A clear interpretation of the provision shows that aside from those exempted by the law, the MTRCB has jurisdiction over all programs aired in television, including religious programs.

In resolving the second issue, the Court stated that “Deeply ensconced in our fundamental law is its hostility against all prior restraints on speech, including religious speech.”[54] The Court said that the so-called attacks were actually mere criticisms based on the pieces of evidence submitted by the petitioner. Moreover, “attacks against another religion” is not one of the situations conceived by P. D. 1986. Such was only added in the Board rules[55], which the court voided for being against the administrative doctrine that rules and regulations cannot expand the letter and spirit of the law they seek to enforce.

The meat of the case is its reiteration of the “clear and present danger” test. The Court cited the case of Victoriano vs Elizalde Rope Workers Union[56] stating that “only where it is unavoidably necessary to prevent an immediate and grave danger to the security and welfare of the community that infringement of religious freedom may be justified, and only to the smallest extent necessary to avoid the danger.”

Despite the Court’s acknowledgment of the need to institute the “clear and present danger” in censoring works, it prevented the reasoning in the Freedman vs Maryland case to take precedent in the Philippines. The Court stated that “we are not ready to hold that it is unconstitutional for Congress to grant an administrative body quasi-judicial power to preview and classify TV programs and enforce its decision subject to review by our courts.”[57] To bolster such argument, it cited the 1921 case of Sotto vs. Ruiz[58], not keeping in mind that technology and social norms have evolved since its promulgation.

Justice Kapunan in his separate and dissenting opinion said that Sotto cannot be invoked since such was ruled with Section 1954 of the old Administrative Code. Kapunan said that “freedom of worship is such a precious commodity in our hierarchy of civil liberties that it cannot be derogated peremptorily by an administrative body or officer who determines, without judicial safeguards, whether or not to allow the exercise of such freedom.” He capped his argument with the statement that “the rights of free expression and free exercise of religion occupy a unique and special place in our constellation of civil rights. The primacy our society accords these freedoms determines the mode it chooses to regulate their expression. But the idea that an ordinary statute or decree could, by its effects, nullify both the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression puts an ominous gloss on these liberties. Censorship law as a means of regulation and as a form of prior restraint is anathema to a society which places high significance to these values.”[59]

In Justice Mendoza’s separate opinion, he declares Section 3 (c) of P. D. 1986[60] unconstitutional. Using the case of Gonzalez vs Katigbak, Justice Mendoza states that “the standard for judging the validity of prior restraint on political expression is stricter than that for adjudging restraints on materials alleged to be obscene, but not that the test of clear and present danger is applicable in determining whether or not a permit may be granted.” Moreover, he suggests that “We have long ago done away with controls on print media, it is time we did the same with the control on broadcast media, which for so long has operated under restraints, leaving the punishment for violations of laws to be dealt with by subsequent prosecution.”[61]

Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) vs. Court of Appeals shows a forward-thinking judiciary that is willing to overturn decisions of the MTRCB that may be deemed unduly restrictive under the “clear and present danger test,” as opposed to the “dangerous tendency” test promulgated by P. D. 1986. While it is not ready to do away with the Board by not recognizing the far-reaching effects of Freedman vs. Maryland, the Court was able to resurface the landmark case of Gonzalez vs. Katigbak in the determination of propriety of prior censorship.

B. MTRCB vs. ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corp. (2005)

1. Facts of the Case

On October 15, 1991 at 10:45pm, ABS-CBN aired Prosti-tuition during its programs The Inside Story that is hosted and produced by co-petitioner Loren Legarda. The episode was about students of Philippine Women’s University (PWU) who worked as prostitutes and pimps to earn money for their tuition fees. The administration of PWU filed a complaint with the MTRCB alleging that the episode besmirched the name of the institution and its students. The MTRCB initiated a formal complaint with its Investigation Committee, finding that ABS-CBN did not submit a tape prior to exhibition, and that it exhibited the episode without its permission, which violated Section 7 of P. D. 1986 and Section 3, Chapter III[62] and Section 7, Chapter IV[63] of the MTRCB Rules and Regulations.

ABS-CBN argued that it was exempt from the jurisdiction of the MTRCB since Inside Story is a public affairs program, and that it’s airing is protected by the constitutional provision on freedom of expression and of the press. Despite the argument, the MTRCB ruled against petitioners, fining the corporation and ordering it to submit all tapes of the episodes of the program before airing them. ABS-CBN appealed to the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City (RTC-QC), which overturned the ruling of the MTRCB.

The MTRCB raised the case to the Supreme Court forwarding the issue of whether or not MTRCB has the power and authority to review the public affairs program prior to its broadcast.

2. Ruling of the Court

In disposing of the issue, the Supreme Court used its earlier ruling in Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) vs. Court of Appeals. The Court said that in Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.), the petitioners sought exception from the jurisdiction of the MTRCB of reviewing its programs before broadcast. To bolster such prayer, the petitioners in that case used the freedom of religion clause in the Constitution. However, the Supreme Court ruled that P. D. 1986 is final when it states that all television programs are to be reviewed by the MTRCB.

The Court differentiated the freedom of religion and freedom of the press. It ruled that freedom of religion has been granted preferred status, while freedom of the press has not been granted preferred status. If in Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.), such was not granted an exception based on a freedom of preferred status, what more in this case wherein the exception is based on a freedom bearing no preferred status. In Court’s own words, “If this Court, in Iglesia ni Cristo, did not exempt religious programs from the jurisdiction and review power of petitioner MTRCB, with more reason, there is no justification to exempt therefrom “The Inside Story” which, according to respondents, is protected by the constitutional provision on freedom of expression and of the press, a freedom bearing no preferred status.”[64]

The Court also clarified the meaning of newsreels, which are exempted from prior review of the MTRCB. According to the Court, “newsreels are straight presentation of events. They are depiction of “actualities.” Correspondingly, the MTRCB Rules and Regulations implementing P. D. No. 1986 define newsreels as “straight news reporting, as distinguished from news analyses, commentaries and opinions. Talk shows on a given issue are not considered newsreels.”[36] Clearly, the “The Inside Story” cannot be considered a newsreel. It is more of a public affairs program which is described as a variety of news treatment; a cross between pure television news and news-related commentaries, analysis and/or exchange of opinions. Certainly, such kind of program is within petitioner’s review power.”[65]

The ruling in MTRCB vs. ABS-CBN Corp. merely reiterated the ruling in Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) vs. Court of Appeals. Apart from the clarifications of definitions and the extent of the reviewing powers of the Board, the case did not touch on important issues regarding censorship and other Constitutional issues.

3. GMA Broadcasting Corp. vs MTRCB (2007)

The program in question in GMA Broadcasting Corp. vs. MTRCB[66] is Muro-Ami: The Making which the network broadcasted without first securing a permit from the MTRCB. The petitioners claimed that the program was a public affairs program, which was exempted from the MTRCB by virtue of the freedom of the press.

In resolving the case, the Supreme Court merely reiterated its ruling in MTRCB vs ABS-CBN Corp., stating that public affairs programs are not part of the list of those exempted from the prior review powers of the MTRCB.

V. Conclusion

As can be noted from the little jurisprudence regarding the powers of the MTRCB, there seems to be a discomforting acceptance to the Board’s overreaching powers that subtly threaten our Constitutionally guarded rights.

“No law shall be passed abridging freedom of speech, of expression, and of the press.”[67]

The 1986 EDSA Revolution successfully brought back democracy when it deposed Ferdinand Marcos. Carried over from the previous Constitution is Section 4 of the Bill of Rights, which artists and filmmakers were banking on to be ideally tested in a dictatorship-free nation. However, among those carried over from the Marcos administration is P. D. 1986, a dated and strict law that does not seem to fit within the promise of a free nation.

There are plenty of possible alternatives to the MTRCB. First, P. D. 1986 should be repealed causing the abolition of the MTRCB. However, without any regulatory body guiding the citizenry, the effect might be chaos and a proliferation of immoral and gratuitous entertainment.[68]

Second, the MTRCB charter should be amended stripping away its censorship and cutting powers. This alternative acknowledges the need for a regulatory body that will supervise the showing of movies according to audience sensibility without sacrificing artistic integrity and creativity.[69]

Third, turn MTRCB into solely a classification body. Furthermore, there should be an implementation of X-rated cinemas wherein X-rated features can be viewed.[70] This suggestion would release the MTRCB from its quasi-censorial duties of labeling a film X-rated, and subsequently banning it from being exhibited in the Philippines. The classification duties of the MTRCB shall serve as a mere guiding force to the citizenry, instead of an ultra-moralist dictator that feed the nation what it can and cannot view in the cinemas and their television sets at home.

According to Jose Lacaba[71], the best alternative is self-regulation. There is no such thing as censorship in print media because these media outfits regulate their own. There is no governmental agency that regulates these businesses.

Actually, P. D. 1986 was created as a prelude for self-regulation. P. D. 1986 provides that at least fifteen members of the Board come from the movie and television community, and that all of its members shall have “expertise in the various areas of motion pictures and television.”[72]
However, it has been more than two decades since the promulgation of P. D. 1986 and the MTRCB is still a bane to filmmakers and artists around the Philippines. Moreover, the MTRCB, with its highly malleable conceptions, is being used by the powerful to mute the marginalized. I believe it’s about time that a change is initiated.

The words of Noam Chomsky in the beginning of the article enunciate the inevitability of change in a social system that thrives in the constraints of mysterious and questionable social laws. Chomsky suggests that if these social laws do not meet the test, they should be replaced with better ones. Two decades after the creation of the MTRCB, the movie industry is in obvious shambles (against the objectives for which the MTRCB was made) and the administrative body has become a tool for harassment and restriction of free expression. Chomsky’s words ring truest at this time.

Finally, Griswold compliments the perpetual nature of human ideas --- that inspire of being restricted, burned, and banned, these ideas will continue to blossom as it is only human for any person to search for something beyond himself and what the State allows him to view. In other words, the law should not be a blockade to this curiosity but merely serve as a guiding light in our continuing search for the right.
[1] See
[2] Chicago Sun-Times (March 3, 1994).
[3] See
[4] Tim McGirk, The President’s Scissor, Time (April, 2001).
[5] Rod. P. Kapunan, More Malice Than Legality, The Daily Tribune (September 5, 2006).
[6] Armida Siguion-Reyna, Political Censorship, Part 2, The Daily Tribune (October 14, 2006).
[7] Bayani San Diego, Jr., Censors Suspend I-Witness, Philippine Daily Inquirer (July 1, 2006).
[8] Bayani San Diego, Jr., Movie-TV Board Chides ABS-CBN’s Correspondents, Philippine Daily Inquirer (July 17, 2006).
[9] Marjorie Heins, Culture on Trial: Censorship Trials and Free Expression, 2 Insight on Law and Society (2002).
[10] 5 F.Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1933).
[11] 278 A.D. 253 (N.Y. S.Ct. 3rd Dept.), affirmed, 303 N.Y. 242 (1951).
[12] 342 U.S. 485 (1952).
[13] 380 U.S. 51 (1965).
[14] 3 Queens Bench 360 (1868).
[15] Id., 362.
[16] See United States vs. Bennett, 24 F. Cas. 1093.
[17] 209 Fed. Rep. 119 (S.D.N.Y. 1913).
[18] Id., 121.
[19] Paul Vanderham, James Joyce and Censorship: The Trials of Ulysses (NYU Press, 1998), 32-34.
[20] United States vs. One Book Entitled Ulysses, 5 F.Supp. 182,183-85 (S.D.N.Y. 1933).
[21]United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce, 72 F.2d 705, 706-07 (2nd Cir. 1934).
[22] See
[23] Gregory Black, Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge U. Press, 1994).
[24] 236 U.S 230 (1915).
[25] Id., 242-244.
[26] Stephen Vaughn, Morality and Entertainment: The Origins of the Motion Picture Code, 77 Journal of American History, 44 (June 1990).
[27] See
[28] Spellman Urges ‘Miracle’ Boycott, New York Times, Jan. 8, 1951.
[29] Burstyn v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 504-05 (1952).
[30] Id.
[31]Freedman vs State of Maryland, 233 Md. 498 (1964).
[32] Freedman vs State of Maryland, 380 U.S. 51 (1965).
[33] 401 U.S. 216 (1970)
[34] See
[35] Jose F. Lacaba, Notes on Film Censorship in the Philippines, Philippine Post Magazine at
[36] See
[37] Gonzalez vs. Katigbak, G.R. No. L-69500, July 22, 1985.
[38] Id.
[39] Id.
[40] Lacaba, supra note 35 citing P. D. 1986.
[41] P. D. 1986 §3.
[42] P. D. 1986 §12.
[43] Supra note 37.
[44] Victor Avecilla, Time to Abolish the MTRCB, available at
[45] Id.
[46] Id.
[47] Constantino Tejero, Censorship in Philippine Movies and Television: Anathema, Sunday Inquirer Magazine Vol 5, 37-40 (1990).
[48] Ricky Torre, Censoring the Censors, Philippine Free Press Vol 85, 32-33 (1994).
[49] Ma. Eloisa Lazaro, Jesus Sison: Redirecting Censorship, Philippine Graphic Vol 7, 23 (1996).
[50] G. R. No. 119673, July 26, 1996.
[51] G. R. No. 155282, January 17, 2005.
[52] G. R. No. 148579, February 5, 2007.
[53] Isagani Cruz, Constitutional Law, 1991 ed., 176-178 states that:
(1) Freedom to Believe
The individual is free to believe (or disbelieve) as he pleases concerning the hereafter. He may indulge his own theories about life and death; worship any god he chooses, or none at all; embrace or reject any religion; acknowledge the divinity of God or of any being that appeals to his reverence; recognize or deny the immortality of his soul — in fact, cherish any religious conviction as he and he alone sees fit. However absurd his beliefs may be to others, even if they be hostile and heretical to the majority, he has full freedom to believe as he pleases. He may not be required to prove his beliefs. He may not be punished for his inability to do so. Religion, after all, is a matter of faith. ‘Men may believe what they cannot prove.’ Every one has a right to his beliefs and he may not be called to account because he cannot prove what he believes.
(2) Freedom to Act on One’s Beliefs
But where the individual externalizes his beliefs in acts or omissions that affect the public, his freedom to do so becomes subject to the authority of the State. As great as this liberty may be, religious freedom, like all the other rights guaranteed in the Constitution, can be enjoyed only with a proper regard for the rights of others. It is error to think that the mere invocation of religious freedom will stalemate the State and render it impotent in protecting the general welfare. The inherent police power can be exercised to prevent religious practices inimical to society. And this is true even if such practices are pursued out of sincere religious conviction and not merely for the purpose of evading the reasonable requirements or prohibitions of the law.
[54] Iglesia ni Cristo (Inc.) vs. Court Appeals, G. R. No. 119673, July 26, 1996.
[56] L-25246, September 12, 1974.
[57] Supra note 49.
[58] 41 Phil. 468 (1921)
[59] Supra note 49, Kapunan dissenting and separate opinion.
[60] c) To approve or disapprove, delete objectionable portions from and/or prohibit the importation, exportation, production, copying, distribution, sale, lease, exhibition and/or television broadcast of the motion pictures, television programs and publicity materials subject of the preceding paragraph, which, in the judgment of the board applying contemporary Filipino cultural values as standard, are objectionable for being immoral, indecent, contrary to law and/or good customs, injurious to the prestige of the Republic of the Philippines or its people, or with a dangerous tendency to encourage the commission of violence or of wrong or crime, such as but not limited to:

i) Those which tend to incite subversion, insurrection, rebellion or sedition against the State, or otherwise threaten the economic and/or political stability of the State;
ii) Those which tend to undermine the faith and confidence of the people in their government and/or the duly constituted authorities;
iii) Those which glorify criminals or condone crimes;
iv) Those which serve no other purpose but to satisfy the market for violence or pornography;
v) Those which tend to abet the traffic in and use of prohibited drugs;
vi) Those which are libelous or defamatory to the good name and reputation of any person, whether living or dead; and
vii) Those which may constitute contempt of court or of any quasi-judicial tribunal, or pertain to matter which are sub-judice in nature.

Provided, however, That deletions or cuts must not be made on the master negative of the films, and that such master negative shall be deposited with the Film Archives of the Philippines and shall be released for export purposes to the film owner only upon showing of the proper export permit; Provided, finally, That the film owner shall execute his own undertaking that such master negative shall be exclusively used for export purposes and not for local showing;

To supervise, regulate, and grant, deny or cancel, permits for the importation, exportation, production, copying, distribution, sale, lease, exhibition, and/or television broadcast of all motion pictures, television programs and publicity materials, to the end that no such pictures, programs and materials as are determined by the BOARD to be objectionable in accordance with paragraph (c) hereof shall be imported, exported, produced, copied, reproduced, distributed, sold, leased, exhibited and/or broadcast by television;
[61] Supra note 49, Mendoza separate opinion.
[62] “SECTION 3. Matters subject to review – All motion pictures, television programs and publicity materials, as defined in Chapter 1 hereof, whether these be for theatrical or non-theatrical distribution, for television broadcast or general viewing, imported or produced in the Philippines, and in the latter case, whether they be for local viewing or for export, shall be subject to review by the BOARD before they are exported, imported, copied, distributed, sold, leased, exhibited or broadcast by television;”
[63] “SECTION 7. REQUIREMENT OF PRIOR REVIEW – No motion picture, television program or related publicity material shall be imported, exported, produced, copied, distributed, sold, leased, exhibited or broadcast by television without prior permit issued by the BOARD after review of the motion picture, television program or publicity material.”
[64] MTRCB vs. ABS-CBN Corp., et. al., G. R. No. 155282, January 17, 2005.
[65] Id.
[66] G. R. No. 148579, February 5, 2007.
[67] Const. art. III, sec. 4.
[68] Christian Bryan Bustamante, Why Self-regulation?:A Policy Analysis on the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (1998), available at
[69] Id.
[70] Id.
[71] Jose P. Lacaba, Censorship vs. Classification, National Midweek Vol. 2, 26.
[72] P. D. 1986 Sec. 2.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Persepolis (2007)

Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis is quite the delectable treat. The Cannes Jury Prize winner (the film has the distinction of being the first time an animated film won anything from the prestigious film festival since René Laloux's The Fantastic Planet in 1973) inhabits the same pulpy aesthetic as its graphic novel predecessor as well as the comic's deliciously subtle and playful heart.

The film, like Satrapi's graphic novels, plays like a moving memoir; it's nearly embarrassingly personal yet touches on that very universal need to rebel and rise above the norm. The film itself could've been done as a live action film, or a cuter, cuddlier and more beautiful version of the comic books, but to do that would lose the edgy charm the present film has to offer. As it is, Persepolis is a breath of fresh air most especially from recent animated films (computer generated or otherwise) produced by the Hollywood factory.

A plain-looking Marjane (in appropriately dull colors) awaits her scheduled flight to Tehran; as accustomed, she puts on her Muslim veil (fellow travelers in the restroom give her suspicious glances --- post-9/11 prejudice in cartoons feels a lot more ridiculous, a lot more enraging); but she's no typical Muslim as she's clearly unhappy with that bothersome veil and starts smoking a cigarette (another fellow traveler gives her the evil eye --- second hand smoke kills more efficiently than the one inhaled and exhaled by chain smokers). She is to go back to her motherland, yet it is clear that fear and worries overpower excitement and nostalgia.

Most of the film is told in flashbacks, where the colors of Marjane's contemporary experiences are filtered to give an ancient black and white aesthetic. Her personal history precedes the overthrowing of the Shah; we get a glimpse of her naive mind that addresses heroism by the number of years spent in jail, and patriotism by the person's pedigree (she starts a violent chase of a kid whose father is rumored to be a prison warden responsible for the torture and deaths of so many patriots). Marjane's family is composed of her very politically aware parents and a grandmother who espouses modernity amidst the claustrophobic cultural diminution of the new government. The lovely mix-up comprises a huge chunk of the film's charm, humor and heart.

Most delightful about Persepolis is how Paronnaud and Satrapi were able to capture the volatile imagination of a young girl living during hard times. I was enamored when Marjane's uncle's tales (which are really oft-told political stories with abundant backbiting and legalese) are turned into to become gorgeously crafted fairy tales visualized like the shadow puppets of the late great Lotte Reiniger; or how more violent sequences are filtered of the usual crimson of blood and severed limbs but retain the same horrifying factor that keeps us wary of mindless wars and battles.

There's a mature sense of political thinking in the film's rather simplistic manner of storytelling, and when Marjane's youth-inflected curiosity is exchanged with coming-of-age apathy, we still sense an overpowering air of her poor Persia suffering while she is battling her personal demons in a strange European land. Satrapi (and co-director Paronnaud) knows her own story too well, well enough to tell it resoundingly right.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Village People Radio Show (2006)

Village People Radio Show (Amir Muhammad, 2006)
Malaysian Title: Apa khabar orang kampung

Midway through Amir Muhammad's Village People Radio Show, Pak Kassim, former Malaysian independence fighter turned Communist guerrilla, says that despite the fact that they're Communists, they still need religion. It's not an entirely paradoxical proposition, especially after learning the man's history through the relaxed conversation pieces he has with Muhammad.

Village People Radio Show, along with its companion piece The Last Communist (2005), was banned in Malaysia for its Communist content, which I think is quite silly. Although the documentary tackles the communist fighter, it neither espouses or supports the cause, or at least not enough to evoke a rousing conviction from anyone who would view the film. Instead, the documentary paints an earthly portrait of these exiled communists who are living in a Thai village bordering Malaysia. There's a discernible humility in Muhammad's filmmaking; you can sense a profound respect for these former freedom fighters who are not able to relish in the freedom they have spilled blood and tears for, simply because of ideological differences.

The documentary is structured uniquely. Interspersed between the many conversations are excerpts from a Thai radio drama, adapted from William Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. The conversations themselves are backdropped with sights and sounds from that Thai village: little children playing, the adult folks in their daily trade, the forests that cover the village. Muhammad shows an effectively wry sense of humor, as when Pak talks about how the first Malaysian president went to England to discourse talks about liberation and in return foregoing further talks with the communist fighters, he shows us a monkey on a leash; or when he starts discussing about their unfortunate exodus out of Malaysia, he shows us a colony of ants on a straight disciplined line.

The documentary itself is constructed like a public announcement radio show, complete with an upbeat opening song that invites casual listeners. The invitation is of course short-lived, every now and then, the film stops into an irritating formation of moving lights accompanied by the distorted sounds over the airwaves, usually heard when one is changing the frequency to catch other radio stations. It's as if Muhammad is already parodying his film's current predicament; there's a funny sense that Muhammad is censoring those conversations with the village people; successfully intercepting the radio frequency to a harmless radio play, but is transported back to those soundbites of Pak Kassim's stories that are considered harmful and much political.

In a way, Village People Radio Show is not a mere documentary about a forgotten freedom fighter living his last days outside the nation he fought for, it is also a commentary about Malaysian politics and how most Malaysians opt for the simple pleasures of trite entertainment instead of complexing their lives with the plight and tales of the overtly marginalized. When faced with a depressing tale of a nationalistic man detached from his country, and such tale obviously hinges on a very sensitive aspect of governance and politics, they tend to turn the dial and hope something remotely entertaining is on the air, to pass the time.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
Romanian Title: 4 luni, 3 saptamini si 2 zile

Abortion has been a topic that has divided the populace everywhere; there are those who reject it as a morally abhorrent while there are those who accept it as practical and concurrent with women's rights. That's basically the problem with films that tackle the sensitive topic, as it's very difficult to discuss the topic without being too preachy or too apathetic (successful films about abortion like Ishmael Bernal's Hinugot sa Langit (Snatched from Heaven, 1985), which pits the practicality of abortion in a society that frowns upon it, and Mike Leigh's Vera Drake (2004), which breathes an air of humanity to the commonly villainous abortionist, successfully balance the two extremes).

Cristian Mungiu's Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is not so much about abortion as it is about the repulsive feeling that surrounds it. There's a political milieu (Romania at the deathbed of Ceausescu regime, where abortion was strictly outlawed to support the government's planned population boom) but it's subtle, subtle enough to go unnoticed. With the almost universal shame in committing abortion (even in countries where abortion is legal), the film could have taken place anywhere and anytime.

It's early scenes wherein Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is doing the rounds about Bucharest, helping her pregnant friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) secure a location for the abortion appointment. Along with the mundane chaos of dorm living, we are already entreated with a casual observation of the proliferation of black market-distributed capitalist goodies (cigarettes, candies and beauty products) and other security measures (identification cards, etc.), enough to give a well-founded belief that certain freedoms are taken away. The abortion has all been planned but there's an unpredictable and discomforting disarray in the happenings --- the reservation with the hotel wasn't recorded, the birthday party of Otilia's boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) she has to attend, money problems.

Mr. Bebe (an intensely sly Vlad Ivanov), the shrewd abortionist contacted by Gabita as recommended by a friend, is depicted as painfully manipulative, a business-minded devil with all the vices of a single middle-aged man living with his mother. He knows the ladies' dilemma and uses it as a bargaining piece; he knows he will not be rejected. The collateral to the undervalued operation is even more staining than the act of abortion itself; Otilia unwantingly gets into the groove of the stickiness and grime of the "hush hush" ongoings of the underground business. A stroke of dark humor can be observed when the actual act of abortion is as quick and easy as any routine injection; the fuss over everything becomes painful absurdity.

The film's meant to be dark and overwhelming but Mungiu has a distinct dark sense of humor. He acknowledges the absurdity of the penal provisions regarding abortion (aborting a 4 month old fetus equates to murder, a younger fetus means less time in the jail) or the ridiculous silence and ignorance of the general public on how, when and where to get an abortion. Otilia's numb and bleak demeanor after the abortion (juxtaposed to Gabita's cool and disattached relief the moment the fetus is out; she begs for a semblance of moral uprightness by requesting her baby be buries, but we know better) turns the rest of the film into a grim and depressing process of completing her obligations and disposing the fetus, before ending in what could be the most absurd conclusion to any abortion film (Otilia and Gabita seated for a dinner, backgrounded by a wedding party in one of the hotel's function rooms).

Mungiu's virtuosic visual sparseness intensifies the drama; there are only a couple of times wherein he requires his audience to cringe (which I thought wasn't really necessary) but the rest of the film is shot in distantly personal tracking shots or effective close-ups (he manages to get the best out of his actors and actresses), which sums up this very perceptive Romanian film as a gripping examination of the alienating, corruptive, and damning effects of the silly circumstances one has to go through to sneakily pierce through the government policy of disallowing abortion.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Syndromes and a Century (2006)

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006)
Thai Title: Sang sattawat

In Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), separating the pastoral beauty of a Russian estate and the steely cold interiors of a spacecraft is a lengthy sequence of Kris Kelvin traveling in a car through the highways of an unknown metropolis. The sequence feels obsolete nowadays, Tokyo during the time the film was shot can no longer hold that futuristic illusion Tarkovsky was aiming for.

Syndromes and a Century, part of the New Crowned Hope which celebrates Mozart's 250th Birth Anniversary by commissioning films (including Tsai Ming-liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006) and Paz Encina's contemplative Paraguayan Hammock (2006)), I believe is Apichatpong Weerasethakul science fiction film, or at least a film wherein he touches on a vision of the future. It's not improbable, Weerasethakul is touching on the discourse between past and present (why limit the discourse between the two junctures of time, when it can be expanded to concern the future).

Nearing the film's end, we get a sequence similar both in use (transition of time) and practicality (the lack of budget or aesthetic considerations in envisioning a Utopian future) wherein hospital machinery and the surroundings are slowly being covered with mist; Weerasethakul's camera lingers and observes in painstaking clarity the seconds and minutes before settling with a shot of a metallic tube sucking the smoke from the room. That difficult puzzle piece segues to an outdoor sequence where people are doing calisthenics in the rhythm of a joyous tune, two Buddhist monks are playing with a remote control-powered UFO and everything is in a state of euphoria. Is this Weerasethakul's vision of the future, wherein hospitals have become obsolete (and diseases too) and the world takes the form of a public park (the same way Tokyo in the 70's is Tarkovsky's vision of the future in Solaris)?

At first glance, Syndromes and a Century feels like it lacks any shape. Absent the two-fold structure (or three-fold if you count the final sequence as one), it's a series of lovely images, conversations and human gestures tied within the bounds of the subject time and space Weerasethakul drafts. Several elements overlap in these shapeless structures of time and space such as the opening job interview between a male doctor discharged from a military base and a female doctor with the latter's insistent lover on standby, or the elderly monk and his offers of healing roots, or the dental appointment between the dentist and a younger monk, or the awkward courtship ritual between the lover and the lady doctor, or the woman who walks with a limp.

The identity feels like the skeleton key to the unsolvable lock of Weerasethakul's logic; but then we are charged with differences that deepens this beautiful puzzle to the point of keeping its viewers in a perpetual motion of admiring its mysteries from a distance. When the admirer confronts the female doctor and asks her to marry him, we are entreated to a tale about the orchid specialist she met and presumably fell in love with, until Weerasethakul abruptly ends the tale to give way to the dentist's blossoming friendship with the young monk, which mysteriously ends with a slight sense of rejection (the dentist follows the monk to his clinic but finds it empty).

These events doesn't seem to have any meaning when juxtaposed with the events of the second half of the film; the new doctor's discovery of the hospital's basement where the soldiers and their family are treated, and also provides secluded room for afternoons of idle chatter and cups of brandy from a half-filled bottle mischievously hidden in a polyester leg. The same doctor's conversation with his girlfriend who asks him to relocate to a seaside industrial site where she will be working in the future, before torridly kissing him and causing him an embarrassing erection (which I presume is the cause of this film's being banned in Thailand), ends that portion, again with a subtle feeling of rejection.

There are also little details that punctuate or enunciate the film's thematic elegance --- the way a group of nurses leaves one who has to tie her shoelaces is quaintly relates to a similar group of male hospital employees who also leaves a member forced to tie his shoelaces; or in that brandy-drinking session wherein Weerasethakul's camera floats to show the faces of the doctors and then settles with an awkward framing where one of the doctors curiously looks straight into the camera; or the casual shots of the perpetuated (by statues and photographs) personalities of the past.

Syndromes and a Century is a film that refuses to be caught or boxed in conventional terms. Despite that, the film conveys so much that it's never difficult to sit through it and taking whatever the film offers you. Even if viewed in a state of daydreaming stupor, you'll still be able to grasp the cleverly mysterious romantic beats of Weerasethakul's film.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Taon Noong Ako'y Anak sa Labas (2008)

Taon Noong Ako'y Anak sa Labas
(John Torres, 2008)
English Tranlation: Years When I Was a Child Outside

“Have I made that film?” asks John Torres, reflective filmmaker and narrator to his most personal film to date. His question is addressed to his father, and indirectly to the audience. Taon Noong Ako'y Anak sa Labas (Years When I Was a Child Outside) is very humble piece, I thought. There is not an ounce of pompousness in the entire film. Torres' query refers to the Christ film the father has failed to finish, which again indirectly refers to the complete product of Torres’ follow-up to the beautiful Todo Todo Teros (2006). Taon Noong Ako'y Anak sa Labas could probably be the Christ film that the father could never have made. It aches with that eternal bond of both admiration and displeasure the son has for his father, or the several stories that similarly evoke silent suffering and sacrifices Torres’ many subjects reveal.

Torres’ film is bound by the volatile relationship the director has with his father. Like his previous effort, Voices is mostly composed of footages swimming in an almost invisible pool of repressed emotions and passive yet enunciated responses. It opens with filmmakers Khavn dela Cruz and Raya Martin as the two of them are consumed by inactivity, characterized by an uneasy mixture of boredom and homesickness. The film really begins when the narrator starts declaiming ten important points of his life, read like the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses, which strengthens my theory that Taon is a spiritual movie, although not essentially Catholic or Christian, in a way that it uses traditional religious concepts to release a much more relevant image of humanity and its so-called soul.

Torres’ camera then lingers inside a dwelling wherein bootleg VCDs are being labeled in a book-cramped storeroom, which also serves as the family’s dining room. His camera finds a subject to observe: a kid who is concentrated on his portable video game. The curiosity shifts to the kids' parents, more specifically the father, as the camera starts to examine the nooks and crannies of the father’s body. He zooms in on the aged curves, the bald spots, the hardened epidermis, and the enlarged belly. It's a very tender sequence, wherein Torres relates this very normal scenario to his extraordinary project. He divides the father into geographic regions, each relating to an unfinished business, alluding to an undelivered legacy on the verge of bursting with all its repressed hurts and pains.

Film is an art form that thrives on lies and illusions. It has survived since its creation by replicating life or completely coming up with tales that mirror life or, at least, takes away momentarily the burdens of real life through escapism. Torres seeks to revise this utilitarian philosophy of cinema. Instead of creating illusions and hallucinations to soothe the wary soul, or recreate reality which essentially binds cinema as a secondary source to actually experiencing life, he opts to use the cinematic medium as a messenger for truth, similar to a diary except that this diary is not kept private but is read in front of multitudes.

The several sections of Voices have a distinct similarity among them: they are all confessionals. The section about the banana planters and their plight against the land owners partake of a form of an expose, presumably of the little people we barely hear about in a nation more interested in the personalities that drive this wretched government. This is segued by a touching scenario about a Moro father and his prodigal son, who little by little warms up to the culture he dissents from. There is also the heartbreaking tale of the woman who betrays her boyfriend; and is then betrayed by the person she replaced her boyfriend with. This portion sits so uncomfortably close to reality that its raw emotionality is quite sublime and affecting. The casual footages of the Filipino filmmakers homesick in a foreign land is juxtaposed with the section on Joma Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, who is shown in his everyday routine while exiled in the Netherlands. The portion ends with a song that qualifies guerrillas as poets, which is a beautiful spin-off of Torres' thesis of artists as terrorists in Todo Todo Teros, capped later by the endearing tales of the overseas worker who confesses about playing with her pen pals' hearts to earn extra dollars.

Taon is a clear move to a new direction in cinema. There is no clear narrative structure, just a free-flowing evocation of personal truths and emotional burdens. The film feels like a heartfelt letter to a father he hasn't seen for years. By using the many footages, the interviews and poems, Torres has created his own confessional, which is in turn, for us, a heartbreaking elegy of an artist to the respect and affection that he once reserved for his father. It doesn't strike as deftly as the three-way terroristic romance of Torres' first film, but its enduring ache lingers and then blossoms until it is quite difficult to deny its lavish inflections.

I have to admit that I initially thought Torres can never replicate the cinematic sincerity he has professed in Todo Todo Teros, or that he can come up again with something coherent from found footages collected within a year's time. I was found wrong, very wrong. Taon is certainly a riveting personal masterwork. With its many layers that can be read or viewed in so many ways, Voices is a film that has gladly humbled this assuming viewer.

This is my contribution to the Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-Thon at Unspoken Cinema.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

2 Days in Paris (2007)

2 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy, 2007)

When Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reunited, although belatedly, in a little book shop in Paris, it felt just perfect. Paris seems to be that essential romantic rendezvous, especially with its gorgeous architecture, that distinct air of all the many lovers that have fallen in love with each other, the lights, the permanent structures of history. Delpy's 2 Days in Paris felt like it choked on the extravagant amore France's capital city has been delegated with; and regurgitated a romantic nightmare that would test the less-than-perfect bonds of a two-year relationship, instead of the predictable nightcap to a couple's European vacation.

Delpy has a crazy sense of humor. After delighting the world with the possibilities of perfect romantic endings in this schizophrenic modern age (in Richard Linklater's beautiful Before Sunset (2004)), she comes up with this film, the perfect antithesis to everything Linklater's film represented. The characters are similar --- a couple in their mid-thirties (American and French) testing the dynamics of a relationship (although here, they've been together for two years unlike the years of absence between Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset).

The similarities end there, Delpy's Marion is a perfect eyesight-deprived nymphomaniac (she collects polaroid pictures of all her boyfriends naked with helium balloons tied to their penises) and her partner Jack (Adam Goldberg, who has none of Hawke's physical charm) is the typical Manhattan native (as exemplified by the quintessential Woody Allen character --- hypochondriac, witty, and confused).

Paris is no longer the city forever draped with that romantic golden sunlight; instead it felt like the messy bedroom you are so embarrassed to exhibit to your friends since it has all the pieces of evidence of your shady past and other secrets. The cab drivers are either too generous to donate their sperm to impregnate you, or are neo-Nazis on a perpetual diatribe against the abundance of Arabs in the lovely streets of their beloved city. Each corner of the city has a memory or dirt attached to it --- either a past boyfriend or a current fuckbuddy, a father's mission to rid the city of sidewalk parkers or a mother's tale of sexual relations with the late Jim Morrison, an art gallery of art about sex or a guardian angel-like British fairy on a mission to rid the world of GMO's and fast food joints.

2 Days in Paris is crude in a way that Linklater's ode to Paris is elegant (with all its random conversations captured in gorgeous long takes). The beautiful thing about Delpy's filmmaking is that it's so raw and un-manufactured (Delpy directs, stars, edits, and composes the music for this film; according to one interview, she's also an errand girl) that its un-elegant turnaround (wherein narration accompanies the visuals; I would've appreciated if Delpy made the film sans the lengthy narrated expositions as the narrations felt like rationalizations or justifications of Marion's quirky characteristics) in the end is quite miraculous that it worked magically despite feeling rather rushed and tacked on.

Ploy (2007)

Ploy (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2007)

Pen-ek Ratanaruang's latest, Ploy, is quite a beautiful film. It's a marital thriller mostly set in a Phuket hotel where restaurant owner Wit (Pornwut Sarasin) adopts nineteen year old Ploy (Apinya Sakuljaroensuk) for a few hours. Ploy's invasion of the married couple's hotel room arouses feelings of suspicion and jealousy for Wit's wife Dang (Lalita Panyopas).

The film's mood is sleepy, wherein the characters are indefinitely in a state of being half-awake and half-asleep (there's a mighty big difference, I believe). The couple arrives in Phuket from a twenty hour flight. They're in that blurred zone of jet lags and lazy early mornings, forcing Wit to spend a moment in the hotel bar where he catches up with sleep-deprived Ploy, waiting for her Swedish mother while listening to quirky Thai reggae. They prolong that atmosphere of sleeplessness with idle chat and cups of coffee, before going up to their room; casually being greeted by a random hotel maid (Phorntip Papanai), who becomes the object of an erotic dream along with the bartender (Ananda Everingham).

Ratanaruang deftly pursues this atmosphere of half-consciousness wherein dreams have the palpable quality of reality, and reality has the surreal mood of dreams. There's a very thin filament that would separate sleep and consciousness; further marred by the gravity of emotions imputed to Ploy's invasion of that marital harmony. The difference between half-awake and half-asleep divides the film into two parts: pre and post marital quarrel (wherein Dang leaves the hotel and becomes victim to a crime). Ratanaruang gets the details right: the way light is an annoyance when one is half-awake, and the way light urges one to consciousness in a phase of half-asleep.

Ratanaruang plays the differences with utmost details and keeps the daydream fantasy as hypnotizing --- the little portion of uncovered window that allows the morning light to invade the sleep-deprived wife, the vodka-drowned coffee that Dang drinks in the hotel lobby, the haziness and laziness that accompanies the lack of mental, physical, moral and emotional alertness of the three characters. That way, he infects his audience with the same contemplative mood (well enough to make impatient viewers sleep), wherein lapses in logic and quick jumps to conclusions (which are the obvious criticisms to this slow yet perceptive Ratanaruang thriller) should be appropriate in ways that would be impossible in total consciousness.

It's gorgeously photographed (by Chankit Chamnivikaipong, Ratanaruang's cinematographer in his earlier works like Fun Bar Karaoke (1997), 6ixtynin9 (1999), and Mon-rak Transistor (2001); Ratanaruang previously worked with Christopher Doyle in Last Life in the Universe (2003), and Invisible Waves (2006)). It's not only gorgeous, but very intelligent. Ratanaruang has a gift for visual humor --- the way he would start a shot with the naked calves of Wit and Ploy (using such cliche to give the presumption of consummated infidelity) only to reveal that they are fully dressed; or the way we would see a man (Thaksakorn Pradapphongsa) observing Dang while out of focus, before we become aware that the man turns out to be a bigger part of the story than he was introduced to be.

Ploy is a film that is engineered with exhilarating precision. Its dreamy feel and rhythm which delightfully hopscotches from dream to life to nightmare and back (there's a lovely musical interlude that concludes the hotel-bound hallucination), keeps the relaxed pace bearable, if not totally engrossing. Ratanaruang is gearing up to become one of the most interesting filmmakers from the region.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Edge of Heaven (2007)

The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, 2007)

Fatih Akin's middle entry to a still unfinished trilogy (which started with Head-on (2004)) is structured like the ambitious and curiously much-lauded Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004) and Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006). It details the intertwining tales of several German and Turkish men and women, connected either by the countries that gave life to them or adopted them or bits of coincidences. What differentiates The Edge of Heaven to Haggis or Inarritu's sprawling mini-epics of mankind's chronic inability to live with each other, is that Akin values intimacy and control; that the more you widen your canvass, the more it would invite implausibility and lapses at logic (although the film had one: the whole sideplot about the police man's gun seemed illogical; why did the activists need that gun? is it really that special?).

The Edge of Heaven is set both in Germany and Turkey, and delightfully wafts through the incorporeal political and cultural lines that both connect and separate both nations. Set at a time when Turkey is on the verge of joining the European Union, Akin's film brandishes a critical look at the impossibility of uniting Turkey, a schizophrenic country belonging to both Asia and Europe, with the union. Akin only scrapes the surface of that very political issue; he would focus more on the pertinent lives of these characters spirited away from their homelands, confusing themselves with labels such as "a Turkish professor of German language teaching in German university." The overall grasp of Akin's milieu encompasses a wide range of political and cultural undertones, but his intention is much narrower, thus eliminating the mistakes Inarrittu did in Babel.

The producer of the film (who arrived for a very flacid Q & A) tells us that The Edge of Heaven is about death, while Head-on is about love (the third film of the trilogy is yet to be written). I agree. Other than the obvious (the film is divided into three chapters namely Yeter's Death, Lotte's Death and The Edge of Heaven), the film subtly dissects the destructive and redemptory powers of death. The film starts with Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz), a Turkish immigrant in Bremen who lives off his pension, getting enamored with Yeter (Nursel Koese), a Turkish prostitute. Ali invites Yeter to live with him and his son Nejat (Baki Davrak), who then becomes eager to help Yeter locate her missing daughter Ayten (Nurgul Yesilcay), a political activist in Turkey.

The death of Yeter would be the impetus for redemption and reconciliation, forcing Nejat to go back to Turkey to locate Ayten (who, in what seems to be a Kieslowskian coincidence, happens to be in Germany locating her mother while getting romantically close with Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska)). The series of mix-ups would lead you to believe that Akin is opting for ease and melodrama, yet instead, he paints a vaster canvass --- teasing his audience with the possibility of reuniting mother and daughter, or father and son, but instead leaves us hanging with open-ended conclusions of what could happen.

That final image, a picturesque static shot of Nejat waiting for his father to come back from fishing, is a testament to endurance and patience; that reconciliation isn't as easy as one-minute embraces and convoluted conversations; that the wounds and scars of the past can only be healed, not by momentary changes of heart, but by a mixture of life-altering events (Lotte's death and her mother's arrival in Turkey) and the passage of time. We do not see the father and the son meet again or even get knowledge of redemption and forgiveness, but we do know that the wounds have closed and everything is as calm and predictable as the waves meeting the sand.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Woman on the Beach (2006)

Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, 2006)
Korean Title: Haebyonui yoin

In one scene in Hong Sang-soo's Woman on the Beach, film director Jung-rae (Kim Seung-woo) draws a nebulous shape in his notepad; he draws three points in the shape which is connected to make a triangle. He explains to composer Mun-suk (Go Hyun-jung) the significance of the triangle (that it serves as a mnemonic tool that relates to an unsavory event in the past); he then draws several more points (all of which, he tells, pertain to more savory memories), and connects all the points making a complex polygon. He continues to explain that he is trying to remove himself from the triangle by expanding into the polygon in order to move on, and expects Mun-suk to help him.

The theory sounds a lot like bullshit; and Hong's intense detailing (complete with a zoom-in into the sketches in the notepad) makes it even more hilarious. However, this draws the line between Jung-rae and the all of Hong's embattled male characters; he is the only one who sought to escape the predestined rut by shaping up a rationale, a hypothesis behind the recurring events of his life. After watching the film of course, it doesn't seem that Jung-rae's clever rationalizations helped him; we again hear him (through a phone call to Mun-suk) explain how much he misses the girl, and how his leaving her is merely a retreat, a sign of weakness.

Woman in the Beach has Hong in his most geometric (and I believe Hong is a director who fancies triangles, structures, and angles to fetishistic proportions --- his films have always had love triangles and a meticulous attention to geometric blocking and detailed structuring). He starts out with a single love triangle (between Chang-wook (Kim Tae-woo), Mun-suk and Jung-rae). Observe Hong's aesthetics wherein he frequently uses zooms to negate one character, thus bringing attention to a couple, and then zooms out, to reveal the complete triangle. But well within the triangle of the first half of the film, are other off-screen triangles (Chang-wook is married but has Mun-suk as a girlfriend-on-the-side; Jung-rae is a recent divorcee).

The second half of the film has Hong complicating the triangle he has already made us familiar with, by introducing further characters such as Sun-hee (Song Seon-mi), a vacationer who is interviewed by a director, and her friend. We realize that Hong intends to complicate his themes (which makes Woman on the Beach into a more ambitious film compared to his previous efforts which have neatly packaged love triangles with very little complications --- Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors (2000), Woman is the Future of Man (2004), Tale of Cinema (2005)). Triangles start overlapping, and identical points to the triangles start commingling, resulting into unexpected statements of humanity in the face of complex relationships.

What's the point of Hong's obsession with structures, shapes and the number three (love triangles, the three trees, trees which made Jung-rae knelt to, etc.)? We go back to one of the many themes (aside from the perpetual filmmaker-protagonists, the immature male characters, the drunken confessionals, the frank yet lifeless portrayals of copulation) that connect Hong's cinema. His structures, his persistence with basic mathematical imputations are the connective tissue that relate memory to human experiences and relationships, which he so nonchalantly paints in his films. Hong would always signal remembrance (the events and objects that connect the two divisions of the film, like the dog in the beach or the waiter offended by Jung-rae's impertinence; places which appear twice and invite remembrance like the rest stop or the empty room wherein Jung-rae and Mun-suk first had sex), as made more apparent by the chapters and the meticulousness to numerical detail.

The overlapping triangles seem to be residues of unshelled memories; they are mere repetitions of mistakes made or inflicted in the past, continuously haunting those chained to it (which almost all of Hong's characters are). The interesting bit about Woman on the Beach is that finally, Hong has created a character is now aware of the torturous cycles in life and relationships inflicted by the inescapable grasps of memory and tried to find a way out of it, flawed and convoluted as it may seem.